Five Characters in Search of an Exit

twilight-zone

You don’t have to throw many rocks before you hit someone complaining that Christmastime has lost focus on its true meaning. Unless you’re a Sol Invictus worshipping Roman, your comment is rife with irony. So, my children, it should come as no surprise that just like jolly old Constantine, horror writers have ripped Christmas from the hands of those who love it and have changed it into something entirely new. Twisted and repurposed.

My choice of entry into the Drunk in a Graveyard Holiday Special series is not a film, but instead a TV episode. Back in the glorious days when TV shows were black and white, hired talented writers, and everything still seemed fresh and exciting, there was a little show called The Twilight Zone. Even in its first season, TZ decided to toast the holiday in its own way, and it never looked back. And while many were corny and sentimental, during the show’s third season (1961) TZ decided to air an episode for Christmas that was bizarre in concept, unsettling in execution, and downright terrifying in undertone. Also, moronic on the surface, until you ponder the nihilistic godlessness it sells.

The episode is entitled”Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” With a title like that, you cannot help but expect heavy handed expository of the worst community college drama club ilk. On first watching, this is definitely true. As a child I savored the one night a week that TZ is shown on UHF channels, hoping to be able to stay up late enough to see it, and praying to every available deity in the Dungeons and Dragons starter box that the show didn’t send me bawling to my parents after a round of nightmares. Like most prayers, they went completely unanswered. Except on nights when episodes like this were aired.

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The premise is this; a man dressed like either a USAF major or an alcoholic commercial airline captain wakes up in a large, round room. He has no recollection of who he is or how he came to be there. As he does a little expository exploration, we find that he is not alone. The room is populated by four other people; a clown, a Scotsman, a ballerina, and a hobo. In turn, each character interacts with the major, who strings together some very stage-like monologues. Sounding Christmasy yet?

I’ll slip quickly into spoilers here so be warned. (The show IS over 50 years old so I don’t feel too bad. Kaiser Soze is Kevin Spacey) The major rages against the idea of being trapped. The loss of personal freedom is inconceivable to him, even if he has no idea what he’s being held away from. The clown, a true asshole jester ala Akira Kurosawa’s fool in Ran, plays the troll to the major’s straight man. To him, existence is bitterness, and to question fate is absurd. He’s by far my favorite character. It’s like Camus wrote this guy; a true agnostic.

The ballerina, tramp, and Scotsman all play different flavors of sad-sack victims resigned to their fate. The Scot clings to tradition, and plays merrily on in the face of terror. The ballerina wishes for a better outcome but cannot waste one moment lamenting her fate. The tramp, well, he sleeps it off. The dialogue hits some fantastic beats. Here are some…

“Who am I?” the major asked from pure existential crisis. “You’re a major,” the clown plainly replies. These characters play out their roles based only on the garb the wear. This is a bitter pill to swallow for us salary men (and women) who find ourselves increasingly defined by our jobs and roles at home. The clown isn’t telling him to shut up and be a soldier because that is what he is, instead (with some fantastic subtle acting for such a buffoonish character) he is instead saying that the major’s rage is due to him finally realizing the joke society has played on us all by categorizing us and hemming us in.

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I’ve always toyed with the idea that the clown has figured the situation out. He certainly drops enough hints. He toys (no pun intended, spoiler) with the others, asking them to drop assumptions and evaluate the reality of their lives. When the tramp says they are all dead and in limbo, the clown states “we’re dream figures.” He taunts the major with “do you feel anything?” At one point he states “we’re here because we’re here.” A statement Richard Dawkins would probably approve.

After much scene chewing, the major talks each character into helping him at least try to struggle against their plight. Soon, the characters form a human ladder, and nearly make the lip of the wall. Suddenly, the sound of a deafening gong shatters their concentration and dashes their hopes literally to the floor. The ballerina takes a nasty spill and loses use of one of her legs. But they were so close! So they try again, this time with a crude grappling hook the major fashions out of his belt.

I’ll save one stinger, so it isn’t fully spoiled, but the twist is that the characters are dolls. The audience sees the scene from afar, a Salvation Army style bell ringer asking for dolls to be donated for orphans for Christmas. So they exist inside a trash receptacle. Once you see this episode yourself, and feel the black desperation the characters express, you’ll realize how incredibly messed-up this is. Toys for Tots and Toy Story suddenly take on some pretty dark tones.

I recently mentioned I was writing this review to my cosmic sister Carlin S. and she voiced something I agree with; I did not like this episode much earlier in life. In fact, I hated it. But as time marched on and life, holidays, and other human beings continually find ways to disappoint me, I have grown fond of it. For years I’ve tried to analyze this episode and force the five characters into societal archetypes. To make this religious. Political. Socioeconomic. Racial. Tarot cards. Nothing ever works.

Then I realized, nothing works because, per usual, TZ was written by amazingly talented writers. This was not ham-fisted. I’d venture to say when Rod Serling wrote this, adapted from a short story by Marvin Petal, that these characters were chosen specifically avoid the obvious emblems of human society. It could have easily been a priest, king, bride, rich man, beatnik… you get the idea. Instead the episode isn’t saying anything about the political climate or the need for a belief in afterlife… it says exactly this: these five characters were stuck in this situation, and here is how they acted. And somehow, as good writing does, moments of these characters’ lives reflect the same struggles and attitudes that we all encounter in the seasons of our own wretched lives.

In the end it was a great piece of horror. You have confusion, helplessness, undermining of traditional institutions, and an atmosphere of helplessness and futility that you just don’t see in the current bulk of horror product. There were no jump scares, gory endings, or catchphrases. Instead of style we got a grim reflection of how fickle and tragic life can be. We learn that no hand will reach from above and save a single one of us. And we learn that our own suffering, the denial of happiness and fulfillment could very well exist not only due to randomness but due to something even worse; the “betterment” of someone else’s experience. And we are helpless to control it. Might is futile. Intelligence is futile. Art is futile. Bravery is futile. Tradition is futile. Beauty is futile. Avoidance is futile. Relationships are futile. Chaos has spoken. Merry Christmas everyone.

– @cbcamarillo

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