The Twilight Zone is inarguably one of television’s truly great series. For an anthology show it has a remarkable hit rate. Every such series had its duds but the Zone’s are few and far between and even the weakest episodes have something to them. For me, Rod Serling is one of the most gifted writers the medium has ever had, and in addition to that was also a compassionate person who used his work to connect audiences with their fellow humans, to illuminate the human condition, to encourage us to be better, to do better, to try again. The Twilight Zone usually traded in stinging tales of fantasy, science fiction and sometimes horror. Like other shows it also had its Christmas-themed episodes and it’s one of them, The Night of the Meek, we cover here.
The macabre in Meek is people. The set up in the episode is following department store Santa and general sad sack Henry Corwin. Corwin doesn’t have much to look forward to other than his next drink. He lives in a ‘dirty rooming house’ and his world is one of hungry children and other rundown people just like him. Corwin lives for his Santa routine but the shine has gone out of it. His suit is old and worn and when he shows up too late and drunk with it for his gig, it’s over – he’s fired and ordered out of the store. In spite of all of this, Corwin muses on if he had one wish it would be for the meek to actually inherit the Earth. It’s a beautifully written speech delivered perfectly by Art Carney as Corwin, articulating points about consumerism that ring truer today than when first broadcast. As Henry’s night goes from bad to worse (he can’t even get back into the bar he frequents) he stumbles down an alleyway where the sound of sleigh bells is heard. In the alley, Corwin comes across a sack that Henry quickly discovers seems to have magical properties. It produces a seemingly never-ending stream of gifts. Whatever someone asks for, they get. His dream coming true, Corwin starts handing out gifts to the poor kids and down and out men nearby. The episode continues with this mix of the real and the fantastical towards its hopeful conclusion.
As noted above, in the episode, people are the worst. Everyone expects and looks for the worst in Corwin because that’s the type of guy they think he is. It’s the type of guy Henry has come to think he is too, and it’s pretty obvious his idealism and hope is frayed and being drowned in a puddle of cheap booze. Henry is us – we want to believe in the best of people but people make it pretty damn hard. Now, Serling had around 25 minutes an episode to do set-up, delivery and conclusion of his stories and so subtlety was not always the prime concern. The characters, Corwin included too, are mostly broad sketches, with people like the shop manager Dundee being not much more than functional cliche. They’re ciphers for the point Serling is making about what Christmas can represent. It can, if we let it, represent good will to each other, hope for the future and the unity such celebrations can bring. If we let go of the hardened cynicism and the weariness, if we let such notions in, even if it’s only for one night we can believe that we’re more good than bad, that’s there something worth saving in us, that we can believe in magic. For this writer, that’s a hard thing to do. In the time The Twilight Zone was first airing it was only 15 years or so since the end of WW2. It was before Vietnam, race riots, Watergate and innumerable other events conspired to convince even the most indefatigable optimist that we’re on a downward spiral as a species. That’s not to say things were better then as many things were emphatically not.
But it’s for this reason that we should arguably let a little magic into our lives. Believing in Santa Claus might have ended a long time ago for most of us (there’s gotta be someone out there who does if there’s a Flat Earth movement, huh?) but believing in each other, or that’s there’s some goodness out there, is something we desperately need these days. And if anyone can convince me humans aren’t totally irredeemable it would be Serling. As Rod himself puts it in the closing narration “There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas”, so here’s to Henry Corwin and here’s to The Twilight Zone and a momentary respite from the murderous, the macabre and the horrific.
Next episode, The Outer Limits.