Monday, December 7, 2009

The Twilight Zone's Christmas Film Classic - Really

Our own Santiago Ramos takes a look at a couple of unlikely Christmas favorites. The first is a Twilight Zone episode from 1961 that Ramos finds more on point for Christmas than Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Check back next Monday to read about another unlikely Christmas favorite. From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

mediapicDec11 Two Unlikely Christmas Favorites

Part One of a Two-Part Series

By Santiago Ramos

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
Twilight Zone, 1961.

Christmas is not about giving; it is about receiving. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come out of the story I am about to relate. It’s inarguable that, for most people, serving soup for someone else is ultimately more satisfying than receiving a new sweater; but it is also true that, A Christmas Carol notwithstanding, Christmas has to do less with giving than with receiving something which we desperately need and which we are helpless to attain by our own wits and ability. Tiny Tim feels better after Scrooge surrenders his pride and learns the value of generosity; but Tiny Tim will one day become an old man, and then his soul will desire things that no mortal will be able to give him - not even Scrooge, who will, by then, just like his decaying partner Marley, be as dead as a doornail.

That seemingly unreachable gift of complete happiness; that disproportional desire for life that survives childhood; helplessness and rescue; these are the themes of Advent. Our reception of the One who fulfills the disproportionate desire; who makes the ultimate happiness possible; this is Christmas. That an episode of The Twilight Zone captures all of this better than any of the 127 or so variations on Dickens’ novel is not something I feel the need to apologize for.

In season three of that show, three days before Christmas in 1961, host Rod Serling introduced the episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” The episode deals with five people thrust into a world of which they know nothing. They also know nothing about their past or where they come from. They all want to leave, but only one of them - an Army Major, the last one to arrive - does not give up hope about actually doing so. Serling’s introduction sets the scene:

Clown. Hobo. Ballet Dancer. Bagpiper. And an Army Major. A collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation. Just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment, we'll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats, and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we'll only explain it, because this is the Twilight Zone.

A collection of question marks, indeed - but only the Army Major is courageous enough to admit his own, questioning nature. Everyone else has already given in to resignation and boredom. The Major, on the other hand, questions relentlessly, impatiently, and, ultimately, loudly. He bellows. His befuddlement slowly transforms into panic with every ten paces he traces within his featureless, dark container. None of his companions in darkness have any answers, only pity.

None of them, that is, except the Clown. Unlike the others, the Clown gives positive force to his resignation; his jadedness is a judgment against hope. He is the foil to the Major’s searching spirit. The best lines in the show come in the dialogue between them. In the first few minutes, the Major says: “A couple of important items seem to have eluded me - like, who am I?”

“You said you were a Major,” responds the Clown. The Clown knows that the answer is not the answer the Major is looking for. Later on, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” he will mockingly sing his credo at the Major’s unhappy face: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here!”

The other characters also speculate as to why they are where they are. The Hobo thinks they reside in Purgatory. The Ballet Dancer is more insightful: “Perhaps…we are…the unloved.” The Major caves into despair: This is Hell.

In spite of that awful thought, the Major continues to beat against the walls, and to try to climb up the walls, to find a way out of his cage. Eventually, he even gets the Clown to cooperate, and to concede that “We all want out of here.” At the beginning of the show, the camera reveals a bright white circle of light, within a larger black circle, high above the floor where the characters are standing. The Major devises a plan to climb towards that light.

It’s impossible to explain the show’s Christmas meaning without relating the ending; anyway, knowing the ending does not make it any less worth watching. The audience finds out the answer to the Major’s questions: they are all toys within a large basket bearing the sign “17th Annual Christmas Drive.” A lady ringing a bell next to it says that the toys are “For the orphans.”

Serling finishes the show with, “In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love.” And in the arms of one certain child, there is an infinite embrace. Christmas.

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” will more likely be broadcast during one of the end-of-the-year Twilight Zone marathons on the SyFy Channel. If you want to watch it sooner than that, the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone are available for free at

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.