Top 10 Twilight Zone twists
|LISTS - TV LISTS|
The best-of-the-best moments that have shocked viewers for five decades...
Before I began writing for Shadowlocked in early 2010, I used to jot my media-related thoughts down on a humble little personal blog of mine. Though the blog itself will remain nameless, as such self-promotion would be unseemly, I can say that two articles contained within were far and away the most popular and most read pieces. Both were lists on The Twilight Zone. I have wanted to revisit the Zone for some time and various ideas have ever simmered on the back burner while I have written for Shadowlocked. Happily, it would seem that I've managed to stumble into that vaunted Fifth Dimension once again.
Something about the little sci-fi show that could has held a special place in the hearts of countless fans of classic TV, suspense, and the supernatural for decades. Rod Serling's incredible creation could terrify, amuse, and titillate, but perhaps was on the top of its game when it made use of its legendary ace in the hole - the twist. Long before it became in vogue for television series or big budget films to attempt eleventh-hour swerves on its unsuspecting viewers (see M. Night Shyamalan), The Twilight Zone was sticking it to sinners and other miscreants with gleeful abandon, often with the last-minute about-face that quickly became its trademark. Sometimes Serling utilized twists in other ways, often by forcing his viewers to question the motivations of characters or even the characters' true identities.
Not all TZ episodes made use of the 'twist--shock--fade to black' sequence, of course, but dozens did, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Its purest twists for the viewer, in my mind, are those in which the viewer suddenly understands that the tale they have been told in the first 20+ minutes was thoroughly unreliable and that the real truth is revealed to be something else entirely. So in that vein, and in preparation for this article, I sorted through every single installment of The Twilight Zone's 156 original series episodes, collated those that used Serling's third-act twist, and chose the top 10 greatest and most jaw-dropping moments. Let's take the ride together. There's a signpost up ahead. Next stop...The Twilight Zone!
[As you'd expect, many spoilers follow]
10. The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross
Salvadore Ross is an oft-used Serling archetype - that of the deeply-flawed and despicable main character suddenly becoming conscious of a great inborn power. In this case, Ross comes to realize that he has the ability to trade anything that he wishes with another person.
But before we give away the twist, let us meet Mr. Ross. Salvadore is a pushy loudmouthed boor who is in love with a woman named Leah Maitland. Unfortunately for him, Leah easily sees through his preening pomposity and rejects him. In anger, Salvadore punches a door and breaks his hand, necessitating a trip to the hospital. While recovering, Salvadore converses with the elderly man in the next bed, who is laid low by a chest cold. Ross bitterly tells the old man that he would love to trade the roommate's cold for his broken hand. The next morning, Salvadore is no worse for wear besides a persistent cough, while his elderly neighbor is now suffering from a broken hand.
This new talent discovered, Salvadore makes a series of sly trades with unsuspecting people, until he has become immensely rich, young, and powerful. Despite his newly-acquired stature, Salvadore is still unable to make his most-desired acquisition - Leah's hand in marriage. In desperation, Ross approaches Leah's father and offers him lifelong financial security in exchange for his help.
Later, a more confident and loving Ross, seemingly having turned over a new leaf, sweeps Leah off her feet with kindness and she finally agrees to marry him. Overjoyed, Ross does the proper thing and formally requests Leah's hand in marriage from her father, Mr. Maitland.
Maitland refuses. When a flabbergasted Ross asks why he would not grant such a request to his daughter's suitor, especially one so wealthy and debonair, Maitland reminds him (and reveals to the audience) that he had traded Ross his 'compassion' for money and so no longer cares what happens to Salvadore. He then pulls a gun out of his pocket and shoots Salvadore Ross dead.
9. The Rip Van Winkle Caper
The best laid plans of mice and men...well...you know the rest. In this episode, four men conspire to become filthy rich through nefarious means, never a good idea within the Twilight Zone.
A band of thieves, led by one Mr. Falwell, rob a train of $1 million in gold bars. As such a robbery attracts a lot of attention, Falwell has devised a clever way to elude the authorities. He, along with co-conspirators DeCruz, Brooks, and Erbie, will hide in a remote cave in Death Valley and put themselves in suspended animation. After 100 years, they will exit the cave, the heat will be 'off' (as it were), and they will be free to spend their loot.
The hibernation process goes according to plan and the criminals awaken 100 years in the future; all except for Erbie, who is long dead when the other three rouse themselves, a stray rock from the cave ceiling having destroyed his hibernation chamber. Despite Falwell's efforts in controlling the other two men, greed soon gets the better of them and DeCruz runs Brooks over with their getaway car, crashing it in the process. Now, sans transportation, Falwell and DeCruz are forced to attempt a traverse of the arid desert on foot with only the gold they can carry.
More trouble befalls the remaining duo. Falwell somehow loses his canteen along a desolate road and DeCruz mockingly offers sips from his own flask, provided that Falwell hands over a gold bar with every drink. Finally, the searing heat and DeCruz's mockery become too much and an enraged Falwell bludgeons DeCruz to death. Soon after, the heist's mastermind can walk no more. On death's door, a delirious Falwell is approached by a stranger. He begs the stranger for a drink of water, promising him his gold in return. The stranger cannot help, though, as moments later a spent Falwell dies.
Helpless to assist Falwell in his last moments, the stranger picks up the gang leader's gold bar with a puzzled expression and walks back to a futuristic car, where his wife awaits. He tells her to drive them to the nearest police station to report Falwell's death, while studying the bar with furrowed brow. "Can you imagine that?" the man says. "He offered this to me as if it was really worth something." Reminded that gold had been very valuable and sought-after in the past by his wife, the man replies "Sure, about a hundred years or so ago, before they found a way of manufacturing it." The car begins to drive off down the road, while the man tosses the worthless gold bar to the ground by Falwell's lifeless hand.
8. The Invaders
This episode is unique in the annals of The Twilight Zone, in that it is almost entirely free of dialogue. In fact, it is only when dialogue is finally spoken at the end of the episode that the twist is revealed.
A nameless old woman lives alone in a rustic cabin of sorts. The domicile is somewhat shabbily-constructed and does not appear to contain any modern appliances or furnishings. The woman's clothing is simple and drab. By all apparent accounts, she lives a quiet life of rural solitude. That solitude, however, is quickly shattered.
While napping one day, the old woman is startled awake by noises on the cabin's roof. Upon investigating, she is shocked to discover that a tiny spacecraft has landed on the roof and two small beings in spacesuits have exited the ship and are walking about. Frightened and confused, the woman observes the two figures begin to explore her home but soon rouses herself and begins to defend her home from the spacemen.
Eventually, after several minutes of a cat-and-mouse game between the old woman and the invaders, she manages to kill one, which prompts the remaining invader to escape back to its ship. However, she corners the invader before it can lift off, prompting the episode's only spoken dialogue.
The strange and tiny figure suddenly relays a panicked message back to its home planet in English, warning his people that the planet he has discovered is extremely dangerous and populated by violent giants. Moments later, the old woman destroys the tiny ship with an ax, killing the spaceman inside. As the woman collapses in exhaustion after her ordeal, the camera pans closer to the ruined remains of the ship. Now clearly visible on its hull are the words 'U.S. Air Force Space Probe #1'.
7. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Remembered most for brilliant overacting by William Shatner and the fairly idiotic costuming of the villainous gremlin, it must also be remembered that 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' contains a wonderful twist at the end.
Shatner plays Bob Wilson, a nervous but good-natured salesman, who is back to work after a six-month hospital stay. It would seem that, six months ago, Wilson had a nervous breakdown during a plane flight. To help allay his fears, Bob's wife is accompanying him on his first voyage since that incident. As luck would have it, the weather is extremely foul and, once underway, Wilson is a bundle of nerves. His mood worsens considerably, however, when he looks out of his window and sees a monster standing on the plane's wing.
Bob repeatedly tries to alert his wife and the flight attendants to the malevolent gremlin on the wing, but every time anyone besides Bob Wilson looks out the window, the gremlin somehow ducks out of sight. Soon, Wilson's wife becomes increasingly convinced that her husband has not recovered from his prior breakdown and is losing his mind. In fact, Wilson can barely keep it together as his quick glances out the window reveal that the gremlin has begun ripping pieces off of the wing.
Terrified that the monster will eventually cause enough damage to the plane to crash it, Bob surreptitiously steals a gun from a sleeping police officer, dashes to an exit door, and opens it, unleashing a cacophony of havoc inside the cabin. As passengers try to both restrain Wilson and pull the exit door closed, Wilson manages to fire one shot towards the gremlin, which miraculously finds its mark. The wounded gremlin falls off the wing and spirals into the thunderclouds below. The plane lands successfully, but a straitjacketed Wilson is hauled off the plane, raving like a lunatic about a 'monster on the wing' while police and passengers sadly shake their heads.
As Wilson is carted into an ambulance and whisked away, the camera rises to a shot of the wing in question. Both it and the attached nacelle show evidence of extreme damage in the form of what appear to be huge claw marks, which has yet to be discovered. It appears that Wilson's sightings of the gremlin were hardly delusions.
6. The Silence
Serling loved to remind his audience about the consequences of arrogant hubris. In this episode, he pit two equally less-than-likable characters against each other in a struggle for social dominance and showed just how far people can go in the pursuit of wealth and standing amongst one's peers.
Two men, Colonel Archie Taylor and Jamie Tennyson, are members of an exclusive men's club but are far from friends. Taylor is an irascible and humorless old man, while Tennyson is a younger, talkative braggart, two quite opposing personalities. After listening to Tennyson's endless boasting and blabbering, Taylor can finally stand it no longer and proposes a wager. The Colonel tells Tennyson that he will pay him $500,000 if the younger man can go without speaking for an entire year. Tennyson feigns outrage at the proposal, but Taylor knows that Tennyson's wife has expensive tastes and that much of Tennyson's endless conversing at the club often finds its way to the subject of his wife's appetite for the finer things. To everyone's surprise except Taylor's, Jamie accepts the bet.
To verify that Tennyson does not cheat, a small glass room inside the club is built for him to reside in for the year, which is equipped with microphones to assure that any speaking on Tennyson's part will be recorded. And so, a few days later, Tennyson 'moves in' and the timer begins. Not one spoken word will be allowed and any questions or needs that Tennyson has must be written on a pad of paper. Confident that his motormouth opponent will soon crack and enjoying the silence while it lasts, Taylor slowly loses confidence as the weeks, then months, begin slipping by with nary a word from the young braggart.
After nine months of utter quiet from Tennyson, a somewhat-panicked Taylor approaches the man and offers him $1,000 to quit immediately. Tennyson refuses. Taylor then begins spreading false rumors that Tennyson's wife has been having affairs in Jamie's absence. Tennyson appears distraught, but will not speak. Next, Taylor offers him $5,000 to quit. Tennyson rejects that offer as well, refusing to crack. Nothing can cause Tennyson to speak and he ultimately wins the wager.
As the club members gather to witness Tennyson's triumphant evening, they mock the stuffy and honor-obsessed Taylor for acting dishonorably and losing to the supposedly ill-bred Tennyson. Jamie exits his glass room and approaches the Colonel for his winnings, but Taylor has another humiliation to live down. He embarrassingly reveals to the club members that his wealth was all a show, that he had lost his fortune many years ago and, in fact, does not have $500,000 to give Tennyson as the wager demands. He admits that Jamie has bested him and resigns from the club.
An infuriated Tennyson remains silent, staring at Taylor in hatred. A club member reminds him that he is now allowed to speak, but instead the young club member scribbles a note on his ever-present pad of paper and thrusts it into Taylor's hand. The dumbfounded Colonel reads it aloud - "I knew that I would not be able to keep my part of the bargain, so one year ago I had the nerves to my vocal chords severed." As Taylor and the other onlookers gape in astonishment, Tennyson unties the scarf around his neck, revealing a large scar on his throat.
5. Five Characters in Search of an Exit
A visit to The Twilight Zone that has an immediately-apparent unnatural setting, "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" leaves viewers guessing as to the five eponymous characters' true natures until the very end. It is also famously cited as the inspiration for low budget Canadian horror Cube (which you really should see if you already haven't).
A man dressed in an army officer's uniform awakens to find himself in a huge metal cylinder. He soon meets other people that are trapped inside the cylinder as well - a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and a bagpiper. None of them remember how they came to be trapped there or even their own identities. The officer immediately begins looking for a way out, but while the other four characters believe that an exit can be found in the ceiling, they appear to be a bit more resigned to their fate, whatever it may be.
Unable to find an immediate route of escape, the officer questions the other characters as to where they think they are. Interestingly, they all have different opinions. Theories range from being trapped on a spaceship to being caught in limbo or simply part of a dream. The officer, for his part, believes that they are all in Hell. It is also revealed that none of them have any memory of eating or drinking but that none of them feel hunger or thirst.
Rousing them from their mild lethargy, the officer formulates a plan for all five characters to stand on each other's shoulders to reach the top, but just as the man is about to reach the top, an incredibly loud ringing noise reverberates inside the cylinder and the distracted occupants all fall to the floor. Refusing to give up, the officer spurs them to try again, this time with the added assistance of a makeshift grappling hook. The second attempt is successful, as the officer reaches the top and jumps to the ground outside of the mysterious cylinder.
A young girl picks up a doll dressed in the clothes of an army officer from a pile of snow and a woman asks her to place it back in the barrel "with the rest of them". The mysterious cylinder is a collection bin for children's toys at an orphanage, the loud ringing heard earlier in the episode was made by the woman shaking a bell for donations, and the five characters are revealed to be dolls. As the episode ends, the ballerina doll holds hands with the officer doll and 'her' eyes fill with tears.
4. I Shot an Arrow Into the Air
One of several 'space mission gone horribly wrong' episodes, this one is arguably the best because of its flat-out stunning conclusion, one of a very small number of television episodes that genuinely surprised me and made me hoot with stunned, expletive-sprinkled laughter as it faded to black.
A manned spaceship crashes on a remote and desolate asteroid, killing all of its occupants save for four men - Commander Donlin and astronauts Corey, Pierson, and a badly hurt Langford, who soon succumbs to his injuries. The remaining three, surrounded by nothingness, agree to fan out and search for food, water, or signs of life. Hours later, Donlin and Corey return to the ruined remains of their ship, but Pierson is nowhere to be found. Donlin questions Corey regarding Pierson's whereabouts. The astronaut claims to have no idea, but Donlin notices that Corey is now in possession of Pierson's water supply.
Suspecting Corey of killing Pierson to help himself, Donlin orders him at gunpoint to take them to Pierson's body. Corey grudgingly obeys and the two men eventually come across Pierson sprawled on a lonely hillside, barely alive. Donlin forcefully asks Pierson what happened, while the dying man attempts to scratch a mysterious diagram in the sand. But before the commander can decipher it, Corey sneaks up behind him and kills him. Pierson dies moments later, leaving Corey all alone and with the crew's entire water supply. Now confident in his chances, Corey sets off further into the desert alone.
However, Corey trudges through miles and miles of arid desert and finds nothing. His water dwindling and his strength ebbing, the murderous astronaut decides to climb a rocky knoll to get a better view of his surroundings. After a long climb, an exhausted Corey finally reaches the top, takes a few moments to catch his breath, and surveys the plateau. In shock, he lets out an anguished shout before breaking down, sobbing in a fit of despair.
Corey sees a signpost that reads 'Reno - 37 miles' next to a winding desert road. The astronauts had never left Earth at all. Instead, their ship had crash landed in the Nevada desert. Corey had killed astronauts Pierson and Donlin, unaware that the the group had been mere miles from safety. The diagram that Pierson had been trying to draw in the sand for Commander Donlin was a sketch of a telephone pole.
3. To Serve Man
Copied and parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to various MMORPGs, the climax of 'To Serve Man' is so widely known nowadays as to seem almost anticlimactic in a way. Of course, it is only because of its genius and widespread astonishment at its revelation that led to its infamous reputation and oft-used play on words in the first place.
A man named Michael Chambers is lying on a cot in an otherwise unfurnished room looking miserable and uncomfortable. An unseen voice asks him to eat, but an obviously famished Michael refuses. He then asks the voice what time it is on Earth, clearly implying that wherever he now is, it is not on his home planet. He then begins to tell a story about how he came to be in his current surroundings. The identity of the listener is initially ambiguous.
At some point in the recent past, Michael explains, a race of nine-foot-tall alien beings known as the Kanamits landed on Earth. The beings appear docile and make no effort to threaten or otherwise display aggressive behavior towards the people of Earth. A representative even addresses the United Nations, telling its members that the Kanamits are a peaceful race who have arrived on Earth to help its inhabitants achieve great things. When his speech concludes, the Kanamit leaves a book behind, but it is written in the Kanamit language (as one would suspect) and cryptographers attempt to decipher its contents.
Soon, hunger is wiped out, nuclear weapons are dismantled and destroyed, and deserts are terraformed into crop-rich meadows. Earth leaders' suspicions are further allayed when the title of the Kanamit's mysterious book is discovered to be 'To Serve Man'. The Kanamits then begin inviting humans to visit their home planet, which they have described as an incredible paradise. One of the cryptographers, Mr. Chambers from the episode's opening scene, quickly volunteers for the trip. As he begins to board the ship in excited anticipation, a fellow code breaker suddenly appears at the landing pad and desperately pleads with Chambers to turn around and flee.
Patty, Michael Chambers' staffer at the cryptography department, has decoded the book and discovered that it is not a treatise on assisting humanity but, rather, a cookbook which contains recipes for cooking and 'serving' humans to a hungry Kanamit race. Patty is restrained by a Kanamit guard and Chambers is hustled on board the Kanamit ship, which quickly takes off. The story then switches back to Chambers in his cell aboard the ship and it is revealed that Michael has been talking to the audience, asking whether his onlookers are still on Earth or on the ship with him, hurtling towards their doom. The episode closes with a resigned Chambers saying that it doesn't matter and that, sooner or later, all of mankind will become a Kanamit meal. He then gives in and begins ravenously eating the food placed in his cell to fatten him up.
2. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
This episode holds a special place in my heart, as it is one of very few straight whodunits in the TZ catalog. Nearly right off the bat, the viewer is told that one person from a cast of characters is not who he or she appears to be and is invited to guess the identity of the imposter.
After a phone call reports a crashed vehicle during a fierce snowstorm, two policemen come across wreckage that they believe is a flying saucer, along with a set of footprints that lead from the ship to a nearby diner. There, the policemen come across a small group of stranded bus travelers who are waiting for word as to whether an old and unreliable bridge on the road up ahead is safe to cross. The group consists of a young married couple, an older married couple, a dancer named Ethel, a businessman named Mr. Ross, and Avery, a strange old man. Though all inside are certain that the passengers on the bus are the only customers in the eatery, there are seven passengers now, while the driver swears he had only six passengers aboard his bus before he stopped at the diner.
The policemen immediately suspect that one of the customers is an alien in human form. escaped from its downed spacecraft, and they alert the passengers to their supposition before going ahead to check the bridge, hoping that the travelers will soon recognize the odd man out. The officers also add that nobody is allowed to leave the diner until their return. Unfortunately, it has been a dark and bitterly cold night and none of the passengers paid enough attention to their fellow travelers to know who does, and does not, belong. Dissension quickly sets in amongst the group as accusations fly. Haley, the cook manning the counter, attempts to help solve the puzzle, but to no avail. Suddenly, the diner is assailed by bizarre occurrences - the jukebox begins playing on its own, bowls behind the counter explode, and the diner's lights begin flickering on and off for no discernible reason.
Soon, with the mystery of the alien's identity still unresolved, the policemen return and report that the bridge ahead is indeed structurally sound. Seconds later, the phone rings and the caller, a county engineer, verifies the bridge's safety. The group files out of the diner in nervous apprehension and the bus, escorted by the policemen, pulls out of the parking lot and drives away. Shaking his head, the cook begins to clean up the mess...
...but is surprised minutes later by the return of the businessman, Mr. Ross. Haley asks Ross what had happened to the other passengers and policemen; Ross reveals that the bridge had not been safe after all and that all of the bus's occupants, along with the two policemen, had perished when the bridge collapsed. Haley remarks that Ross isn't even wet and the businessman claims ignorance of the concept. A third arm then appears from beneath his coat as he stirs his coffee. The 'businessman' reveals that he was the imposter and that he has the power to create the illusions that so terrified the other passengers earlier, including the call from the supposed "county engineer". 'Ross' also reveals that a Martian invasion fleet is currently on its way to colonize Earth. Strangely, however, Haley seems less than perturbed.
Haley laughs at Ross' news and says that he already knew of the incoming Martian fleet. The cook is not a cook at all, as 'Haley' removes his paper cook hat to reveal a third eye on his forehead. As part of an earlier force from Venus, 'Haley' tells the Martian that the Venusians are already well entrenched on Earth and that they are intercepting the Martians as they speak. As 'Ross' looks on in stunned disbelief, 'Haley' laughs uproariously.
1. The Hitch-Hiker
For my money, 'The Hitch-Hiker' contains the single greatest twist in Twilight Zone history, as its preceding story is genuinely frightening and extremely unsettling. Serling was at top form in this Season 1 masterpiece and the resulting story is one of the best-known installments in the show's entire run.
The story follows a lone woman, Nan Adams, who is driving across the country from New York to Los Angeles. She doesn't get far, however, before one of her car's tires suffers a blowout in Pennsylvania, requiring a tow to a nearby garage for repairs. While waiting to resume her trip, Nan observes a nondescript man thumbing for a ride along the highway across from the garage. Strangely, whenever Nan looks closely at the man, it appears as if he's staring at her. She tries to shrug it off as a figment of her imagination and is soon back on the road.
Nan's puzzlement soon turns to unease when she rounds a bend several miles down the road and once again sees the same man placidly hitch-hiking, expressionlessly watching her drive past. Again and again, the man impossibly stays ahead of her on the road, thumbing for a ride over and over with the same calm, yet piercing, stare. Nan is now nearly paralyzed with fear, as she vainly tries to comprehend how the hitch-hiker could perform such a feat. At a railroad crossing, Nan's car stalls on the tracks as a train approaches. She barely manages to get it restarted and drive to safety before the train thunders by. All the while, the man is standing mere feet away from her, thumb out, smiling calmly.
For hundreds of miles, Nan hurtles down the road in abject terror, seeing the hitch-hiker everywhere she goes. Then, in New Mexico, her car breaks down again. While awaiting another round of repairs, Nan strikes up a conversation with a sailor on leave who is trying to get back to his base in San Diego. Hoping that an unexpected passenger will bring an end to her nightmare, Nan offers to drive him to California.
However, the hitch-hiker appears on the side of the road once again, just minutes after Nan and the sailor leave the repair shop. With a shriek, Nan drives the car off the road in an attempt to run the man down and almost crashes the car in the process. The shaken sailor makes a hasty exit and terrifies Nan further by claiming to not have seen the hitch-hiker at all. Nan hesitantly drives away, alone once again, and her encounters with the hitch-hiker continue as before.
Finally, in Arizona and at the end of her emotional rope, Nan stops at a phone booth and calls her mother. Instead, her mother's friend, one Mrs. Whitney, answers the phone and says that "Mrs. Adams" is in the hospital.
As an exhausted and frightened Nan prods her for details, Mrs. Whitney tells Nan that "Mrs. Adams" had suffered a nervous breakdown six days ago when she was told that her daughter had died in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania. And with that, Nan and the viewer realize the terrible truth. The incident in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the episode was no mere blowout, but a major crash that had killed Nan. Ever since, she had drifted through a hellish limbo as a ghostly mirror of her living self, pursued not by a homicidal maniac, but by Death himself. A shocked Nan numbly returns to her car and looks in the rear-view mirror to find the hitch-hiker sitting in the back seat, staring back at her. With a pleasant smile, the man says "I believe you're going...my way?"
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