Most everyone can probably hear The Twilight Zone theme in their head just upon seeing the name. A fixture of late-night reruns and early CBS marathons, as well as three (so far) revival series, is popular for its mix of sci-fi and horror while also touching on the social issues of today. Some of these episodes though, chose to take it to another level entirely when it came to their storytelling.
Throughout the show you find terrifying episodes, some beautifully heartbreaking, and others with wide-eyed awe of what could come in the future. The last one though, is more rare. These episodes come around every so often to give our brains a nice kick in the ass to get thinking, leaving us with questions on our view or morality that may just need to be thought about and changed.
Others may just have you rewatching the episode to try and figure out what the hell happened, but without a doubt, these are some of the most mind-bending episodes made of The Twilight Zone.
And When The Sky Was Opened
An early favorite from the first season, this episode was one of the first to define just how out of the norm Rod Serling and the various writers involved (this one based on a short story by longtime Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson) tried to make their situations and messages for the show. It would work too, drawing audiences into the mind-altering journey of three astronauts who disappeared briefly along with their experimental vessel during a test flight.
What happens when they disappear isn’t even the central story here, but rather the twenty-four hours following their return to earth. As time goes by the three men disappear one by one, with no reasoning as to why except that “they weren’t supposed to be let go”. The most effective piece of the episode is the simple newspaper headline proclaiming their safe landing, which changes from three astronauts in the beginning before counting down as they disappear.
The Four of Us Are Dying
A personal favorite episode (Fun fact: The first demo for My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to the Black Parade was named The Five of Us Are Dying in honor of this episode) and one of the better early instances of how Serling and company would use the supernatural to intersect lives of people that normally may not cross.
This episode follows Arch, a con man who can change his appearance at will and uses it to swindle anybody he can, whether it be for money, fame, or pleasure. However, after using his abilities to get two out of three things he wants, his final plan goes far off the rails and brings about a more emotional ending than he had ever planned, and makes audiences wonder just who it is they’re speaking to every day.
This is a more underrated episode in my opinion, and brings those chew philosophical and moral questions that the Twilight Zone was known for in spades. With our main character on death row for first-degree murder and repeatedly experiencing a nightmare about being executed by an electric chair, he tries for one last desperate plea to stay alive and stop the dreams of his execution.
Said plea is telling everyone that they don’t exist and are just a figment of his imagination, which means if he dies they all go poof as well. Naturally, the dreams have weighed so heavily on him that it causes those around them to doubt too, leading to moral panic and the idea that by killing this man they may just doom themselves. Just one of many episodes where we as an audience are asked what makes us human, and what makes others human in that same way.
The Obsolete Man
The Obsolete Man holds up way better now than it ever did during the Red Scare. About a librarian that is deemed as “obsolete” as books were long ago outlawed, it shows that just because you’re the one doing the persecuting today doesn’t mean you won’t be persecuted tomorrow. Another morality tale, but one that can be looked at in the context of any situation or timeframe.
What could go wrong when a false alarm goes off about a nuclear attack? Well, before that one time in Hawaii a few years ago most would have run into a nuclear fallout shelter that was built under one of their homes. The problem comes in when the whole neighborhood knows about it and wants to use the shelter too, leading to a complete breakdown in civility between the friends and neighbors who had been so joyful together only hours before.j
Five Characters In Search of An Exit
This one is simply made with a massively high concept that won’t pay off until the end. There’s an exercise in patience and minimalism as five people wake up in a room with no idea of who they are, where they are, or how they got there. Only referred to by their titles like The Major, The Ballerina, etc, the episode follows these five trapped in one room with no ceiling, but no way out. When one finally does they realize that they are even more different than they first thought upon waking.
This episode has the weird factor at play with the mystery present right from the opening, and the ending turns out to be a moral allegory for those discarded by society and the ones that are desperately trying to find a home for them.
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
It’s hard not to mention this episode when discussing The Twilight Zone. Still studied in schools and history classes, it was used to sum up the national unrest caused by McCarthy and the Red Scare, where normal Americans were being encouraged to turn in anyone they deemed to be a “communist sympathizer”. While the colors have changed, the rhetoric and scares are still going on with fingers being pointed in much the same way at the LGBT community in the current scenario.
The episode plays on that paranoia and fear that anybody could be someone else, and you can’t trust those around you, a fear directly stoked by politicians during that time.
The gradual dissolution of the neighborhood as they begin accusing each other of causing the massive power outage was a regular occurrence as former friends turned on each other due to dangerous, charged rhetoric.
Spoiler: None of them were the enemy, but instead the outage and fear were being stoked by aliens from miles away, themselves trying to weaken and make the neighborhood easier to control by causing them to turn on one another. It’s Pride month, do I have to spell out how terrifyingly prescient this episode is today with the demonization of LGBT people by politicians?
An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge
Based on the original short story by Ambrose Bierce, which was written seventy years before the show, this episode is a masterclass in non-linear storytelling and suspense, as well as questioning if we’re seeing what’s real. When a wealthy plantation owner is hanged by Union soldiers near the end of the Civil War, he gets lucky and the rope snaps, freeing him into the cold waters of Owl Creek below. We follow his perilous odyssey as he attempts to make his way back home, to his wife and children. Until he’s rudely yanked back to reality by the noose yanking his spine loose. Win some, lose some.
One For the Angels
This one is a more uplifting mind-bender than outright “What the hell?”. A salesman known for keeping the neighborhood kids entertained is greeted one day by Death, who says that his time has come. Naturally, the salesman finds a loophole and makes it out, with Death being unable to take him due to the terms of their agreement. Death will get his due though, and instead says that he must be up in the salesman’s apartment building to take one of the kids who lives nearby, hit by a truck that afternoon.
The salesman takes it up as the time to make the pitch of a lifetime, leading Death on and even convincing him to buy his wares until the clock strikes midnight and Death misses his appointment. Again, not mind-bending in the sense of cerebral, but mind-bending in the sense of just how much care and compassion we as humans can (and should) show to those that come after us, leaving them to live where we left off.
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