Sunday, October 7, 2018

Twilight Zone Take-Over #17 - Eye of the Beholder

"It's pretty bad isn't it? Ever since I was a little girl people have turned away when they looked at me."
Director: Douglas Heyes
Writer: Rod Serling
Composer: Bernard Herrmann

It's rather difficult to talk about this episode without going into the twist near the ending, which is where a lot of the themes talked about in the episode really come to light. That twist is also what makes this episode so well known among fans and in pop culture.

The basic plot is that a woman, Janet Tyler, has a horribly disfigured face and there is a dedicated team of doctors that have now made eleven attempts to fix her, and this is the last one before she gets sent away. She has bandages wrapped around her face that she must wear for the next day or so before they can discover if the surgery worked or not.

This episode touches a lot upon what beauty and conformity really mean in society, and how dangerous these flimsy concepts can be. Janet just wants to be "normal" or whatever that means, and it's so she can feel loved and accepted. And for much of the episode we're led to believe that she's abnormal maybe because of her behaviors, but just because of how she looks.

But there's an interesting scene with the lead doctor where he explains that, despite being so horrendous, she's normal, she's just as human as anyone else, and if she had the face of a normal person, they'd be giving her a shot.

Janet and the doctor both provide incredibly insightful takes on what conformity is, and how far it can take someone and how it can truly become so dangerous. While the doctor does not object to the totalitarian wishes of the state, that anyone who is an "undesirable" must be purged from society and put away somewhere, he does recognize that Janet is just a normal person on the inside, and he wonders if that's really the thing that matters.

For Janet, it's all a matter of fitting in, no matter the cost. She just wants to belong, she'd do anything. She even posits having herself killed if the surgery doesn't work. This desperation to conform to what society wants and what society expects is lethal, in this case, and would otherwise rob a normal woman of a perfectly fine shot at life.

Beauty as being skin-deep is certainly an idea that has been broached before, but here it's taken to a much farther level. The episode was just normal as it rolled along with that idea before the audience discovers that there is a mandate to look normal, to look like everyone else, to be like everyone else. At that point, beauty becomes almost its own social status.

This episode almost feels more relevant today than it did in the 1960s when it was produced. Beauty is everywhere in our world, but, more and more people are finding that this beauty isn't a physical one but an emotional one. Love can be physical but at its core love stems from how we feel about one another and how well we connect with others. To conform, or to follow the rules of a society where appearance supersedes humanity, is to rid ourselves of love and the capability of seeing one another for what we truly are. This, again, is something that comes up in the ending.

So for now we'll move away from the story and more into the execution. This episode is brilliantly written by Rod Serling, as always, but is masterfully directed by Douglas Heyes. The main mystery of the episode is what everyone looks like; what is the beauty standard of this world? Surely it's like ours, but, then, why are the doctors faces constantly covered in shadow?

Heyes always keeps their faces out of frame, or basked in shadow, until the big moment. In doing so he creates this atmosphere of unease, of uncertainty. Camera movements are precise and the blocking in each of the actors is perfectly timed so we never see someone's face. At times people will move just into position to see their face until someone else steps in the way. And it feels natural, it feels as if we're watching a conversation, but from a purposefully obscured angle.

There's also a funny trick wherein, before the episode cuts to its first break, we see someone moving behind a glass wall and the camera pans up and up and it seems as if it's going to be a reveal of what the doctors look like, but it just turns out to be Rod Serling giving the opening narration. Clever way to build tension and get the audience on their toes.

This is mostly a two-person performance. Maxine Stuart plays the masked version of Janet Tyler and does so masterfully. She carries most of this episode with just her voice, since her face is wrapped in bandages. Most of the first half of the episode, where she talks with the doctor, has her going from one emotional extreme to the next and she does so brilliantly. She uses some body language, like slouching or getting fidgety, to convey some of her feelings but it's all in the voice.

It does speak to her acting ability, too, to give Janet such a defined and well-known character without a face. It furthers the message that beauty isn't everything, that even someone without a face can be so human; in fact, probably more human than most of the nurses that are treating her.

The doctor, played by William Gordon, gives us another strong performance. His bedside manner isn't the greatest, but the scenes where he has to contemplate what to do with Janet, how he feels about her and how sympathetic he is toward her, shows that he is a man with an understanding heart; however, his inability to act against the state shows that, in the end, he's a conformist like the rest of them. He does show compassion for her when he's giving her the information about the "village" she can stay in, but doesn't make an effort to sneak her out or promise her that there's a chance for her in the real world. It creates an interesting conflict for, again, a mostly faceless character.

Eye of the Beholder is an episode that thematically resonates and may remain so for a long while to come. It's also filled with great direction, writing, and performances that will stick with you long after viewing it, and really makes you think about how you've treated others who may be a little different than you, even if it is just in appearance.


Upon a second viewing I actually noticed that there's a few slips, whether intentional or not, where it's possible to see the faces of the doctors, though still mostly in shadow, and make an assesment or good judgment of how they are supposed to look. They try to keep the illusion up when they show the Leader for the first time and even though it's from a distance, it's still clear that something is way wrong with his face. 

The reveal that Janet is a beautiful person, and then the reveal that the doctors are the ones with our perception of ugly, is a great one and brings everything together, but arguably more important is when Janet sees Mr. Smith, the handsome gentleman and leader of the place she'll be taken to. Janet, now played by Donna Douglas, only makes eye contact after she has completely accepted her fate, but never quite seems comfortable around him. 

And it's just such strong writing, too. She sees him as ugly, as someone you can't dare look at. Her performance sells this idea masterfully. 

The ending, where the doctors send her off, is a curious one, for me. Mr. Smith promises that Janet may actually be able to find love there, but only among her people. When the doctor sends her along her way, he does so with some hint of regret, but also sympathy. He regrets that he has to send her away, but, is still sympathetic to someone he now sees as human. Everyone else in the room is shaking their head in shame at her, but he just stands by and, tear in his eye, lets her go. Also, interesting to note, Mr. Smith and Janet both bow their heads and raise their hands up so the doctors and nurses don't see their faces. 

The conformist mentality extends even to her safe haven, which shows that, regardless of where she goes, society will be split. There is no winning in this situation for anyone. It's all based on fear and anger toward a bit of difference in one another. There is no humanity in this world, there is only the ugly and the pretty. The episode is apparently stemming from the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" but that's also kind of incorrect in the grand scheme of things. 

The "beauty" here may be referring to the physical attraction one feels toward another person, but not in the people as a whole. The hope for Janet is that she will learn to see the beauty of the people that she eventually must go to, that she'll see beauty in the undesirables, but there is little hope for those people who are, as she says, in camps and ghettos, lost in a hopeless world. 

Maybe that's too bleak an interpretation for some people. It could still be a correct statement. Maybe the doctor finally does see Janet as beautiful and that's why he cries; it's a brief moment, but nonetheless a powerful if you think about it a little bit. 

This is an episode that needs to be seen by everyone. Especially show it to your friends who maybe harbor a bit of angst or misplaced judgment to people who are different or "ugly" to them. Remind them that they're human to, and that if they start conforming as hard as everyone else does...well, you wanna live in a world where we put people in camps? There's a word for people like that, and they're not good people. 

How many of you have been on a roadtrip? Like, a really long one? Well, if you have or haven't, be prepared to go on a trip like never before, alongside Nan Adams, as she finds herself not quite so alone as she thinks in "The Hitch Hiker!" See you then! 

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