Monday, October 1, 2018

Twilight Zone Take-Over #23 - "The Midnight Sun"

"The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is 'doomed,' because the people you've just seen have been handed a death sentence." 

Director: Anton Leader
Writer: Rod Serling
Composer: Nathan van Cleave

It's hard to consider this a scary episode of The Twilight Zone on the face of it. It's brightly lit, doesn't have any scary imagery, and the theme behind it isn't so much scary as it is torturing to think about. The real scare of the episode comes with the idea of inevitability: that no matter how much the characters try to survive, it's all going to be meaningless in the end.
This idea is approached not even by our main characters, but by the final tenants to leave the main apartment the episode takes place in.

If you're unaware of the plot, this is a story where the world has somehow been knocked off its elliptical orbit and is hurtling toward the sun. Temperatures average in the 100s and it's only getting hotter. At the beginning of the story there are five apartment tenants left in New York City: Norma, Mrs. Bronson, and the Shuster family. The Shuster family quickly leaves the story but drops with them the knowledge that it may be a bit cooler in Syracuse, New York.

From the get-go, the story provides us with the two most critical things to the characters: coolness and water. Norma cherishes the water she drinks from her slow-dripping tap and if the Shuster family heading north wasn't indicative enough, Mrs. Bronson is constantly fanning herself, constantly looking for something to cool herself off with.

One of the more interesting aspects of the episodes is how the mind can be capable of overcoming paranoia. Norma is a painter, and of late, she's been painting images of a large sun in the sky. This makes sense, as the sun would be the most prominent part of their lives. Mrs. Bronson begs for Norma to paint something cool and when she does, Mrs. Bronson seems to have a positive reaction to it.

Norma is an interesting woman to follow in the apocalypse. She's upbeat but not stupid. She's surviving for the old Mrs. Bronson, and keeps talking about sticking together, about fighting to the end to survive. But the performance by Lois Nettleton is wonderful. She ranges from jovial to serious in the span of just a few moments.

The rest scene-stealer is Betty Garde as Mrs. Bronson. She's slowly losing her mind throughout the episode but still grasps to some thin, frail hope. While her acting can be a bit over-the-top, though typical of the times, watching her descend deeper into paranoia proves a powerful rival to what would probably seem just a par performance from Lois Nettleton.

 The two play off each other superbly to create a dynamic of desperation and a battle between hopelessness and hope. Both Garde and Nettleton display the weakness of being surrounded not just by this overbearing heat, but also that feeling of doom that was described in Serling's opening narration.

And that feeling never leaves. There's never a doubt that these two women, and all of Earth, are doomed. It's only a matter of how long before they break and their humanity goes with them, until their minds are turned to mush in the face of the end. And that's really the interesting thing here.

Like most Twilight Zone episodes, "The Midnight Sun" relies only on its fantastical catalyst as a means of setting characters up to show their more human sides. We're subtly reminded throughout the episode of this idea, such as when Norma touches the windowsill and burns her hand, but it's obvious that the real story here is holding out to the last minute. Otherwise, a story about the earth hurtling toward the sun would mostly be about scientists scrambling for answers.

An unsung hero of the episode is the score by Nathan van Cleave. It's not one steeped in mystery or intrigue like most Twilight Zone themes; those are twisted into more horrific, terrifying scores. No, this one is all about doom. It's all a slow build, with instruments playing almost exclusively low notes until the dramatic climax of the episode. It's a haunting score, one that constantly keeps the viewer in check that there isn't anything to really celebrate. Much as Norma tries to pep up herself and Mrs. Bronson, it seems that the music is always a reminder of the end .

end. Midnight Sun" is well known mostly for its ending, which shall be discussed in the Spoiler Section below, but it proves to be one of the more surprisingly haunting episodes of the original Twilight Zone. From a scary score to great performances to that never-ending feeling of doom, this is an episode that'll leave a lasting impression for a while.


One of the strangest things that the episode includes is the Intruder. While it is well hinted at and further develops Mrs. Bronson's madness, the Intruder doesn't really do anything. He takes some water, threatens them with a useless gun, scares them, and then leaves. Perhaps his arrival sped up Mrs. Bronson's demise but given the final fate of Norma it could easily be implied that the heat finally kills them, too.

Now, The Twilight Zone rarely does a twist ending. Off the top of my head, the original series has just one other double-twist ending; some other episodes have twists in the middle, but rarely does it smack you in the face TWICE at the end. And this is a well-known one.

You've got the obvious twist of "this was all a dream" that's all but spelled out for the audience at the very beginning as we're first introduced to Mrs. Bronson, but, quite cleverly, it was a fever dream, literally. The breaking of the thermometer could easily just be Norma's fever finally breaking. Then you've got the great "sike" moment where we think they're out of the woods, but actually, it's quite the opposite, as now, the Earth heads away from the sun.

Ultimately, that's not that powerful of a point as the madness that'd ensued during the dream, but it does make you wonder what may happen from now on. Will events repeat themselves just as they had before? It seems so. The doctor and Mrs. Bronson have a similar exchange about his family headed toward Miami, where it's probably a bit warmer, but it will be futile to go there anyway.

I much more enjoy Lois Nettleton's final few moments as Norma as she comes out of the dream, prepared to embrace cold and darkness and ending the episode with a "be careful what you wish for" kind of deal. Moving from one extreme to the other isn't always something that works, even in The Twilight Zone, but here, it's gently padded by that great performance, as well as one final look of warning from Mrs. Bronson, one that all but spells out the doom to come.

And day one is done! Tomorrow, Earth goes back to normal, but this time we'll let the monsters come to play, as one soon-to-be Captain Kirk squares off with his most dangerous enemy yet...BAD TIMINIG! "Nightmare at 20,000" is on deck, see you then!

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