Fueling an entire career with twist endings is hard to sustain -- just ask M. Night Shyamalan. But Rod Serling did it with 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, thanks to his commitment to enhancing the twists by showing humanity in both its angelic and monstrous forms.
Thanks to Netflix, where all but the fourth season's 18 episodes are streaming, you can revisit Serling's lasting achievement -- one that's still prescient more than 50 years after it originally aired. But where to start? Here are 25 essential Twilight Zone episodes that you need to see (minor spoilers to follow).
25. "Nothing in the Dark"
Season 3, Episode 16
This humanely sweet episode tells the story of an old woman who is so afraid of the Grim Reaper that she becomes agoraphobic. The bad news: a demolition team is set to tear down her house in the morning. Enter Robert Redford as a handsome policeman lying outside her door in the snow having been shot, begging this strange woman to save him. Uncharacteristically straightforward, the meat of "Nothing in the Dark" is a frank, delicate conversation about how something we all must face isn’t something to be feared at all.
24. "The Thirty-Fathom Grave"
Season 4, Episode 2
CBS canceled The Twilight Zone after Season 3, only to beg Serling for more, as a mid-season replacement for a failed drama. The real life twist: the 22-minute format would be stretched to an hour. The new format was rough, resulting in a lot of duds (though the miraculous fifth season would tout some of the best episodes ever). One of the gems is "The Thirty-Fathom Grave," which sees a sailor stricken with crazed fits and delusions after hearing what appears to be the clang of a hammer coming from a long-drowned submarine. It’s a startling portrayal of unease, featuring zombie sailors essentially chanting "come play with us." The ending challenges the viewer to decide whether the hero was driven insane by reality or his own mind.
23. "Third From the Sun"
Season 1, Episode 14
In a stellar Cold War thriller, a group of scientists plan to hijack a rocket in order to escape a world on the cusp of H-bomb-induced doom. When their boss finds out their plan, the timeline gets bumped up and the sweat starts to pour. The centerpiece of the episode is a game night gathering that turns into the basement bar scene from Inglourious Basterds before all the shooting. Our pacifist heroes breathlessly make their escape, but the show has one more twist up its sleeve for us.
22. "It’s a Good Life"
Season 3, Episode 8
One of Twilight Zone's more incensed episodes focuses on a small town in Ohio plagued by a vicious monster who can read people’s thoughts and kill them with a roll of its eyes. The beast is a six-year-old boy who hates singing and dogs, but loves people walking on eggshells who fear being banished "to the cornfield." It may seem silly by today’s standards, but the episode reaches a grotesque climax when the capricious little snot transforms a man who stands up to him into a jack-in-the-box topped by his old human head. The episode ends soon after with Serling admitting there was no point to it. He just wanted to tell us about this horrifying fucking kid.
21. "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air"
Season 1, Episode 15
Continuing Twilight Zone's mean streak, this early episode sees four astronauts survive a crash-landing into a desolate landscape after blasting off from earth. When resources run low, human nature rears its ugly head until all but one -- the one willing to murder -- are dead. The stunner that they were always a mountain ridge away from signs for Reno (having never even left Earth’s orbit) leaves the man who killed in vain weeping, and us a little more sour on our fellow man.
20. "The Long Morrow"
Season 5, Episode 15
Like a space age Gift of the Magi, astronaut Doug Stansfield (Robert Lansing) enlists for a one-man, 40-year trip to a distant star system, only to confront a harrowing truth: the love of his life (Mariette Hartley) will be an elderly woman when he returns from the voyage. What follows is a fantastic, life-affirming, melancholy display of the power of love that also proves the necessity of communication.
19. "The Silence"
Season 2, Episode 25
Serling takes aim at false bravado and men who pretend to be more wealthy and important than they really are in this inventive episode. A particularly pompous member of a private club bets an annoying fellow member $500,000 that he can’t remain silent for a full year. What’s shocking isn’t that he pulls it off, or even how he pulls it off, but that he’s punished for assuming that the man putting up the money was good for it.
18. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Season 5, Episode 22
Kind? Cruel? Both? "Owl Creek Bridge," based on Ambrose Bierce's popular short story and acquired by Rod Serling for $25,000 after winning a short film Oscar, is an ethereally realized story of a Civil War prisoner about to be hanged by Union Troops, whose rope snaps, allowing him to escape down the river and onto his homestead. Surreal imagery and poetic focus on the condemned man’s surroundings (all the way down to the bugs on the ground) provide a jarring serenity after the near-hanging. But this is still The Twilight Zone, where a man isn’t simply allowed to rush into his wife’s awaiting arms after escaping the gallows.
Season 2, Episode 17
The Twilight Zone is filled with people who suffer nervous breakdowns. Liz Powell (Barbara Nichols), an overworked dancer recuperating in the hospital, suffers from a recurring nightmare where she races from an unseen danger. One night she reaches "Room 22," the hospital morgue, where a robotic-seeming woman eerily suggests, "Room for one more, honey." Eesh. This is about as skin-crawling as episodes get, and also one of the most clever at hiding its twist behind a series of red herrings.
16. "Walking Distance"
Season 1, Episode 5
Waiting for mechanics to fix his car during an impromptu road trip, Martin Sloan (Gig Young) walks a mile and a half to the literal hometown of his youth, where he reminisces about 10-cent chocolate sodas and blissful afternoons on a merry-go-round before coming face-to-face with his 11-year-old self. Martin is the original manchild: so desperate to stay in the past that he's willing to derail his future. Turns out that’s fairly easy to do when you’re within striking distance of your pre-pubescent self. "Walking Distance" is notoriously aggravating for its airy ending. There is no great twist or sense of closure, but a haunting question about the value of our memories versus our will to make the future brighter.
15. "In Praise of Pip"
Season 5, Episode 1
In another episode about going into the past to understand the future, Jack Klugman plays a bookie who’s informed that his son Pip has been killed in action in South Vietnam and regrets not being a better father. Rattled, the man accidentally murders his gangster boss before stumbling into an empty amusement park, where he hallucinates a ten-year-old version of his boy. He spends his desired lost time with Pip, teaching him how to shoot before bargaining with God to trade his life for his son’s. It’s a bittersweet portrayal of sad-sack remorse and absentee father. Klugman's character pays with his life for a brief moment of bonding. Either his life wasn’t worth much, or that afternoon with his son was worth the world.
14. "Ring-a-Ding Girl"
Season 5, Episode 13
In this story of a Hollywood starlet returning home, the famous Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara) is portrayed as often selfish and spotlight-sucking -- a characterization that throws us off the scent of what’s really going on. Before boarding her plane to shoot a new movie in Rome, Bunny receives a ring that shows her visions -- of a nebulous future, or not -- which prompts her to stop first in her old stomping grounds on the day of their annual fair. It’s a startling episode that proves a villainous cliché, who would have 3 million Instagram followers in 2016, can be a hero.
13. "The Eye of the Beholder"
Season 2, Episode 6
In what’s become one of the most iconic twists of the series, a facial reconstruction patient removes her bandages to reveal a gorgeous woman surrounded by snout-faced horrors. See, she’s the disgusting one. What, you didn’t notice they didn’t show the doctors’ and nurses’ faces for 20 minutes? More surprising than the twist in "The Eye of the Beholder" is the happy ending it offers. It’s easy to miss while nodding in dumbfounded shock, but the "beautiful" people are ruled over by a despot, and our ugly duckling is exiled with another model-ugly specimen, effectively saved from the horrors of strict conformity solely because they can’t be made pretty.
12. "The Encounter"
Season 5, Episode 31
Star Trek's George Takei stars in this gripping episode where a racist WWII veteran named Fenton (Neville Brand) and a scarred Japanese-American man are locked in room with their regrets, hatred, and an old samurai sword that might as well be a ticking time-bomb. "The Encounter" was banned from television for years because of racist language, but the aggression and insult also stands out as some of the best dialogue of the series. It’s a rare moment where the show tackled real-world travesty head-on, without UFO distractions or Satan cameos.
11. "The Obsolete Man"
Season 2, Episode 29
Serling had his knives out for totalitarianism in this episode about a God-fearing librarian (Burgess Meredith) sentenced after his Orwellian government deemed him useless to the state. Invited to pick the method of murder, the librarian elects for televised assassinated, with the state's Chancellor present. The lesson: never give airtime to a clever man. As the librarian faces death with faith and solemnity, the Chancellor freaks out, begging to be released in the name of God -- a move that proves that the state is made up of all-too-human humans, and that signs of weakness will be punished regardless of how necessary you thought you once were.
10. "Number 12 Looks Just Like You"
Season 5, Episode 17
In this episode's dystopian future, all men and women must undergo beautification surgery at the age of 18, physical ugliness being one of the main causes of hate in the world. Having seen a loss of identity drive her father crazy, fresh-faced adult Marilyn resists treatment, only to cave when the prospect of being ostracized sounds even more terrifying. It’s the kind of episode worth screaming at your television in frustration, made wholly alienating with two actors playing almost all the roles.
9. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
Season 2, Episode 28
One of the most fun episodes in an agonizing series, this is an Agatha Christie novella with a sci-fi twist -- and we’re invited to play along. The set up is simple: a group of people are snowed-in at a roadside diner, and one of them isn’t from this world. Even though the ending involves a deadly bridge collapse and the impending colonization of Earth, the tone stays playfully tongue-in-cheek as Serling instructs us to check the color of all three eyes on the person next to us.
8. "A Game of Pool"
Season 3, Episode 5
A tour-de-force of acting prowess, comedian Jonathan Winters spreads his dramatic chops alongside Jack Klugman in an episode that both rewards and questions dedicating your life to perfectionism. Klugman plays a pool shark who spends his nights alone, practicing his game and bitterly complaining that he’d be recognized as the best ever if not for a legendary cue-man who’s been dead for years. Winters plays the deceased, who returns to the world of the living for one more game.
7. "The Masks"
Season 5 Episode 25
An episode that could have easily appeared on Tales From the Crypt, "The Masks" is a voodoo tale about terrible people getting their just deserts. Jason Foster is the wealthy patriarch to a whining daughter, her greedy businessman husband, and his bullying children. Foster invites them to a Mardi Gras party to inform them that, in order to get a massive inheritance, they have to participate in a custom of wearing grotesque masks until the stroke of midnight. What happens next is a beautifully mean-spirited parable.
6. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
Season 5, Episode 3
The Twilight Zone often featured characters believed crazy by the rest of the world. No one played that role with more manic glee than William Shatner, whose Bob Wilson spots a gremlin ripping up one of the wings during his plane ride back from a mental hospital. Driven mad by collective disbelief, Bob agonizes the way only Shatner can before stealing a sleeping cop’s gun -- welcome to 1963! -- and killing the gremlin. It’s a simple tale of a man doing what’s right despite looking bonkers for it, but the joy is in watching Shatner be Shatner.
5. "The Invaders"
Season 2, Episode 15
Absolutely gorgeous in every aspect, this episode is a near-wordless masterwork of fear about tiny intruders who terrorize an elderly wife (Agnes Moorehead). Despite being the size of mice, they torment and injure her until she fights back, killing one and following the other to the flying saucer that landed on her roof. Since we never hear her speak, it's a shock when we hear the tiny alien -- twist! -- radio back to NASA to warn the other humans not to visit this giant-inhabited planet.
4. "To Serve Man"
Season 3, Episode 24
This is the best example of a strong half hour being completely overshadowed by a twist. Before discovering that the alien Kanamit book "To Serve Man" should have "with Hollandaise Sauce" after it, the episode questions whether an outside force -- alien or human -- can be trusted to have pure motivations. The ending, where our hero sits on a spaceship, resigned to his fate as a future main course, is bleak, but what’s most insane about the episode is that the codebreakers who initially translate the title of the alien’s book are too credulous to decode what's beneath the cover.
3. "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"
Season 3, Episode 14
A soldier, a ballerina, a bagpiper, a clown, and a hobo wake up inside a rounded metal pit and no memory of who they are. No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke, but a riff on Sartre, a puzzle of identity and purpose. A syrupy ending (this was the Christmas episode, after all), it takes nothing away from the episode's absurd terror, which also pokes meta-fun at the series: the possible explanations for the trap (a dream, a dream within a dream, hell, aliens) all recall twists from other episodes.
2. "Time Enough at Last"
Season 1, Episode 8
One the darkest episode of an often pitch black series, "Time Enough at Last" follows Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) as a book addict . All he wants to do is read, ruining his career as a bank teller and royally pissing off his wife, who blacks out every line in every page of his personal library (imagine how long it took her!). Bemis lucks out when all other humans are killed in an atomic blast. Unfortunately, this is The Twilight Zone, and "Time Enough at Last" quickly becomes a lesson in packing an extra pair of eyeglasses.
1. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"
Season 1 Episode 22
The Twilight Zone's quintessential episode depicts a shadowy "monster," a cloud of suspicion, falling upon a neighborhood of friends. As if The Thing looked like The Andy Griffith Show, the possibility of an alien attack spurs residents to point fingers, place blame, and attack each other -- a moral object lesson that plays as freshly today as it did during its post-McCarthy Era debut. The "twist" that aliens have been lazily tinkering with the lights and cars, and that they’ve concluded that the easiest way to destroy mankind is to let us destroy ourselves, isn’t so much shocking as it is depressingly familiar. Enjoy the rest of the election season!
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