Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis
Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis

Our thanks to Master Cat! Cory Milles, with additional insights from Melody Walkenhorst, for this eye-opening breakdown.

From 1959 to 1963, Rod Serling’s brilliant TV series The Twilight Zone® introduced millions of viewers to the dimension of imagination. The show brought amazing stories that are both memorable and transcendent. Even today, 55 years later, the show continues in its popularity. Thanks to streaming services and marathons, viewers both familiar and new, young and old, can take a trip into the fifth dimension.

Serling’s episodes stand the test of time not only because they featured memorable characters, interesting stories, and great endings, but because he knew what made a story “work.” He was able to identify the components necessary to move a story along and build emotion. He understood that our brains, at the most basic level, are wired to understand stories in a certain way, and he used this to his advantage.

Even though the episodes aired over five decades ago, they provide great examples of how the storytelling basics Blake Snyder teaches are inherent in all great tales. Just as Joseph Campbell identified common elements of the monomyth, Blake did not invent a new way to tell stories. He simply gave us a language and terminology to discuss what we all know is present in them.

It is with this language that we now turn to one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone.

“Time Enough At Last”
Teleplay by: Rod Serling
Based on the short story by: Lynn Venable
Original Air Date: November 20, 1959

Opening Image: As the camera pans down from the stars, it settles on the interior of a bank. As the customers mill about, it is the clear image of a corporate world.

Theme Stated: During the opening narration, Rod Serling introduces viewers to the character of Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), who we learn loves to immerse himself in his books. In a sense, he is in his own little world. But as Serling tells us, Bemis will soon “have a world all to himself… without anyone.” Ultimately, while several themes can be found in this episode, one of the most important deals with the idea of solitude versus loneliness. Bemis would love to be alone to read, but there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

Set-Up: From the start, we are introduced to Bemis, a bookish bank teller who isn’t very good at his job, primarily because he would rather be reading than doing his work. With his thick glasses, his appearance is comical, but his behavior is even more humorous. As he hands out money to a customer, he short-changes her because he is more focused on the book he is hiding on his lap. The boss calls Bemis into his office, berating him for being such an avid reader and a poor employee, pointing out that he knows Bemis sneaks into the bank vault at lunch to read. Bemis complains that he cannot read at home, as his wife will not allow it, but the bank president simply tells him to go back to his “cage.” The fact that the word “cage” is used denotes that Bemis is trapped, a clear indication that Stasis = Death for him.

Not only do we get to witness Bemis at work, the Set-Up introduces us to his home life. Trying to steal a few moments of solitude, Bemis is interrupted by his wife while reading the newspaper. She snatches it away from his hands, declaring that they must go and play cards with some friends, a prospect that fills Bemis with dread. As his wife leaves to get ready, Bemis searches the chair for a book on poetry he has hidden. Attempting to sneak it into his jacket pocket, he is caught by his wife on the way out. In a cruel joke, she suggests that he read to her from it. Delighted, Bemis opens the book, only to find the pages unreadable; his wife has used a marker to cross everything out. She criticizes him for reading “doggerel” and proceeds to tear the book to pieces while Bemis crumbles to the ground in despair.

Through this perfect Set-Up, we learn all we need to about our main character, his world, his desires, and what needs fixing in his life. This is the thesis world of Henry Bemis.

Catalyst: During lunch one day, Bemis hides in the bank vault, enjoying his time alone while he eats and reads. He picks up the newspaper to read the headline proclaiming the dangers of the H-Bomb. Seconds later, a blast shakes the building.

Debate: Henry Bemis staggers to get up and see what has happened. Without his glasses, everything is one massive blur, and as he puts them back on, he realizes that he is surrounded by utter destruction. Stepping outside the vault and going upstairs, he finds the crumbling ruins of the building, even discovering that the bank president is dead under his desk. What had happened? Where is everyone? And why did Henry Bemis survive?

Break into Two: Bemis soon steps outside into the open world. It is a very different place, the antithesis of the busy world he once knew.

B Story: While a B Story does not exist in a traditional sense with a subplot, there are some relationship elements to consider, those of Henry Bemis with the rest of society. Whereas he formerly had the chance to interact with others, yet chose to bury himself in a book, he now is devoid of human companionship. At one point, he even asks himself if he wants to live in a world in which he is totally alone.

Fun & Games: Understanding the reason for his survival, Bemis begins to explore what remains of his world. For eight hours, he wanders and searches through the desolate apocalyptic wasteland. Phones do not work, buildings are destroyed, and he soon finds the remnants of his own home. He then understands that he is truly alone.

Midpoint: After accepting the fact that he is the lone survivor, Bemis sits and has a meal. He is momentarily content that he has enough food to last him for a lifetime. It seems that he finally has what he wants: time to be alone in a world where not everyone is against him.

Bad Guys Close In: Soon, however, despair sets in. Bemis is filled with doubt and fear: what he will do with the rest of his life? He falls asleep on a tattered couch, wondering if this will be the sum of the events in his life — monotonous, lonely, without hope. He finds a car, but it won’t start. He tries to convince himself that everything will be fine, but soon begins to panic, his cries for help filled with desperation.

All Is Lost: Bemis soon stumbles across what is left of a sporting goods store. Knocking over a glass case, he finds a gun and picks it up. The whiff of death is in the air as he contemplates using it.

Dark Night of the Soul: Bemis struggles with the decision. He can see no other way out, and believes he will be forgiven for the act. He places the gun to his head and prepares to pull the trigger when something catches his eye.

Break into Three: Henry Bemis’s love for books and inability to resist them had saved his life once, and as he sees the ruins of a public library, his love for books saves his life again. Filled with hope, he walks over to it.

Finale: Climbing through the piles of books, Bemis is ecstatic. This is the synthesis; whereas he was once in his own world mentally as he fought to read, now he is literally in his own world — with the ability to do what he loves. He used to have to hide his reading; now, he can do it freely. He spends the day organizing and stacking books to read over the next months and years, declaring that there is finally “time enough at last.”

Of course, finding the library is not the only plot twist. This is The Twilight Zone, and the story would not be complete without rocking our perceptions of reality. Bemis sees a lone book on the steps, and rather than be content with the stacks he has next to him, temptation gets the better of him. He reaches down and stumbles, his glasses falling to the concrete, shattering. He picks them up, the lenses falling out as he declares, “It’s not fair! There was time now!”

Closing Image: Bemis stands alone amongst his books, a broken man holding broken glasses in a broken world. The image is the opposite from the orderly world seen in the opening, and as the camera pans back to the stars, Serling reminds us that we are in The Twilight Zone.

Closing Image
Closing Image

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