9.27.2016

The Twilight Zone: The Midnight Sun

Next up:
Season 3, Episode 10 (1961)

"The Midnight Sun" is one of the TZ's "bummer" episodes. The story opens with a young woman, Norma, in her apartment painting a picture of a large sun engulfing a skyline . 


She goes to the window to look out over a deserted city street, then to the fridge to get a drink of water. She hears her upstairs neighbors the Schusters outside in the hallway, gathering their things to flee the city and head north to Toronto. Mrs. Bronson, the landlady across the hall, comes out of her apartment and tells them they'd better stay, that the radio's reporting the freeways are jammed bumper-to-bumper in every direction. Norma lets their little girl have some of her water, but the father objects. ("It's all right, Mr. Schuster, I have plenty." (quietly) "No one has plenty.")

They say their goodbyes, and the Schusters leave. Norma and Mrs. Bronson are the last tenants in the building. The old landlady relays more good news from the radio: beginning tomorrow, the city will restrict water use to one hour every day. 

"There was a scientist on the radio this morning. He said that it'll get a lot hotter, more each day, now that we're moving so close to the sun. And that's why we're... that's why we're..."

"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. One month ago the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun."


"And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries. They happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it... 
in the Twilight Zone."

After Norma returns from the store - where there were no clerks to ring anyone out, just a handful of people grabbing whatever they could grab and one woman, crying in the middle of the aisle - she and Mrs. Bronson listen to the latest radio report:

"This is station WYNG coming on the air to bring you essential news. First, a bulletin from the police department. Keep your doors locked and prepare to protect yourselves, if necessary, with any weapons you may have. A majority of the police force has been assigned to the crowded highways outside this deserted city. And citizens remaining in New York may have to protect themselves from the cranks and looters known to be roaming the streets. From the weather bureau: The temperature stood at 110 degrees at 11:00 this morning. Humidity 91%. Forecast for tomorrow... forecast for tomorrow: hot.
 
More of the same, only hotter. (disturbed) Stop it. I don't care. Who are they kidding with this weather report stuff? Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow, you can fry eggs on sidewalks, heat up soup in the ocean, and get help from wandering maniacs if you choose. (aside) What do you mean "panic"? Who's left to panic? (wryly) Ladies and gentlemen, I'm told that my departing from the script might panic you and (aside) let me alone. Do you hear me? Let me alone. Let go of me! Let -" (snaps off)


Norma tries to ease Mrs. Bronson's anxiety by showing her her latest painting. But when she sees it, she grows even more agitated, letting loose the episode's signature line:

"DON'T PAINT THE SUN ANYMORE!"

As the temperature rises to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, (not quite Bon Jovi territory but on its way) the two women grow weaker and weaker. Days pass with no night to interrupt them. The radio stops transmitting altogether. Suddenly, they hear footsteps on the roof. Mrs. Bronson can't recall if she locked the roof door or not. (!) Their answer comes moments later when they hear a man's voice, calling out to any ladies who can hear him to come out and be friendly. He demands entry to their apartment, but Norma gets her revolver and lets him hear her cock it. He says okay baby, and pretends to leave.


Unfortunately, Mrs. Bronson falls for the oldest trick in the book and opens the door to see if he's gone after she hears a noise she mistakes for his departure.
Thanks a lot, lady.

The scene is uncomfortable in its suggestions of rape to begin with, but the palpable discomfort of Norma, with her slip clinging to her body, and the intruder, with the weird effect of his wearing a sports coat over his undershirtless torso - a nod, presumably, to the censors but a totally confusing one; why on earth would he be wearing a sportcoat in 120 degree heat? - make it even moreso. (The episode was filmed on an air conditioner-less soundstage in the middle of summer.)  

Fortunately, after drinking all of Norma's water from the fridge, he notices her paintings, which triggers a memory of his recently-perished wife and young son. 

His vision clears, and he begs forgiveness, leaving Norma and Mrs. Bronson alone.

Unfortunately, the encounter takes what's left of Mrs. Bronson's strength. When Norma shows her the painting of a waterfall she's made for her, Mrs. Bronson stares into it, claiming to hear the water, feel the surf. 

With one final hallucination of swimming upstream, she collapses.

Alone now, with only the fantastic piano-led score by Van Cleave for accompaniment, Norma slowly awaits the end. The windowsills scorch to the touch, and the oil on her paintings melt off the canvas.


She collapses, but when she wakes, the Van Cleave is gone, replaced by the bitter and snowy wind through the cracked window of the same apartment. Mrs. Bronson is alive, and a doctor is attending her. Norma's burning up with fever, and he's done all he can. ("I wish I had something left to give her but the medicine's pretty much all gone now.")


The business about the Earth moving closer to the sun is alas only a fever dream: in reality, the Earth is moving away from the sun, and the world is freezing to death. Like some shadowy photocopy of the end of The Wizard of Oz, Norma tells Mrs. Bronson about her nightmare that starred them both ("Isn't it wonderful to have darkness, and coolness?") and Mrs. Bronson, her face a portrait of dread, replies "Yes, my dear, it's... wonderful."

"The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers... in the Twilight Zone."

Climate change and human extinction are never "cheery" subjects. "The Midnight Sun" is not about what we in 2016 would call climate change, of course - no one in Serling's story utters a single line about fossil fuels, ice caps, George Soros, what have ya. The Earth's orbit has been nicked off course; we don't know why. We only see the human drama in the wake of that seemingly unalterable doomsday scenario. It isn't pretty, but it's more or less a horror story: the point of it isn't some cheery message, it's just supposed to effectively scare you. Then you go about your life a cheerier person for the experience, perhaps, having tasted the fear of civilizational collapse and total annihilation.

As for the cast and crew: 


As mentioned at the Twilight Zone Vortex: "Nettleton brings to the role a calm, steely reserve, giving a highly effective and unusual performance during a time in which women were mostly cast in a science fiction play to panic and scream. She does get the one ringing scream off but it comes as the fever subsides and the nightmare breaks down."

Anton Leader went on to direct the ST: TOS episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky." In the same review, the Vortex gives him well-deserved props for one particular sequence: "In one shot, Leader focuses down on Norma as she awakens from sleep with a long shop from the ceiling of the apartment. As she comes awake, Leader brings the camera swooping down to a close shot of her confronting an empty water glass." 

"It is a marvelous shot and one which Leader managed to expertly employ in an episode otherwise devoid of opportunities for camera flourishes."

Tom Reese plays the intruder, and Betty Garde - last seen round these parts as the chatty passenger in "The Odyssey of Flight 33" - plays Mrs. Bronson. 

Would the episode be improved by a dozen character scrambling over barricades and a few dozen "FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKERS!" and maybe a race riot and a cheating ex?

I say: no, it would not. 

~

3 comments:

  1. Great screencaps in this one!

    Sounds like a bummer of an episode for sure, but I think sci-fi television is well-positioned to be able to do that in a useful manner once in a while.

    As for the "twist" ending...does it come off well? Reading it, it seems like it could go either way. This being "The Twilight Zone," of course, I assume it probably works just fine.

    I don't want to start a whole climate-change conversation or nothin', but I've got to use a sci-fi reference to explain my feelings about it: it feels to me that most of our culture is like those Kryptonian jackholes who flat-out refuse to listen to Jor-El. Not sure there's any use in me fretting over it; I think we're resigned to our fate for some inexplicable reason.

    Either that or it's all a globalist plot. I kinda hope it is, to be honest. Where do I apply for one of those jobs?

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    1. With or without climate change, we're all doomed, is my general take.

      The twist comes off pretty well in my estimation, though like you say, it's easy to give a blanket pass to all TZ twists (as well as anything published by EC). Few of them cross the line into blatant O. Henry territory, for lack of a better term, but sometimes you can play a fun 'Guess the irony of the end from this splash / opening' game with both, for sure. I'd say "Midnight Sun" is one of those where it comes off well.

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  2. This episode is all about discomfort. It was a great script with superb direction and acting. One of my absolute favorites.

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