One of the quintessential episodes from the original run of The Twilight Zone (episode 8, from 1959). Spoliers ahead!

Burgess Meredith plays a bepsectacled, bookworm bank clerk, Henry Bemis, who is hounded by his boss and his wife for his rather excessive love of reading. His boss forbids him to read at work, and his wife defaces and mutilates his books. During a lunch break, he sneaks into the bank vault for a crafty read, and in the process survives a nuclear holocaust that kills (literally) everyone else. He wanders for a while and isolation soon leads him to the brink of suicide, but then he discovers the library, where the H-bomb (kinder on books than people) has scattered books hither and yon. Bemis realises that he can finally spend as much time as he likes with his beloved tomes, without fear of persecution... time enough at last. Bending down to pick up a volume, he drop his spectacles - which shatter to pieces, leaving him utterly unable to read.

Ah, the irony. And this is a particularly unjust Twilight Zone... Bemis' only 'crime' is love of reading... to an irregular degree, certainly, but after experiencing the poor man's treatment at the hands of his tormentors, and his initial reaction to post-holocaust isolation, the viewer is glad to see him finally get a break... only to witness the crushing final blow. But then, that's war for you.

The episode was written by Rod Serling, of course, and is based on the short story of the same name by Lynn Venable, first published in 1953. It is available on the second Twilight Zone DVD from Image Entertainment.

'Time Enough At Last' is pure Serling, and pure Zone. The ending has passed into pop mythology - it was most recently referenced in The Simpsons, where a mailman trapped beneath a car cheerfully announces he has plenty of reading material to occupy him until help arrives. "Hey, Twilight Zone Magazine... oh no! My glasses!"

Far more information:

  • http://www.thetzsite.com/pages/episodes/008.html

"Time At Last" is the eighth episode of The Twilight Zone. It starred famed actor Burgess Meredith as bookish and henpecked bank teller Henry Bemis. It also featured character actors Jacqueline deWit and Vaughn Taylor, although in terms of both time on screen and importance, Burgess Meredith pretty much carries the episode himself. This is one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, and since its plot and ending are well-known in popular culture, there will be spoilers in my discussion of this episode.

Henry Bemis is a dreamy bank teller that is bad at his job because he miscounts money and wants to discuss the plot of David Copperfield with his customers. The president of his bank upbraids him and tells him to focus on his work or he will get fired. We then see Henry at home, where he has to hide books from his wife. But his hiding is in vain: she has crossed out the pages of his book and then rips it up in front of him. The story of Bemis' plight being introduced, we are then moved to the fulcrum of the story, where Bemis has hidden in the bank vault to eat lunch and steal some reading time. While hiding there, an H-Bomb hits, killing everyone in the city besides Bemis, who was protected by the bank vault. Bemis then wanders the city, reaching despair when he realizes he is left alone. But he then sees the public library and realizes that he has "Time At Last" to read. But in the final twist to the story, he breaks his glasses and is now left without the comfort of reading.

Like many things that we know mostly through pop culture osmosis, it was interesting to go back and watch the episode and see what it is actually like. One of the things that occurred to me while watching this episode is how much Meredith embodies his role: he is a theatrical actor, and his gestures and movements make the character physically come to life. This is especially noticeable when we have Bemis stumbling through the ruins of the city (which are very well done for 1959): he seems to perfectly convey Bemis' stumbling and confusion. Another thing that I didn't realize about this episode is how comedic the first half is: Bemis' persecution by his boss and wife seem almost slapstick, especially compared to the apocalyptic second half of the episode.

The original audience must have been left wondering what this story was about, and half a century later, its not much clearer. Although there is atomic warfare in this story, it seems almost incidental: the real moral seems to be about Bemis' retreat from society and its expectations. Are we meant to view Bemis' literary interests as something that is superior to the banal world around him, or are we meant to view it as a selfish retreat from reality? Both messages seem feasible, and it is hard to choose between them. As the name of the show suggests, the final meaning is left in between light and shadows.

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