“There Was Time Now …”

Even if your favorite Twilight Zone isn’t “Time Enough at Last,” there’s no denying that it often serves as the iconic tale of the fifth dimension. The image of Henry Bemis facing a future with thousands of books — and no glasses — is a searing one. No list of all-time TZ episodes, it seems, is complete without it.

time-enough-at-last-11

And yet.

It may be heresy to admit it, but I’ve never felt the ending to it was just. Yes, it’s an all-time classic, and I’m second to none in my admiration for its other aspects: writing, acting, etc. It’s beautifully done — which is one of the reasons it’s so heart-breaking.

But we have two general types of TZ endings: happy ones for good people, unhappy ones for bad people. And I’m not convinced that Henry Bemis got the right one.

After all, what is he being punished for? Sure, he’s withdrawn from humanity and too absorbed in his reading. But is this truly a major defect? And even if it is, it’s surely not one that merits this degree of punishment.

I’ve talked to other TZ fans who say that it’s simply your classic tragedy. Classic literature, from Shakespeare to Steinbeck, is full of it. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

What do you think? Feel free to sound off below.

Photo courtesy of Wendy BrydgeFor a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 05/31/2012, in Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. I totally agree with you, Paul! That is one of my *least* favorites because of that! Sure, Greek Tragedy and all…but still, it’s a very unsatisfying ending for me (OK, I admit to being a card carrying OPTIMIST). The punishment did NOT fit the crime…but of course, it does create all kinds of conflict and emotional impact. I’m sure that’s exactly what everyone involved wanted…and to get and keep people TALKING about the episode!

  2. I told my wife about your blog on this episode and I thought she had an interesting point of view on the ending. She felt that maybe God had punished Henry Bemis for thinking about committing suicide. Either way it’s a sad ending from a great episode. And by the way I love your blog. I started reading it over this last weekend and you have a lot of great articles. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, David! That’s an interesting thought.

    Or what about this: It’s his comeuppance for being so disengaged with humanity. He’d rather read a book than interact with people, and he’s being punished for being gleeful at his situation. Is he upset that so many deaths have occurred? No, he’s thrilled that no one is around to disturb his reading.

  4. Well. I think THAT closes the book on that story…. ;-]

    Excellent points of view! The Twilight Zone…so MANY layers….

  5. I think your June 14 conclusion is correct. Henry is a terrible misanthrope, and I think this is classic TZ justice along the lines of Be careful what you wish for… and whom you ignore as you do!

    • A “terrible misanthrope”? That seems a bit strong. And if he disliked humanity, well, if the way he was treated by his boss and his wife is representative of that humanity, who can blame him?

      But yes, it’s certainly an example of “be careful what you wish for.” Maybe that’s all it really is, in the end. Thanks for the comment, Michael!

      • You may have a point, but one could also ask why are people treating him that way? Just because he likes to read, or because he is so obsessed with it that he can’t engage in normal social behavior? It’s amazing to me that he got married at all.

        It’s another mark of Serling’s strength as a writer that Bemis is not a clear-cut character, but that there is ambiguity enough for discussion. Thanks for your blog, as ever!

      • Yes, always room for discussion. There’s nearly always many layers at work on any given TZ episode. That’s part of the fun, I’ve found.

    • I think misanthrope is overstating it. He does try to reach out to his wife, and even to the customers in the bank, to share his love of stories and poems. They don’t have time for what he considers valuable. I think he is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole (or however that goes).

      • Well, trying to connect with people over literature is one way of looking at it, I guess. I will have to watch the episode again sometime with that in mind. My gut reaction is everything else about him outweighs that, but…?

      • Definitely a square peg, and you’re right about his attempts to reach out. Henry’s only real failing is at the end, when his glee at being able to read to his heart’s content makes him appear completely insensitive to the fact that everyone (as far as he knows) has been obliterated. He can see only how this catastrophic situation benefits HIM. If he’s being punished for anything, I think, it’s that.

        Now, I’m not saying I LIKE that. Henry’s too meek and simple a soul to hate, and I don’t think he has a malicious bone in his body. That’s what makes his fate so hard to take! It’s not like any of Serling’s other protagonists. We’re happy, for example, to see Lutze (in “Deaths-Head Revisited”) driven insane, to see Walter Bedeker (in “Escape Clause”) keel over, and so on. But Henry? Who can celebrate that ending, even if he — maybe, sorta, kinda — deserved it?

  6. I have felt this way since I was a child. I can’t even watch the ending now as an adult. Heartbreaking, but alas tragic…

    • It’s easy worse if you’re a book lover — and as someone who owns hundreds of them, I certainly qualify. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I have always viewed this as classic tragedy.

  8. I don’t agree with the two types of endings or that it’s punishment. For example, in Midnight Sun, the women were two nice people yet they both died in the fever dream and when the viewer realizes that it was only a dream and the exact opposite is actually happening, that same tragic irony is felt. I think they were just going for tragic irony and trying to keep away from the “you get what you deserve” ending that other episodes have.

    • I have a feeling you’re right. As I said in the post, “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.”

      But some people argue that Bemis IS being punished for his social myopia (as opposed to his physical myopia), i.e., he doesn’t care about humanity, only about getting uninterrupted time to read. So he deserves what happens to him.

      I don’t subscribe to this, though. I’m more inclined toward your view. And note that I said two “general” types of endings. I didn’t mean to suggest that all TZ endings (save this one) fall into those two categories — just that usually the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

      Not here, though. Poor Henry. Thanks for weighing in, Kaelie!

  9. Greek tragedy doesn’t just have people get screwed over for little to no reason. People usually help orchestrate their own fates. Here he did nothing to orchestrate the bombing and the glasses was an accident. It isn’t actually anything like Shakespeare or Greek Tragedy.

    • That’s a good point, and it may well explain the fact that the ending just doesn’t sit right with me. I can admire it, but I can’t LIKE it, if that makes sense.

  10. I have always managed to get over the devastation of the ending by believing that since he has the entire town to himself he will be at leisure to locate an opticians and find a replacement pair of specs.

    It’s the only way I’ve managed to keep myself from getting very upset by the otherwise totally unfair outcome.

    • Yes! I’ve suggested that many times. He must have walked on and found SOMETHING he could use to read. Sure, it’s meant to soothe myself, but I don’t care! :)

      • That is what I take away from it as well. Of course, being a glasses wearer myself, that is what I would do.

        One thing I have always liked about this story is that the end begs the question, what do you think he will do now(?).

      • I’ve never been able to get past the thought that he might attempt suicide again. He was about to pull the trigger on that gun when he noticed the library. So if his salvation, so to speak, has been suddenly been yanked away, he’d be more despondent than ever.

  11. I love “TEAL”. I have tried doing a stage adaption at a local theatre but things moved on and it never came to fruition. The ending is one of the darkest, possibly THE darkest of all TZ endings.

    Here is a man who is inoffensive, possibly seen as autistic in some peoples eyes. Yet everytime he reaches out to read an article something bad happens.

    He reads a lapel badge – he is accused of sexual harrassment.
    He takes a book to a social engagement – his wife feels the need to destroy it.
    He reads the newspaper – nuclear holocaust.

    He doesn’t fit in the world he lives in. Nor do people understand or like him much.

    In TEAL the act of reading is seen as the ultimate in social crime. He is a “Reader” in the same way he could be called a “Pervert” or a “thief”. He is the sort that is loathed, the do-nothingers, the go away and leave alone sort. In TEAL he is anti-humanity and Bemis sees nothing of worth in humanity, other than the written word. He also works in a bank, the ultimate in anti-humanity and also behind a till which offers a wall inbetween him and the world.

    By the end the world is devastated. Bemis has contemplated suicide but found solace in the one thing that was constant in his life. Books.

    I think the breaking of his spectacles is the “God of Twilight Zone” way of teaching someone that reaching out to humanity is the only way to survive any ordeal. Bemis is given hints throughout and moments to interact with other people. He fails on all counts.

    (Dinner with friends and wife – he takes a book. And he chooses to eat lunch in the vault – the furthest away from anyone else)

    Bemis gets what he deserves. Yes that sounds nasty but in the confines of this episode he is the most selfish creature on the planet and needs to be taught a lesson. He is given chance after chance to redeem himself but in the end only the toughest lesson can be enforced.

    I’m not saying that sits well either. Inflicting nuclear holocaust to teach one man to communicate with his fellow man is very extreme, especially when his only crime is reading. I think it very much depends on how YOU think about books. If you often prefer your own company then this episode is nasty and cruel (I sit this side). If you have no time for reading and prefer to go out and party then you may see that Bemis got his just desserts.

    • I think I know why I’m conflicted about the ending, Dan. I can accept that he deserved some punishment for allowing his delight at having books and time “at last” to push all concern for humanity out of his mind. But he is, as you say, such an innocent, and played so endearingly by Burgess Meredith, that it’s hard to not feel terrible for the poor man. Maybe that’s why I prefer to assume it’s just your classic tragedy.

      Too bad your stage production never got off the ground. Thanks for the comment.

  12. I agree that it’s very much a classic tragedy. Henry Bemis is thrust into a horrible situation, only to find peace at last – the peace he’s been searching for amongst the chaos of everyday living. Then, as if the universe has a sordid and sick sense of humor, the very “tool” he requires in order to enjoy said peace is taken from him. Such fantastic storytelling, even by today’s television and film standards.

  13. These arguments amuse me. Check a dictionary, folks. A misanthrope despises humanity. Bemis does not. He’s a nice man who simply is at odds with his surroundings. Punishment? Cosmic justice? Look for that elsewhere. Sometimes bad things simply happen to good people. TZ frequently liked to get into a little thing called irony.

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