“In Praise of Pip”: TZ’s Bittersweet Season 5 Opener
To millions of Twilight Zone fans, Billy Mumy will forever be Anthony Fremont, the freckle-faced, pint-sized monster sending people to – gulp – the cornfield.
Many also recall him as the little boy whose grandmother phones from beyond the grave in “Long Distance Call”, or as “that kid from Lost in Space”. And I don’t blame them. Mumy certainly left his mark on some legendary roles.
It’s a shame, though, that they tend to overshadow his work on Serling’s “In Praise of Pip”, which first aired on September 27, 1963. The Season 5 opener is a sad but quietly beautiful portrait of love, regret, and second chances.
Jack Klugman returns for his fourth and final TZ appearance to play Max Phillips, a bookie whose soft spot for a young gambler earns him a bullet in the gut from one of his boss’s goons. This occurs only moments after he learns via telegram that his son, Pip – a soldier in South Vietnam (at the time a spot unfamiliar to most Americans) – has been gravely wounded.
Staggering out to the pier-side amusement park where he used to take Pip as a boy, Max reflects on a lifetime of missed chances. He looks heavenward and wishes for one more chance to be with Pip. And, this being the Twilight Zone, he gets his wish.
Max is astonished, of course, and full of questions (which Pip smilingly dismisses). But he’s delighted. We see them riding rides, winning prizes at the shooting gallery, getting balloons and cotton candy. For one hour, Max and Pip are on top of the world again.
Max: “Pip, you have to understand this. You have to try and listen and understand. Those times when I wasn’t around, when I was out conning and being a shill, or when I was too drunk and I’d drag you from one rooming house to another — ”
Pip: “It doesn’t make any difference now, pop.”
Max: “It does make a difference, because I want you to know that no man … oh, listen to me, son. No man ever, ever loved a boy any more than I love you. It was because, well, I dreamed instead of did. I wished and hoped instead of tried. But as God is my witness, Pip, I loved you.”
But Pip insists he has to go – that he’s dying and his time is up. Max pleads with him, saying he’s a changed man, that life will be different … to no avail. Pip disappears, and Max, overcome, looks up and talks to God:
I’ll make a deal with you. I give you … I give you the sodden carcass of an aging, weak idiot. I give you me. All you have to do is give back Pip. Please, God, don’t take my boy. Please. Take me. Take me.
The final scene shows an adult Pip, cane in hand, visiting the amusement park with the woman who ran the boarding house Max lived at. They reminisce about his father, and Pip walks around, recalling his advice as he visits the shooting gallery, and smiling as he enjoys the memories.
It’s a bittersweet ending, to be sure. You don’t get the same thrill from this one that you do from many other fan favorites. But I relish the heartfelt poetry of Serling’s words, and the pathos of Klugman’s touching performance. It’s truly a lovely episode.
It may not have been the kind of spooky grabber that some people would have wanted for a season premiere of Twilight Zone. But for me, it illustrates that the humanity which marked Serling’s finest work was still firmly intact. To quote his concluding narration:
Very little comment here, save for this small aside: that the ties of flesh are deep and strong, that the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and that you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you may seek it out: down the block, in the heart … or in the Twilight Zone.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!