“The Man in the Bottle”: Easy Wishes, Hard Lessons
Few lessons on The Twilight Zone come through with more clarity than “be careful what you wish for.”
Want more time to read, Henry Bemis? You may want to rethink that. Hoping for a little immortality, Walter Bedeker? Check the fine print on that diabolical contract. Feeling lonely, Corry? A female robot will seem like an answer to a prayer — at first.
But sometimes TZ gave us a more literal form of wishing. In the case of “The Man in the Bottle”, we even get a genie. Too bad that didn’t mean a better result for Arthur and Edna Castle, the antique-shop owners at the center of this particular tale.
I’m not a huge fan of this episode. Oh, it’s not bad — in some ways, it’s quite good (which I’m about to get to). But it doesn’t quite stick like the more classic episodes. In a series often defined by clever twists, “The Man in the Bottle” gives us exactly what we expect.
In just about any other series, this would mean you could write it off and move on. But leave it to Serling to imbue even a paint-by-number story with some quality touches that lift it above the ordinary. (Spoilers ahead, naturally. Check out the second episode of Season 2 on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or on DVD/Blu-ray if you haven’t seen it.)
One of those touches is the genie himself. We don’t get a stereotypical Middle Eastern-sounding character with a turban and pantaloons. We get a dapper and elegant wish-granter, played to polished perfection by Joseph Ruskin (the voice of the Kanamit in “To Serve Man“). We know he’s a bit of a rascal — and perhaps something worse — but he’s very appealing to watch.
We also get a couple we can’t help rooting for. The Castles, we quickly learn, are barely keeping their heads above water, despite pouring a lot of hard work into a family business. And when they use their second wish to get a million dollars, what’s the first thing they do? Give away a sizable chunk to some of their downtrodden neighbors. These are nice people.
And yet … they’re human. So when Arthur, angry that the IRS has claimed the rest of their windfall, uses the third of their four wishes to become “the ruler of a whole country,” his hubris is swiftly punished: he’s Hitler in the closing days of World War II, and must use his final wish to resume his old identity.
Wish number one? That was used on a test when they first met the genie, who repairs broken glass in one of their display cases. And they’re even stripped of that when a broom handle hits the case in the closing scene and it breaks again.
But they’re not walking away empty-handed. Oh, they may be no better off materially, but they’ve gained some much-needed perspective. They can laugh off the re-broken glass. The shop Arthur was complaining about in the opening scenes now “doesn’t look half bad. And since we can’t afford a brand-new life, suppose we give the old one a paint job or something?”
This brings me to the final quality aspect of this episode: Serling’s writing. Just listen to Arthur as he gripes to Edna at the start of the episode:
Look at it, Edna! The legacy of a hundred years. My grandfather owned it, and it broke his heart. And then, my father — it killed him, too. Look at it. The meanness of it, the shabbiness of it, the hand-to-mouth of it! It isn’t just an antique shop where you pick up the pitiful remnants of other people’s failures. It’s a shrine to failure itself, that’s what it is! It’s a mausoleum, a burial ground for people’s hopes.
And check out Serling’s opening narration:
Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle, gentle and infinitely patient people whose lives have been a hope chest with a rusty lock and a lost set of keys. But in just a moment, that hope chest will be opened, and an improbable phantom will try to bedeck the drabness of these two people’s failure-laden lives with the gold and precious stones of fulfillment. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle, standing on the outskirts, and about to enter … the Twilight Zone.
I swear, the man made music with words. We could have all the wishes in the world and not end up with a better series. And we don’t even have to worry about a loophole-happy genie tricking us — we just get to sit back and enjoy. Not “half bad”, I’d say.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!