Seeing Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough at Last” Through New Lenses

Some episodes of The Twilight Zone seem to be above reproach. Like my personal favorite, “Eye of the Beholder“. Or the bittersweet, poetic “Walking Distance“. Or the one with what is surely the biggest gut-punch ending of all, “Time Enough at Last.” Who can criticize that one?

Okay, there was the post I did about how the twist feels unjust to me. But beyond that, who could say a negative word about the episode that many fans say is their all-time favorite?

Whoops. Me again.

Actually, it’s not a negative word. I can’t help loving this episode either. The writing, the acting, the directing, the set design … it’s all world-class. Truly.

But I do have a technical quibble with it.

Mind you, I’m not normally one to nitpick the Zone on such details. As I mentioned in my review of The Twilight Zone Companion, I give the show wide latitude in this area. I don’t roll my eyes if, for example, a TZ says Mars is X number of miles away, and that estimate isn’t even close. So what? TZ isn’t really a sci-fi show at heart, anyway — it’s a fantasy drama with sci-fi trappings.

But there’s a technical detail in “Time Enough at Last” that’s hard to overlook, especially because — unlike most of the show’s other gaffes — it’s crucial to the plot.

I’m talking about Henry Bemis’s glasses.

The fact that the man is practically blind without them is central to the twist. When — spoiler alert! ;) — they fall and break at the end, our hearts break with them, because we know that Henry has just seen his happy plans to read all those books shattered.

But how can the same pair of glasses help him see both up close and far away?

As anyone who wears glasses can tell you, most people whose eyesight is imperfect are either far-sighted (hyperopia, where you need help seeing things up close) or near-sighted (myopia, where you need help seeing things far away). The glasses you get depend on your problem.

I’m near-sighted, personally. Everything up close looks sharp, but anything beyond the reach of my arms is fuzzy. I have glasses (and contacts) that correct that. But if I had hyperopia, I’d need a different pair of glasses. What fixes one problem can’t correct the other.

Sure, some people have both problems. The only way to address that is to have a different pair of glasses for each situation, or to have bifocals.

Henry Bemis has one pair of glasses. And yet we’re clearly shown that he can’t see anything, either up close or far away, without them.

No, they aren’t bifocals, which have a distinctive line across each lens. And “progressives” weren’t around back in 1959.

So if the pair he broke are the ones we saw him putting on as he exited the bank vault — which brought all that blurry rubble into focus — then he should be able to read to his heart’s content.

My guess is that because Rod Serling didn’t wear glasses (nor, I’ll bet, did Lynn Venable, who wrote the original short story), he wasn’t thinking about such a distinction when he wrote the episode. To those blessed with 20/20 vision, hey, glasses are something that help you see. So if they break, then everything must be a blur, right?

Not exactly. What a twist ending, eh?

So dry your tears, Henry — and pick up a book!

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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 10/30/2020, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. tommy8675309

    Ha, great observation — never even considered this before!

  2. Howard Manheimer

    I want the happy finish to the story, so I always imagine that he very carefully crawls around until he finds a magnifying glass, or a usable pair of glasses in an optometrist’s office.

  3. It never ever crossed my mind about Henry’s glasses either, Paul. I guess when you’re enjoying something so much, your mind and eyes hide any technical details.

  4. I always imagine Henry finding a magnifying glass, lens from a sport scope or maybe a Coke bottle; something that allows him to see well enough to read. Your observation helps make me feel good. There must be a distance at which he can hold the book and read.

    Good observation, Paul.

    • Thanks, Dan! If this post made you (and perhaps others) feel a little better about that crushing ending, it was time well spent. :)

      • It did, Paul. I always wanted a sequel where he’s living in the one penthouse that didn’t collapse. With enough canned food to last a lifetime.

  5. David Eversole

    I always wondered about the glasses strength myself. According to this 2012 article, Lyn Venable (who, an internet search shows, is apparently still alive as of 2020) did wear glasses her entire life. https://www.mercurynews.com/2012/12/26/give-em-hill-el-cerrito-woman-lends-twilight-zone-inspiration/

    • Interesting, thanks! Hmm, it mentions a “lifelong” fear of breaking her glasses, but I wonder if it truly stretches back to her earliest days. I know it does for some people. (My mother was wearing glasses as a toddler!) But most people develop the need a little later, so I’m wondering if she had them when she wrote the story (as a young woman). Hard to say. Anyway, I appreciate the link and the comment. :)

      • David Eversole

        Thanks. I would imagine that the deal with Bemis not being able to see in any depth was just artistic license. Most of us who only started wearing readers in their 40s don’t really give it much thought until then.

      • Agreed. I can’t swear that no one has ever made this point before, but I don’t recall ever hearing it (and you can imagine how much Zone-related reading I do). I’m sure most people don’t think about it much — which is certainly a sign of how absorbing and entertaining the story is.

  6. I never would’ve thought of this either. Now let’s hope after his initial shock wears off Henry will realize he can still read, and will hopefully find a stray pair laying about or as someone mentioned, a magnifying glass. I tend to worry more about the radiation that will gradually sicken him. Maybe help will come. We don’t even know if the whole country was destroyed or just his home state. Henry doesn’t seem to bother seeking those answers. Unless in the time that passed he is unable to find out. He just goes into survival mode and straight for the books.

    • I think we don’t see much of a search for answers because of the time constraints. We DO see a brief montage with some narration that suggests he searched more than what we see on screen, but in the end, it was only a 25-minute film, so they had to wrap it up fairly quickly.

      • That is true. I find there is also great realism with watching Henry in this situation. He navigated toward his comfort zone and managed to survive as best he could. Nowadays everyone likes to pretend they will be some weapons wielding badass surviving an apocalyptic world but the reality is much different. A lot of us would break down on the spot surrounded by so much destruction and loss of life. How many even know how to plant a vegetable, let alone stitch clothes, or sew a button, forage for safe, edible food, and drinking water? There would be so much danger of contamination the average person wouldn’t know where to turn or what is entirely safe.

      • Ha, true. We’d need an “old man” in a cave to guide us, wouldn’t we? 😏

      • haha yes! That could present another problem though.

  7. Good observation! Or, should I say, Good Eye! (haha)

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