A Harsh “Encounter”: What a Long-Hidden Twilight Zone Can Teach Us About Hate
“It was a very harsh show. I’m sure it was considered too hot to handle.”
The speaker: Robert Butler, director of Twilight Zone’s “The Encounter.”
Few fans would disagree. The episode’s unflinching depiction of “raw conflict,” as Butler also described it, has been making audiences squirm since it first aired on May 1, 1964.
The racial antagonisms we see on-screen kept it off the air for the next couple days of decades. It was one of four Zone episodes that weren’t included in the original syndication package, and the only one excluded because it was controversial.
That’s a shame. Not because it’s a great episode — it’s not, despite earnest performances from Neville Brand and George Takei. No, it’s a shame because this episode, for all its faults, strikes me as one that’s eerily relevant today. In fact, I think we can learn something from it.
If you’ve never seen it, or it’s been a while, feel free to watch it before perusing my spoiler-filled musings. To briefly recap: This is the one about a World War II vet and a Japanese-American who find themselves locked in an attic, arguing about a mysterious samurai sword and lobbing some racially-charged barbs.
It sounds like the kind of thing that Rod Serling himself might have written, given his antipathy toward racism, but it wasn’t. It was one of two scripts written late in TZ’s run by a man named Martin Goldsmith. (The other was “What’s in the Box” — one of the show’s worst, in my view — which also focuses on two characters locking horns.)
Had Serling written “The Encounter,” it might have been more fondly remembered. I’m sure he would have penned a sharper script; Goldsmith’s has an intriguing premise and some interesting moments, but it’s muddled, and the denouement is a bit puzzling and not exactly satisfying.
Butler, the director, isn’t exactly a fan: “I recollect some discussions with [producer William] Froug about ‘What does the audience get out of this? What are we doing?’ I just wanted to know. I didn’t want to rewrite or anything, I just was sort of curious, and I think he did not take kindly to the question. It’s a terrific show, but harsh, isn’t it? I don’t know what it’s saying. I don’t know why somebody decided to do that on Twilight Zone. Mystery still.”
Of course, ethnic tensions and even outright racism had surfaced before on Twilight Zone, so it’s not as if such “harsh” subject matter made it unsuitable for TZ. So why doesn’t it work, or at least work well?
One is Brand’s depiction of Fenton, the ex-Marine who took the samurai sword as a war trophy — under questionable circumstances. He does, frankly, too good a job at making Fenton a character who’s impossible to love, but also tough to write off as irredeemable. That comes largely from the script, naturally, but Brand makes the character feel like a complex, flesh-and-blood person.
That’s no accident. “There’s no secret to this business,” Brand is quoted as saying in Martin Grams’s book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. “You just make your guy come out as a human being. Even Al Capone had his charms.”
Added Brand: “I admit that most of the characters I played are disagreeable, but that is as far as I will go. I could never play Mussolini or Hitler or heavies in that sense, because I don’t see any humanity in them.”
And Fenton is certainly disagreeable. He calls Takei’s character, Arthur “Taro” Takamuri, “boy” now and then (even after Arthur calls him on it), and he blames “cheap” immigrant laborers for making it difficult for men like him to keep a job — despite the fact that he admits he lost his because of his alcoholism.
His wife, he says, is off to her sister’s, having left him over his boozing. He tries to make it sound like it’s no big deal, that she’ll return soon. “And if she doesn’t come back, who needs her? A man can make it alone.”
But his own actions belie his words. The only reason Arthur is in the attic is because Fenton kept asking him up, plying him with beers. Arthur, a gardener by trade, is there to offer his lawn-mowing services, not socialize. He wants to leave, but Fenton is relentless. He admits he’s lonely, and it’s obvious the guy is carrying around a lot of insecurities and anger.
Unfortunately, this manifests itself in repulsive expressions of racism and misogyny (e.g., “Women are a dime a dozen. Anyone who’s ever been to the Orient knows that”). And yet the guy is too pitiful to simply hate.
In fact, I couldn’t help wondering if Fenton is trying to get Arthur to kill him. He not only invites him up — rather insistently — he then feigns ignorance of what the sword’s inscription translates into.
He later admits he knows it says, “The sword will avenge me.” But at first he pretends he doesn’t, then leaves the sword alone with Arthur while he gets them some beers (at which point we hear Arthur predict he’ll kill Fenton). Was Fenton finally tired of trying to drown his guilt over how he obtained the sword, and hoping that Arthur — possessed by its spirit/curse, would murder him?
He taunts him to do it more than once, after all. Maybe it’s not a challenge or a dare. Maybe it’s a plea.
Another weakness of the episode: the revelation that Arthur’s father was a double agent. He initially brags about his father, calling him a “war hero” and saying he was there on the ground when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Arthur talks about how much it must have hurt him to see planes piloted by his countrymen destroy the docks he had built as a civilian contractor with the Navy.
But then he’s sudden overtaken by a wave of (sword-caused?) guilt. He tells Fenton his father was actually a “traitor” who had signaled the planes, aiding in the attack. Yet there were no such double agents, so in addition to some ugly expressions of racism, we have some rather inaccurate and libelous charges being made. Yes, it’s in the context of a fictional story, but still.
According to Takei, history buffs and civil liberties groups took strong and understandable exception to this depiction, and the resulting controversy is what led to the episode being shelved for so long. Besides, the episode premiered only 19 years after WWII ended, so the wounds of that war were still fresh for many people.
A third reason the episode falters, I believe, is the climax. We’ve seen the two men slide into a fighting stance earlier, knocking things over, but then recovering themselves and going back to talking. But as the two struggle again at the end, Fenton is stabbed fatally (in an apparent accident), and Arthur launches himself out the window with the sword yelling “Bonzai!”
Then, as Serling begins his closing narration, we see the “locked” attic door swing open. We’re obviously meant to conclude that the samurai sword (Fenton says he’s tried to get rid of it, but to no avail) has caused these two men, who began the episode as strangers, to become locked in a mortal combat that has left no survivors.
Is that the lesson here — that blind, unreasoning hatred is a force that ultimately victimizes all? If so, it’s an apt one for The Twilight Zone, which periodically warns its viewers about the corrosive effects of such vitriol. One look at such classics as “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, “The Shelter”, and “I Am The Night—Color Me Black” readily illustrates this.
But each one of those was written by Serling. I don’t mean to suggest he’s the only writer in the world who could handle such a high-octane topic with finesse and sensitivity, but let’s face it — it takes a deft touch, one that we can’t expect from Goldsmith, the man who gave us the annoying couple who bicker so pointlessly in “What’s in the Box”.
In fact, both of Goldsmith’s TZ episodes follow similar beats and have similar conclusions. It’s like the only trick he knew was to get two people together, have them treat each other nastily, then end it all with violence.
At least he does it somewhat more effectively in “The Encounter”, which goes to show how people who are filled with anger (justified or not) need to find a healthier way to defuse. Just raging at the world frequently leads to a bad ending for everyone.
If that isn’t something we can take to heart these days, I don’t know what is.
Don’t miss this post about Takei recalling how he met Serling while filming “The Encounter.”
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 09/01/2021, in Twilight Zone and tagged George Takei, Martin Goldsmith, Neville Brand, Rod Serling, Season 5, The Encounter, Twilight Zone, William Froug. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.