“The Fugitive”: A Sweet Tale That Makes Some Twilight Zone Fans Uneasy. Should It?

When you’ve been fanning publicly over The Twilight Zone as long as I have, you start expecting certain reactions.

For example, when I tweet about “To Serve Man,” I know some people will make cookbook jokes. When I post a quote from “Time Enough at Last,” I’ll hear, “It’s not fair!” If the topic is “It’s a Good Life,” then “You’re a bad man!” is coming. And that’s fine! It’s part of the fun.

But not all predictable reactions are so benign. One that I don’t enjoy at all occurs when I tweet about “The Fugitive,” a story by Charles Beaumont that centers on the friendship between an old man named Ben and a young girl named Jenny.

This being the fifth dimension, Ben isn’t just an ordinary old man. In fact, we learn near the end (spoiler alert; click here to see where you can watch it first) that he’s neither old nor a man. Not an earth man, anyway. Ben is actually a rather young king from another planet.

So why was he here, disguised as actor J. Pat O’Malley? Because he got fed up with his royal responsibilities and ran away. The two men who have been hunting him down during the first half of the episode mean him no harm; they’re a duo from his planet, here to bring their popular monarch back home, where he can continue his benevolent rule.

But Ben doesn’t want to go back. He’s been enjoying his life on earth, where he lives in an apartment building and pals around with the neighborhood kids — kind of like a retired grandpa. He’s grown especially fond of Jenny (Susan Gordon), a sweet girl with a bad leg who lives with Mrs. Gann, her crabby aunt.

He finally agrees to return to his planet, but he insists on taking Jenny (who wants to go). His two escorts protest, saying it’s not allowed, whereupon Ben — after asking for a few seconds of privacy — shape-shifts into an image of Jenny. Now they have to take them both back, since they can’t be sure who’s the real king, and they dare not leave him behind.

In a series that often presented serious, suspenseful, and frightening tales, “The Fugitive” stands out. It’s one of the Zone‘s gentler stories, with some small moments of humor and a more whimsical tone. But that can’t save it from being dubbed “creepy” by some fans. And not in a good way. The whole relationship between Ben and Jenny just rubs them the wrong way.

It’s a shame, really. I realize that viewers today (myself included) can’t help looking at things from a 21st century perspective. In 1962, when this episode aired, adults and those in positions of authority were assumed to be good unless proven otherwise. Now it tends to be the opposite. We look askance at strangers (often forgetting they do the same to us) and put a negative spin on words and actions that may be quite innocent.

But there’s another aspect to the story of Ben and Jenny that causes some viewers to narrow their eyes in suspicion. The friendly-old-man part they can take without too much trouble; after all, hardly anyone has a bad word to say about “One for the Angels,” which also focuses on an older man who’s a friend to the neighborhood kids. No, what bothers some viewers is how “The Fugitive” ends.

I mentioned how Ben is not an old man, but a young one. In fact, we see a picture of the real Ben as Serling (in a rare on-screen closing narration) tips us to their future as king and queen.

Whoa, some viewers say, this man is marrying a child? They don’t care for that thought one bit — and I don’t blame them. Marrying a child is most emphatically not okay. But take a closer look at what Serling says:

“Mrs. Gann will be in for a big surprise when she finds this under Jenny’s pillow, because Mrs. Gann has more temper than imagination. She’ll never dream that this is a picture of Old Ben as he really looks, and it will never occur to her that eventually her niece will grow up to be an honest-to-goodness queen — somewhere … in The Twilight Zone.”

That wording is key: Jenny’s nuptials aren’t set to occur tomorrow or next week or next month. No, “eventually” she “will grow up to be” a queen.

I think that’s why I’ve never gotten a bad vibe from this story. I took the ending to mean that only after Jenny’s grown up, they’d marry — not right away.

And check that pic of the real “Old Ben.” He looks like a high-school senior. That makes him about 17. Susan Gordon was 12 when she did this episode. Now, if a 17-year-old was marrying a 12-year-old? No way in hell that would be acceptable. But a 27-year-old marrying a 22-year-old? Young, to be sure, but hardly inappropriate.

So while I can’t wave a magic wand and make everyone happy with this episode, I hope I’ve at least cast it in a better light. Because regardless of how people take it, I’m convinced it was meant to be a nice story and that nothing improper was going on.

Besides, to take two other accusations raised in the episode, Ben might have been a Martian. Or a Communist!

***

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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 09/15/2021, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Paul, thank you for helping to redeem this episode.

    I have always thought of it as a sweet story. When I hear the woke crowd of today ascribing wicked undertones to this relationship, I just shake my head. I realize that there has always been evil in this world, and some of it is perpetrated by older men on children. Call me naive, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I prefer believing in the kindly grandpa befriending a disabled girl with nothing but benevolence in mind. In fact, when I first heard a TZ podcast ascribing ugliness to this story, I was amazed and saddened.

    The spirit of suspicion that continues to grow in our current day is part of what has diminished the beauty of life. It has taken the vivid colors of creation and replaced them with drab black & white monotones of existence. I am not a fan of dystopian movies, as they seem to promote the concept of evil triumphing over goodness. May that never be so…

    Keep up the great work, my friend.

    Roger

    • Thanks, Roger. You have a lot of company — many fans don’t mind this episode, even if they don’t rate it all that highly. And I should add that I don’t BLAME anyone for feeling the way they do. It’s a sign of our world today, sadly. There’s reason to be suspicious, even if it’s a lamentable trend. But yes, I think the episode is defensible, and should be judged on its own merits. I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I wanted to at least make the case. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I have heard the complaints about “The Fugitive” a number of times, and I totally get them. But…as you point out, this is a story from another era, and I’m inclined to give it a pass for that. I find it better not to come at fiction with an agenda, or expect people from 50+ years ago to be able to anticipate the sensitivities of a much later time. Unless a work is truly, obnoxiously offensive on some level, and in a way that would have been widely seen as offensive even at the time, I try to accept it for what it is—for what it was intended to be.

    That said, I am not a fan of this episode—but not for sensitivity reasons. I’ve just never been much for fairy tales and don’t think they were ever a good fit for TZ. This one is a yawner for me.

    Another fine entry, Paul, which made me think about my feelings toward an episode that, frankly, I rarely think much about at all!

    • I appreciate that, Chris. That’s about the nicest thing a writer can hear — that something they’ve written has made an impression like that. :)

      I agree — we need to judge any work of art not only as we find it today, but as it was intended. I don’t mean that everything gets a pass; as you say, a work can have an inherent flaw. But I don’t think “The Fugitive” does. No matter what we think of it today, it was meant to be just a simple, sweet story — nothing more, nothing less.

      I’m not a huge fan of it, but it’s an agreeable episode to me. I get that others don’t feel that way, though. Thanks for commenting!

  3. And at the time, communist would have been the bigger problem. I, too was uneasy the first time I saw this episode again as an adult with a young daughter. But, like you, I listened to the ending explanation – I mean who doesn’t stick around for that? – and I was also comforted by “eventually.” Nice episode to showcase, Paul and a good message to pass along – we need to listen carefully before judging. I also appreciate the reminder that people are also judging us.

    • Ha, yes — I love how the list of possible offenses ENDS with Communist. Which is not a good thing, to be sure! But it’s well played here. :)

      We all need to be careful about judging others, yes. We often say a lot more about ourselves when we make heated claims, and it’s seldom flattering. Glad you liked the post, Dan.

  4. Howard Manheimer

    The last photo of Ben, showing his Martian disguise, makes this a fun Halloween type episode, such as The Masks. Or “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, Perchance To Dream lets us wander through a funhouse, and ride a roller coaster, more October kind of fun. Some people wanna get upset about way too many things these days, when they should KNOW The Twilight Zone would NOT show a story that isn’t classy. The Fugitive (NOT a Quinn Martin production in this case) is lots of fun, with good sound effects, and fun props, etc. Like that wire whisk wand. TZ FOREVER!!

    • Ha, very true, Howard. This is certainly meant as a romp, not one of TZ’s more serious tales. This is no “The Shelter” or “The Obsolete Man.” I know the more whimsical episodes aren’t always well-received, and I get that. Some of them are low on my list, too, like “The Mighty Casey” and “Mr. Bevis.” But I’m grateful Serling tried to vary the tone a bit and give TZ a broader palate. Makes it a richer universe. :)

  5. Andrea Mullins

    Everyone these days is WAY too concerned with demonizing everyone they can, especially men. The sad thing is that most of the demonizing is done for nothing more than attention. Doesn’t matter if you lie about someone and wreck their reputation, their livelihood, and in some ways, their entire life — as long as you get some of that attention you crave!

    And people wonder why I’m starting to dislike humans more with each passing day and much prefer the company of my cat.

    • I don’t doubt that most of the antipathy toward this episode is born of a genuine discomfort, which is why I didn’t take a hard tone. But speaking more broadly, I agree that it’s become all too common in our society today to shoot first and ask questions later (if ever). We don’t discuss, we rage — and we’re all the poorer for it. I wish Serling was around to comment on it. Meanwhile, yes — might be best to stick to your kitty there!

  6. The Fugitive is sweetness itself. I think some people only half-watch a TV program, missing vital things like “eventually” and others just like to complain.

    For instance, I know someone who claims to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas but didn’t understand a reference to Zuzu’s petals. Just what are they watching?

    • I often find that it’s been a while since people have watched a particular episode, so their memory is a bit fuzzy on the details. Happens to all of us at some point. That’s why I wanted to make the case for this one being reconsidered.

      You’re right about people half-watching stuff. They’ll mention having the TZ marathon on while, oh, baking cookies or what have you. Which is fine, but you’re gonna miss some details. 😛

      And oh, I love “It’s a Wonderful Life.” So many scenes bring me to tears — and the ones with Zuzu’s petals are among them. 🥲

  7. In the eighteen hundreds if a young lady were to reach the ripe old age of sixteen without finding a husband, she was considered an old maid. Marriages among young teens or young teens and people in their early twenties were common in many rural areas until the mid twentieth century. That being said, it is easy to understand why this episode may cause such consternation today.

    Another interesting note of point, was that Serling actually came up with the concept for the series in part to help him get over the trauma he suffered during WWII. Like much of Hollywood at the time, he was a proud veteran as well.

    • Good point. We all know what a young bride Juliet was. But yes, that said — it’s still going to cause heartburn, and so I get why people feel uncomfortable with it. And yes, Serling was indeed a proud veteran — a paratrooper who even did a jump on his 40th birthday.

    • Andrea Mullins

      Romeo and Juliet were supposed to be 16 and 15, respectively. It disturbs me that people seem to have no problem with that because they “paid” with their deaths.

  8. I find it interesting that this, and at least 1 other episode (“The Invaders”), had names of future QM Productions tv series.

  9. E.Tristan.Booth

    Does anyone know who the young man in the photo was? Zicree doesn’t mention it in his book.

  10. Marcus Heslop

    Wow. This never even crossed my mind when I watched this episode earlier this year. I really don’t understand why anyone would think it was creepy. It’s a lovely episode about the age of someone being irrelevant to a friendship.

  11. Adrian Hernandez

    Really liked this episode. Even liked Nancy Kulp in her role as Mrs Gann the crabby aunt. Good acting from all. But one of the lines I remember was a favorite. When Ben and Jenny were discussing Jenny’s aunt.

    Ben: “Remember that Mrs.
    Gann is a nervous person
    and isn’t wholly responsible
    for her behavior.”
    Jenny: “Then who is?”

    Jenny’s response made me laugh.

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