Director: Lamont Johnson
Writer: Rod Serling
Cast: Susan Harrison, Bill Windom, Murray Matheson, Kelton Garwood, Clark Allen, Carol Hill, and Mona Houghton
Composer: None (Stock Music)
Air Date: 12/22/1961
Production Code: 4805
Upon awakening in a cylindrical room with no visible exit, an army major (Bill Windom) finds himself in the company of a clown (Murray Matheson), a tramp (Kelton Garwood), a bagpiper (Clark Allen), and a ballerina (Susan Harrison). Determined to escape, the Major implores the other “prisoners” to help him reach the top of the chamber—with an unforeseen outcome.
This iconic season-three installment is a haunting, well-acted episode of The Twilight Zone. Especially intriguing is the common thread that unites a group of seemingly unrelated characters, which becomes apparent after a shocking (albeit somewhat predictable in retrospect) twist revelation in the final scene.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” should be commended for generating a tense, unnerving atmosphere despite taking place within a single room/prison/container. For example, the Major frequently throws emotional tantrums prompted by the nihilistic speculations and defeatist commentary of his companions, almost as if to shield himself from the dire hopelessness of his situation—reactions that, when accentuated by the ear-splitting thunder of a giant bell and the cacophonous whine of a poorly tuned bagpipe, serve to enhance the claustrophobic undertones suggested by the narrative of Rod Serling.
Though open to interpretation, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” seems to examine how stereotypes—regardless of whether positive, negative, or neutral—can discourage people from cultivating, let alone embracing, complex identities consisting of diverse and unique attributes. Specifically worth noting is that the Major played by William Windom (known to science fiction fans for his role of Commodore Decker in “The Doomsday Machine,” a classic episode of Star Trek: The Original Series) never fails to maintain the spirit of resolve that one would expect a seasoned military officer to possess, preventing him from expressing the vulnerability that he so desperately wishes to convey; likewise, none of the other protagonists bother to challenge the roles that have been assigned to them by an unseen force, instead playing the parts of Clown, Hobo, Bagpiper, and Ballerina without question—likely a veiled statement on the power of stigmas, labels, and categories to hamper human development.
Using fantasy-themed subject matter to raise a variety of existential and thought-provoking questions, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” deserves its reputation as an outstanding entry of The Twilight Zone. Viewers of an analytical mindset in particular may enjoy this episode, which, in spite of the bizarre and silly premise on which it operates, examines the very nature of reality as experienced from an individual framework.
Overall Quality: 10/10
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