The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 2 Episode 29 – The Obsolete Man

Burgess Meredith is the obsolete man of the title.  He is Romney Wordsworth and his self-declared occupation is Librarian.  Unfortunately, Romney lives in a future authoritarian state that has eliminated books and made their possession a capitol crime.  By declaring himself a librarian he has by definition defined himself as an obsolete man and therefore legitimately categorized as requiring termination (death).

The opening scene has Romney entering a cavernous hall where the Chancellor is standing at a raised lectern that is much higher than a long table at which his assistant is seated reading out the charges against Romney.  Romney is forced to step into a glaring spotlight while the Chancellor harangues him and mocks his claims of relevancy and worth.  The Chancellor and his assistant talk of the charges and the needs of the state in quasi-liturgical language and chant the charges and verdict as if they were priests of some fanatical blood-thirsty cult.  Because of Romney’s refusal to recant he is sentenced to death.  But he is allowed to chose the method and location of his death.  As the location, he chooses his own apartment and asks that his death be televised.  And as one of the details he asks that the details of the method not be shared with anyone but himself and the executioner.

On the day of the execution Romney invites the Chancellor to see him at his apartment before the execution.  During this visit we learn that Romney is a deeply religious man and has a Bible hidden in his room and that he is at peace with his approaching death.  Then he tells the Chancellor what the method of his death will be.  A powerful bomb is hidden in the apartment and at midnight it will explode killing everyone in the apartment.  And at this juncture Romney reveals that he has locked the door so that the Chancellor cannot escape the bomb either.

While all of this is being televised, we get a chance to compare the strength and courage of the god-fearing meek, mild, librarian and the atheistic, athletic, brash leader of the state as they both stare down their own deaths.  As the appointed hour approaches the librarian is reading aloud the psalms that comfort the afflicted while the Chancellor becomes more and more panicked until finally, he shouts “for God’s sake let me out.”  And because he implored in God’s name, Romney unlocks the door just in time to allow the Chancellor to escape with his life.  The scene ends with Romney bowing his head in prayer as the explosion rocks the building and the Chancellor cowers at the bottom of the staircase below the door to the booby-trapped room.

In the next scene the Chancellor is walking into the cavernous hall and suddenly he is in the harsh spotlight and his assistant is now at the high pulpit denouncing him for cowardice and declaring him obsolete.  He tries to defend himself but is shouted down and now the mob of agents of the state surround him and drag him to the floor where they exact the penalty for obsolescence right then and there with their own bare hands.

This is a very iconic episode.  Basically, we are looking at the imagery of 1984.  The all-powerful state crushes anyone who defies it and does so in the public eye to make an example that none can ignore.  Burgess Meredith is excellent as a man of integrity and faith who refuses to knuckle under and save his life by betraying everything he believes in.  And the Chancellor is delightfully strident and bombastic.


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2 years ago

I can’t help but notice that the state is very, very quick to eat its own in this episode.
Just like we are seeing with the left attacking their own for #Metoo transgressions or for not being “Woke” enough.

Ed Brault
Ed Brault
2 years ago

One of my favorite episodes. Burgess Meredith and Fritz Lieber play off each other in a marvelous tour-de-force. The parallel to the modern left is striking. This episode looks like it was meant to be performed live on-stage, and perhaps it would make a good subject for a few University Theatre groups. Or maybe it would “trigger” too many snowflakes.