S01E03 - Mr. Denton on Doomsday
"Town drunk Al Denton (Dan Duryea), once a feared gunslinger but now an object of pity and scorn is forced to draw against a sadistic bully (Martin Landau). A glance from mysterious peddler Mr. Fate (Malcolm Atterbury) allows Denton to get off two miraculous shots, saving his life. Now a town hero, Denton regains his self-respect and swears off liquor. But soon, the routine that drove him to the bottle in the first place begins again -Denton is challenged to a shootout by a young hotshot (Doug McClure). Practicing, Denton finds his ability with a gun is long gone, In desperation, he turns to Fate for more magic. What Fate provides might just save Debton from a bullet...or it might do much, much more.."
A quick perusal of Wikipedia indicates there were at least 26 oaters (TV series set in the old west) airing on prime time American television during the year 1959. They ranged from the biggies like Bonanza and Gunsmoke to cult faves such as Maverick and Bat Masterton to the quickly forgotten like Sugarfoot and The Man From Blackhawk. And the proliferation of oaters wasn’t just because people liked watching tough guys on horses shoot at each other. As Stephen Kiss, Sr. Librarian for the New York Public Library system, mused, “Early TV western series helped define America as a nation. Westerns sought to teach the good values of honesty and integrity, of hard work, of racial tolerance, of determination to succeed, and of justice for all. They were, in a sense, modern morality plays where heroes, strong, reliable, clear-headed and decent, fought their adversaries in the name of justice. At the show's end, moral lessons had been taught and learned.”
Given all that, it shouldn’t be any surprise to find that the third episode of The Twilight Zone, which aired in October 1959, would feature an old west setting. Of course, this being The Twilight Zone, it’s not just another horse opera. Sure, it has the requisite gunslingers (including an oily Martin Landau and future B-movie demigod Doug McClure) calling each other out in saloons. But it also has two things going for it that most of its contemporaries didn’t. First is Serling’s writing style, which really began to hit its lyrical stride with this episode. Just listen to his intro for the main character…
“Portrait of a town drunk named Al Denton. This is a man who's begun his dying early—a long agonizing route through a maze of bottles. Al Denton, who would probably give an arm or a leg or a part of his soul to have another chance, to be able to rise up and shake the dirt from his body and the bad dreams that infest his consciousness.”
They’d probably laugh that kind of stuff off the TV if it was written today, but for my tastes, it’s still a joy to the ears.
The second thing the episode has in its favor is the twist near the end of the story, a narrative technique which Serling would soon become ackowledged as a master of in the grand tradition of O. Henry. Twist endings, when done correctly, can cause an audience to reevaluate everything that’s come before and see the whole story in a new light. In this instance, the twist comes in the form of two small bottles handed out by Mr. Fate which take the tragedy the tale was inevitably headed towards and turns it into one of second chances. “Fate can work that way...in the Twilight Zone." Serling declares at the end.
It can work that way in the real word, as well. As explained by St. Thomas Aquinas, while God, who exists outside of time, may have foreknowlege of everything that is gong to happen, He does not will everything to happen, instead allowing us the free choice of our own actions within linear time. Fate, from a Catholic view, is never absolute. As Mr. Denton discovers in this episode, as long as one draws breath, there is always the opportunity for a second chance.
Twilight Tidbits: The first TV series Serling would script after the demise of The Twilight Zone was actually a western by the name of The Loner starring Lloyd Bridges. Sadly, it lasted only one season, with TV Guide declaring that while the show was “obviously intended to be a realistic, adult Western… [it was] either too real for a public grown used to the unreal Western or too adult for juvenile Easterners.” I wonder how it would do today?