This week in Sci-Fi Time Capsule, we go way back. The Twilight Zone started in 1959, and “Escape Clause” is an all-time classic from the first season.
(WARNING: Spoilers begin below)
A miserable, abusive hypochondriac named Walter Bedeker is terrified of dying and convinced that he’s on the verge of death at any moment. He is paranoid that his wife is trying to kill him, or at least let him succumb to his own (imagined) ailments, and he treats both her and his doctor as conspirators against him.
In the middle of a soliloquy bemoaning man’s mortality, or at least his paltry lifespan, a man agrees with him (in his bedroom, mind you). Cadwallader is a portly, slick, grinning businessman, who claims he can give Bedeker exactly what he wants: immortality. All he asks is Bedeker’s soul. At this point, Bedeker figures out that Cawallader is the devil, but is otherwise unperturbed by the prospect of selling his soul. The devil only further stipulates that there is an escape clause, allowing Bedeker to opt out of his life if immortality weighs too heavily on him.
Bedeker proceeds to take every advantage of his newfound indestructibility, jumping in front of busses and subway trains to bilk insurance companies for money. But he can’t enjoy any of it because the thrill of risk is gone. His wife dies trying to save him from jumping off his apartment building’s roof, and he confesses to murdering her, hoping to get a thrill from the electric chair.
There is always a twist in a Twilight Zone episode, and this episode’s twist is that Bedeker’s lawyer manages to wrangle life in prison instead of death for his sentence. Bedeker now faces eternity without hope of parole. In despair, he takes the escape clause, and his immortality ends up shortening his lifespan by decades.
Why Is This a Classic?
This is one of the Twilight Zoniest Twilight Zone episodes. The deal-with-the-devil gone wrong is a classic to begin with, but the way Cadwallader toys with Bedeker’s vulnerability to win his soul in return for a raw deal is perfect characterization.
Opening Narration:You’re about to meet a hypochondriac. Witness Mr. Walter Bedeker age forty-four. Afraid of the following: death, disease, other people, germs, draft, and everything else. He has one interest in life and that’s Walter Bedeker. One preoccupation, the life and well-being of Walter Bedeker. One abiding concern about society, that if Walter Bedeker should die how will it survive without him?
Walter Bedeker: I swear, he’s cheated me. Immortality. What’s the good of it, if there isn’t any kicks, any excitement?
Ending Narration: There’s a saying, “Every man is put on Earth condemned to die, time and method of execution unknown.” Perhaps this is as it should be. Case in point: Walter Bedeker, lately deceased. A little man with such a yen to live. Beaten by the devil, by his own boredom, and by the scheme of things in this, the Twilight Zone.
How it Holds Up
Oh, sure, the acting is a little hammy, and special effects were a long while from being invented (in any modern sense), but this episode gets beyond all that. It’s a morality play, and it’s a good one.