What would you do if you had to choose how you were going to be killed? Imagine living in a nightmarish dystopia in which logic is an enemy and truth is a menace. You’re not being sentenced to death because you’re trying to subvert the authoritarian State you’re living under or even to question its validity. You’re being sentenced to death simply because you hold the wrong thoughts in your head. That makes you a threat.
Would you choose to go quietly, beg and plead for your life, cower in fear, or try to make some sort of heroic last stand? We get to see all of those options play out when a seemingly insignificant librarian named Romney Wordsworth is called upon to choose how he will die in my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Obsolete Man.” The episode features no action sequences, moments of levity, or anything else that would, at least on the surface, draw the audience in. Instead, it relies on compelling dialogue between two characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar, and complex ideas explored in a subtle and ingenious manner. It came out at the end of the show’s second season on June 2, 1961. Fifty-eight years later, it is just as compelling as ever, and I can’t imagine it getting made today.
You see, Wordsworth is a librarian in a State that has banned books. He is a Christian in a State that denies the existence of God. And he is a free thinker in a State that demands conformity. Therefore, he must die. Those in power can’t logically refute any of his arguments, so they must kill him to silence his hate speech.
Wordsworth on Trial
At the start of the episode, Wordsworth appears small and weak compared to the towering figure of the Chancellor, who represents the State. He looks unsure of himself and filled with fear at his impending doom. But as he speaks with the Chancellor, his demeanor begins to change. We see an inner strength break through as he states his profession as a librarian to the jeers of all in attendance. The Chancellor states that it’s impossible for him to be a librarian since there are no more books, which we will see is wrong. He compares such a ludicrous statement to someone claiming to be a minister when the State has proven that there is no God.
“There is a God!” Wordsworth declares with such great force that it shocks the Chancellor into silence momentarily. He recovers and again shouts that the State has proven that there is no God to which Wordsworth wisely responds that an edict can’t erase God. The two of them will soon learn who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the existence of God.
The Chancellor changes tactics by playing a semantics game. He says Wordsworth is obsolete, which Wordsworth vehemently denies, noting that no man is obsolete. But the Chancellor is quick to point out that a man who has no function in society and who hasn’t adjusted himself to the times is not worthy of living. They go back and forth for several minutes, one arguing for the dignity and inherent value of each human life and the other noting that a man’s value is determined by what he does, not what he is. The Chancellor rails against all forms of writing (and the Bible in particular) as an opiate that dulls people’s sense of reality and makes them believe false ideas.
When the Chancellor finishes, he and a board of judges determine Wordsworth to be obsolete, which carries the penalty of death. They grant him the right to choose the time, place, and method of his death, and his answer unnerves them. First, he sardonically says that he is a very rich man because he has such a luxury of choices. Then he requests an assassin who he will tell his method of execution to, and no one else will know how he is to die. Plus, he asks that his execution be streamed live for everyone in the country to see. The Chancellor is perplexed at first, but Wordsworth has so successfully given the impression of weakness that the Chancellor doesn’t consider him to be a threat and blindly grants his request. Then Wordsworth returns to his room to await his death there at midnight the following day.
From Good to Great
This is where the episode goes from good to great. Everything is set up perfectly. We have Wordsworth representing the common man and the Chancellor representing giant authority. We know that there is no hope of Wordsworth coming out of this alive, but he seems to have something up his sleeve that neither we nor the Chancellor can quite put our finger on. And in the next scene, the Chancellor arrives in Wordsworth’s room just 45 minutes before the scheduled execution in response to Wordsworth’s invitation. The conversation they share can be watched dozens of times and every time you’ll pick up on something new because their words are dripping in irony and there’s so much subtext to them. You can go back and view the exchange in a whole new light after you learn the twist that comes halfway through. In fact, if you’ve never watched “The Obsolete Man,” please check it out on Netflix or somewhere else before you finish reading this article. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
After Wordsworth spends a few seconds closing the door to his room, the Chancellor puts on a brave face, saying that he’s come to show Wordsworth that the State has no fears at all. Wordsworth responds that that’s clearly a lie because he poses no obvious threat to the State, so there’s no reason to prove anything to an insignificant librarian. No, the real reason the Chancellor came is because Wordsworth doesn’t fit the formula of subservience set up by the State, and that frightens them. The Chancellor isn’t about to let those words go by unchallenged. He denies them and angrily predicts that Wordsworth will soon be cringing and pleading for his miserable little life, and when his death is just minutes away, he will reveal which is stronger – the librarian or the State. Wordsworth smiles knowingly at those words.
A remote-controlled video camera suddenly begins broadcasting everything that happens inside Wordsworth’s room for everyone to see. The Chancellor brags about how many dissidents were killed in mass executions by the State to counter his own fears of being so intimately connected to this one. He uses historical examples of genocide as well as a survival-of-the-fittest argument to justify mass murder. He mocks Wordsworth’s life as fruitless and tells him to face the camera so people will see how he dies. He even encourages Wordsworth to break down and plead for mercy. But when Wordsworth turns to the camera, there’s no hint of fear or regret on his face. He has a look of courage and determination, as though he is prepared for a long fight. He rejects the Chancellor’s condescending offer, and the Chancellor says his goodbye. But he’s in for quite a shock.
Wordsworth tells him that he’s not going anywhere and then reveals how he has chosen to die. At midnight, a bomb will go off in his room, killing everyone inside it. And he’s locked the door, cutting off the Chancellor’s only means of escape. The whole tenor of the scene changes in an instant. The Chancellor stares in disbelief as Wordsworth talks to the camera, asking his audience how a man reacts to the knowledge that he’s about to be blown to bits. Answer: it depends on the individual. With that, Wordsworth pulls out a Bible that he’s hidden in his room for more than 20 years. It’s a capital offense to have that book, so it’s the only possession that has any value to him. He plans to sit and read it aloud until the moment of his death. When he asks the Chancellor how he will spend his last moments, the Chancellor doesn’t respond. He demands Wordsworth let him out, but he receives no answer. He asks a guard or anyone nearby for help, but everyone has been evacuated from the building. He hopes someone from the State will break in and save him, but Wordsworth explains that such an act would be demeaning to the State. He’s planned everything flawlessly. No one is coming to the rescue.
Everything that the Chancellor said is coming back to haunt him. It’s now he who has to choose whether or not to cringe and plead for his life. There is no escape from the camera. The whole world is going to see how he meets his demise right alongside an insignificant librarian. But as Wordsworth points out, even though he has all of the titles and honors of the world, right here and now there is no difference between the Chancellor and himself. They are just two men who are about to die, in the sight of God and the country.
And then Wordsworth does something amazing. He sits down and reads verses straight out of the Book of Psalms chapters 23, 59, 14, and 130. I can’t imagine a modern TV show quoting the Bible for several minutes as it builds to its climax. But every word uttered by the librarian takes on deeper meaning and significance when he reads in the presence of his enemy and when we realize that these are the final words he will ever utter. He wouldn’t have chosen them if they weren’t the most important things to him in the world and the ones he wants to be remembered by. He is preparing himself to return to his God, and he’s seeing if he can stir any feelings of holiness in the Chancellor’s heart at the same time.
His words offer no comfort to the Chancellor. Instead, they act like a sledgehammer, breaking through his protective armor until he finally reveals his true nature with only seconds to go before the stroke of midnight. The Chancellor breaks down in tears and asks, in the name of God, to be released from that room. Hearing the Chancellor invoke the name of that God whom he had denied the very existence of inspires Wordsworth to have mercy on him, and he hands him the key to the door he had kept hidden in his pocket. While the Chancellor hurriedly unlocks the door and runs for his life, Wordsworth silently holds his Bible and looks up as if to say that he’s proven his point and he’s now ready to return to God with honor.
The Chancellor cowers in fear not far away as the explosion goes off and kills Wordsworth. He brushes himself off and attempts to return to his post to continue passing judgment on condemned souls, but he finds that he has been replaced. Now he is in Wordsworth’s shoes, standing far below the new Chancellor and being told that he is obsolete. He didn’t know it, but as soon as he stepped into Wordsworth’s room, he had condemned himself to death. He would either die with a modicum of dignity or he would live to see himself branded a coward and killed by a mob he was at least partially responsible for creating.
It Depends on the Individual
Two men died, but only one was prepared and did so with his head held high. And it was the librarian who believed in God. I pose the question to you again: What would you do if you had to choose how you were going to be killed? Would you have the courage to die like Wordsworth or would you suffer an ignominious death like the Chancellor? It depends on the individual.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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