Our Top Ten “The Twilight Zone” Episodes of All Time

Twilight Zone

As I’ve learned this year, there are still people out there who haven’t seen “The Twilight Zone” and are not aware of the often brilliant and shocking twists hiding within the mysteries that master storyteller Rod Serling composed in the fifties and sixties. As many know “The Twilight Zone” is one of the best and more influential anthology series of all time, a show that was at times scary, funny, and compelling while also serving a purpose to comment on issues like poverty, death, the war, the holocaust, crime, infidelity, greed, and the debate of heaven and hell along with theology and the flaws of the human soul.

At rare times it was merely a form of escapism, and not every episode was a bonafide masterpiece, but almost all of the time Serling’s seminal science fiction show was about something. It had a statement to make, it was important and that’s why it continues to be look at as the standard for modern pop culture influencing thousands of television shows, authors, and musicians across the world and is basically larger than life. It’s garnered two pretty underwhelming feature films, a respectable but mediocre eighties reboot, and a very bad, and quickly cancelled millennium reboot, all of which have paled in comparison to Serling’s original series. While we left out many good episodes of Serling’s science fiction horror series, these are the episodes we consider the best of the best and our absolute favorites.

Warning: If you’ve yet to fully indulge in the entire legacy of the series, be cautious there will be spoilers within this list as we offer up our ten favorite episodes of “The Twilight Zone” of all time.


10. On Thursday We Leave for Home
Directed by: Buzz Kulik
Written by: Rod Serling
The hour long episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are awfully sub-par and quite dull and tedious. Heck in an interview with Rod Serling even the man himself admitted that most of the hour long episodes produced for the series were rather poorly made and forgettable. But he mentions that “On Thursday We Leave for Home” is the only stand out, and he’s not wrong. Sure the episode is a little too padded, and lacks any sort of commentary or twist ending, but what it accomplishes is a rich story about what power and desperation can do to one person, and the madness that eventually takes its toll.

He’s not so much contemplating the loneliness of his people in the face of Earth’s populace, but his own loneliness in the face of the populace not to mention he is also facing that his delusions of grandeur will otherwise be dwarfed by people of actual importance once he reaches Earth as he’d originally planned. It’s never indicated if main character William Benteen was of any sort of importance when he was on the planet Earth, but he makes up for this inferiority complex by deeming himself a god with tales of home and promises of great fortune should their goals ever be reached. When confronted with an actual source home that isn’t reliant on him the power struggle continues and the final scenes are a sad sign of a man who got what he wanted all along: a planet where he’s the ruler. With no one to rule over.


9. Time Enough at Last
Directed by: John Brahm
Written by: Rod Serling
If you’re a fan of “The Twilight Zone,” this is the episode we usually refer to as “the one where the man’s glasses break in the end.” It’s a bitter and vicious surprise ending that still hits hard thanks to its utter simplicity and irony. Burgess Meredith is excellent as Henry Bemis, an intelligent man whose sole friend is the book. He devotes his life to the novel, and even spends most of his days avoiding work and people for the sake of reading a good novel. Bemis is the last survivor in a world that openly avoids intellectualism and looks down on people, branding them as “Book worms” with a negative connotation. “Time Enough at Last” presents two extremes of the premise during such an odd and compelling episode.

Henry Bemis is a man who appreciates books and loves intellect, but is also so obsessed with it that he values it over human contact. On the other hand, he’s an outcast in a world gradually looking down on the written word, and has to fight for his right to be alone and finish a good novel. Both extremes are dangerous, but also present their points during the duration of the narrative. Meredith as the goggle eyed literary fan soon finds himself the last man on earth after hiding in a bank safe to read, and accidentally finds himself alone in a world destroyed by nuclear war. He’s content though with food and a large array of books to last him years. Alas his hubris is his undoing and we’re given a truly brilliant twist ending I still enjoy to this day. It’s a classic of the series, and one I love.


8. Walking Distance
Directed by: Robert Stevens
Written by: Rod Serling
Too often we spend our time remembering the simpler days, the nicer days, the days where we had little to worry about, and spent our days completely unaware of what time had in store for us. Too often we can get completely lost in our memories and nostalgia, incapable of really moving forward and recognizing that perhaps the future holds something sweet and memorable for us, as well. In an age where we’re constantly thrust in to time capsules about the good old days of the sixties, eighties, or nineties, we often fail to realize that right now great things are happening too, and we should learn to appreciate them before our last days have reached us.

“Walking Distance” is a meaningful episode, and one of the many entries in the series about nostalgia and how it can take on a life of its own. When cynical and workaholic Martin Sloan stops at a gas station, he realizes that he’s somehow found an entrance back to his old town, and during the time where he was a boy. While “Walking Distance” lacks a surprise ending, it makes up for it with a meaningful and powerful message about living forward, and realizing that nostalgia should be a passing fancy and not an aspect of our lives keeping us from growing and learning.


7. One for the Angels
Directed by: Robert Parrish
Written by: Rod Serling
I first saw this episode when I was a little kid and yes, I cried. Like a baby. Because not only is it one of the most heartfelt episodes of the series ever made, but it features one of the most gripping finales ever made. Lew Bookman as played by the lovable Ed Wynn is a local salesman who is a master at walking around neighborhoods and creating the ultimate show to sell trinkets and toys for the kids and adults who pass by. As is the case with the ultimate salesmen, people find it impossible to resist his enthusiasm and sales pitches.

Lew also sports something of an admirable relationship with the local children, all of whom love Lew, and he loves them back with childlike exuberance and an open-mind they appreciate. Lew is told by death that he is to die at midnight, but unwilling to go so easily, he makes a sales pitch, “one for the angels” that keeps him alive after midnight. Sadly, one person must die and a local little girl who was hit by a truck is doomed to suffer death’s touch at the stroke of midnight. Lew makes the final sacrifice by pitching the ultimate sale to death distracting him with the appeal of trinkets and elixirs. Death is incapable of resisting Lew’s unstoppable sales enthusiasm and is distracted for literal hours keeping the girl from the throes of her fate. But Lew makes one last pitch for the angels and learns that sometimes it’s worth offering up your own life in exchange for another’s, if you have the right pitch. The final scene is truly heartbreaking and yes, it made me burst in to tears. Don’t mock me.


6. The Purple Testament
Directed by: Richard L. Bare
Written by: Rod Serling
The most common ally of war is death and that becomes something of a revelation and a curse for Lieutenant Fitzgerald serving during World War II. In a time where death is almost a certainty, he’s somehow given the ability to see the mark of death on people through a mirror that gives them a purple glow. Branded “the purple testament,” Fitzgerald’s new power is something of an anomaly and incredibly inexplicably new aspect of his life that has no idea how to comprehend. Fitzgerald knows when someone will die, but the hows, and when are uncertain to him. So is Fitzgerald the advocate of death by allowing people to walk off to their deaths, or would he somehow be destroying some fabric of reality if he does step up and take precautions to keep people from dying?

How does one handle such a power and how would anyone even know if they can have a hand in deciding how the power is used in the first place? Not much is known about Fitzgerald’s power, only that he has the ability to see Death’s mark on the individual through the mirror, and he is driven insane by the potential to the power, and the possibilities of wielding and implementing said power for his allies. Wouldn’t keeping them from dying just stall the inevitable, or would he just be allowing someone more innocent to take their place in fate? “The Purple Testament” is one of the bleaker entries in the “Twilight Zone” series that remarks on the utter horror of war, and how the inevitability of death is much more maddening than death itself.


5. The Midnight Sun
Directed by: Anton Leader
Written by: Rod Serling
You have to give it to “The Twilight Zone.” There is an actual reason why it’s basically been an immortal fixture of pop culture and that’s because in many respects it was quite prophetic. In a time where all the world is watching the walls come down with the failing economy, worldwide catastrophes, random violence, and the increasing worries over “global warming,” even the most cynical viewer can’t watch this episode without feeling incredibly uneasy. In fact I dare even the most stable viewer to see this episode without feeling a bit uncomfortable. It seems the Earth has gone out of orbit and is now gravitating closer and closer to the sun which is growing larger and larger by the day.

As a result the planet Earth is becoming a molten hot wasteland where its residents are dying or retreating to colder climates in droves. We meet Norma and Mrs. Bronson, two remaining residents of the city struggling with the heat and desperately clinging to their sanity until confronted by an equally desperate man who is anxiously trying to get in to their house and grab on to their remaining cold liquids they refuse to hand over. Filled with vivid descriptions left to our imaginations and a constant state of perspiration in our cast mates that create an aura of horrible sweltering steam, “The Midnight Sun” closes on a shocking surprise twist that you will never see coming and is slight nod to the growing fear of our one reliant source of heat and energy turning on us or turning away from us.


4. Nothing in the Dark
Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: George Clayton Johnson
This episode is not so much about fighting a monster, or hiding out from the world, it’s basically about the most fundamental human emotion: coming to grips with your mortality and ultimately accepting death as an inevitable. Whether we acknowledge it or not in our best of times, humans are afraid of death and we’re all horrified to see what’s waiting for us after we’ve stopped breathing. If there’s anything there at all. Which ever option is truly a harrowing and intimidating prospect and one many of us are scared to fathom. As an extra precaution, Wanda Dunn has taken to hiding out in her building away from the world avoiding people and looking out for Death, who she explains is hiding in the form of a man or a woman waiting to pounce on her at any given time.

One day after a shoot out outside her apartment building, Wanda hears the cries of a handsome young police officer outside her door who is wounded and begging for her help in her alleyway. Wanda is horrified and refuses to let him in, but the clean shaven and welcoming young man–played by a young Robert Redford–begs the woman to help him and slowly gains her trust. What we learn with their confrontation and exchanges about life and mortality is that death may not be something to fear, after all. It may just be nothing to really fuss over, another part of life that we must all face sooner or later and simply can not avoid no matter what measures we take in the end. Like breathing or sleeping, it may just be a natural bodily function, and one we can’t really put much weight on, in the end. Suffice it to say Redford and Cooper’s performances are magnificent, but the real power is in the message of accepting fate and learning to appreciate life while we all have it here.


3. The Monsters are Due On Maple Street
Directed by: Ronald Winston
Written by: Rod Serling
A metaphor for communism and the ugliness of the human soul, “Maple Street” is a look at the world around us and how easily we can destroy one another when all of our security, luxuries, and technology has been cut off at the source while our imagination and own sense of paranoia completes the cruel circle of destruction and anarchy that bring down the walls around us. Set in the late summer night on Maple Street in a seemingly serene neighborhood, its residents are interrupted by a roaring engine over head and a flashing light they can’t explain. Maple Street fades to black and its residents struggle to find out why their electronics and vehicles are not working.

With their imaginations running wild thanks to the stories of alien invasions and ordinary humans posing as an alien family within calm neighborhoods from their seemingly disturbed children, and unwilling to venture outside their neighborhood to investigate this phenomenon, the neighbors quickly turn on one another as cars start and turn off on their own, radios blur on and off, and lights flicker to the shock of many of the residents prompting finger pointing, raucous paranoid arguments, old wounds re-opened, and inevitable violence that asks the audience to question which among these people are the actual monsters? And more importantly, who is the beast? When you view the final scene of this classic Serling side swipe, you won’t be able to catch your breath at how shockingly easy it is for us to claw at one another when something as easily lost as electricity is no longer with us.


2. The Shelter
Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: Rod Serling
“Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.” Though I’d never seen this episode before, when I first sat down to watch it, I guessed the twist almost immediately. “The Shelter” sets down on a large group of friends celebrating a birthday party for Bill Stockton, thrown for him by his wife Grace, and son Paul. Everyone in the party that includes Bill’s friends, confidants, and co-workers are especially happy and kind to one another. When the party is interrupted by a radio announcement of unidentified objects heading for the United States, Bill and co. immediately assume it’s a nuclear attack, and Bill heads for his fallout shelter with his family. Suddenly true colors emerge as Bill abandons his party to flee, prompting the partygoers to viciously battle for entrance in to the shelter.

Through this small war, secrets emerge, underlying hostilities, and racism rise to the surface, and suddenly these friends are anything but. Writer Serling seems painfully aware that the audience will catch on to what the twist ending will involve, but the whole brilliance of “The Shelter” is the experience and what kind of commentary is provides on humanity, and how at the end of the world we’re just rabid, selfish cavemen climbing over one another to survive just one more day. Let’s face it, when all our resources have gone, we’ll be back to living as skull crushing cave dwelling apes anxiously fighting over the last morsel of food. And we’ll have done the work for any plague, war, bomb, or natural disaster that comes barreling down on us.


1. I Am the Night—Color Me Black
Directed by‎: ‎Abner Biberman
Written by: Rod Serling
Serling’s penned “I Am the Night…” is an amazing episode that I never quite come away from without some sense of awe and profound insight in to humanity. It’s an apocalyptic episode, but more of an existential one where man’s ultimate undoing is its pure vile hatred. Hatred is a coarse awful and ugly thing that runs deep in all of us, and it’s helped fuel some of the worst tragedies and societal incidents of all time. It can also be considered a sickness created by ignorance that can grow in to a powerful weapon of mass destruction. The day a man is sentenced to get hanged in public by a local sheriff, there’s a massive debate about whether his crime in murdering a bigot in self defense is just or not. So anxious for revenge in a man (murdering what we presume was someone who inflicted violence on an African American) is the town that even the convicted man’s own wife is desperate to see him hanged.

When the sun doesn’t rise the next morning, the town is shocked to learn that the darkness is consuming their town, and has shown up consuming the darkness in parts of the world like North Vietnam, a section of the Berlin Wall, a political prison in Budapest, a section of Chicago, a street in Dallas, Birmingham, Alabama, and a section of Shanghai. The pure blackness is consuming all natural light leaving mankind to bathe in its bile and hatred. By the end it’s clear that maybe if mankind forgave and loved more they wouldn’t be undone by their own hatred. But it becomes apparent that we’re doomed as most are more comfortable in the darkness of their own hatred than attempting to change and see the light. It’s a wonderful parable that still holds true today.