“We know that a dream can be real, but whoever thought that reality could be a dream? We exist, of course, but how, in what way? As we believe, as flesh-and-blood human beings, or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it, and then ask yourself, do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live, instead, – in The Twilight Zone?”
As usual, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone manages to intrigue its audiences by putting into words the many thoughts that flow in our subconscious; ideas that we often feel but can’t contextualize into physical form. Serling, always good at producing content, did not disappoint in the Season 2 episode “Shadow Play”.
Written by genre veteran Charles Beaumont and directed with claustrophobic tension by John Brahm, “Shadow Play” goes into the dream world, depicting the background noise of everyday life becoming sentient when we are at our most vulnerable: when we are sleeping. It shows that dreams can be acts of god, literally creating whole worlds, entire memories, and even humans, from stray thoughts unbound by the logic and reality that exists in the waking world.
Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) laughs when a jury finds him guilty of murder. A perplexed courtroom looks on as a seemingly mad Grant, being hauled away to prison, screams at the press reporter Paul Carson (Wright King) that all this is a dream and if he dies, so will everyone else.
While Grant sits in his cell, explaining to whomever will listen that he is living an endless dream and he knows all too well what death by the electric chair feels like, Carson speaks to the District Attorney (Harry Townes) at his home and wonders whether Grant might be telling the truth, as crazy as it sounds.
As the clock ticks towards Grant’s execution—something he seems to painfully repeat in a never-ending dream—Carson and the DA try to decide if they should provide Grant a stay of execution and, quite possibly, save their own existence. For if Grant is executed, the loop starts again, and all who exist cease to be.
While there are plenty of things that could be mined for social commentary, such as how a number of Grant’s fellow cellmates are black or if the death penalty is valid and/or ethical, the biggest thing I took from “Shadow Play” was the responsibility of storytelling and the burden of creativity. I can’t say for certain if that was the episode’s intention overall, but this is The Twilight Zone, which has always put on multiple storytelling hats. Deep diving into the meaning is what the show exists for.
This was one of the first Twilight Zones where I was completely compelled by the fiction and not the figurative fact. At one point in the episode, District Attorney Henry Ritchie and press writer Paul Carson debate the “what if” of Grant’s story that Ritchie, Carson, and everyone else is just a figment of Grant’s imagination in an uncontrolled dream. His execution in the dream will also, in a sense, execute them from existence.
In one scene, Carson, drunk, confronts Ritchie about the possibility of Grant being right. Though Ritchie clearly sees Carson is inebriated, the doubts begin to creep in:
Carson: “Then what are you so steamed up about?”
Ritchie: “I’m not…”
Carson: “I’ll tell you why. Because a little part of you believes too. Just a little tiny part of Henry Ritchie says “Maybe this Grant is right”. Maybe this is all a dream. The thought has occured to you, hasn’t it?”
Carson: “Hank, haven’t you ever stopped and said to yourself, “this couldn’t be real. I couldn’t be the district attorney. I couldn’t have a lovely wife like Carol and a lovely home and money in the bank, not in any real world”. Haven’t you Hank?
Ritchie: “Well of course. Everyone has. If you’re a success you’re bound to think it’s a dream. If not, you think it’s a nightmare.”
Only in hindsight, upon the completion of the episode, does this scene take on a double meaning. Not only are there potentially fictional characters coming to the realization that maybe they are just tools in a story, but also that they may represent aspects of Grant’s specific thought patterns.
We never know anything about real-world Grant…is he a success? Is he a failure? Is Carson his self-doubt? Is Ritchie his representation of guilt or disbelief; at being successful or wealthy? Is Ritchie an ideal he can never be thus easy to fabricate as “perfect”? And why is Grant always convicted of murder? Does Grant want to punish himself?
While many episodes of The Twilight Zone make me go back and look at a specific moment in history or a current political landscape, after viewing “Shadow Play”, I looked back into my own dreams. What worlds have I created? When someone appeared in a dream who was unknown to me, did I bring them into existence and, upon innocently waking, erase them?
What about recurring dreams? Are there characters, environments, and subplots just waiting for the moment when they can become alive again, waiting with bated breath in some subconscious purgatory as I cycle through different universes while my brain rests for the night? So many compelling possibilities involving the essence of the mind that “Shadow Play” offers up in only a mere 22 minutes of screentime.
Usually, I try to find answers to questions brought up by The Twilight Zone, but today I feel the need to explore more, to find more questions to ask. It is rare for a piece of media, something we as an audience are physically disconnected from, to affect the viewpoint of everyday life. But really, am I just someone’s character in a dream, typing this?