Original air date – 11/6/59
Written by Rod Serling | Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Starring David Wayne, Thomas Gomez, Virginia Christine
Occasionally, some episodes of The Twilight Zone turn away from the usual macabre and humorless format that we associate with the show, to 25 minutes of absurdity where the protagonists’ are reduced to caricatures to make a point.
In Escape Clause, Mitchell Leisen, who helmed The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine, returns for a second time to direct this episode. This time, the caricature is Walter Bedeker, played by David Wayne. Walter is a useless hypochondriac who wastes his time laying in bed, secluding himself to hide from germs constantly complaining about non-existent symptoms to his doctor.
Today, Walter verbally attacks the doctor for failing to uncover the reason for his sickness when the doctor insists on his excellent health. On the other hand, the tolerant doctor recognizes the horrendous situation his wife Ethel (Virginia Christine) must be in so he prescribes a vitamin for her instead.
Of course, Walter quickly signs the contract. (Who wouldn’t?) The contract also comes with an escape clause. At any time of his choosing, Walter can call upon Cadwallader to “furnish his demise.”
What would you do if you are given a chance to live eternally? Walter, the abhorrent and pathetic man that he is, decides to end his seclusion and test his newly indestructible body by putting his hands on a burning heater, jumping in front of an oncoming train, and gulping down a lethal dose of ammonia, just to name a few.
At home, he collects insurance pay-outs for all the accidents. Oddly, both the money and the thrills fail to satisfy Walter now that he is no longer pre-occupied with the notion of death. Maybe jumping from the roof of his building might do the trick?
Because Walter’s pact with the devil is unbeknownst to Ethel, she desperately tries to prevent Walter from jumping only to fall off herself. Seeing his wife fall to her death, Walter nonchalantly lights up a cigarette and mutters to himself, “Wonder what it felt like?” It takes only a second for Walter to think up of another outlandish diversion to occupy him in his eternal boredom. He calls the police to report that he has just murdered his wife, figuring he will get to test out the electric chair.
Inside the prison waiting for his trial, Walter is visited by his lawyer who doesn’t understand why Walter does not put up any effort into exonerating himself. But Walter’s nitwittedness does not prepare him for a twist during the trial hearing. The judge slaps Walter with a lesser sentence: life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, meaning Walter will have to spend an eternity in jail alive.
It’s only a matter of time that Cadwallader materializes in Walter’s prison cell to offer him his opportunity at using the escape clause. Walter has no choice but to consent.
Some episodes of The Twilight Zone are similar to simple moral tales like Aesop’s Fables. In Aesop’s The Old Man and Death, an old man can no longer take the hard work of carrying his burden of chopped wood through the forest. He drops all the wood on the floor and cries out, “I wish Death would come and take me!” But when Death appears, the old man quickly changes his mind, and asks Death to help pile the wood back on him again so he can carry on. The moral of this fable like the episode Escape Clause is the same: be careful of what you ask for – for you will surely get it.