The Twilight Zone: “The Obsolete Man”

The Chancellor, center, being held by a group of men and women in uniforms

“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one.” – Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, “The Obsolete Man”

Originally, I hadn’t planned on analyzing “The Obsolete Man,” at least not this early on—having covered “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” around the start of January, I had originally wanted my second entry in an informal “year of The Twilight Zone” to cover an episode that was…not necessarily lighter, but one that was at least clever and ironic instead of another overwhelmingly bleak one. But, recent events have left me feeling…angry, saddened, and deeply afraid, and so at this particular moment in time I feel drawn to cover another one of The Twilight Zone‘s most profound, most continually relevant episodes. 

I am a citizen of the United States of America, and while I am fortunate enough to live in a state that—at least as of this writing—is not making active attempts to erase parts of history, lines of thinking, even entire people and their existence, I hold no illusions about the truth that it is happening in parts of this country as we speak. 

At this moment in time, it feels like every day the rumblings of would-be totalitarians grow louder. Attempts to carve our country’s ugly history of slavery out of school curriculums. Proposals to require teachers to present “both sides” of horrific events such as the Holocaust. A resurgence in open white supremacy. And, both most recently and most horrifically, legislation in the states of Texas and Florida aiming to out LGBTQ+ youth to their parents, erase any teachings of LGBTQ+ identity or history from school curriculums, force individuals with duty to report to report trans youth to the state, and prosecute parents of trans youth as abusers.

As someone morally opposed to…all of the above, the only rational response to witnessing these things happening is outrage. Anything less than that would feel like some degree of acceptance, and currently the best thing I can do is scream into my little corner of the universe about what is happening before our eyes, and how we hopefully still have time to push back against it. 

Two men, one seated and one (Wordsworth) standing, face off at opposite ends of a long table, while another man (The Chancellor) watches from a high-placed platform above the seated man.

My introduction to The Twilight Zone first came at a very young age, my parents—while not being conservative in the sense one thinks about today—were relatively reserved when it came to television and media for myself and my siblings, and most of what we watched growing up was either vintage cartoons or TV Land reruns. As I grew up and found myself interested in the weird, the thought-provoking, the macabre, The Twilight Zone was something to which I was naturally drawn. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are nights spent watching episode after episode during the holiday marathons SciFi would hold three times a year, staying up all hours of the night as my mind drank full and descended. 

So it was in my case that before I had heard of 1984, V for Vendetta, or any other piece of media on the horrors of totalitarianism, there was “The Obsolete Man,” and in my eyes it still stands as one of the most effective pieces of media to ever capture the horrors of totalitarianism—and the unbreakable courage of humanity that stands against it. 

Like many episodes of The Twilight Zone—and what tends to get lost in any of the Twilight Zone reboots and any show that draws inspiration from it—“The Obsolete Man” draws much of its power from the minimalism of its presentation. With the entire episode taking place in two sets and being almost entirely carried by just two actors, there’s a tangible sense of Serling and his production team stripping away as much of the usual totalitarian imagery as they can to put the focus almost entirely on its two main characters and the existential struggle between them. 

In addition, we know from the opening narration that the episode takes place “in the future,” and the Chancellor references the “former” fascist states of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, but beyond that there’s very little sense of time or place to be found here. Nor are there any of the symbols that we traditionally see in fictional totalitarian states, most of which directly or indirectly reference Nazi or Soviet imagery. It’s another move that feels very deliberate on behalf of Serling and his team, one that aims for a deliberate sense of ambiguity to tell its audience in no uncertain terms that a regime like the State could be implemented anytime and anywhere if we don’t do what is necessary to prevent it from rising up. 

Burgess Meredith as Romney Wordsworth from "The Obsolete Man", front, holding a book and looking upwards. Fritz Weaving as The Chancellor standing in the background, looking at him. Behind them both is a wall lined with books

The first half of the episode takes place at the “trial” of one Romney Wordsworth, which sets up both the two main characters of the episode and the philosophical/existential/moral struggle between them. First, there’s Fritz Weaver as The Chancellor. He has no name. He doesn’t need one. His life, his very existence, is entirely in service to the State—a nameless, faceless totalitarian government that dictates every aspect of people’s lives. Then, there’s the great Burgess Meredith as Wordsworth, a representative of everything that the Chancellor and the State he serves oppose: a librarian, a free thinker, someone who believes in God, and someone who believes that every human being is inherently worthy of dignity and existence. 

With the State having decided on what they deem important for its citizens to know and both eliminating books and claiming to have proven that God doesn’t exist, Wordsworth is declared to now be “obsolete.” In their eyes, he can serve no further function to the State and has been sentenced to “liquidation.” Throughout the “trial,” the Chancellor—representative of the State—aims to not only sentence Wordsworth to death, but to try and humiliate him, break him, and strip him of personhood. Pay close attention to the language used here: Wordsworth’s sentence is “liquidation” rather than a word like “execution”—execution is for a human being, whereas liquidation is for an asset or a thing. In one notable exchange, Wordsworth declares “I am a human being!” to which the Chancellor replies “You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth!” It’s an explicit attempt to define him as not only something other than a human being, but as something that is less than one. 

Also of importance is the set design, or more accurately the lack thereof. There are only a few sparse elements to this first scene: the monolithic pedestal the Chancellor stands upon, letting him tower over everyone else in the room, the long table to attempt to further diminish Wordsworth or anyone else who might be getting the same sentence, and the small gallery of soldiers present, both as a means of preventing escape and to “assist” the Chancellor when he’s degrading whoever is being sentenced that day. It’s a minimal, utterly bleak presentation that both sets the scene of the world we’re in and keeps the focus entirely on the conflict between our two main characters.

Wordsworth, left, reads from his bible while the Chancellor, right, sits visibly agitated. A clock is superimposed over both of them, reading 11:43 om

This first sequence ends with Wordsworth receiving his death sentence, and being given one final “liberty”: the ability to choose the matter by which he will die. Wordsworth makes two small, yet unusual requests: one, that he be assigned an assassin who will be the only one Wordsworth will discuss his preferred method of death with, and two, that his execution be televised. Both requests are granted, as the Chancellor sees an opportunity to “educate” the public on how a so-called obsolete man dies.

The second half of the episode takes place in Wordsworth’s apartment, a setting that couldn’t be more different from the courtroom we’ve just left. It’s a small, somewhat haphazard space, with books lining the walls and practically covering every visible surface. It’s a place filled with life, knowledge, and humanity—all things which present an existential threat to the State.

After receiving a cryptic invitation from Wordsworth, the Chancellor arrives at the condemned man’s dwelling. After some back and forth, Wordsworth reveals his chosen method of death: a bomb has been planted in his room, and it is set to go off at midnight—and what’s more, he’s locked the apartment door with the Chancellor inside, and now the two of them can only sit there and wait for certain death. 

It’s here that the episode turns on its head—as Wordsworth makes clear to us, there are no guards around as per the State’s own rule of isolating the condemned, and that since they’re being televised, the State will not send anyone in to save the Chancellor at the risk of seeming weak. In an instant, the power dynamic between the two of them shifts—most of Wordsworth’s lines are the Chancellor’s own words being thrown back at him, and now it’s the Chancellor who is feeling vulnerable. 

A man sits in the middle of a flight of stairs, holding on to the bannister.

Wordsworth chooses to read from his Bible—something he wryly notes is punishable by death to possess. But the Chancellor only sits there growing more and more anxious. As Wordsworth reads out loud, we see the hands of the clock steadily ticking down, with the Chancellor’s increasingly anxious face framed by the cameras on the wall—the eyes of both the State and the general population are on him, and he dares not show weakness.

But, with roughly two minutes left before the bomb is due to go off, the Chancellor breaks. “Let me out…” he practically croaks, trying to hold back tears. “Let me out…in the name of God let me out!” And in the name of God, Wordsworth does let him out, before calmly accepting his own death. Importantly, Wordsworth’s actions seem to be framed as happening not out of malice or a personal vendetta against the Chancellor, but as an act of defiance against the State and to try and teach a lesson to both the Chancellor and the general population watching his execution on TV. 

And learn a lesson he does. When the Chancellor walks into the courtroom the following day, he’s immediately ordered to stand for his own trial—for having both shown weakness to the public and invoking the name of God, the Chancellor finds that he has been replaced by his subordinate from earlier in the episode and has himself been declared to be obsolete. He pleads with the new Chancellor for another chance, but it falls on deaf ears. Instead, he’s carried off by the soldiers he once commanded to his death, while Rod Serling delivers one of only two on-screen closing monologues he would deliver in The Twilight Zone‘s entire run: “The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete. But so is the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man…that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under ‘M’ for ‘Mankind’—in The Twilight Zone.”

The Chancellor being dragged across a table by a group of uniformed men and women

Romney Wordsworth may have been declared “obsolete” due to his profession as a librarian, but there’s any number of things one could substitute into the story as being the catalyst for a State to declare an individual as such: transgender, black, foreign, homosexual, the list is practically endless. One can also substitute any number of terms in for “obsolete” to the same effect: undesirable, deviant, other—any term that tries to label individuals or groups as others, needing to be purged from the whole. 

Wordsworth doesn’t singlehandedly dismantle the State with his act of defiance. But “The Obsolete Man” does leave us with a surprisingly hopeful message hidden within its grim conclusion. It exposes the true nature of the State and any other government or political party that aims to follow its blueprint: that it is an entity that needs to inspire fear because it itself is in a permanent state of fear. Fear of its own power being diminished, or of people rising up against them, fear that drives them to consume even the most loyal amongst them at the first sign of weakness—or really, of any sign of humanity breaking through. And once a State decides they can declare one person or one group obsolete, there’s nothing to stop them from declaring anyone obsolete. 

But just like Wordsworth, time and time again we see both individual and collective examples of courage and resistance in the face of these atrocities, whether it’s local officials refusing to enforce heinous policies, organized mass protests against what we know is wrong, or any person that refuses to bow down quietly and instead makes a stand for the rights of all people. What “The Obsolete Man” appears to tell us is that any act of resistance, no matter how small it may seem, is an existential threat to totalitarianism wherever it aims to rear its ugly head—and that so long as there are people like Romney Wordsworth in this world, any government or individual that aims to rule through fear and control is what is truly obsolete.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

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