When people talk about The Twilight Zone, they talk about the show’s incredible endings. Episodes like “Where is Everybody,” “Time Enough at Last” and “The Eye of the Beholder” have remarkable closing beats. The ending of the seventh, “The Lonely,” isn’t as earth shattering, which makes it a little bit easier to breakdown.
The episode starts with James Corry (Jack Warden) alone, “On an asteroid nine-million miles from the earth.” He was sent there three years ago after committing a murder that he argues was in self-defense. Allenby (John Dehner) is responsible for bringing Corry supplies, and early on he brings Corry a robot woman to keep him company. At first, Corry is hostile toward Alicia (Jean Marsh), but when he makes her cry he realizes that she has feelings to. The story climaxes with Allenby coming back, telling Corry that everyone being held on asteroids is being released, but there’s only room for “15 pounds of stuff.” Corry decides he would rather stay with Alicia than go back to the earth, but Allenby shoots her.
Rod Serling recites the monologue he wrote, “On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man’s life left to rust as a place he lived in and the machines he’s used.” It’s a tragic ending. It forces the viewer, who is meant to see Alicia as human now, to see her reduced to a machine.
If Serling wanted it to be happy, all he would have needed to do was end the story earlier or later. He could’ve ended it in the moment that Corry and Alicia found happiness with one another. He could’ve had a happy ending if he decided to end the story later too. Imagine a scene where Corry reunites with his family. He’d still be sad that Alicia died, but his story could’ve been a happy one.
With the exception of the invincible (we are here to talk about speculative fiction after all), everyone dies. Because most stories don’t end with death, they can be made artificially happy, sad, ambiguous, or anything else. A happy ending is a high point, maybe the highest that the protagonist has ever experienced. The things that are happening around it don’t matter as much. For example, The Avengers ends with a post-credit scene of Cap and the gang assembled in a shawarma shop. They won the battle, but New York is in shambles—a happy ending in a sad situation. Titanic ends with Rose heartbroken over a man who died fifty years earlier but surrounded by the family she built since—a sad ending in a happy situation. Any story can illicit any emotion with its ending. You don’t need to manipulate what happens, only when you stop telling the story.