Next on Twilight Zone, we move into New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, and we do it with a vengeance. Robert Keith and Milton Selzer appear in a bizarre story of men, masquerades and masks. This is a small shocker to wind up a week, and if it doesn’t send you to a psychiatrist, it’ll send you at least to a mirror. On Twilight Zone next, “The Masks.
Mr. Jason Foster, a tired ancient who on this particular Mardi Gras evening will leave the Earth. But before departing, he has some things to do, some services to perform, some debts to pay – and some justice to mete out. This is New Orleans, Mardi Gras time. It is also the Twilight Zone.
Season 5, Episode 25
Original air date: March 20, 1964
A wealthy old man is about to die. But he won’t die alone. He’ll be surrounded by his family. Sadly, they aren’t there to comfort the dying man in his final hours. No. His daughter Emily, son-in-law Wilfred, grandson Wilfred Junior, and granddaughter Paula, are here for one reason and one reason only: Greed.
But Jason Foster is one shrewd character. He wasn’t born yesterday. He knows exactly what’s going on. He knows his family all too well. “You all came here for one purpose: to watch me go and cry “Bon Voyage”. To put coins on my closed eyes and with your free hands start grabbing things from my shelves. You’ve come to reap everything I’ve sown, to collect everything I’ve built.”
After a few pitifully unconvincing denials are uttered by the family, the old man continues. “Well, I shall not disappoint you. Everything is yours. Everything is prepared, the will is made; the four of you inherit everything I own. Everything… money, house, property holdings, stocks, bonds, everything.”
However… there is a teeny, tiny catch before he hands over his fortune. The old man’s got some spirit left in him yet. You see, he’s arranged for a little party, and all of them are going to wear masks.
Yes, masks. And they’re not just any old masks either. “Have you examined your masks? They are very unique. You know, they are made by an old cajun. Made is inaccurate. They’re created. I’m told that in addition to their artistic value, they have certain, uh, certain properties.”
Uh huh. And what, pray tell, could THAT mean, you ask?
Jason explains that they’re only worn during the Mardi Gras, and there’s a ritual to the wearing. “One tries to select a mask that is the antithesis of what the wearer is.”
So how do Jason’s relatives see themselves?
Wilfred thinks of himself as an affable man: Friendly, outgoing, extrovertish. He has a certain rapport with his fellow man. Jason selects for him this mask:
“It has great subtlety, Wilfred. There’s greed, avarice, cruelty… all of the character traits that you DON’T have.”
Jason goes on to describe his daughter. “Ah, and my dear, brave, Emily. You’re up to anything. Your courage dictates this brief period of sacrifice.”
“Now, look at this face. The face of a self-centered coward, a gutless flab, in contrast to your intrepid valor.”
His granddaughter, the one who walks in beauty like the night.
“Paula, look at that beauty, that insolent hauteur, that skin-deep vanity. It has none of your heart, none of your selflessness.”
And finally the timid, gentle Wilfred Jr.
“Now, this would be your mask, Wilfred, my boy. It’s the face of a dull, stupid clown — in contrast to your gentle refinement, your courteous civility.”
You can taste the sarcasm hanging in the air of that place. Jason is really giving them what for. And then Wilfred asks the question we’ve all been, er, dying to ask. “Uh… what about your mask, Father?”
Here cunning old Mr. Foster delivers one of my favourite lines from the entire episode. “Oh, this is mine. The face of death, because I’m alive, understand? I shall wear the thing that stalks me at this moment.”
And the stipulation for inheriting all the wealth? The masks must be worn until midnight.
No one is in favour of this, of course, but Jason, the clever devil that he is, has already assured their cooperation. Should any one of them take off their mask before 12:00, then they all receive nothing but train fare back home.
Wilfred, ever the greedy opportunist, quickly agrees to indulge the old man’s pleasure. And besides, what could possibly go wrong? It’s just a few hours. And they’re just masks, after all…
But no one was expecting the extreme discomfort that followed. The masks become unbearable. They beg to take them off. Jason makes a final plea to them, asking, “Is there nothing else you have to say to me?” But the loveless heathens have no compassion. They don’t care that he’s about to die. In fact, they can’t wait.
Jason begins to cough. His time has run out. But a man like this isn’t about to waste his dying breath. After he notes the hint of hope in his daughter’s voice at the assurance of his impending demise, Jason Foster has some choice final words for his family.
Because you’re cruel and miserable people. Because none of you respond to love. Emily responds only to what her petty hungers dictate. Wilfred responds only to things that have weight and bulk and value. He feels books; he doesn’t read them. He appraises paintings; he doesn’t seek out their truth or their beauty. And Paula there lives in a mirror. The world is nothing to her but a reflection of herself. And her brother. Humanity to him is a small animal caught in a trap to be tormented. His pleasure is the giving of pain, and from this, he feels the same sense of fulfillment most human beings get from a kiss or an embrace! You’re caricatures! All of you. Without your masks, you’re caricatures.
The clock chimes midnight.
And now… you’re all very rich. Now you own everything that I have owned. You kept your bargain. You wore the masks. Enjoy yourselves, dear ones. I’ve lived a full life. May God pity you.
And with that, Jason Foster, his mission complete, passes on to the next life.
The family gathers round to celebrate their “victory”, with Wilfred despicably quipping, “He’s dead. At long last, he’s dead.”
I don’t think any of us saw this coming the first time we watched the episode. Wilfred yanks off his mask in triumph, and is met with screams of horror.
Oh, YES. In typical Rod Serling fashion, justice is served on a silver platter, and with an apple in its mouth. And the punishment is deliciously fitting. Of all the Twilight Zone episodes that deal with comeuppance? I truly believe “The Masks” is the most satisfying. The masks have transformed the faces of the wearers, leaving them hideously disfigured.
Now, this ending is what makes the episode so magical. We sit in horrified suspense as one by one, these wicked worms remove their masks, revealing what is essentially, their TRUE faces. The scene is so powerful that no dialogue is needed. It’s that beautiful. But this isn’t even the best part.
The unmasking isn’t finished yet.
The faithful butler calls the doctor, and when he arrives, he very gently tips Jason’s head back, and slips off his mask to reveal…
His face, just as it was before. The doctor looks down at him.
This must be death. No horror, no fear. Nothing but peace.
As Serling’s poignant narration closes out the episode, the camera pans slow over the family, providing a nice reminder that there’s much more to life than possessions and wealth. There are people to love and to be loved by. And we’d all do well to get our priorities straight. Being beautiful on the outside means nothing if you’re ugly on the inside. And make no mistake about it, that ugliness isn’t invisible. It can be seen just as plainly as the nose on your face.
Mardi Gras incident, the dramatis personae being four people who came to celebrate and in a sense let themselves go. This they did with a vengeance. They now wear the faces of all that was inside them – and they’ll wear them for the rest of their lives, said lives now to be spent in the shadow. Tonight’s tale of men, the macabre and masks – on the Twilight Zone.
“The Masks” ranked at No. 3 in my Top 25 TZ episodes list last year. And I’m sure you can see why. It’s an exceptional Serling-penned script, executed beautifully by a stellar cast and its director Ida Lupino. As Paul, my TZ partner in crime, pointed out in his blog post “10 Little-Known Facts About The Twilight Zone“, Lupino boasts two distinctions: She was the only person to star in and direct an episode of the Twilight Zone. She was also the only woman to direct the show.
Today is the 50th anniversary of “The Masks”, and it’s still as compelling as ever. But did you know there were a number of alternate endings considered for this classic episode?
The following excerpt is from “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic“, by Martin Grams.
In the earlier drafts from March and April, the ending to the script was slightly different. After the family removes their masks to reveal the side-effects, the audience gets an abrupt cut to the front entrance hall, where the butler stands transfixed, listening to the screams from behind closed doors. He very slowly closes his eyes, lowers his head and makes a silent prayer. The grandfather clock strikes two, and the butler enters the study, followed by a gnarled little old man. “Mr. Foster told me that I should pick up the masks any time after midnight,” he explains. He picks up the masks that have been strewn across the room. After getting the fourth one, he turns toward Foster, looks at him briefly, points to him, and looks toward the butler questionably.
“Mr. Foster is dead,” the butler explains. “He died at midnight. He left word that I was to let you in … you were to take the masks back with you.” The old man walks over to Foster, gently moving the old man’s head back and removes the death mask. Underneath is a face in repose and peace. “This is the mask of death. The true one. The endless sleep of peace.” The butler and the old man make for the door while the camera pans to the top of the stairs where the four people are huddled together, and Serling’s closing narration concludes the episode. (In another draft similar to the above, the old man picks up the masks and then points to Foster, who is already unmasked and dead. The butler comments that Foster already removed his mask. The old man smiled slightly, “Mais non. He did not. He merely exchanged.”)
I’m so glad that Serling made the choice he did. The other two examples, I think, would have fallen very flat. Sometimes less is more, especially in writing. The bottom line is, we didn’t NEED all that other stuff in the earlier drafts. It’s unnecessary. As I pointed out above, the unmasking scene is devoid of any dialogue, and it’s precisely because it’s not needed. The scene speaks for itself.
And I believe the same thing goes for the ending. You can’t watch this episode and not have Jason’s unmasking and the doctor’s final words hit you right in the chest. The scene is perfect. It has such a lovely balance of emotions, and they aren’t being overpowered by a bunch of frivolous dialogue.
This ending MAKES the entire episode. Which is why I’m left fuming every New Year’s Eve when the Syfy channel violently hacks this scene right out when it airs as part of their annual TZ Marathon (which @TheNightGallery and I have a blast live-tweeting together).
They take it right out. The scene jumps from the family’s unmasking to the butler walking out in the hall as the end narration plays. Ruins it. It truly does. And Syfy, you should be ashamed of yourselves for vandalizing Serling’s masterpiece.
But this is the true beauty of the Twilight Zone. Every episode is as it should be. The right changes were always made, and the wrong ones abandoned. And these stories continue to live on in our minds and hearts. 50 years later, I still can’t help but crack a knowing smile when Jason grins and says, “We’re going to have a very interesting evening. As a matter of fact, I’ll guarantee it.”