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Recap / The Twilight Zone (1959) S2E29: "The Obsolete Man"
aka: The Twilight Zone S 2 E 65 The Obsolete Man

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"Wordsworth, Romney. Obsolescence."

Rod Serling: 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. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the superstates that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace... This is Mr. Romney Wordsworth, in his last forty-eight hours on Earth. He's a citizen of the State but will soon have to be eliminated, because he's built out of flesh and has a mind. Mr. Romney Wordsworth, who will draw his last breaths in the Twilight Zone.

Air date: June 2, 1961

In the distant future, in a totalitarian society, Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) is charged with being "obsolete". The reason for this is his profession, that of a librarian. As the State has banned books, he is therefore considered obsolete. He is put on trial, with the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) serving as the judge. It is revealed that Wordsworth also believes in God, whom the State declares does not exist. He is held to be obsolete and sentenced to death. Wordsworth makes three requests before the Chancellor: that only his assassin know the method of his death, he die at midnight the next day, and his execution be televised. The court grants his requests.

Roughly an hour before his execution, Wordsworth invites the Chancellor to his room and says that he chose to be killed by a time bomb set to explode at midnight. He locks the door, trapping both men in the room. Wordsworth reminds the Chancellor that they are on TV, and now they will have a test to prove which is stronger: the will of the State, or that of the individual. At first, the Chancellor is unflappable, but when he realizes that no one is coming to save him, since it would make the State seem weak, he slowly begins to panic. In contrast, Wordsworth quietly reads his Bible as the timer ticks away. Finally, the Chancellor screams "in the name of God" to be let out. Wordsworth hands him the key and the Chancellor dives out of the room, just as the bomb explodes and kills Wordsworth.

When he returns to his court, the Chancellor finds his old subaltern in his usual seat. When he demands an explanation, he is informed that due to his cowardice and his invocation of God's name, he himself has been judged obsolete. He begs for a second chance, citing his many accomplishments for the State, but they are unmoved. He tries to escape, but the court members assault him and drag him away to an uncertain, but unpleasant, fate.

The Obsolete Tropes:

  • An Aesop: A totalitarian state deems people "obsolete" for not adhering to its rulers' agenda. In the end, the Chancellor himself falls victim to this fate after breaking one of the rules he holds so dear. As Rod Serling points out, the Chancellor and the State are themselves obsolete, as is any government or order that fails to recognize the value of humanity.
  • Asshole Victim: The Chancellor. On one hand, he ends up brutally executed by a mob. On the other hand, he took part in the executions of over 1000 people whose only crime was "being obsolete", e.g. believing in God and/or reading books, so it's hard to feel bad for him at the end.
  • Badass Bookworm: Wordsworth. In the moments before his death, he calmly takes out his Bible and reads the Psalms. He's also a former librarian, with books (which the State has banned) literally stacked all over his room.
  • Batman Gambit: Wordsworth has truly an awesome one. He locks himself and the Chancellor in the same room as the bomb that he had set to kill him. Knowing that the Chancellor is a coward, Wordsworth keeps him there until he freaks out... to the point where he invokes God. It's at that point Wordsworth sets the Chancellor free, just in time to learn that he's been replaced and has to face his own punishment for obsolesence. And if the execution order had been, say, being shot at dawn instead of letting Wordsworth decide as a Cruel Mercy, the regime would not have handed him the rope to hang them with.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Wordsworth still dies, but not before exposing the Chancellor for the pathetic coward he truly is. Despite the Chancellor being executed, the State still stands (for now), but it is implied that Wordsworth's final stand will eventually lead to its downfall.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • The Chancellor claims that the State has disproven the existence of God. Wordsworth, however, doesn't believe a word of it. Their interactions hint that such a declaration wasn't fact, so much as it was a means for the State to remove religion from its equation. It's not as if declaring that "God doesn't exist" is going to convince people who believe it anyway.
    • The Chancellor claiming that the State has decreed books no longer exist, whilst obviously reading from a ledger. Furthermore, Wordsworth's room is stacked high with various books, further proving this is not the case at all (though Wordsworth later says he's hidden his Bible, so they presumably might not have searched his house. It does seem a bit of an oversight).
  • Bottle Episode: This episode features only two sets: the courtroom and Wordsworth's room.
  • Commie Nazis: What little we learn of the State's ideology apparently takes inspiration from both Communist and Nazi philosophy. They ban books and religion, eliminate anyone who's deemed "obsolete" (either formerly having been things like librarians, or simply unable to work), and when denounced by Wordsworth, the Chancellor freely admits that Stalin and Hitler were both precursors for them, but they have gone even further. Their militant state atheism echoes that of Communist states, including forbidding ownership of the Bible on pain of death (along with other sacred scriptures, one presumes) and exterminating weak, old, or sickly people who can't provide useful work to them, echoing Nazi practices (though in neither case exactly).
  • Cool Old Guy: Wordsworth is the oldest character in the episode, and he's also the bravest by far. As mentioned before and after, he turns his execution into a trial against the State itself, broadcasting their true colors to the populace.
  • Cruel Mercy: The regime supply one to Wordsworth by allowing him to decide the method for his execution. They screwed up big time.
  • Culture Police: The State has banned all books and religion, which leads to Wordsworth being declared obsolete.
  • Didn't See That Coming: The idea that Wordsworth would turn the tables on them never occurred to the Chancellor or the State.
  • Dirty Coward: The Chancellor is called such by his replacement, and the State he used to serve.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: A more pacifistic version, but Wordsworth goes down in glory. He fights for his right to live, to be seen, to think at his trial. He sets up the whole gambit and, while on national television, shows no fear in his impending doom compared to the terrified Chancellor, who is breaking under the pressure. All Wordsworth does is read his Bible, reciting specific passages that could help people find courage in themselves to resist the State further. And when he could have escaped all along, he stays and blows up, as one final lesson of courage against a supposedly unbeatable force like the State.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Wordsworth. Even when he opens the door for the Chancellor, he remains within his room to be killed on live TV, to show them all how a supposedly "weak" man dies.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The Obsolete Man applies to both Wordsworth and the Chancellor. The former is considered obsolete by the state, but dies dignified. At the end of the episode, the latter is declared obsolete by his state's barbaric ruling when he invokes the name of God and escapes the room before the bomb goes off.
  • Dragon Ascendant: The subaltern who aides the Chancellor in Wordsworth's trial becomes the new Chancellor after the former one's disgraceful actions in Wordsworth's room.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: The episode is all about Wordsworth's, which may gradually begin the death of the State itself.
  • Dystopian Edict: Anyone who does anything the State declares wrong or useless (being a librarian, believing in God) is judged as "obsolete", with the penalty being death.
  • Engineered Public Confession: When Wordsworth is sentenced to death by the State for "obsolescence", he requests that his death be administered by a time bomb, and that his death be televised. When the Chancellor who ordered his death visits him before his execution at his request, Wordsworth secretly locks him inside with him, so the Chancellor would blow up with him. Seconds before the bomb goes off, the Chancellor cracks:
    Chancellor: Please, please! Let me out! In the name of God, let me out!
    Wordsworth: Yes, Chancellor. In the name of God, I will let you out!
  • "Eureka!" Moment: The moment Wordsworth is told he can arrange the details of his execution, he begins smiling. The wheels for his own gambit are immediately put in motion.
  • Evil Is Hammy: The Chancellor, who loves to prostrate his voice and movements in big declarative actions.
  • Evil Gloating: The Chancellor smugly proclaims that the State has executed more than 1300 people in under 6 hours. He's added to that number in the end.
  • The Evils of Free Will: The State doesn't believe in anyone thinking for themselves. It's implied to be the reason why they have forbidden all books and religion.
  • Evil Will Fail: Serling's closing narration is all about the trope, saying that any state that denies human rights and dignity is obsolete, even before it falls. Since the State was exposed and humiliated on national television, on top of creating a martyr in Wordsworth, it wouldn't be farfetched to assume that it's only a matter of time before it falls.
  • Face Death with Despair: Try as he might to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of death, the Chancellor falls to pieces when he figures out the regime he serves would rather prefer him dead over showing Wordsworth (and the world) any weakness. Begging Wordsworth to let him out is what gets the Chancellor himself declared "obsolete".
  • Face Death with Dignity: Wordsworth's gambit set up a damn good test to see who would face death with more dignity: a lowly librarian or a high-ranking member of the State:
    • Wordsworth retains his dignity, calmly reading his Bible, waiting for the bomb to explode. Even when he frees The Chancellor, he remains resolute and in his room.
    • The Chancellor continues to prowl the room, looking for the key. He finally breaks down, begging God to be freed. Once the door is open, the Chancellor runs out of the room in a panic.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: Combined with Ironic Echo. "Yes! In the name of God I WILL let you out!"
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: Wordsworth is prosecuted for being an (illegal) librarian and (illegally) believing in God, which is deemed "obsolete" and thus wrong. On the other hand, he upholds his morals and values to the point of death (everyone "obsolete" is killed). Wordsworth's a courageous martyr who stands up against the State's tyranny, even though it means his life is over.
  • The Government: The State, who also have shades of The Empire.
  • Guile Hero: Wordsworth is a man on his way to die, fighting every moment to stay strong. When given the chance to plan his own execution, he takes this opportunity to break him further and instead sets up a whole gambit to show the true character of the State as a bunch of cowards when placed in certain doom. He does this in under a minute once the "Eureka!" Moment occurs.
  • Hidden Depths: Wordsworth built all of his own furniture. It was his skill in carpentry that allowed him to remain alive for so long, since the State deems the trade useful (presumably he's no longer young enough to work efficiently in their view, hence his condemnation for being obsolete since they no longer allow his former work as a librarian).
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • The ending implies that while his cowardice disgraced the State, it was the Chancellor's frantic pleas for "God" to let him out that was the final nail in his coffin. After all, he said himself, "God does not exist", according to the State. Earlier, there is also a lesser example, when he tries to call for help, but Wordsworth points out that there's no one around to "isolate the prisoner", which is a rule he enacted.
    • The entire public execution blows up in the State's face. Not only did the Chancellor humiliate them, he proved them to be hypocrites and Not So Invincible After All. The ending narration implies they will inevitably fall as a result.
  • Hollywood Atheist: The Chancellor (and by extension the State) are extreme examples, given that they not only declare God does not exist, but run a murderous totalitarian dictatorship which outlaws religion entirely, along with killing anyone whom they deem "obsolete" (people who believe in God presumably are included) especially in contrast with the saintly Christian character Wordsworth. Given this was in the Cold War era, it may have been a Take That! regarding the officially atheist communist states, who persecuted religious people... and everyone else who didn't obey them.
  • Homage:
    • The script was based on Fahrenheit 451.
    • The "In the name of God!!" exchange is mostly likely a nod to The Cask of Amontillado, where Fortunato screams this at Montresor as he is bricking him up. Wordsworth's response mirrors Monstresor's.
  • Illegal Religion: The State claims to have determined that God does not exist and therefore has banned any form of religion. Possessing a Bible is a crime punishable by death. Wordsworth, being a devout Christian, has kept his own Bible hidden for twenty years.
  • Insult Backfire: Wordsworth calls out the State for taking things as far as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. The Chancellor simply replies that Hitler and Stalin didn't go far enough.
  • Ironic Echo: Wordsworth and the Chancellor have this conversation before Wordsworth reveals his plan.
    Wordsworth: Knowing you're going to be blown to smithereens in a few moments isn't the happiest thought, is it? Is it?
    The Chancellor: Well, it depends on the individual, Mr. Wordsworth.
    Wordsworth: Indeed it does.
    The Chancellor: *Tries to leave but finds the door locked* What kind of idiocy is this, Mr. Wordsworth? You've locked the door.
    Wordsworth: Oh yes, I've locked the door. Now question! (Directly to the camera) How does a man react to the knowledge that he's going to be blown to bits in a half an hour? Answer: it depends on the individual.
  • Kangaroo Court: In the beginning, Wordsworth is brought before a tribunal and charged with "obsolescence", as he's a librarian in a government where books are banned and the "obsolete" are put to death. While there's mention of him having counsel, none appears at his trial, with only a brief period of questioning. Once it's established that he was a librarian, his fate is sealed, with his only right being choosing how to die (as Wordsworth sarcastically observes, he's very "rich" with such choices).
  • Karmic Death: The Chancellor is declared obsolete and condemned to death. Doubly karmic when he brags about how many people the State executed in six hours, only to become one of them in the end.
  • Large Ham: The Chancellor, as per the norm for a brutal dictator. It makes for an amusing moment when he enters Wordsworth's room and sees the camera has been installed; you can see him immediately "switch on" and start playing to it.
  • Last Request: Wordsworth is granted the right to decide how he will die.
  • Make an Example of Them: This is the State's intention with televising Wordsworth's execution. It backfires spectacularly, and he turns the tables to make an example of them via the Chancellor.
  • Meaningful Background Event: When the Chancellor enters the room and steps into the foreground, Wordsworth can be seen quickly locking the door behind him and pocketing the key.
  • Meaningful Name: "Wordsworth" or "The worth in words", which is what he is about. Lampshaded by The Chancellor who puts a heavy emphasis on "Wordsworth" whilst dismissing his profession as a librarian.
  • Morton's Fork: By choosing a time bomb as his execution method and inviting the Chancellor into his room while locking the door afterward, Wordsworth forces the Chancellor into a situation where he would die no matter what. Had the Chancellor stayed, he would have died in an explosion. The other choice (the one he picked) was to beg Woodsworth to open the door and let him escape, but this resulted in him being labeled as a coward and executed.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The State is based on various totalitarian regimes. The Chancellor himself says that they had predecessors who had the right idea, such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, but they did not go far enough in eliminating the undesirables such as the elderly, the sick, the maimed, and the deformed.
  • No Name Given: Other than Wordsworth, none of the characters are given names.
  • Obsolete Occupation: Romney Wordsworth is a librarian in a dystopic future that bans books. Anyone "Obsolete" is sentenced to death, which sparks the plot.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Chancellor's reaction to realizing that he's stuck in a room with a live bomb, no one is around to hear him as per his orders, and Wordsworth is completely right that the State wouldn't want to embarrass itself by coming to his rescue. Particularly when Wordsworth snarks that they'd rather see a loyal State member Face Death with Dignity, while one lowly and obsolete librarian begs for his life.
    • The Chancellor's reaction to seeing the subaltern, his old second-in-command, now sitting in his seat and declaring him obsolete.
  • Out-Gambitted: The State giving Wordsworth complete control over his execution gives him the opportunity to strike a vicious blow against them. The Chancellor expresses certainty that the State won't leave him to die. With the execution being broadcast for everyone to see, Wordsworth correctly guesses that the State won't risk embarrassing themselves to save even a high-ranking official like him.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Played with. At first, it seems like this is the reason why religion has been banned. However, the Chancellor's words - particularly about how Hitler and Stalin didn't go far enough in controlling the masses - imply that religion was outlawed mostly as a means to control people, since they wouldn't want them being loyal to something else like God.
  • Public Execution: Wordsworth uses the opportunity provided by his televised execution to demonstrate that the Chancellor is nothing more than a Dirty Coward by trapping him in his room until just before his bomb explodes. The Chancellor also mentions that the executions of 1,300 people in six hours were shown on television the previous year.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Wordsworth firmly refuses to give up his belief in God, even under penalty of death, and calmly reads the 23rd Psalm from his Bible while awaiting his execution.
  • Sadist: The Chancellor implores Wordsworth to beg for his life before the cameras, clearly loving the thought of it.
  • Smug Snake: The Chancellor clearly thinks that he's some kind of all-powerful dictator, but he's nothing more than a cowardly, hypocritical bully. One who's easily replaceable.
  • The Social Darwinist: What little is given of the State's motives to kill people falls into this, since they execute anyone too old, sick, or disabled to provide useful labor (along with any from abolished professions or who have forbidden beliefs, in a more general totalitarian vein). Given the Chancellor says that Hitler didn't go far enough, this is unsurprising.
  • Speak in Unison: The court members start chanting "obsolete" when surrounding the former Chancellor at the end.
  • Taking You with Me: Wordsworth's plan with the Chancellor is this no matter what the man does. Wordsworth traps him in his room as the bomb ticks down, knowing full well that the Chancellor will be left to his fate. Even though he lets him out, it was only after the Chancellor had said and done things that the State sees as making him obsolete. Depending on how you interpret the ending narration and the fact it was televised, Wordsworth may easily have taken the entire State with him.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Wordsworth sets up his own execution specifically to make a point. He leaves the State very disappointed following the event, especially since the Chancellor is shown to be a coward who would even beg God for help, who as he earlier mentioned, has been decreed by the State to not exist.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Wordsworth invokes this, since the State clearly underestimated him. He was viewed simply an obsolete old man who posed no threat. Instead, he manages to manipulate their leader himself on live TV, having him declared "obsolete" himself as a result.
  • Undignified Death: The Chancellor is torn limb from limb by his former followers.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The Chancellor, who by the end is begging for his life.
  • Villains Want Mercy: For all his attempts to project an image of strength and fearlessness, the Chancellor breaks down when he realizes that Wordsworth has lured him into a death trap and no one is coming to save him, desperately begging Wordsworth to let him out in the name of God... who the State decreed does not exist, condemning himself to death as well. As he's pounced on and dragged to his fate, he begs the State to show him mercy, but gets none.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: When the Chancellor asks Wordsworth when he wants to be executed, Wordsworth picks the traditional time: midnight.
  • Xanatos Gambit:
    • Wordsworth trapping the Chancellor in the room with him. Either the Chancellor says things that get the State to declare him obsolete even after being let out (ensuring his death), or the Chancellor dies with him. Either way, Wordsworth takes him down with him.
    • This gambit also applies to against the State itself as they would either rescue the Chancellor and subsequently expose themselves as weak or they let their leader get killed with the prisoner.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: Wordsworth courageously and single-handedly exposes the Chancellor and the corrupt and seemingly invincible State as nothing but cowards. The Chancellor is kicked out of power by his own associates and replaced by his second-in-command, but since the whole thing was televised around the world, there's nothing stopping others from becoming inspired and following Wordsworth's example. Also exemplified by Wordsworth's bold declaration: "You cannot erase God with an edict!"
  • You Have Failed Me: The Chancellor returns to his court to find that the State has declared him obsolete for being outed as a coward and invoking God on national television. Even earlier, Wordsworth tells him they won't save him for this reason.

Rod Serling: The Chancellor, the late Chancellor, was only partially correct. He was obsolete. But so was the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that 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.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Twilight Zone S 2 E 65 The Obsolete Man


The Obsolete Man

The Chancellor ends up breaking one of his rules in a state of cowardness and is declared obsolete by the state, just as he had done to Romney Wordsworth. Rod Serling then states that the state's downfall will soon follow, declaring that any nation that refuses to recognize the worth, dignity, and rights of man is obsolete.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (27 votes)

Example of:

Main / AnAesop

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