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Recap / The Twilight Zone 1985 S 1 E 20

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Profile in Silver

Dr. Joseph Fitzgerald (Lane Smith) is a historian from the year 2172, who has traveled back in time to 1963 and assumed the identity of a Harvard professor to study the John F. Kennedy administration. In his office, he is visited by his colleague Dr. Kate Wang (Barbara Baxley), who reminds him of his mission. Joseph is somewhat disturbed at the thought of witnessing President Kennedy's (Andrew Robinson) assassination the following day, especially since he has not only researched him in great detail, but Kennedy also happens to be his ancestor. Kate then notices Joseph's "good luck charm", a half dollar coin with Kennedy's profile manufactured in 1964, and rightfully points out its anachronistic nature, which Joseph shrugs off. Kate then returns to the future and tells Joseph a phrase in Chinese, which Joseph doesn't understand.

The following day, Joseph films Kennedy's arrival at Dealey Plaza with his holographic camera (disguised as a regular movie camera of the time period). When he films the upper floors of the Texas School Book Depository and spots Lee Harvey Oswald getting ready to take the shot, Joseph, unable to contain himself, instinctively yells for Kennedy to get down. Kennedy and the First Lady do so, causing Oswald to miss. Ray Livingston (Louis Giambalvo), an agent for the Secret Service who serves as Kennedy's bodyguard, takes Joseph into custody among the panicking crowd, the historian horrified at what he just did.

One clean background check later, Ray takes Joseph to meet Kennedy himself. Kennedy expresses his gratitude to Joseph and invites him to the White House for dinner. As Kennedy returns to Air Force One, Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Jerry Hardin) arrives to tell the President that he's staying in Texas for the time being, as two tornadoes have appeared seemingly out of nowhere and instigated a crisis. Kennedy and Joseph have a nice chat aboard the Presidential Aircraft, where Kennedy reminisces about his life and what he's learned from being leader of the free world, causing Joseph to comment on how the former is far ahead of his time. They are interrupted by a call from Defense Secretary MacNamara, who informs them that Oswald has been arrested by the Dallas police. Joseph starts fiddling with his lucky coin, accidentally dropping it in the process. It rolls towards Ray, who picks it up and looks at it with suspicion. Kennedy returns and informs Joseph that the Soviets have captured West Berlin, and are demanding that America pull out from Germany. Joseph remarks that Preimier Khrushchev would never do such a thing, to which Kennedy reveals that Khrushchev was assassinated earlier that day.

Even though dinner is canceled, Kennedy insists that Joseph stay the night in the White House as a security precaution. When asked for his camera, Ray claims that Joseph must have left it on Air Force One, but assures him that it will be returned. Joseph consults his wristwatch/time machine/computer, which details that the tornadoes and Khrushchev's assassination were futile attempts of the timestream to undo "massive rips in spacetime" caused by Joseph's prevention of the assassination. Joseph asks the computer for the "best and worst case scenario" for this timeline going forward, and learns that the results are grim:

Computer: Worst case scenario: nuclear exchange between the superpowers results in total annihilation of biosphere. Probability: 77%. Best case scenario: surrender of Western Europe within six years. Military costs collapse Soviet economy. Soviets blackmail West for food, culminating in agro-bacterial war. Result: total annihilation of biosphere within century. Probability: 12%.
Joseph: You mean there's only 11% possibility of avoiding total war in this timeline?
Computer: 0%. 11% include all other scenarios leading to...
Joseph: annihilation of biosphere. Since this timeline's not viable, give me all options for repairing the original timeline.
Computer: There exists only one viable option: the Kennedy presidency must end as history originally recorded.
Joseph: Oh dear God... What have I done?

Meanwhile, Ray has taken Joseph's coin to an expert, who dubs it the most perfect counterfeit he has ever seen. It is also noted that it must be counterfeit, since it's illegal under U.S. law to depict a living person in currency. Ray also remarks that despite Joseph having "all the right papers in all the right places", he couldn't find anyone who knew Joseph before he started teaching at Harvard, and strongly suspects Joseph to be a Soviet sleeper agent. Ray takes these suspicions and the coin to the President, who skeptically points out that it doesn't make sense for a Soviet agent to carry around a coin with his own face on it. Ray adds that Joseph's camera was inspected by metallurgists, who discovered that it's made of some type of unknown alloy stronger than steel and impervious to X-Rays.

Joseph is then summoned to the Oval Office, where Kennedy angrily demands to know where he got the coin. Joseph finally comes clean and explains that it's been in his family for 200 years. He further demonstrates the use of his holographic camera to prove he's actually a historian from the future. Kennedy then guesses that Joseph is a descendant of his, to which the historian admits. Kennedy asks Joseph why exactly he chose this period in particular, guessing it was to observe his reaction to the crisis. Joseph replies that he legitimately didn't know about the crisis, prompting Kennedy to look at the coin again and notice the year of manufacture: 1964. Kennedy then discovers the truth: he was supposed to die in Dallas, the tornadoes and the Soviet occupation were never meant to happen, and the ongoing crisis will ultimately lead to the end of the world. He also guesses that the only way to fix everything is to go back earlier that day and let Oswald shoot him. Preparing to do what must be done, Kennedy begs Joseph to send him back. The historian tearfully prepares to give Kennedy his time travel watch, but suddenly changes his mind and gives the President his emergency recall ring, which sends Kennedy to 2172. Joseph tells Ray that they're going back, but they're going to make a few changes. Earlier that day, back in Dealey Plaza, Joseph teleports inside the Presidential Motorcade, replacing Kennedy and letting himself take Oswald's bullets.

Sometime later, Joseph's body is examined by Dr. Wang, who reveals to Ray that she's not only from the future as well, but she's from a period in the future even farther than Joseph was. Knowing that whatever actions committed during time travel become part of established history, she knew that Joseph would sacrifice himself, and was sent to study his actions as he did with Kennedy. She looks upon his body and repeats the Chinese phrase she told him earlier, revealing that it translates: "Goodbye, old friend... Goodbye." Meanwhile, in 2172, Kennedy has since assumed the role of a Harvard professor, and is shown giving a speech implicitly lauding Joseph's sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of other honorable men like him.

  • Alternate Timeline: Joseph, a time traveling historian from 2172, manages to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The resulting changes to the timeline lead to the creation of significant distortions, as well as temporal rifts of unprecedented proportions. A pair of tornadoes appear without warning in Texas as part of the universe's initial attempt to counterbalance the temporal damage. Nikita Khrushchev is also assassinated by Soviet insurgents, who are sent by the new Premier to capture West Berlin in an attempt to force the Western powers out of the rest of Germany. Joseph's wrist computer determines that the worst case scenario from the disruptions will be a nuclear war breaking out between the United States and the Soviet Union. The best case scenario is that Western Europe will surrender to the Soviets within six years. Military costs will then cause the Soviet economy to collapse, leading them to blackmail the West for food, and the subsequent agro-bacterial war will completely destroy the biosphere within a century. The remaining 11% accounts for all other probabilities in which the world ends. From this, Joseph learns that Kennedy's death must occur as history recorded it if humanity is to live.
  • Bookends: The beginning and end of the episode focus on a Harvard professor giving a lecture. In the beginning, it's Kennedy's descendant Joseph Fitzgerald. In the end, it's Kennedy himself.
  • Close-Enough Timeline: Joseph drastically alters the timestream when he prevents John F. Kennedy's assassination. When it becomes clear that this new timeline isn't viable, and the world will be destroyed within a century at most, he sends Kennedy forward to 2172, and allows himself to be killed in his place. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Kate, Joseph's fellow time traveler, actually comes from a period in the future farther than him, and is hinted to have been sent to study Joseph's actions just as Joseph was sent to study Kennedy's. She tells Ray that she knew what he would do in Dallas and that he would ultimately sacrifice himself, but couldn't interfere since events occurring during time travel become part of history.
  • Famous Ancestor: Joseph is a descendant of John F. Kennedy, which the President himself learns about near the end of the episode.
  • Foreshadowing: Joseph's office features a framed photo of Kennedy giving a speech, slowly revealing that he's a descendant of the President himself.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Joseph nearly dooms the world to a nuclear holocaust solely by yelling for Kennedy and his wife to get down, preventing the President's assassination.
  • The Future Will Be Better: After admitting that he is a time traveler from 2172, Joseph tells President Kennedy that his greatest dreams have been fulfilled in his time. He claims that in the 22nd century, humanity has eliminated tyranny, war, and poverty, and have also gone to the stars and beyond.
  • Good Samaritan: President Kennedy is depicted as the people of his time viewed him: a gold-hearted paragon of all that is good. In particular, he invites Joseph to dinner at the White House in exchange for saving his life, and engages in a pleasant chat with him aboard Air Force One, even allowing the historian to call him "Jack". Once he learns that Joseph is his future descendant and the Soviet occupation of Berlin is a result of him surviving the assassination, he boldly volunteers to be sent back to that afternoon and take Oswald's bullet. Overwhelmed by his ancestor's pure heroism, Joseph instead sends him to the distant future, while he is assassinated in the motorcade.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Joseph allows himself to be assassinated in Kennedy's place to return the timeline to normal and prevent the end of the world. Before this, he sends Kennedy to his year of origin, 2172, to allow him to live a new life, as the President realized the ramifications of his continued existence and volunteered to take Oswald's bullets.
  • Historical Domain Character: John F. Kennedy is a major character of the episode, as Joseph prevents his assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald. Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Connally, and Oswald himself also make brief appearances. Nikita Khrushchev isn't shown on screen, but he plays an important role when he is said to have been assassinated in a coup.
  • Hologram: Joseph intends to record the assassination of John F. Kennedy on his holographic recorder, which is disguised as an ordinary 1960s movie camera. After seeing Lee Harvey Oswald taking aim in the Texas School Book Depository, however, he instinctively shouts for JFK and his entourage to take cover and averts the assassination. Secret Service agent Ray grows suspicious of Joseph, believing him to be a Soviet sleeper agent, and has his camera analyzed by the Department of Defense. Their metallurgists have discovered the camera to be made from an unknown alloy harder than steel and impervious to X-Rays. When confronted, Joseph admits that he is a time traveler from the future, showing Kennedy and Ray a holographic recording of the Dallas motorcade to prove his story.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Once they learn that Joseph is from the distant future, Kennedy and Ray decide that they need drinks, the former even granting his bodyguard permission to go off duty so he doesn't violate Secret Service regulations.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Joseph thinks and says this after preventing Kennedy's assassination, since the timeline from this point will most likely end in nuclear war.
  • Mythology Gag: Several hours after Joseph prevents Kennedy's assassination, the television in the room where Ray and a metallurgist are discussing Joseph's coin, has the anchor announce "We will now return to our regular programming", followed by the theme of the original Twilight Zone. This is a reference to the fact that the original series episode "Night Call" was originally intended to air on November 22, 1963, but was rescheduled due to coverage of the assassination.
  • Ripple-Proof Memory: Once history is restored, Ray is the only person in 1963 who remembers the alternate timeline Joseph created, where Kennedy was not assassinated in Dallas.
  • Rule of Three: All three of Joseph's computer's predictions of the future of the timeline where Kennedy lives going forward result in "total annihilation of biosphere".
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Once he realizes the ramifications he's brought about by letting Kennedy live, Joseph ultimately takes his place in the Dallas motorcade and allows Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot him, but not before letting Kennedy travel to his distant future world to live a new life.
  • Time Travel Episode: Joseph Fitzgerald, a 22nd century historian, accidentally creates an alternate timeline when he travels to 1963 and prevents John F. Kennedy, an ancestor of his, from being assassinated. As a result of the massive disruption of chronology, Nikita Khrushchev is assassinated in a coup, and the Soviet Union occupies West Berlin in an attempt for the timeline to counteract the damage it sustained. Despite this, Joseph's computer calculates that the most likely scenario from this point on will be nuclear war and the end of the world.
  • Time Travel Escape: Instead of letting himself be assassinated, Joseph gives President Kennedy his recall ring and sends him to 2172. With the assistance of Ray, Joseph takes Kennedy's place in the motorcade and allows himself to be shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. In the meantime, Kennedy becomes a history professor at Harvard in the distant future.
  • Tracking Device: Time travelers such as Joseph and Kate are issued with homing devices in the form of rings. When the device is separated from the temporal wrist controls worn by the traveler, the wearer is automatically returned to their point of departure. Joseph uses this fact to send Kennedy forward in time to 2172, so that he doesn't have to be assassinated.
  • World War III: John F. Kennedy's assassination is averted by Joseph, a descendant of his from the 22nd century. This creates an Alternate Timeline where Soviet troops assassinate Khrushchev and invade West Berlin, which Joseph's wristwatch computer determines will result in nuclear war. In order to restore the timeline to normal, Joseph takes Kennedy's place and allows himself to be killed. Before he does so, he gives Kennedy his recall ring, which transports him forward in time to 2172.
  • You Will Be Beethoven: Joseph switches places with Kennedy and is assassinated in the President's place on November 22, 1963. Before this, he sends Kennedy forward in time to 2172, where he takes Joseph's place as a Harvard lecturer.

Button, Button

Arthur and Norma Lewis (Brad Davis and Mare Winningham) are a married couple living in a rundown tenement and facing severe financial difficulties. One day, a package with no return address arrives on their doorstep. The package contains a mysterious device comprised of a wooden box with a red button on top, shielded by a locked plastic dome. On the bottom of the box is a note saying that someone named "Mr. Steward" will arrive at 8:00 P.M. that evening. Later that night, while Arthur is at work, Mr. Steward (Basil Hoffman) arrives. He hands Norma an envelope with the key to open the dome of the "button unit", which will allow her to push the button, as well as an explanation of the button's purpose:

Mr. Steward: When you push the button, two things will happen. First, someone whom you do not know will die.
Norma: You're kidding.
Mr. Steward: It's an unexpected act. Takes some getting used to. But let me finish. So the person who dies will be someone you don't even know. Then afterward... you will receive... $200,000... tax free. And that's all there is to it.

Arthur returns home soon afterwards, and his wife, who has stayed awake all this time, fills him in on the situation. Naturally, the Lewises find their situation absurd, and wonder whether the whole thing is some sort of survey to see who is willing to let someone die for $200 grand. Norma suggests that they push the button since they desperately need the money, but Arthur is firmly against what he considers murder. Norma argues that thousands of people die every day all over the world, and that the person who dies could be some random Chinese peasant or a dying cancer patient, whereas Arthur rebuts that it could be someone's newborn baby. He then takes apart the bottom of the box, whereupon he and Norma learn that the inside is completely empty. Regardless, Arthur throws the box in a dumpster.

While Arthur is asleep, Norma retrieves the box from the dumpster. Next morning, Arthur finds her repairing the bottom of the box, claiming that Mr. Steward said he would return to recover the box since they are "reprogrammed" and reused. Arthur, having enough of her obsession, mockingly dares her to push the button, but Norma sends him away. She then spends the next few days transfixed by the box, to the point where she finally gives in to temptation and pushes the button. Nothing happens, but Arthur still walks away in disgust. Mr. Steward arrives to retrieve the box, and gives the Lewises a briefcase with the promised money, confirming that yes, someone did die. When asked what happens next, Mr. Steward gives Norma an answer:

Mr. Steward: Why, you spend the money! And I hope you enjoy it. The button unit will be reprogrammed and offered to someone else, with the same terms and conditions.
Norma: Wait, someone else?
Mr. Steward: Yes. I can assure you it will be offered to someone... whom you don't know. Good day.

Norma can only make a face of utter terror as Steward walks off, no doubt planning to deliver the button to another complete stranger, with either her life or her husband's next on the chopping block.

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Arthur and Norma are given a "button unit" by Mr. Steward, who tells them that if they press the button, they will receive $200,000 at the expense of someone they don't know dying. After a few days, Norma presses the button over Arthur's objections. Mr. Steward returns the day after and tells them that someone did die, and the unit will be reprogrammed and given to someone they don't know, with the implication being that one of them will be the next to go. In the short story by Richard Matheson, it was Arthur who died when Norma pressed the button. When she challenged Mr. Steward on the matter, he rebuts her with "Do you really think you knew your husband?"
  • Awful Wedded Life: Arthur and Norma are nearly destitute and annoy each other with a furious passion. Arthur has the worst of it, as Norma barely treats him with respect and relies on him to be the sole moneymaker of their married life.
  • Bottle Episode: Barring the opening scene, the entire episode takes place in the Lewis' apartment.
  • Breather Episode: Even though the episode focuses on a very strong moral quandary, Norma and Arthur's hamminess make it far more comedic than the previous episode.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Mr. Steward has the promised $200 grand placed in a briefcase as he delivers it to Norma.
  • Cold Ham: Mr. Steward peppers all his dialogue with heavy dramatic pauses and a needlessly creepy demeanor.
  • Exact Words: As Mr. Steward tells her, Norma is given $200,000 for pressing the button and causing a total stranger to die, telling her that she and Arthur are to spend the money. Since it's hinted that she or her husband are next to die when the button is reprogrammed and redistributed, Steward didn't say anything about whether Norma would actually have the chance to spend the money after getting it.
  • Henpecked Husband: Arthur, whom Norma constantly belittles at the simplest provocation, shows no affection of any kind to, and relies on him to be the sole breadwinner of the home.
  • Here We Go Again!: Once Norma finally pushes the button, Mr. Steward collects it to be reprogrammed, and then given to another person who will be offered the same choice she and Arthur were given.
  • Ironic Echo: Norma and Arthur are told that if they press the button, they'll receive $200,000 in cash, but someone they don't know will die. At the end of the episode, Norma presses the button and gets the money, but she and Arthur are told that the button will be reprogrammed and offered to someone else... whom they don't know.
  • Jerkass: Norma, who pushes her browbeaten husband around and stays at home smoking instead of getting a job for desperately-needed money.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The abusive and domineering Norma finally pushes the button, causing someone she doesn't know to die. When Mr. Steward collects the button and gives her and Arthur the promised money, he tells her that the button will be reprogrammed and offered to someone she doesn't know. The implications of his phrasing indicate that the next time the button is pushed, either she or Arthur will die.
  • Lazy Bum: Norma lounges around the apartment watching TV and smoking instead of getting a higher-paying job than her mechanic husband.
  • Lighter and Softer: While the previous episode was a gripping historical-thriller, this story plays things highly for comedy with its hammy ensemble, even though it still poses a strong moral dilemma.
  • Morton's Fork: Once she learns the button will be reprogrammed and given to someone she doesn't know, Norma comes to the conclusion that she or her breadwinner husband will die. Whoever dies, it's clear that she's screwed.
  • No Indoor Voice: Norma and Arthur, to emphasize how irritating they are to one another.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The titular button causes a total stranger of its current owner to die. Arthur cracks it open to find no circuitry inside, but it still manages to kill someone offscreen when pushed. How exactly pressing it causes someone to die without any mechanisms is left unexplained.
    • Mr. Steward, who delivers the button, carries quite a few unanswered questions himself. Who does he work for? Why does he give random people the button in the first place? And what would he do if they refused to accept it? Just like the button itself, he gives no answers to his motives.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Mr. Steward spends his entire meeting with Norma creepily getting closer to her, even as she tries to back away.
  • Sadistic Choice: Mr. Steward sends a "button unit" to Arthur and Norma, and tells them that two things will happen if they press the button: they will receive $200,000 tax-free, and someone whom they don't know will die. The couple have several heated discussions on whether or not to press the button. Norma argues that the person killed could be a Chinese peasant or someone with cancer, while Arthur counters that it could be a newborn baby.
  • Schmuck Bait: The Lewises are given a box with a button on it, and are warned that if they push the button, they'll receive $200,000 while a person they don't know dies. Norma finally pushes the button and receives the money, but she's then told that the box will be re-programmed and given to someone she and Arthur don't know.
  • Shout-Out: Norma watches It's a Wonderful Life while waiting for Mr. Steward to arrive.
  • Verbal Tic: Arthur has a very noticeable stutter in his voice whenever he argues with Norma.
  • World of Ham: Norma and Arthur are outrageously over-the-top in their mannerisms, and the stoic and unflinching Mr. Steward comes a close second.

Alternative Title(s): The Twilight Zone 1985 S 1 E 20 A Profile In Silver