This is the first piece of a multi-part, long-form series entitled “The Twilight Zone and the Culture Wars.” The series spotlights several episodes from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and reads them in light of recent debates surrounding race, identity, history, gender, and partisanship in contemporary American discourse. Despite premiering in 1959 and ending in 1964, The Twilight Zone is an instructive anthology series that can speak to our current moment. These articles will explore how the show offers omens, warnings, wisdom, correctives, context, and televisual art at its finest that can respond to some of the culture wars of the 2020s. The Twilight Zone can help us better understand ourselves. (Given the dated references and language of the show, readers should expect to encounter what is today considered offensive language throughout these texts.)
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One of the final episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Encounter,” aired on May 1, 1964. It was the sixth-to-last episode of the whole series, and it disappeared almost immediately after its premiere on CBS. It would not surface again until The Twilight Zone’s release on VHS in the 1990s.
The episode begins with a burly white man, Mr. Fenton, tidying up his attic during an afternoon of spring cleaning. The attic is full of the kind of bric-a-brac typical of any midcentury suburban American home: a taxidermied elk head, dusty lamps, wooden ski shoes and tennis rackets, a traveling trunk, and boxes of photographs. That Mr. Fenton is listening to swing music on a transistor radio only redoubles his vintage American-ness. He hauls a crate to the floor and, leaning down, discovers the hilt of a samurai sword. The low-angle camerawork makes it so that the sword cuts across the frame. Its presence dominates the visual field. Fenton looks up, alarmed and sweaty. He unsheathes the weapon, studying the sleek blade with a mixture of horror and thrall.
In the background, slightly out of focus, we also see a combat helmet, an M1: the kind worn by American soldiers during World War II, suggesting that Fenton is a veteran of the U.S. Army. These iconic helmets were known as “steel pots” for their one-size-fits-all turtle-shell shape.
It is not accidental that the man playing Mr. Fenton is Neville Brand, a famous movie actor, who, before his Hollywood rise, was known as being the fourth-most-decorated veteran of World War II. A sergeant, Brand was awarded the Silver Star for surviving a withering attack by German machine-gunners in the Ardennes, and in a separate incident, he was shot in the arm in 1945 and almost bled to death. Brand’s biography etches itself into his portrayal of Fenton, war ghosts and all. He describes himself as a “highly trained combat machine with split second reactions,” whose “nerve endings are dead and who’s as cold and as hard and as rigid as his helmet,” an M1 of course.
We can infer that Mr. Fenton brought the samurai sword back home as a souvenir of his time abroad in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. Such keepsakes were called “war trophies,” the items characteristic of “exotic” cultures taken in war and kept as mementos by the invading force. Yet the samurai sword inspires not nostalgia but terror in Mr. Fenton. Gazing at the weapon, with sweat dripping down his face, he flings it across the room, trying to ward off the memories it carries with it. The sword has a talismanic power that transports Fenton from the private pleasures of his cluttered attic to the days he spent fighting in the jungles of the South Pacific. Like this man’s repressed memories of combat, this sword had been stowed away to snuff out all it signifies.
“That thing gives me the willies,” Mr. Fenton says. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud teaches us about the unconscious, the part of the mind that is inaccessible to us but determinatively shapes our behavior and emotions. Freud says that the unconscious is “indestructible.” Any traumatic memory we might hope to forget, however hard we try, is never “dead” but forever preserved in the unconscious, embalmed. Evoked by dreams, chance, or objects, troubling memories can burst onto the surface of consciousness and destabilize our cohered present.
Triggered by the samurai sword, Fenton loses himself in his attic and reenters his traumatic past in combat from which he cannot escape. “I’ve been trying to lose it for years,” he says about the sword, “I’ve tried to give it away, sell it, throw it out with the garbage, but it always comes back. Nothing supernatural; I don’t believe in that jazz. But when the men on the garbage truck brings it in, you give up after a while.” Mr. Fenton is describing Freud’s theory of the unconscious and how the repressed returns. It cannot ever be thrown away. The war, for Mr. Fenton, is not over.
This Freudian opening of “The Encounter” concludes when a voice calls up from below, as if from the depths of Mr. Fenton’s unconscious. “Hello, anybody home?” The voice beseeches Fenton to confront the ghosts he carries with him, that is, all that Mr. Fenton has repressed from his days in Japan. It is as if this mysterious voice asks who “else” is in the house with Fenton. This is a Twilight Zone episode about historical memory: the ways in which painful truths about one’s past are avoided to maintain a cohered sense of self and how, if unleashed, they are liable to wreak havoc. By the episode’s conclusion, Mr. Fenton’s repressed memories stand in for America’s own.
The voice, we learn, belongs to a young Japanese man named Arthur Takamori, a role played by George Takei. Takamori has been tipped off by a neighbor that Mr. Fenton is looking for a landscaper. Takamori proposes to Fenton that he stop by every Wednesday and take care of the lawn. Mr. Fenton cagily agrees but insists that his new “foreign” acquaintance join him for a beer in the attic and, while he’s up there, help him clean up. Somewhat reluctantly, Takamori, sensing Mr. Fenton’s racial animosity, walks upstairs. Repeatedly referring to Arthur as “boy,” Mr. Fenton remarks how “funny” it is that Arthur’s name is “Arthur” and not something “more Japanese.” Arthur defends himself, saying: “I was born in this country [not unlike George Takei himself who was born in California], and I’m as much American as anybody else.” Mr. Fenton then careens to his defenses in an example of a prideful white American (typically male) blaming minorities for taking offense at their boorish commentary. “You’re too darn sensitive,” he says.
The truth, Arthur tells Mr. Fenton, is that his real name is “Taro.” He changed it after the war, suggesting that he, too, is trying to escape a certain past. “A rose is a rose,” Mr. Fenton says to Taro’s confusion. “Get what I mean?” The two fail to understand each other from the outset. “What a mess,” Mr. Fenton continues. “This attic’s been like this for twenty years.” He starts showing Taro some of his war trophies that, until now, he had forgotten about, or, more accurately, remembered to forget: his uniform, helmet, and medals, what Mr. Fenton calls his “fruit salad,” a slang term for a service member’s uniform display. Fenton mentions how he went through Saipan and into Okinawa, two of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, whose heavy casualties convinced American officials of the need to drop an atomic bomb to expedite Japan’s surrender.
Mr. Fenton proceeds to retrieve the discarded sword – a lethal totem of the losses he suffered and inflicted in Okinawa – and asks Taro if he has ever seen a “genuine samurai sword.” Mr. Fenton vouches for the sword’s authenticity, claiming that he took it off a “Jap officer,” who tried to cut off his “noggin.” He then asks Taro to translate the engraved Japanese characters on the blade. Further touting his American bona fides, Taro says he cannot “speak any other language but English.” A true American, Taro is proudly monolingual. To reiterate his American legitimacy, Taro informs Mr. Fenton that, growing up in Honolulu, his father worked as an engineer for the U.S. Navy and tried to protect his colleagues right before the Pearl Harbor attacks in December 1941. The implication is that Taro’s family has done just as much for America as Mr. Fenton has.
Their different biographies aside, Taro reminds Mr. Fenton why he came up to his attic at all: not to ogle medals but to help straighten up. Mr. Fenton apologizes and goes to fetch more beer. Left alone, Taro approaches the samurai sword, lifts it up, studying its inscription, and says: “I’m gonna kill him.” Traditional Japanese music (or at least how midcentury American television writers imagined Japanese music to sound like) fills the visual space. The ghosts of war swirling around the attic haunting Mr. Fenton now similarly wrap their tentacles around Taro, who mysteriously feels overcome by a desire for violence, to kill Mr. Fenton and all that he personifies.
“Why?” Taro asks himself, understanding what he is about to do. Mr. Fenton’s attic is transformed into a theater of war, a continuation, albeit on a minuscule scale, of the battle of Saipan or Okinawa. This dusty attic becomes a place where the lingering grievances and tensions of World War II – or, as Rod Serling puts it in his opening narration, “yesterday’s war” – are reignited between two opposing combatants in a sleepy American suburb twenty years after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
As the episode unfolds, Taro and Mr. Fenton become more and more suspicious of one another, periodically breaking into fits of violence that punctuate their heated discussions about World War II. They stalk each other in the attic, lunge at each other with weapons, and, eventually, see to each other’s demise. Taro slays Mr. Fenton with the old samurai sword (death by the unconscious), whereupon Taro leaps out of a window, ashamed of what he has done. “The Encounter” suggests that the United States has not come to terms with what transpired during the Second World War. The memories of war are still red-hot, a tinder box that might yet result in more casualties. Yet The Twilight Zone suggests that these war memories are so explosive because, like Mr. Fenton’s repressed trauma, they have not been processed properly. That is, the United States, celebrating itself as a victor over imperial Japan, neglected to internalize the costs of that victory: nuclear bombs and internment camps. The horrific way in which America won the war needed to be “forgotten” for us to apprehend ourselves as the world’s beacon of liberty and heroism.
When “The Encounter” first aired in 1964, several civil rights groups, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), had begun a few years earlier mobilizing Japanese citizens to obtain a restitution of rights and monetary compensation for those who had suffered because of the government-sanctioned detention camps for Japanese citizens during World War II. “The Encounter” debuted at a time of historical revisionism that sought to acknowledge the central place of anti-Asian racism driving America’s crusade against Japan, which dented our noble self-image.
In the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, established a series of detention centers in the American West to quarantine citizens of Japanese descent out of fear that they might pose a national security theat. More than 112,000 Americans were forced into the concentration-like camps. (Canada also followed suit, jailing upward of 21,000 of its Japanese citizens.) This campaign of incarceration stands as one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in United States history. Fueling nationwide racial hysteria, the camps forced thousands of people to endure destitute living conditions and lasting psychological damage. The camps also squandered generations of Japanese American wealth. Our glorious victory over Japan had a much darker side.
It was not until the mid-1960s when civic activism, known as the “redress movement,” began a legal and cultural push to recoup the memories of Japanese internment and counter the racism targeted against Japanese Americans, such as the sort that Mr. Fenton expresses in “The Encounter.” He says to Taro: “We were told that you guys weren’t even human. You were some species of ape.” Those are the very attitudes that fueled the dehumanization and incarceration of Japanese Americans by the white American majority on an unimaginable scale in World War II.
Only beginning in the early 1960s, then, were Americans coming to terms with what they had done to their fellow citizens during World War II. No longer could the memory of Japanese internment, and the ghastly consequences of the nuclear strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, be papered over for a heroic vision of America. The visual motif of shadows in “The Encounter” – a “land of shadow and substance, things and ideas,” Serling tells us – might be seen as the “shadow” of history itself. Each of Fenton and Taro’s faces regularly appear eclipsed by shadows. Their interactions are obscured by the legacies of war and racism. They are captives of their era, belated prisoners of war. The attic in which they are locked (the door mysteriously freezes shut) is the past. It becomes a metaphysical geography where the sights and sounds of history haphazardly reenter.
It was finally in the 1970s and 1980s when Congress issued a formal apology to Japanese Americans and granted them financial reparations: $20,000 to more than 80,000 individuals (over $1 billion in today’s currency). These are overtures that have yet to be made to formerly enslaved African Americans and indigenous peoples. There are other skeletons in our past we have yet to confront in meaningful ways. Yet our response to Japanese internment, even under the archconservative stewardship of Ronald Reagan, proves that reparations are politically feasible.
For his part, the character Taro in “The Encounter” represents an empowered man of a new generation of Japanese Americans assimilating into American society as part of the “redress movement” unafraid to demand equal treatment. “Believe it or not,” Taro says to a condescending Fenton, “I sometimes answer to ‘Mr. Takamori.’” Taro is proudly looking for work – he charges seven dollars a month for landscaping – from his wealthier (white) neighbors. Taro’s story is one of economic recuperation in the aftermath of the camps. He is reintegrating himself into the fabric of American life and the labor force, boasting the values and freedoms his descendants were denied.
The actor playing Taro, moreover, George Takei, was, at five years old along with his family, forcibly relocated from California to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas in 1942, a detention camp that held nearly 10,000 Japanese citizens. Takei’s biography cannot help but inscribe Taro’s in The Twilight Zone. Just as Brand’s decorated military career gives shape to Mr. Fenton’s backstory, Takei’s imprisonment informs Taro’s. These two men are not simply “characters” in The Twilight Zone but distinctly American subjects made by world war. Taro’s “American dream,” like the young Takei’s, is predicated on the national injustices of internment camps and generational economic deprivation. Camp memories hover over this episode like a ghost.
That, in the end, Taro confesses that his father was a “traitor” muddles our understanding of him. Reliving his memories from Pearl Harbor, which he uses to bolster his American credentials, he confesses to Mr. Fenton: “That’s not the way it happened.” His father was “a traitor.” Far from guiding the American sailors at Pearl Harbor out of harm’s way, Taro’s father was, in fact, “signaling the planes,” showing them “where to drop the bombs” on the naval base. Painfully recounting his father’s betrayal of America, moreover, he reveals that Taro speaks fluent Japanese: he cries out in his mother tongue, damning his double-agent father. Like Mr. Fenton trying to hide his war ghosts in his “attic,” Taro conceals his family’s shameful history. His is not the proud made-in-America immigrant story but one checkered with misalliances and cover-ups.
The historical precedent for Taro’s father in “The Encounter” is Takeo Yoshikawa, the infamous spy who embedded himself in the naval operations in Honolulu and abetted Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet there were far fewer men like Yoshikawa caught up in espionage than there were patriots and bystanders of Japanese descent, whose lives were devoured by the American war machine. For all its shining qualities, “The Encounter,” not unexpectedly for its time, in certain moments succumbs to the racist tropes it contests. It draws an equivalency between Mr. Fenton and Mr. Takamori. The latter is not the heroic soldier he presents himself as, while the latter’s American loyalty is undercut by paternal treachery. They are each killed off by the histories that shame them.
“The Encounter” posits a universalist idea: shame (and pride) as the source of mankind’s downfall, or, as Serling says in his closing remarks, “Two men in an attic, locked in mortal embrace: their common bond and their common enemy, guilt. A disease all too prevalent amongst men.” In turn, The Twilight Zone flattens out the differences between a combat soldier slaying others abroad and a child of immigrants atoning for crimes that are not his. The origins and effects of their shame are qualitatively different. The crimes and punishments of an agent of America’s military-industrial complex are simply not the same as those of a young man grappling with his father’s fraught legacy.
Linking Fenton to Taro (or Brand to Takei), then, “The Encounter” feeds into the anti-Japanese sentiments of its white American viewers. Before Taro leaps out of a window to his death, he yells, as if a Kamikaze pilot, “Banzai!,” a battle cry meaning “Long Live His Majesty the Emperor” that became a hallmark of Japanese human wave attacks in World War II. Taro is transformed from a second-generation, working-class American success story into a caricature of a suicidal Japanese pilot. It is as if this episode, having initially celebrated Taro for his American-ness, concludes by condemning him for his inescapable “Japanese-ness.” Mr. Fenton’s racist assumption that “Arthur” would be “more Japanese” turns out to be true in the end. This racially inept finale, backdropped by a return of Japanese music, betrays the pressure that Orientalist stereotypes exerted on American culture, even on a show as enlightened as The Twilight Zone. At one point, Taro and Fenton even clink their beer cans to the cheer of “banzai.” The character Taro is underserved by these plot twists. As is all human making, Serling’s series is not above the fray.
For its racial insensitivity and controversial subject matter, “The Encounter” would not air again until January 2016, as part of the Syfy channel’s New Year’s Eve marathon. CBS immediately pulled it from syndication after its 1964 premiere, largely because of civil rights groups protesting its depiction of Japanese Americans. Yet it “debuted” again at the very start of 2016 on Sunday, January 2 at 9:00 a.m. This was a plum spot in the series’ marathon that ensured a decent viewership, as it helped nurse audiences through their New Year hangovers. It is telling that “The Encounter” appeared after midnight of the outgoing year, squarely in the new era heralded by 2016.
Less than a month before the episode’s re-debut, Donald Trump, the then dominant force of the Republican presidential primary field, called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” a proposal that, a year later in January 2017, now President Trump enacted into law via Executive Order 13769, known as the “Muslim ban.” Just as Roosevelt’s administration reflexively questioned the allegiances of non-white people, so, too, would Trump’s.
Using Japanese internment as its model, the “Muslim ban” repelled as many Americans as it energized. It set the tone not only for Trump’s vicious campaign but also the next four years in which Trump’s White House plunged the country into a fit of hysteria, appealing to the perceived anxieties of white America to engrain its hold on power in a rapidly changing society. The virulent nostalgia for a once “great” country (symbolized by Trump’s big red hats) locked the United States in a kind of existential trench warfare about the meaning of America, a battle over memory and identity not unlike the “war” waged by Fenton and Taro in “The Encounter.” The essence of Trumpism is memory: to make America great again. It looks to the past for its vision of the future.
What better portrait, after all, of Trump has there ever been on television than Mr. Fenton? Hotheaded, fiercely patriotic, ill-mannered, plainspoken, paranoid, bitterly and, at times, treacly nostalgic, and overweight – he calls himself a “tub of rancid lard” – Mr. Fenton embodies what we came to associate with Trump or at least the uniquely American personalities with whom Trump is often compared: Archie Bunker and George Wallace. Fenton is the sort of beer-drinking, red-blooded American man fallen on hard times that American journalists spent years trying to understand in explaining Trump’s rise. Mr. Fenton is precisely the working-class voter – always interviewed in roadside diners in swing states – who embraced the suave nationalism of John Kennedy but, with time, gravitated toward Trumpism. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” Mr. Fenton, echoing Reagan, could easily be heard saying in years to come, “The Party left me.”
Indeed, listening to Mr. Fenton air his grievances, we can pinpoint Trump’s emergence fifty years later. “It’s all that cheap labor they’re bringing over here,” Fenton tells Taro, blaming his sorry lot in life on ethnic others. “They’re letting ’em in from everywhere: Mexico, Puerto Rico, China, Japan, foreigners. We make Hawaii a state, and look what we get!” These words replicate Trump’s rhetoric. It seems as if Mr. Fenton is one sentence away from “Build the wall.”
As for the brand of sexism, the “locker-room talk,” that Trump became known for? “Women are a dime a dozen,” Fenton says, smarting with rage for his ex-wife. These are the rumblings of a man – if not of Trump himself then those of Trump’s supporters – who feels left behind, who feels that the world is changing too dramatically and too rapidly in ways that can no longer accommodate him. He would be the first to cite “reverse racism” for missing out on a job opportunity or the first to decry the “snowflakes” tearing down the statues of Confederate soldiers.
Neglected, isolated, aggravated, and prejudiced – and, as we learn, recently unemployed (fired for drinking on the job) – Mr. Fenton wonders what has happened to the world he helped saved from fascism. The postwar era, far from a paradise for battle-tested veterans that Mr. Fenton once imagined, is one where, in his eyes, women and minorities are newly emboldened and empowered, “threatening” the old social hierarchy where white men sat at the top. “Now all of a sudden you’re some highly cultured people,” Fenton says to Taro about the Japanese, “I’ve been pushed and pulled this way and that until I hate everybody.” Mr. Fenton cannot recognize the world for which he fought. Ironically, Fenton metabolizes the defeat of Japan as his own. The end of the war brought with it a more multiracial and gender-neutral society, which is, allegedly, fueling his fall. Rather than finding solidarity with the immigrants and women entering the economy as working-class allies, Fenton views them as the culprits of his decline. His culture grievances betray the ease by which working whites are set against those who don’t look like them.
The war against memory waged by Mr. Fenton in “The Encounter” – that is, Mr. Fenton’s crusade to smother his traumatic memories of combat in his attic – also reverberates with the Trump administration’s own battle against history. In September 2020, Trump initiated an advisory committee, the 1776 Committee, to counteract the “twisted web of lies” peddled by “progressives” in the form of critical race theory, a justice-oriented approach to American history that elevates race to the center of the conversation. Specifically, President Trump’s commission acted as a retort to the “1619 Project” launched by Nikole Hannah-Jones at the New York Times that retold the story of the United States vis-à-vis the consequences of slavery and neglected contributions to American society made by Black people. The project billed itself as a “new origin story” that no longer forgot to remember the pivotal yet neglected – marginalized but not marginal – role of Black Americans.
Projects like “1619” are designed to recover the skeletons of our national past, the harsh truths about race, violence, and exclusion at the core of American history, such as Japanese internment camps, that we, like Mr. Fenton, have stowed away in our “attic.” It is telling that Mr. Fenton’s desire to kill a Japanese man stems from a truth about himself that Taro unearths. Taro learns that Fenton acquired the samurai sword from a Japanese officer whom he killed in cold blood. A Japanese soldier, Taro says, would only surrender by giving up his sword as a peace offering. Mr. Fenton, however, chose to execute the unarmed soldier, knowing that he would not face any consequences. “You’re a murderer; you killed a defenseless man,” Taro says spitefully. Mr. Fenton’s Japanese “souvenir” was won via the slaying of an innocent man, a mortem memento.
“So what if I did?” Fenton asks Taro, who says: “I don’t know. That’s your problem.” Mr. Fenton can only live with his guilty conscience by remembering to forget. The source of his racialized hate is his own self-loathing, his self-recognition of being a cold-blooded killer that undercuts his patriotic veneer. When Mr. Fenton confronts his past, he backslides into hate: a form of violence originating in self-hate. He compensates for his past sins by blaming the victims of his crimes. “We were told not to take prisoners. You can’t hold a man responsible for obeying orders!”
In a rare flash of weakness, Mr. Fenton admits to Taro that his wife has left him for drinking too much. Though he again reverts to blaming immigrants for his woes, Mr. Fenton reveals another hidden fact about postwar America. Despite images of fortitude, heroism, and vitality, these celebrated veterans – those of the Greatest Generation – often fell prey to inner turmoil that, left untreated and ignored, found remedy in alcoholism and domestic violence. It is not by chance that the divorce rate for American couples in the late 1940s reached its highest levels until the mid-1970s because of ex-soldiers’ inability to readjust back into civilian life. Today, Mr. Fenton’s condition would be understood as post-traumatic stress disorder, but, in those early days, it was called “shell shock” and “soldier’s heart” and dismissed as a sign of weakness. Mr. Fenton’s repressed trauma encapsulates America’s own. We have trained ourselves as a society to remember to forget that which damages our aggrandized national self-image, such as the legacy of detention camps (or, more recently, cages at the southern border). Taro unmoors the American unconcious.
Like the “1619” project, Mr. Fenton’s guilty conscience teaches us that the longer painful truths about oneself are kept at bay to maintain a façade – exemplified by America’s refusal to pay reparations to the descendants of slavery, which would require owning up to the systemic wrongdoing inflicted against Black people – the worse the reactions are to these memoires when they resurface. Dark truths fester in hiding, metastasizing in paroxysms of violence and resentment. The rise of Trump, expressed in the manner of patriotic bluster, is, in fact, an acknowledgment of our inability and cowardice to come to terms with the dishonorable realities of our history. The repression of painful memories intensifies their potency, assuring that, when they do reappear, they are all the more destructive. Trumpism is the product of bottled-up shame, rage, and disaffection of white America. The same anguish that Mr. Fenton deflects off himself and projects onto Taro is a coping strategy that lets him avoid accountability. It draws on America’s own approach to its historical misdeeds.
Coming at the close of season five, “The Encounter” proved to be one of The Twilight Zone’s most controversial episodes but also one of its most timely. The sight of a tortured American veteran grappling with the terrors of a bloody war in the South Pacific cannot help but allude to Vietnam, where, by 1964, the United States had already become hopelessly enmeshed. Our involvement would dramatically increase through the decade, and Vietnam would offer the American psyche a torrent of shocking memories that destabilized our idealized sense of national character. The sordid history of our actions in Vietnam – My Lai, Operation Speedy Express, and the Gulf of Tonkin – could only be dealt with through the operations of repression, that is, cover-ups.
How Mr. Fenton describes the Japanese – as “barely even human” – even resonates with how U.S. soldiers would later refer to the Vietnamese rebels, as “gooks” and “zipperheads.” The aftershocks of Mr. Fenton’s post-traumatic stress also anticipate the condition of scores of Vietnam veterans, who likewise fell to suicide, drink, and poverty, challenging our inherited image of heroic and honorable American servicemen. “They’re out there in the jungle just asking for it, so I thought I’d oblige,” Mr. Fenton says, hearing the illusory screams of his Japanese opponents, which, in 1964, could easily be mistaken for the cries of the Viet Cong. In “The Encounter,” Serling suggests that we cannot move forward unless we look backward at ourselves with honesty, fearlessness, and flintiness. It is this less triumphal, more unflattering history of America that gets papered over in official formulations. “The Encounter” is an American story about what America needs to do to tell its story the way it wants to: repress, deny, and attack until “forgetting” starts to seem possible.
The memories of World War II in “The Encounter” thus foreshadow our future with both Vietnam and Trumpism. It reveals how the suppression of painful memories about ourselves morphs into aggression against others, enabling us to avoid taking responsibility for our actions. This cycle threatens to become self-perpetuating: repression, recall, rage, repression, ad infinitum.
Mr. Fenton’s grievances against the modern world stem from his wounded interiority made so by the atrocities he committed overseas. Likewise, the reactionary nature of Trumpism is fueled by the shame that accompanies our increasing collective awareness of America’s faults and failures. The slogan “Make America Great Again” vies to restore a vision of America unburdened by its history of racism, misogyny, and violence that struggles to accord with our idealized image of America. The truth, in a word, hurts. “The Encounter” studies what happens when we remember to forget. It urges us to see ourselves in the past, clear-eyed, for what we were in order to know who we are. Fenton says to Taro, as if vocalizing the American psyche, “I’m not such a bad guy. Why is all this happening?” The answer, The Twilight Zone suggests, is more introspection, more origin stories, more self-critique. There is no American exceptionalism in Mr. Fenton’s attic.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from “The Encounter.”