Shadow Play is the 26th episode of the 2nd season of The Twilight Zone. In my last Impressions of The Twilight Zone, I mentioned that most of the episodes have a twist or some sense of irony to finish off the story. The impact this has on the episode really changes the overall feeling of each one. Some present a different emotion, some give us some perspective on the real world, and some just create a shocking moment for the viewer to take with us. Shadow Play is a bit more in the last category, although it’s well done and does present the viewer with a bit of a question about reality.
Shadow Play starts almost play like with a spotlight on two characters at a table. The rest of the “stage” is revealed when the lights go up, and we realize we are in a courtroom. Adam Grant, our main character, is found guilty and sentenced to death for murder. He has a bit of a breakdown appealing to people, including the DA Henry and Journalist Paul, that this is all his dream and that when he dies, they all die.
We are then in the area of prison with people on death row. We get the overwhelming feeling of loneliness, depression, and insanity that they are each facing. Grant is harsh with the prisoners but then apologizes and explains that he is tired of repeating it. Jiggs, a fellow inmate, tells Grant not to think about it, that they are all scared. Grant, however, is able to explain exactly what is coming for all of them in a creepy and well-done monologue.
We get an interesting quick cut using sound to the DA’s home. Paul is there to convince the DA to see Grant one more time because he believes him. He begins to question if this might all, in fact, be a dream and if they are all staring down at their own deaths. Henry says that these questions are normal and that if you are successful in life, you wonder if it’s a dream, and if you aren’t, you wonder if it’s a nightmare. Grant’s insistence that it’s a dream proves nothing but that he is human. He can’t handle what he’s done and what will happen to him, so it’s a nightmare. This is a fair supposition, and one of the ways the episode branches to the question of “is this all a dream” and how it can impact us in real life.
The DA relents, though, and goes and sees Grant one more time. Grant is able to point out inconsistencies to both the DA and other people around him. For instance, Jiggs is wearing a watch, something he would not have on death row. This is just one example, and he is able to make a stronger case by “changing” the DA’s dinner that was left in the oven.
A priest visits Grant, and Grant begins to remember “him” from his childhood, only that he died. Grant then starts to try to piece together who the other people he is dreaming of are. Was the person who the DA this time, as the characters change, a friend of his dad’s perhaps? The priest looks shocked and disturbed by what he is hearing.
The priest is not the only one around Grant that is greatly impacted by him and what he is saying. Jiggs does not believe him but seems sympathetic. Paul is scared of their fate. Henry is stuck trying to decide if he wants to believe Grant or stick with what he believes in reality. Paul is finally able to convince the DA that, at the very least, Grant truly believes that he is in a dream, so that means he is not mentally competent enough to be executed, even if he is wrong.
The execution is stopped at the last moment.
We cut to a spotlight on Grant. This time when the cycle begins, Jiggs is the judge, and other characters have been switched around. We hear Rod Sterling’s outro over Grant having another breakdown, questioning how we all know we aren’t simply living in someone else’s dream. I think aside from presenting the existential question, there is also the question of how many layers are here. Why is Grant unable to stop the cycle? Can he not control aspects in his real life to change the dream? Why did getting the execution stopped not change things? Is it that Grant isn’t even the dreamer like he believes, but rather the main character in even another person’s dream?
It is not the most emotionally or socially impactful episode. It is not like The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, which presents a twist that challenges us and tells us we are the monsters in our reality. It also doesn’t hit as hard emotionally as, say, Nothing in the Dark. However, it is a solid episode with a decent twist.
It is also not without emotion to it. Grant’s fear and clear trauma over dying, again and again, is sad to watch. As is the notion of not being believed. The fear of knowing something and not being listened to is a relatable one because while not to “save the world,” degree many of us have felt the frustration and pain of not being understood or believed.
Also, the idea that nothing Grant can do, not even stopping himself from being killed, will stop this cycle from repeating is terrifying. Grant will be forced to nightly face having to convince people not to kill him, only this time not to save them all but just to avoid the pain of another death.
It’s an exceptionally well-done episode. The acting is good, although with a few of the over-the-top and dramatic moments that we expect – and that I love – from The Twilight Zone. It is also a solid story that plays out well.
Shadow Play doesn’t make me think like some other episodes do; it does, however, entertain. I appreciate the existential question of “how do we know what is real,” but it is not one that sticks with me for all that long. Though I do appreciate, intentional or not, the mystery of the level of Grant’s control. Why does stopping his death change nothing? Why can he control the dream to the level of changing the DA’s dinner but nothing else? I won’t wax poetic about these points like I might about the messaging in other episodes, but I think they are worthy of taking notice of.
So bottom line? Well, aside from the fact that I basically recommend the entire original series, I do think this episode needs to be on more to-watch or rewatch lists. Again, it might not be the most profound, but it’s well done and has a compelling story. It gets lost in the drama of “It’s a cookbook!” and other more famous episodes, but it’s really solid from start to finish. Also, the question of “are we real” is a theme in sci-fi that is worth reflecting on, and I like seeing how different media tackles it. I think The Twilight Zone went about it in an interesting way. Give Shadow Play a watch if you are looking for episodes to take a look at. Also, if you have any thoughts on if Grant is the dreamer or any other aspect, let me know in the comments. I would love to hear others’ thoughts.