As humans, we are always searching. We’re searching for who we are, what we’re supposed to do, what we’re meant for. We continually search, but we never really seem to get the upper hand. Every time we think we’re at the top, something always knocks us back down, and we have to start all over again. We question our existence all the time, and for sheer moments, we totally know who we are, but then, in an instant, we’re back to the drawing board. The classic Twilight Zone episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit takes the idea of existentialism — the philosophy of knowing who you are and being able to cast your acts of will — into a troubling experience for five characters. It’s frightening not to know who you are, but what if you were also in a place where you don’t know how you got there? 

Five Characters in Search of an Exit tells the story of literally five characters. We’re introduced to an Army Major (William Windom); he starts off his journey disheveled, confused. He looks around and wonders where he is, only to see a light above him and no way to climb up. Everything is solid around him, hollow. It appears that he’s alone, but wait … there’s a clown (Murray Matheson). The Major, more confused as ever, doesn’t understand, as we don’t understand. What’s happening? Where are they? Our clown puts it into perspective for him, but the Major doesn’t understand.

The Major asks if there must be a circus around there. He states, “… there must be a circus. A clown, a circus. An officer, a war. That’s logic, right? But it doesn’t figure at all. Not at all.” The Clown says the Major is just like the rest of them. Wait … the rest of them?! He turns to see a ballet dancer (Susan Harrison), a hobo (Paul Wexler), a … bagpiper (Clark Allen)?! Okay, logic dictates that these things do not belong together, but here they are, in this place together with no idea who they are and no idea how they got there.

This episode is a superb testament of how great Rod Serling is as a writer, as well as an adapter. This story was adapted from the story “The Depository” by Marvin Petal and the title mashed together from Six Characters in Search of an Author, a Pirandello play, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. It involves no setting at all except for an unidentified formless space. The dialogue, a Serling specialty, completely takes over the story. We search for the whys, the whats, and the wheres from Serling’s introduction, inching towards it every time, but we’re still given so little until those final moments. It makes the episode a mystery of its own. It’s an episode that solely relies on you taking the context clues and logic and putting them together yourself. As Serling says in his intro, “We will not end the nightmare, we’ll only explain it …” 

It’s hard to see characters have a bad time in The Twilight Zone. It’s even harder to see these characters have an even worse time. Not knowing who they are or where they are is just the tip of the ever-cracking iceberg. The only thing to signal that they might be around people is an ominous bell that rings every so often. It’s frightening, perhaps maddening to know that someone’s out there, they know why you’re there, but they can’t hear you, no matter how much you shout. It’s equally frightening to know that you don’t know yourself. That’s probably the scariest notion of all. 

The twist at the end of this episode comes with a shut and then an upset. The team tries to formulate a plan to get out. They finally succeed, but just when you think the Major is out, he falls into the snow. We’re lead back into the place where the other team looks up, and the Ballerina hopes that the Major will come back. We fade, but when everything comes back, a little girl finds something in the snow. She finds a doll? That’s odd. Oh, but get this, the doll is wearing the same exact close as the Major. She taps on the woman ringing the bell outside a circular bin. When the twist comes to you, you don’t expect it. These five characters are not people. They’re not even human. Christmas time is here, and the Viewpark Girls Home is having a Christmas Doll Drive. Who are they? They are the discarded toys for the drive. 

The Meaning & The Lesson

Since this episode relies on context clues, we have to assume a lot of what they’re going through. What are they?  They are themselves. A Clown, a Hobo, a Ballerina, a Major, and a Bagpiper, but who are they? They’re characters. We look for characters in everything, and even we, sometimes, are characters in the sense of what we do for our job and what we do in life. We have titles for what we do. We’re writers, artists, creators, innovators, actors, and so on. We identify our professional and personal existence with these titles. We are these characters in a sense and are also trying to find context clues to create our own existence. 

This episode is a bit sad for a lot of reasons. The toys don’t know who they are or where they truly belong. Rod Serling, in his last monologue, sheds a little bit of light on the deeming situation as the Ballerina cries inside the cylinder. The hope is that these five characters, these discarded toys, will end up in the hands of children who will love them. That will allow them to find a sense of identity and existence with that child who wants to care for them at the girls’ home. 

We are shown a little bit of a lot of things, but we are also shown a lot of existentialism. The characters didn’t know who they were. They needed to get outside of the tin to know who, what, and where they are. When they did, the cycle repeats itself, but until they find themselves in the hands of a child, that’s where their true existence can lie. As humans, we ponder our existence because that’s what we do. We’re eager to know about ourselves. In this episode, I think the lesson out of all of this is to take your time learning about yourself. Take your time figuring some shit out for yourself, because you’d find something you don’t want to know.

In this episode, the characters also deal with apathy and personal responsibility that we all face, as well. The apathy comes from the characters who have been there already except the Ballerina. They’ve accepted their fate; they know that they’re probably not going to get out until something changes; they’re numb to it all. Their lack of concern with what’s happening, the whys, whats, and wheres aren’t important to them. However, the Major and Ballerina have the personal responsibility to know what’s happening to them. They need to figure out who they are, what they’re doing there, and how they get out. It’s like the choices that we have to make as well. Do we want to lie down and go “meh” when we need to figure out what to do? Or do we want actually to get up and get sh*t done? You want to do the second one, by the way; life might be hard, but you got this … you totally got this.