Twilight Zone: Ranking the Top 7 Episodes

Greetings From the Twilight Zone

Narrator: You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. The science fiction anthology allowed creator Rod Serling to explore politics and society through the lens of bug-eyed aliens and occult mysteries. Twist endings kept viewers glued to their screen until the last credit rolled.

Many episodes were popular enough to enter the public conversation. Even if you’ve never seen any, you recognize the stories and know their twists. But which are the best? Submitted for your approval are the Top 7 Episodes of The Twilight Zone in its original 1959-1964 run.

#7 Night of the Meek

Starring: Art Carney, John Fiedler, Val Avery, Meg Wyllie

Corwin:Do you know another reason why I drink, Mr. Dundee? So that when I walk down the tenements, I can really think it’s the North Pole, and the children are elves and that I’m really Santa Claus, bringing them a bag of wondrous gifts for all of them!

Night of the Meek (Season 2, Episode 11)

Synopsis: Corwin shows up for work as a department store Santa while drunk and depressed about his run-down tenement. Despite a passionate defense, he is fired by his cranky boss. Corwin wanders until he discovers a bag of perfect, endless Christmas presents. He gives gifts to everyone, but his former boss accuses him of theft. Can Corwin prove his innocence? And where did the bag come from?

Why This Episode?: Art Carney is on top of his game as Corwin. You truly believe his misery as he rails against the hand fate dealt him and how no one seems to care. But the bag changes his tune as he joyfully hands out coats, toys, and fine wine to everyone, even his former boss and arresting officer.

Night of the Meek starts as one of the bleakest Twilight Zone episodes and ends as its most triumphant. The city is dark, the cold is bitter, and the people are miserable despite the colorful trappings of Christmas. But once Corwin begins giving gifts, the world seems to warm with a sense of peace on Earth and goodwill toward all men. Rod Serling even throws a Merry Christmas into the denouement.

#6 Little Girl Lost

Starring: Robert Sampson, Sarah Marshall, Charles Aidman, Whoda Williams

Rod Serling: Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard… “Ay, there’s the rub“, as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen, at all.

Little Girl Lost” (Season 3, Episode 26

Synopsis: Chris and Ruth are awakened by their crying daughter. They can’t find her, but can clearly hear her. The family dog runs under Tina’s bed and disappears. Chris calls in a physicist friend who reveals she has fallen into another dimension. Can they save Tina before it’s too late?

Why This Episode?: Little Girl Lost has the scariest premise of any Twilight Zone episode: being unable to find your child. It’s a premise episode writer Richard Matheson knew intimately thanks to a similar, but mundane incident with his daughter.

Robert Sampson and Sarah Marshall sell their characters’ fear well. Adiman’s physicist character Bill is a highlight, succinctly explaining alternate dimensions five years before Star Trek and only one year after Flash introduced DC’s multiverse. The other dimension is an eerie place, constantly shifting like smoke and dreams. The effects are movie quality for their time.

#5 The Masks

Starring: Robert Keith, Milton Selzer, Virginia Gregg, Brook Hayward, and Alan Sues

Emily:Are you feeling weaker, father?”
Jason:At last, a note of hope in your voice, Emily!”
Emily:Why must you always say such miserable, cruel things to me?!”
Wilfred:I quite agree, father!”
Jason:Why indeed, Emily. Because you’re cruel and miserable people. Because none of you respond to love.”

The Masks (Season 5, Episode 14)

Synopsis: Millionaire Jason Foster is dying of old age. His estranged daughter’s family travels to his New Orleans home to claim his inheritance. Jason has added a stipulation to his will that his family must follow a Mardi Gras tradition and wear four special masks until midnight to receive an inheritance. They reluctantly agree and their long-simmering grudges erupt as they wait until midnight.

Why This Episode?: Robert Keith portrays a kind, but Scrooge-like millionaire who knows his time has come. He spends the episode snarking at his gold-digging family, picking apart their flaws with a vengeful catharsis that only a deathbed can grant.

The family’s flaws are on display. Daughter Emily is a hypochondriac while her husband is greedy and hates Jason. Their daughter is a vain narcissist while their quiet son is said to be a sadist who tortures animals.

Fun Fact: This episode is directed by Ida Lupino, who had previously starred in an episode called “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” She is the only woman and only actor in the show to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone.

#4 One For The Angels

Starring: Ed Wynn, Murray Hamilton, Dana Dillaway

The Stranger:You, Mr. Bookman, fall into the category of… natural causes.”
Mr. Bookman: ‘Natural causes?’ Number one, I find you a very devious sort. Number two, I think that you’re dishonest. Number three, why don’t you say what you mean?
The Stranger: Mr. Bookman, I’ve done everything but phone your own undertaker. How much clearer do you want it? If you still don’t know who I am, then you’re the most dense man I’ve come up against.

“One For The Angels” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Synopsis: Lew Bookman is a pitchman who makes up stories about his wares to entertain local children. He is visited by a stranger who reveals himself to be Death. Lew tricks Death into an extension until he makes the perfect pitch, but quits his job so he won’t die. When Death threatens one of his young friends, Lew must find a way to stop the Grim Reaper.

Why This Episode?: Ed Wynn is in rare form as a fast-talking trickster trying to swindle his way from Death’s grasp. Lew is good natured and kind, but conniving. He carries the episode with persuasive pitches and a dollop of cowardice that blooms into courage when a child is endangered.

Mr. Death is a perfect foil to Lew. He performs his job without malice and calls Lew out on his failings without any heat. There’s a lot of ambiguity in his actions, opening debates on whether he’s falling for Lew’s tricks or trying to steer him in the right direction.

#3 The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

Starring: Claude Akins, Barry Atwater, Jack Weston, Anne Barton

Rod Serling: “At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street in the last calm and reflective moment… before the monsters came.

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (Season 1, Episode 22)

Synopsis: A strange object soars through the sky, disabling everything that uses electricity in the neighborhood. The residents debate what it was until a child raises the idea of shapeshifting alien infiltrators. The story, alongside incidents where technology starts working again for specific people, whips the neighborhood into paranoia. Is there an alien among them?

Why This Episode?: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street features an ensemble where there is no main character. Different neighbors take the spotlight as oddities and habits become damning evidence for the supposed aliens.

The mystery builds as the residents grow scared and angry enough to hurl accusations with abandon. Things bottom out when one person grabs a shotgun to protect himself. A dreadful accident brings the town to a fever pitch resulting in one of the show’s most terrifying finales.

#2 The Shelter

Starring: Larry Gates, Jackie Albertson, Sandy Kenyon, Peggy Stewart

Rod Serling: What you are about to watch is a nightmare. It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen, it’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen. This is the Twilight Zone.

“The Shelter” (Season 3, Episode 3)

Synopsis: Neighbors gather to celebrate local doctor Bill’s birthday. They rib him over having built a fallout shelter instead of partying, only to be surprised by news of flying objects approaching. The doctor and his family lock themselves in the shelter while their guests panic. As the clock runs down, can the guest convince him to share the shelter?

Why This Episode?: Larry Gates portrays a man in an impossible situation. Dr. Bill built the shelter with only his family in mind, meaning there isn’t enough space or air for anyone else to join. He perfectly portrays sorrow over having to let everyone else die and rage that they wouldn’t heed his warnings.

The neighbors are all terrified, knowing the shelter is their only chance of survival. They try every trick they can think of, appealing to the Hippocratic Oath, begging for their children’s lives, and accusing Bill of killing them. Tensions mount at their approaching doom, leading to arguments among them over who deserves to live.

#1 He’s Alive

Starring: Dennis Hopper, Ludwig Donath, Curt Conway, Howard Caine

The Shadow:When you speak to them, speak to them as if you were a member of the mob. Speak to them in their language, on their level. Make their hate your hate. If they are poor, talk to them of poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr. Vollmer, if they are angry, give them objects for their anger!

“He’s Alive” (Season 4, Episode 4)

Synopsis: Neo-Nazi Peter Vollmer struggles to spread his message to the masses. He quarrels with Ernst, a Holocaust survivor who cared for him, but despises his new path. A mysterious shadow appears to Peter, offering advice that makes him a figurehead of Nazism. Can Ernst prevent a second Holocaust? And who is The Shadow emboldening Peter?

Why This Episode?: He’s Alive shows the ease of whipping up mob violence. The shadow offers sound advice for making others listen while nudging Peter into atrocities. It’s easy to hear modern world leaders speaking Pete’s lines. The Shadow steals the show, even if his ultimate identity is easy to discern.

Ludwig Donath puts in a stellar performance as Holocaust survivor Ernst. Donath fled Germany and later Austria to escape World War II and you can hear authenticity in his voice when he rails against Peter and his Neo-Nazi followers.

There are many classic episodes we couldn’t cover including one of my personal favorites. Which are your favorites? We await your comments… in the Twilight Zone.

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  • Sue Millinocket

    October 18, 2023 at 12:34 pm

    The saddest episode I remember is the one where the man wants nothing more than to read in peace. When he becomes the last man on Earth he thinks his dream has come true...until he breaks his glasses.

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