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"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" is an episode of the The Twilight Zone.
"Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an Army major - a collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation; just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment, we'll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats, and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we'll only explain it - because this is the Twilight Zone."
A uniformed Army major wakes up to find himself trapped inside in a large metal cylinder, where he meets a hobo, a ballet dancer, a bagpiper, and a clown. None of them have any memory of who they are or how they became trapped. The major, being the newest arrival, is the most determined to escape. He is told there is no way out except the ceiling, which is too high to reach but nonetheless he investigates and perseveres. The major's questioning reveals that the characters have no need for food or water and indeed feel nothing in general, except for pain. The characters question where, what and who they are. The ballerina informs the major, "We are in the darkness; nameless things with no memory—no knowledge of what went before, no understanding of what is now, no knowledge of what will be." Guesses are made about the nature of where they have been placed: the ballerina speculates that they are on another planet or a spaceship or that they are insane and are perceiving a mirage; the hobo that they are all dead and in limbo; the bagpiper that they do not exist but are dream figures of somebody else's imagination; while the clown, who ironically, seems to be the most reasoning of them all, claims they are all players in each other's dreams, but then suggests the answers to these questions are infinite, thus unsolvable and immaterial. The major then concludes that they are in Hell. Eventually, the major suggests a plan to escape: forming a tower of people, each person on the other's shoulders. The plan almost works, but a loud sound shakes the cylinder and sends the five tumbling to the ground. Now even more determined, the major fashions a grappling hook out of loose bits of clothing and his sword. By reforming the tower, he manages to grapple onto the edge of the container. As he turns to survey the area surrounding the cylinder, he tumbles to the ground outside. The other characters talk about him, and the clown says that he may be right, and they may be in Hell. The scene cuts to a little girl picking up a doll from the snow, a doll in the dress of an army major. A kindly woman tells her, "Put it back in the barrel with the rest of them." It is revealed that the cylinder is a Christmas toy collection bin for a girls' orphanage and that all five characters are nothing more than dolls. The loud noise was the shaking of a handheld bell which the woman used to attract donations. The final shot is of the five characters, now seen as dolls with painted faces and glass eyes. The ballet dancer moves to hold the hand of the major and her eyes fill with tears.
"Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth, wrought in a distorted image of human life. But this added, hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a major. Tonight's cast of players on the odd stage - known as - The Twilight Zone."
Preview for Next Week's Story
Next week, Mr. Dean Stockwell makes his journey into The Twilight Zone playing the role of a platoon lieutenant on Corregidor during the last few hours of World War II. What happens to him provides the basis of a weird, and yet, we think, haunting excursion into the shadowland of imagination. On The Twilight Zone next week, Mr. Dean Stockwell stars in "The Quality of Mercy."
Response and Analysis
Often thought of as one of the finest episodes.
- The title is a variation on the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author and Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
- The last shot of the episode, in which the five characters are seen in doll form, does not feature the actors; rather, specially made dolls were crafted that closely resembled the five actors who played the parts, and these are shown.
- The little girl who appears at the end of this episode was portrayed by the daughter of longtime Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton.
- End titles screen features the street corner Christmas toy collection drive.
- The episode was reportedly an inspiration for the 1997 film Cube.
- The TV series Felicity paid homage to "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" in the season 2 episode 11 episode "Help for the Lovelorn"; it was directed by Lamont Johnson.
- Main article: List of memorable quotes from the first series