Would you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for your heart’s desire? In “Escape Clause” from season 1, that’s exactly what Walter Bedeker does in order to achieve immortality. As with all contracts with Satan, though, the bargainer inevitably comes out a loser. You just can’t out think Lucifer!
As Rod Serling introduces the story, Walter Bedeker, age 44 (wow, people didn’t age well back in those days, did they?) is being examined by a doctor making a house call. Nothing is wrong with Walter; he’s just an insufferable hypochondriac, and a mean and spiteful one, too. Imagine calling your doctor stupid! But Walter has grown weary of his mortal existence and during an epic rant questioning why a man can’t live for at least 500 or even 1,000 years, the devil shows up ready to strike a deal.
Ted Cadwallader, the devil’s name for himself in this story, offers Walter an irresistible opportunity to be immortal with the stipulation that he can choose the time of his death if he ever gets tired of living. Walter is sure that he has planned for all possible contingencies. He dreams up one death-defying stunt after another, collecting insurance money when he comes out of it unscathed.
During one death attempt when he is planning to jump off a building, Walter accidentally pushes his long-suffering wife over the edge instead and she dies instantly. The police come and Walter readily admits to the crime, salivating over the thrill of surviving the electric chair. In a true Twilight Zone twist, Walter’s clever lawyer gets him acquitted of the death penalty in favor of life in prison.
At this point, Ted Cadwallader visits Walter in jail and reminds him of his escape clause. Pondering the prospect of spending eternity in jail, Walter begrudgingly invokes the clause and suffers a fatal heart attack. Paid in full, the devil has won.
The nastiness of this character, Walter Bedeker, reminds me of another obnoxious curmudgeon in season 2’s “The Mind and the Matter,” Archibald Beechcroft, played by Shelley Berman. This guy also hates everything and everybody. Instead of dealing with Satan, though, he wishes for everyone to be like him using some mind control techniques he read about in a book. Fortunately for Beechcroft, when he tires of seeing himself everywhere all the time, he is able to rescind the wish and things go back to the way they were.
Who makes deals with the devil?
Who in their right mind would bargain with the devil? How could you ever win? In short, you can’t, but an arrogant, foolhardy and just plain dumb person will be stupid enough to try. I do have to wonder why Walter gave up so easily. Couldn’t he have tried to escape? Eventually he might have broken out of jail and fled to some remote location. After a couple of hundred years or so, the authorities would have given up looking for him. Even if they found him, who would believe it was the same man after such a long time? But as I stated earlier, a person has to be just plain dumb to deal with the devil in the first place.
In this story, Walter is a nasty sort that no one would want to be around. He’s obviously never been to Sunday school, either, otherwise he’d never even conceive of the idea of dealing with Satan. How can you outwit the chief of liars? Can the devil ever lose? Not when you bargain with him. Christianity teaches that Satan had already won before Christ came to save us. However, we won’t be burdened with religion in this story.
Committing the perfect crime has been a tempting prize as long as humans have inhabited the planet, but it’s hard enough to fool other people, let alone a once heavenly being. Just watch Columbo or Perry Mason. They always figure out who did it, but Satan is much smarter than those guys. Corruption is a good tool for getting away with crimes, but that only works if you’re a politician or rich, preferably both. For the common man (or woman), the best laid plans are never good enough and anyone who attempts it is doomed at the outset.
Speaking of doom, just what awaits the poor unfortunate soul who is on the road to perdition? Fire and brimstone? Scary ghouls? Darkness? The topic of eternal damnation has been debated by theologians for centuries without a definitive answer. We’re left to shudder at the prospect, whatever it is.
Perhaps all of us fall into one of two camps. There are those of us who won’t take a stupid risk, submit to a dare or go out on a limb in any way. I call that group those who don’t want to go to hell. The other group lives in the moment, is excited by the rush and goes all out for anything. Are they going to hell? Not necessarily, but it’s a good start!
The devil always knows what we crave. He just wants us to push the easy button instead of working hard to get it honestly. Remember the warlock who offered a book of spells to the Confederate soldiers in “Still Valley?” Just say this incantation, the warlock tempts them, and you’ll win the war! The Southerners refused the wicked proposition, preferring instead to die on hallowed ground.
Does the devil go around making deals with people? No, not as Ted Cadwallader signing a contract with a simpleton like Walter Bedeker or as a warlock presenting a book of spells. “Escape Clause” is a great morality lesson: Don’t deal with the devil, don’t be a fool. Of course, Satan doesn’t operate that way, though. It’s too much work. Instead, he lurks in our minds, telling us we can’t achieve that goal or no one will like us or we’ll look foolish if we try to get that job. When Walter asks Ted Cadwallader where he came from, he tells him that he has never been gone; he’s been there for some time.
If the devil shows up and tempts someone and they say “get thee behind me Satan,” that’s a great lesson for Sunday school. But in the Twilight Zone, we’re exploring the flawed people who do take the devil up on his offer. It’s a good lesson all the same.
“Escape Clause” boasts a terrific ensemble of character actors, starting with David Wayne, who does a great job with detestable and arrogant Walter Bedeker. Wayne was a veteran actor when he secured the role, having acted with the likes of Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra. For you Dallas TV show fans, Wayne played Digger Barnes, father of Bobby Ewing’s wife, Pam. I confess, I was a Dallas fan.
Thomas Gomez was the sly, smooth-talking devil who only wanted one little insignificant, teensy weensy, barely noticeable thing, a minor item from Walter–his soul. Gomez was the first Hispanic-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for “Ride the Pink Horse.”
The part of the doctor in the opening scene was played by Raymond Bailey, who is seen in season 2’s “Back There” and who went on to fame in “The Beverly Hillbillies” as Milburn Drysdale.
Another bit part was played by Joe Flynn, well known for his role as Captain Binghamton in “McHale’s Navy.” Flynn was one of two insurance agents bringing Walter checks for surviving yet another death attempt.
Walter’s harried wife, Ethel, (who would marry this guy?) was played by Virginia Christine. She had a long and busy acting career, too, but if you don’t remember her, think of the Folger’s coffee commercials from the 1960s. She was Mrs. Olson who told everybody about how great Folger’s was. Remember the Swedish accent? If you’re too young to remember it, check it out here:
Great lessons to be learned from the Twilight Zone.