Monday, June 30, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Bigalow's Last Smoke

 Written by Michael McDowell and based on a story by Kenneth Wayne Hanis, "Bigalow's Last Smoke" is like an amalgamation of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc.," A Clockwork Orange, and the works of Franz Kafka. It's dark, paranoid, faintly science fiction but just plausible enough to be believable.

Richard Romanus plays Frank Bigalow, a chain smoker who puffs three packs a day. One day, he wakes up and finds himself trapped in his apartment. On the TV screen, Dr. Synapsis (Sam Anderson) appears and somehow is able to converse with Bigalow. The good doc explains that Bigalow, confined to a replica of his apartment, will be free to leave once he beats his addiction to cigarettes. It seems some time ago, Bigalow signed up for a service that would help him quit, and now, the agency that promises a 100-percent success rate has come to make sure he follows through.

Essentially a one-man, one-set show, "Bigalow's Last Smoke" is a tense, claustrophobic episode, one in which you get the feeling someone is spying on you from around every corner. The apartment is mostly white, giving it a very a clean, sterile look, almost like being locked in a laboratory.  Hidden cameras monitor Bigalow's every movement, and like a rat, he has nowhere to go or hide, and after a while, the pressure gets to him. He tries anger, begging, trickery, threats, and reasoning, but none of it works.

When Bigalow slips up and takes a drag on a cigarette, the company has an excruciating form of punishment. A blaring siren assaults his ear drums and a swirling, colorful bombards his eyeballs until he screams, unable to take anymore. Then, when he comes to, he finds more items of his apartment gone: his food, his books, his wardrobe. Nothing left for him except his addiction and the scrutiny of a technological, impersonal master. It's not quite as grueling or as graphic as the Ludovico Technique, but it gets the job done.

That's what so effective about "Bigalow's Last Smoke." It's about being controlled and observed by something that has complete power over you. It's even more relevant today than when the episode originally aired. Just look at the revelations about the NSA collection of data, warrent-less wiretapping, Facebook collecting personal information, and government drones in the sky, all under the notion it's for our own good; it's needed to keep us safe (or in Facebook's case, make money). Dr. Synapsis uses a similar justification for Bigalow, albeit for personal health reasons rather than national security, but in doing so, he's destroying Bigalow's free will, the very thing that makes him human. Now, that's scary.

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