I thought I was going to hate this. I read Stephen King's Danse Macabre back in high school; if you're unfamiliar with the book, it's King's overview of the horror genre in literature, film, and television, and it's a fun read, especially considering I was a teenager desperate to find new things to try. The only problem is, King's very opinionated. That's good, because it makes him passionate and invested in what he's talking about, and he's smart enough to justify most of his opinions. But there are sections of Danse which can be outright dismissive, like King's tirade against the filmography of Ed Wood, and his somewhat condescending take on The Twilight Zone. Basically an excuse to boost The Outer Limits by taking the better known Zone down a few pegs, King criticized Serling's purple dialog, his often predictable reliance on twists, and, as is relevant to today's first episode, Serling's occasionally soppy sentimentality. Even though I'd long since realized that, much as I admire King and enjoy his work, I don't always agree with his critical judgment, I still had it in my head that "Wish" is a "bad" episode.
Now that I've actually seen it, I no longer think this is true. Maybe "The Big Tall Wish" benefited from my lowered expectations, but this one worked for me. Sure it's soppy, but there's enough pain and sadness that the soppiness feels earned. After all, this is the story of a little kid with the power to make whatever he wants happen, just by wishing it; only, it doesn't matter, since any wish he makes big enough to make the world better, nobody's going to believe it long enough for it to take hold. This episode would make a fine companion piece for "It's A Good Life," a third season episode in which a sociopathic eight year-old (ie, an eight year-old) holds an entire town hostage with the power of his mind. Both episodes transform the intensity and passion of a child's ability to believe in the impossible into a power with a demonstrable effect on reality. In "Good Life," this effect just happens to be absolutely terrifying. "Wish" is more optimistic about the dreams of young boys, or at least one young boy. Henry just wants everything to work out for the people he loves. But it's just not as simple as wanting.
Henry's had some luck with his wanting before; his mother, Frances tells family friend Bolie Jackson that was short on rent last month, and Henry made what he called "the big tall wish," and a check that just happened to match the amount she needed came in the mail next day. But that was an easy enough wish to pull off. The check came from Frances's aunt, and required little in the way of suspension of disbelief. It was easy to assume it was all just a coincidence; Henry seems like an intense kid, he's probably always saying crazy stuff. But his next wish isn't so simple. Bolie is a washed up prize-fighter going back into the ring for a match there's no hope he can win. He's broken, beaten, and down on his luck, and he could use a lucky break. Only, when Henry gives him that lucky break, wishing so hard that he changes the outcome of the fight right at the moment when Bolie seems most likely to lose it, Bolie can't quite accept his good fortune. He wants to, he really does, but he's sure deep in his hear that the world doesn't work this way. Losers don't get second chances, and little kids can't change the world just by wanting it. So Henry's wish loses its magic, and Bolie is brought back to the fight, and this time he loses just like he knew he would.
Given the episode's reputation as a mire of sentiment, I was surprised by that ending. There's not a lot of hope in it. Bolie's still a good man, and no one dies or suffers unduly, but the sight of a good man so wrecked by experience that he can't accept it when he's given an amazing gift isn't exactly a pick-me-up. You could read Bolie's lack of faith as a refusal to accept a hand out, even one given with the best of intentions, but it doesn't play that way. The moral or message or punchline of "Wish" is that magic does exist; it's just that most grown-ups are too wrecked by their own lives to accept it. I suppose there's a religious allegory in there somewhere, but the episode doesn't seem to be pushing one. It's more interested in the way innocence allows children the freedom to believe that life could be better than it is, and adulthood means accepting that, no, it probably can't.
"Wish" overplays this card to a certain extent; a decent chunk of the episode is taken up with Bolie talking about how miserable everything is, and saying how he can't accept that life might not be miserable. This starts off as sad and understandable, but by the end, well, we get it. Bolie is a depressed dude, he has every reason to be glum, and we don't really need him to flat out say, "I guess there's no magic because no one believes in it any more." We get it. We just watched twenty-five minutes demonstrating it. There's also a scene between Bolie and a guy at the boxing arena that exists entirely to remind us that Bolie is supposed to lose this fight, and that he's got integrity, and while it's not a bad scene, in retrospect, I'm not sure why it's there. Maybe to justify Bolie's later inability to accept Henry's wish? That's fine for what it's worth, but the first half of half of the episode is building towards a plot that never really comes into focus. It almost might've made sense to focus more on Henry, since he's the one who goes through the character arc, even more so than Bolie. At the start of the episode, Henry believes can wish the world different; at the end, he doesn't.
Still, by and large "Wish" is effective, because Henry's arc is a powerful one, even if we see it mostly from the sidelines. The story's simplicity is one of its strengths, because it doesn't chicken out in the end or offer any compromising optimism, but it's also not painfully grim. It's simply stating the facts. Bolie doesn't die in the end when he loses the fight, and while he's disappointed, he's still essentially enough himself to make it a point to come wish Henry good night. Life goes on; it just doesn't have room for big tall miracles.
For all its tendency to overstate its message, "Wish" also has its share of subtleties. This is the first episode we've had with a predominantly African American cast, but no one makes a big deal out of it. You could read Bolie's lack of belief or Frances' poverty as symptomatic of being a repressed minority in world run by greedy white dudes, but you don't have to. The episode makes you put those pieces together on your own. There's also the contrast between the two realities Bolie experiences; when he wins the fight, everyone's clapping him on the back and congratulating him, but when he loses, nobody will look him in the eye. The acting in the episode is strong on all counts, and I especially liked how Perry plays Henry--a sweet kid, but there's something a little too intense about him. When he makes his big wish for Bolie, he has to run up to the TV screen and press his face against it, in a way that's so nakedly desperate it almost makes you uncomfortable, whether or not he succeeds. Kids are like that; when you get down to it, kids believe harder than anybody. In the end, that might be what won me over on "Wish"; the idea that maybe the world is full of kids with the power to make wishes, big or tall or otherwise, but growing up means accepting wishing only goes so far.