Serling is quite good at describing losers. In “What You Need” Mr. Fred Renard is described as “a sour man, a friendless man, a lonely man, a grasping, compulsive nervous man. This is a man who has lived 36 undistinguished meaningless, pointless, failure-laden years …” In “The Four of Us are Dying” “His name is Arch Hammer… This is a cheap man, a nickel and dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt, a cheapness of mind, a cheapness of taste, a tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience and a dark-roomed squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him.” Hammer is also 36. But Serling’s interest in him rests on his special talent. He can take on the appearance of other persons. Maybe he can even become those other persons.
Is Hammer the same person undistinguished person throughout the episode or is he four people, Arch Hammer and the three persons whose appearance he borrows? What changes is simply his outward appearance, and if we judge the identity of others by that appearance,then he is simply incorrectly judged to be someone other than himself by various others. If he really “becomes” each person whose appearance he takes on, what happens to the others? How would we decide? Is this a case of the fission of personal identity, or just a case of mistaken identities? Tracking personhood through this episode is a deep and difficult philosophical problem.
Hammar achieves the appearance change by concentration, and he selects his appearance to fit his circumstances. He take on the lives of those who are more successful than he is, and he can jump into their lives when they are not around, filling in or extending the identities of others. This gets him romance, but it also gets him into hot water, when the person(s) he takes on has liabilities he doesn’t know about. Taking on someone else’s identity is a risky business, as Hammer finds out very quickly.
Hammer’s power of concentration fails him just when he needs it most, to escape the person he has inhabited for another. Perhaps this hints at the a resolution to the question of the origin of personal identity. Is personhood founded in the continuity of our consciousness or in the external identification of us by others? Serling’s answer appears to be the latter. The power of other-identification trumps the first-person perspective.