6.01.2016

The Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

Next up:
"A Stop at Willoughby," Season 1, Episode 30.

"This is Gart Williams, age thirty-eight, a man protected by a suit of armor, all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt, and Mr. Williams' protection fell away from him and left him a naked target. He's been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. 

Mr. Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who, in just a moment, will move into the Twilight Zone - in a desperate search for survival."

Kind of a flowery intro, eh? Plus, I thought it was Garth all these years. Because what the hell kind of name is Gart?

I'll break down the plot momentarily, but let's start with this picture right here.   


That's James Daly, the beleaguered Everyman described above, upon his arrival in the town of Willoughby. The children are there to greet him, but if you look a little closer, they're not actually children at all, are they? They're changelings. Or some other nether-creatures that have taken the shape of humans imperfectly. They are there only to mesmerize Gart into some kind of out-of-the-way lair where they can eat his soul.


I'm just saying, if these kids came up to you and reached for your hand and told you how you're really going to love it here, mister - sure all of this is impossible, your rational mind knows that, but take our hands, play with us, forever, here in the unhurried past - wouldn't you run as fast as your legs could carry you? Some kind of adrenaline response to your flesh crawling in terror? Or would you make plans to come back, go home and dreamily natter on about it to your wife and anyone else who will listen?

We'll come back to this, though.

Meet Gart.

As Serling mentions, Gart is an advertising executive at a push-push-push Madison Avenue firm. His protégé has abruptly quit the firm and taken a $3m account to another agency. His boss harangues him with his mantra ("This is a push-push business, Williams! All the way, down the line! PUSH AND DRIVE!") until Garth snaps, lashes out, then flees.

Unsure of whether to kill himself or persevere, Garth heads home. On the train ride back to Connecticut, he falls asleep and wakes in a different train, where he's the only passenger.
An old-timey train conductor (James Maloney) assures him he's in Willoughby, a town where it's always summer, July 1888, a lazy place where a man can step to his own pace.
This guy is so great. Politely creepy. My favorite imaginary train conductor this side of the guy in "Emergence" (TNG, s7, e23. "New Vertiform City!")

We'll get to what Willoughby really is in due course, but here's a good description from Scott Beggs at FilmSchoolRejects:

"On the surface, the town is an ice cold lemonade memory of a time that never really existed. It's nostalgia spread out on the earth and allowed to grow into a small community where young boys grab fishing poles, ladies walk through the park on their way to buy a few groceries, and the men make a living by sitting on front porches professionally.

Never mind that they consider the Stephen Foster tunes the local band is playing to be 'new hits,' the appeal of the sleepy little hamlet is strong for the world-weary Williams."

We see the broader picture of Gart's world-weariness when he goes home and - after pouring himself a stiff drink to get "quietly plastered" - is given a tongue-lashing by Jane, his wife. The wife of one of Gart's fellow ad execs called to tell her about Gart's outburst at the meeting. Jane is all high society heels and Tiger Wife spiels, and when Gart tells her about his dream of leaving it all behind for a "dream of a town" like Willoughby, she pretends to listen for awhile and then verbally slaps him upside the head.


"You know what the trouble with you is, Gart? You were just born too late. Because you're a guy that could be satisfied with a summer afternoon or an ice wagon being drawn by a horse." 

"So it's my mistake, pal - my error, my miserable, tragic error to get married to a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn."

Jane is the henpeckish terror the episode requires her to be. (For some contemporary context of this Post WW2 Commuter Man trapped in a deceptively-affluent hamster wheel of his own (with the help of bank loans and peer pressure) devise, see the virtually-forgotten-but-once-zeitgeisty John P. Marquand's Point of No Return, or read Barbara Ehrenreich's The Hearts of Men. It's a theme explored in tons of other places, of course, just those popped into mind.) But of course she has a point - what Gart yearns for is unrealistic: freedom from the demands of his job, his marriage, even his century. (This is all pre-hippies, of course.) And we're given the sense that this self-pitying side of Gart makes regular appearances in their marriage.  

Point is, rightly or wrongly, Gart is one unhappy dude who is either unwilling or incapable of "just going along with it" anymore

Pressures at work continue to mount, and his alienation grows.
He continues to visit the strange town of Willoughby during his evening commute.
And each time it pulls him into it a little more.
"Willoughby? Not on this run. No Willoughby on the line."
Next time, he tells himself, he's going to get off the train.

Things come to a head one day at work when the phones won't stop ringing, his indigestion swells, and he hallucinates his boss' face - two of them, one saying "Push push push, Williams" and the other, "Get with it, boy!" - in the mirror.


When he falls asleep on that evening's commute, this time he does alight the train, all under the watchful smile of the 1888 conductor. He checks the time on his pocketwatch against the station clock, and the camera zooms in on the swinging pendulum -

which becomes the swinging lantern of a train engineer, back in the present.
           

The modern-day conductor explains to another person that Williams "shouted something about Willoughby," just before jumping off the train. He was killed instantly. Williams' body is loaded into a hearse. 

The back door of the hearse closes to reveal the name of the funeral home:

"Willoughby? Maybe it's wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man's mind, or maybe it's the last stop in the vast design of things - or perhaps, for a man like Mr. Gart Williams, who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it's a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is a part... of The Twilight Zone."

As a teenager, when I first saw this, I thought the point of the story was that modern life (the Madison-Avenue-Plastic-Fantastic-Apparatus) crushed and ground up anyone who didn't perform at the pace it demanded, along the same conceptual lines of "The Obsolete Man." And that's part of it, sure - we're definitely meant to feel some sympathy for the Gart Williamses of the world, and we definitely should periodically examine "modern life" (whatever its guise) to determine what we give up in exchange for it. True in 1960, true in 2016. (Perhaps even more urgently, given the accumulated environmental problems contemporary-modern-life presents to us. Not to claim a division between the spiritual and the environmental; I just specifically mean the radiation from cellphones and the toxic dumps in China filled with lithium-ion batteries from laptops, etc.

As an adult, I couldn't help but focus more on the blunt fact of Gart's suicide. It's a dark little tale, dressed up in "nostalgia" clothes. I mean, it's the Twilight Zone: Willoughby might actually exist the way aliens and genies and pocket-dimensions also exist on the show, and maybe what we perceive as Gart's death is actually his leaving this world for that one. Just the same, he's dead at the end, you know? As I alluded to at the beginning, we could easily read Willoughby and its seemingly idyllic denizens as malevolent agents that exploit Gart's civilizational malaise and trick him into committing suicide. Makes just as much sense as reading it as either a hallucination/ rationalization or as a Brigadoon sort of place.
  
One other thing I enjoyed: the dichotomy between ambition and idle nostalgia that everyone in this story believes in so fervently is revealed to be totally false. Both paths equalize in the oblivion of Willoughby. From this angle, "A Stop at Willoughby" is about the power of belief systems: Gart believes so strongly in both the immutability of the "real" world (i.e. he can't simply quit his job or get divorced and accept the consequences) and the reality of the "fake" one that he steps off a fast-moving train to escape and/or chase it.

 

Good stuff. And that "Push Push Push, Williams!" never gets old.

~
 
         

7 comments:

  1. I'll be curious to see this one. On paper, it sounds like something that could come off as cheap and maudlin; but knowing "The Twilight Zone," I doubt it does, and you certainly don't present it that way.

    Other thoughts:

    -- I will now and forever be unable to see anything involving an advertising executive without mentally imposing a "Mad Men" sheen onto it. That's fine by me, to be honest; that show is great.

    -- Would this episode fly in 2016? Would it be accused of presenting suicide in too appealing-seeming a manner? We're all such delicate flowers now that I wonder.

    -- Well done on that "Emergence" reference. For my part, I kept thinking of "The Town Where No One got Off" as I was reading the early part of this.

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    1. I still love "Emergence." I just think it's such a cool little mystery and kind of a love letter/ look back on the whole TNG experience. It never seems to rank highly on people's lists, but, well, that's why I blog. My own lists too often look too different, and I'm attached to them! (Especially the show-your-work part of them, preferably with a hundred screencaps a pop.)

      Doing this episode in 2016 would take some wrangling. Not only for the reason you suggest, but I think audiences are too trained these days to count the number of white faces and then read whatever the story/issue is and come to one of one conclusions. Not everyone, but it's definitely the dominant trend in media-academe, particularly the media-academe which produces most of our TV / pop culture critics. All of which is to say is, Willoughby as it exists in this episode would more than likely be seized upon as a projection of white nostalgia for an age where there were no black faces around, and he's willing to kill himself to get there. A complete misreading, but such are the days we live in.

      Of course, it can be rewritten in such a way (or even a line or two added) to resist this sort of projection, and perhaps it would be. At that point, you'd have to deal with the suicide/ delicate flowers of 2016! Ai yi yi. Who would think that "Willoughby" would be such a nest of controversy!

      I struggled not to bring up "Mad Men" myself.

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  2. My episode this week was "The Lonely." I liked it, but I haven't decided whether I think the ending is a bit too depressing (by which I mean depressing in a contrived way).

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    1. I like "The Lonely," but it's not a favorite. It's an early glimpse of a theme that will be better explored in other sci-fi.

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  3. I watched "Time Enough at Last" tonight. I'd heard of this one, and knew how it turned out. I was a little disappointed in it, given its reputation; but Burgess Meredith is so great in it that I still enjoyed it.

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    1. Count me among the underwhelmed crowd for that episode.

      Earlier tonight and last night I re-watched "Elegy." You're coming up on that one pretty soon, I think. I love that one.

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    2. Part of me wants to accelerate my schedule and start watching two episodes at a time (at least). But I also want to deliberately keep the pace slower; it gives each episode a bit more weight.

      I have no idea what "Elegy" is, but if it receives the DSO seal of approval, consider me excited.

      As for "Time Enough At Last," yeah, it's kind of contrived, isn't it? I mean, that's a doggone understatement; it's ALL contrivance, apart from that excellent performance by Meredith. But I feel as if I would have been blown away by it if I had seen it as a child, so from that standpoint, I give it a thumbs-up.

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