9.19.2016

The Twilight Zone: The Passersby

Next Up:
"The Passersby," Season 3, Episode 4.

"This road is the afterwards of the Civil War. It began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and ended at a place called Appomattox. It's littered with the residue of broken battles and shattered dreams. (You are about to) enter a strange province that knows neither North nor South, a place we call... The Twilight Zone."

I've been doing a little Civil War reading lately, so this episode's been coming to mind. I remembered the TZ setting quite a few episodes during the War Between the States but looking over the list, I guess there were only 5: this one, "Back There," "Still Valley," "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", and two ("Showdown with Rance McGraw" and "The 7th Is Made of Phantoms") which are kinda/sorta Civil War-related by virtue of featuring Jesse James and General Custer.

5 out of 156 is only 3 percent of the series, so that's not as much as I thought. (The percentage of TZ episodes that are WW2-related? 5. #TheMoreYouKnow)

"The Passersby" is another of my favorite minimalist-set-episodes of the series. The entire story takes place in the front yard of a crumbling Southern house, where a woman (Lavinia Godwin) rocks back and forth on the porch, watching an shambling procession of wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, pass by


One of them, a never-named limping Sergeant with a "guit'box" slung over his shoulder instead of a rifle, steps out of the throng and asks her permission for a drink of water from her well. She gives it, and after refreshing himself, he sits down against the dead tree dominating the front yard and begins to sing and strum a song. She recognizes the tune as one her husband - killed at "Yellow Tavern with General Stuart" - used to sing.     


Although still weak from a recent fever, the bitterness she feels towards the Union animates her. When she sees a man (Charlie Constable) she recognizes among the throng, she rushes out to embrace him and welcome him home, but he seems hypnotized and is eager to continue down the road. 


After Charlie leaves, Lavinia tells the Sergeant that she lives only for the opportunity to avenge her husband's death. ("Someday a Yankee is going to come by here, and I'm going to take out that gun, and I'm going to aim it at him. (But) first I'm going to tell him that he can consider this the last shot of the civil war; a bullet in exchange for the one my husband took.") The Sergeant, disturbed by her attitude, disavows any more butchery or bloodshed.

At that moment, a dark figure on a horse appears and, in a pointedly non-Southern accent, asks for a drink of water. The Sergeant gives it, then recognizes him as the Union lieutenant who stopped to help him after an exploding shell took half of his foot. Lavinia's never seen him before, but she recognizes him, as well.

"Ma'am, Lieutenant here tried to save my life."
"You've thanked him. Now if you'll step aside so I can thank him for a few other services." 

She empties both barrels, but to no avail.

"I couldn't have missed you."
"It doesn't make any difference whether you did or whether you didn't."

The Sergeant suddenly remembers something else about the Union lieutenant. Shortly after helping him, another shell exploded, and the lieutenant stood and began clawing at his eyes, screaming he was blind. 

"I remember thinking that you were dead."
"That doesn't make any difference now either."

After the lieutenant leaves, the Sergeant begins to realize that this is no normal road, that there's something down at the end of it calling him and all the other soldiers. As he attempts to leave Lavinia's yard, they hear a man's voice singing a familiar song. 

Nice sideways application of Chekov's gun rule via the song the Sergeant's been playing on his guitar.

The man is Lavinia's husband, Jud, and he confirms the Sergeant's suspicions: they're all dead. (To Lavinia) "Mine came at Yellow Tavern with a bullet, and yours came here with a fever." Lavinia begs him to stay and help her rebuild, but he, not unkindly, tells her there's nothing left to hold onto: this was home, but not any longer. He promises to wait for her at the end of the road.

As Jud and the Sergeant disappear, the last pedestrian of this purgatorial road appears, a familiar-looking figure with a beard-sans-mustache and a high top hat in hand.
He quotes Shakespeare, and she flees in terror.

Okay, maybe she doesn't flee in terror. On account of the Shakespeare, at least. He does tell her, though, in a twist on her prophecy of vengeance from earlier, that he is the last casualty of the Civil War. 


"Incident on a dirt road during the month of April, the year 1865. As we've already pointed out, it's a road that won't be found on a map, but it's one of many that lead in and out... of the Twilight Zone."

"The Passersby" is a quiet episode which, as Film School Rejects notes in its review, is a bit like Waiting For Godot "in the midst of a believable southern swamp and in a nowhere space without a horizon." (...) The story focuses on the conversation between two not-quite-strangers. They are both members of The South, and the hospitality of that connection is apparent. They might not know each other, but they know the same killing, the same blood, and the same horrors of loss. It’s a melancholy trip down a road no one wants to head down. 

"The ultimate lesson of the episode is to let go of regret and anger. Goodwin is stuck in a physical and metaphorical rocking chair, unable to move from the settlement she's created because her veins pump with hot grease instead of cool blood."

Well put. And as noted here Serling's script is filled with "small touches of authenticity: humanity between enemies, devastation in the wake of the armies, deaths at home from non-combat causes, the belief in ghosts and a spirit world - on down the road. It could have been written in 1865." 

Thematically, I agree, for the reasons provided. Dialogue-wise, Serling's script is authentic-sounding without losing itself in the period. Having just finished Joshua Chamberlain's The Passing of the Armies, I was reminded of how sometimes the writing style of the 19th century can be a little cumbersome to 21st century eyes. Kudos to Serling who, like Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, blends the two styles agreeably.

The casting for this episode is a treat for Star Trek fans:

aka the Romulan commander from "The Enterprise Incident."
aka Dr. Adams from "Dagger of the Mind." And
aka Morgan Earp from "Spectre of the Gun" and the Midnight Oil-looking dude from Star Trek V.

Great stuff from top to bottom. Give me this over Gone With the Wind any day of the week and twice on Sunday.


~

5 comments:

  1. Aw, I like "Gone with the Wind." But you earned enough street-cred with that Midnight Oil reference that you've got scads to burn. And a Damn Yankees reference, to boot!

    This episode sounds really good. Would I be correct in thinking that it comes from the same anti-war mold as "The Purple Testament"? It sounds a lot less heavy-handed than that, which is a good thing.

    Whoever that is playing Abraham Lincoln looks like he fit the bill quite nicely. Too bad it's not the dude from "The Savage Curtain"! Then it'd've been a real Trek cornucopia.

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    1. There really should be a law where Lincoln has to be played by the same guy every time he's conjured up for TV. (And it should be "The Savage Curtaun" guy, every time, digitally inserted if necessary) That would be an abuse of Big Government I could get behind. And ditto for Elvis.

      The themes of this and "The Purple Testament" overlap, for sure. And as you say, much less heavy-handed here.

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    2. Cool. Looking forward to getting to this one!

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  2. Two episodes I watched recently (both for the first time):

    "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" -- Well, obviously this one is pretty notable. I'm tempted to make a joke about how it seems like it could have been made in 2016, but I'm not sure it'd be a very funny joke. It's kind a clunky episode in some ways; the message is leading the story, which doesn't always work. But it still seems pretty dang relevant, which is a real bummer.

    "A World of Difference" -- Jesus Christ, what a nightmare! I bet that episode sent a few people into a low-grade existential panic when it first aired. I love that there's no explanation. I'm tempted to think this is part of where Stephen King got "The Reploids." Not a perfect fit, but they're cousins if not brothers.

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