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The Twilight Zone (Episode #30): “A Stop at Willoughby” (airdate 5/6/60)
The Plot: A man seeks out a pastoral existence in a mysterious train stop as his home and job life crumble around him.
The Goods: Gart Williams (James Daly) is waiting for a train. It matters where it will take him because it won’t be his home, but he’ll want desperately to live there.
Williams rides this train back home every evening after a soul-sucking day of working in advertising (without all the whiskey breaks and adultery that we know existed because of Mad Men), and after a brief nap, starts waking up at the last stop on the route. Curiously, this last stop also seems to exist in 1888 instead of 1960. The stop’s name is Willoughby.
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.
In his world, work pummels him relentlessly even though he can never get ahead, his house is large but empty, and his wife treats him like a piece of dog feces she’s accidentally stepped in on her way to the beautician. It’s the hell of the upper middle class man who’s been tricked into indentured servitude by social pressures and bank loans. For some, that’s a paradise of wealth and opulence. For others, like Mr. Williams, it’s a prison of objects without any joy.
It’s been reported that this was Rod Serling’s favorite episode from Season 1, and it’s easy to see why. The themes of isolation and madness are front and center, and James Daly does a stellar job of being more confused by the world he knows than the impossible one waiting at the end of a train ride. It’s a meaty, difficult story to tell, and it all works together beautifully with a stirring sense of allegory.
Here is where we head into spoiler territory.
What Willoughby is, of course, is something far different. Something unexpected to Williams who decides to leave his misery behind and become a citizen there.
What Willougby is, of course, is suicide.
There are few more poignant endings to Twilight Zone episodes. While old actresses drift off into their celluloid Heavens and men who can’t sleep finally shut their eyes for good, Williams is a figure who we recognize as making the right decision to be happy. His life is excruciating, and the siren song of peace that Willoughby can ensure is not only compelling, there’s not even a contest.
In this tale, Serling has taken a profoundly terrifying act and slapped a smile on its face. We go on the same journey that Williams does, so we see an idyllic landscape that offers respite from a soulless rat race. Who wouldn’t want to make the trade? Of course, when we cut back to reality to learn that Williams has leapt from a train to his self-created death while shouting “Willoughby!” the sheer happiness we felt about his escape comes into direct conflict with our morals and pre-conceived notions.
This show is at its best when it makes us re-examine the harder subjects of life, and this episode does exactly that with the idea and action of suicide. If we could see how the depressed man views his life and views his escape (in this instance, unaware of what that escape really means), would we see his insanity as ultimately rational?
The Trivia: James Daly also appeared as Dr. Honorious in the 1968 Planet of the Apes.
On the Next Episode: Why young men shouldn’t use love potions.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.