04 July 2009

Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

Attention passengers, the next stop on The Twilight Zone First Season Express is Willoughby . . . next stop is Willoughby. . . .
Episode #30: A Stop at Willoughby
Directed by Robert Parrish. Written by Rod Serling. Starring James Daly, Howard Smith, Patricia Donahue, James Wingreen.

“This is Garth 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’s 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. Garth Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment will move into the Twilight Zone—in a desperate search for survival.”

“A Stop at Willoughby” seems like the companion piece to the earlier classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance.” Executives under the pressures of their hectic world find a bucolic escape . . . this seems a topic that Rod Serling especially liked. However, “Walking Distance” tells the story of a man after he has had a final breakdown, and follows his journey into the realms of the past. But “A Stop at Willoughby” shows the lengthy crack-up period, with Willoughby, the equivalent of “Walking Distance”’s Homewood, serving as the finale.

James Daly gives a fantastic performance as Garth Williams, the ad agency wage slave to a Boss from Hell (a very scary Howard Smith) and a social-climbing ice-box of a wife (Patricia Donahue), whose life unravels before our eyes. It’s amazing how similar the horrors of work-burnout appear in both 1960 and 2009—with the exception of the gender segregation between boardroom and secretarial pool. Parrish’s direction keeps building the pressure until viewers are about ready to snap apart with Garth Williams, and just as ready to leap with him into the temptation of the dream world called “Willoughby.”

Willoughby, “where a man can slow down to a walk, and live his life full-measure,” is an idyllic 1880s town that Williams seems to envision on each commuter train-ride home. He falls asleep, then awakens in an old-fasihoned train car on a summer day that has come to stop in a town that exists on no real train route. Williams eventually reawakens in reality—but maybe one day he actually will get off that train in that beautiful town from a Currier & Ives print. (Producer Buck Houghton recalls that the MGM set of Willoughby was built for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis.)

Serling’s carefully crafted and poetic dialogue style is particularly strong in this episode, although it isn’t as moving as “Walking Distance” because the character of Garth Williams never really interacts with the world of Willoughby, a less personalized place than Homewood. However, the episode has an excellent final sting—one that opens up some interesting questions—and even though “A Stop at Willoughby” doesn’t need that final sign on the back door of a car to make its full impact, it’s still a terrific closer, similar to and an improvement over the ending of the same season’s “A World of Difference.” Great performances, great script, and great production values . . . top-of-the-line Zone.

It’s also impossible not to wonder how much Serling was drawing on personal experience in the scene where Williams has to listen to his boss make endless demands about a new television show the agency is developing: “You know what I want, just a rough format with a few details about how we integrate the commercials into the body of the show.” I wonder how many times Serling had to listen to these sorts of speeches from extremely confused network execs.