Trying to Go Home Again

It’s a theme that surfaces repeatedly in Rod Serling’s writing. We see it in his teleplays in the 1950s and in episodes of The Twilight Zone (‘60s) and Night Gallery (‘70s). It helped him create some of his best work.

I’m referring to nostalgia. “I have a desperate desire for serene summer nights, merry-go-rounds and nickel ice-cream cones,” Serling told TV Guide in 1972.

This yearning led to the development of two of his most popular Twilight Zone episodes: “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby.” Both came in Season 1. Both feature a harried businessman trying to cope with great stress and a sense of helplessness. Both showcase a longing to escape into the past.

If you’re like most Zone fans, you rate both episodes highly. Pressed to pick a favorite, many opt for “Walking Distance.” But not Serling. Although he seemed pleased with it when it aired, his fondness for it waned as the years went by. “A Stop at Willoughby,” however, he later called his favorite from Season 1.

It wasn’t the theme that bothered him; after all, both episodes are similar in that respect. It was the execution. In a series of college lectures he did later, he picked apart certain scenes, such as the one where Martin Sloane (before he realizes he’s gone back in time) visits his hometown drugstore and orders an ice-cream soda.

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Why, Serling wondered, wasn’t the counterman startled when Sloane talks about the drugstore owner as being dead? After all, Mr. Wilson is snoozing away in the back room. But when Sloane says, “One of the memories I have [is] Old Man Wilson, may God rest his soul, sleeping in his big comfortable chair in the other room,” the counterman doesn’t even blink, let alone contradict him.

Serling presumably wrote it that way so that first-time viewers would get a jolt when they see the counterman, after Sloane leaves, go into the back and tell Mr. Wilson they need more chocolate syrup. In retrospect, however, Serling felt that the counterman’s laconic reaction doesn’t hold up on a second viewing (or third — or twelfth, if you’re a diehard fan like so many of us).

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He leveled similar criticism at other scenes, claiming that the characters weren’t acting or reacting realistically given the circumstances. Why didn’t the parents call the cops when an adult male kept coming back and insisting he’s the grown version of their young son? And so on.

Much as I hate to contradict the master, I have to disagree. I don’t mean that his specific criticisms are off base, necessarily, though they do strike me as nitpicking. It’s just that I’d pick “Walking Distance” over “A Stop at Willoughby” (much as I love them both).

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“Willoughby” is terrific, and it has a great twist ending. But Gart Williams yearns for a generic paradise. We can sympathize, to be sure, but his utopia, however attractive, isn’t quite as powerful as a desire to go back home.

We all want to find a place where we can relax and slow down. But stronger still is the hunger to return to our past, find our younger self, and speak a few words of hard-won wisdom — pass along a little perspective. “Martin, I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you,” the elder Martin tells his younger self. “Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it.”

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Plus, “Walking Distance” has a happy ending (albeit bittersweet). Martin Sloane gets his chance to go back, and returns to the present not only with a limp, but with his father’s advice to look for “band concerts” and other hallmarks of his carefree youth in the here and now. Gart Williams, by contrast, winds up dead.

Yes, we’re given to believe that he’s now happy in Willoughby (a stand-in for heaven, we see), but I can’t help finding the end of “Walking Distance” a bit more satisfying. Maybe because we all want a second chance — a fresh start. Martin Sloane gets that — and the possibility that we could get it too speaks to something deep inside all of us.

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And let’s not forget the staging of “Walking Distance” — a stand-out even in a series that was routinely excellent in this department. The photography, the score (by the amazing Bernard Herrmann) and the acting is all world-class.

Then there’s the writing. There’s no better way to conclude than with Serling’s lyrical closing to the episode:

Martin Sloan, age 36, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives — trying to go home again. And also like all men perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past.11

And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part … of the Twilight Zone.

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.

Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 11/30/2011, in Rod Serling, Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I like both episodes but have always had a fondness for Willoughby. It’s more sinister and I think there’s a lot of darkness to it that is left unspoken/unseen. The train ride always creeped me out because even though he’s going to a happy place he could just as easily go to the opposite. It also posed an interesting take on the afterlife, which I admired and took as: your afterlife exists in your head and you’ll meet exactly that at your demise. Whether or not it continues is something we’d have to cross over into the Twilight Zone to experience.

    • I made it sound like a bit more of a slam dunk for WD, but actually the two are almost neck-and-neck in my view. It’s just that when push comes to shove, I prefer WD.

      And you’re right — there’s a lot of darkness under the surface in ASAW. I think Serling, like most of us, sympathized with Gart, and so he gave him a happy ending.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. This is a beautiful post about a beautiful episode. I have to confess I haven’t seen “Willoughby” lately, but I have seen “Walking Distance” fairly recently, and found it incredibly moving.

    That limp Martin acquires reminds me of Jacob wrestling with an angel (or with God?) at the Jabbok in the book of Genesis. Like Jacob, Martin wrestles — with himself, both literally and figuratively. (And, indeed, some interpreters of the Jacob story hold that the mysterious man with whom Jacob wrestled was his “shadow self.”) And, like Jacob, Martin emerges from the struggle having “prevailed,” having acquired a second chance, a “new name” (here only metaphorically) — but he will now always bear the limp, the scar, the wound from the encounter. It is a blessing that comes at a cost, but it is a cost well worth paying. “Bittersweet,” as you say.

    Again, a really lovely article. Thanks for it!

    (PS. I never noticed the “God rest his soul” bit as a “problem,” as Serling later saw it — go figure!)

    • Thanks, Michael! Very thoughtful comment. I hadn’t thought about how Martin’s struggle had possible biblical overtones. I’m glad you liked the post, though. It was a pleasure to write about the larger themes in such superior entertainment.

  3. Shot you this on Twitter, but figured I’d leave a comment at the blog. Really enjoyed your post, but also disagree. Willoughby’s acting overall I felt was much stronger, the dialogue like the line about the “razors and map of arteries” is classic Serling-speak. The boss, the wife, both conductors, all strong.

    Serling’s own bio as an ad writer for a radio station I believe is what inspired this and other scripts like “Patterns”, one of his teleplays. If you liked Willoughby, I’d suggest watching “Patterns”, obviously there’s nothing supernatural about it, but the message is the same and is wonderfully written as well. Features the husband from the episode with the slot machine as well. Full thing is on Youtube.

    Walking Distance is good too, but I agree with Serling in the fact that some of the reactions aren’t what real people would do, more so then usual in The Twilight Zone. Both good episodes though.

  4. Wow, well-written post, Paul! You should frame this up on your wall! This is the second post I’ve read today that just knocks my socks off! I agree Mr. Poteet: excellent execution and analysis! Beautiful writing!

    Though I do love both episodes, I think I tend more toward “Willoughby.” I’m into “the undead,” so love anything that well-handles that topic. I also noted all the abovementioned discrepancies in “Walking Distance,” and also wondered—“what the heck?” In “Willoughby,” it doesn’t bother me that he’d ended up hauled off in a hearse—it just means he *did* finally make it to Willoughby. But…by the same token, do love the “going home” nostalgia, and do wonder if I was able to visit my younger self—what advice would I offer? Yeah, I know: “Enjoy life. Do what you love. Be happy and try to spread same.”

    • Thanks, Frank! I’m truly flattered. Write what you love, they say, right? Well, I love both of these episodes, and that helped tremendously in crafting this piece.

      And because of how I feel about both, it doesn’t bother me a bit that you’d pick ASAW over WD. Each one is excellent. And both really boil down to that piece of advice you concluded with. A toast to your current self!

  5. Great post and good info, I never knew Serling preferred Willoughby to Walking Distance, how interesting. I agree with you/disagree with Serling about the dichotomy, but maybe to a stronger degree. I think Walking Distance is a far more subtle, nuanced, and magical episode. What was implied in Walking Distance (Martin Sloan’s dissatisfaction with his hectic life), is pushed a little too hard in Willoughby (I feel like Gart’s relationship with his wife and boss border on cliche). Likewise, the paradise of Willoughby is rendered somewhat cartoonishly. It’s not truly seductive in the same way that Homeville is to Martin Sloan (really, the nostalgic paradise we all long for is our OWN past, not some idealized suburb where Huck Finn hangs out with Andy Griffith). And the ending – it’s just too much. Walking Distance ends on a perfectly bittersweet note – Martin Sloan’s trip into nostalgia has earned him a limp leg…something that will make him take life a little slower, by force. It seems to me that the punishment Gart receives in “Willoughby” far outweighs his crime. “Willoughby” is, to me, a solid but flawed episode. “Walking Distance” has some tiny tiny problems, Serling is right, but as you say in your post, they’re nitpicky. Overall, it’s a masterpiece of tone, with that gorgeous Bernie Herm score, and one of the finest directing jobs the Twilight Zone has had (that isolating spot on Martin at the carousel is one of the series’ best moments IMHO). We did an episode on it here if you’re curious:

    http://twilightpwn.tumblr.com/post/45915702601/episode-6-walking-distance-in-the-sixth-episode

    Our general take is slightly irreverent, we like to have fun with the show and we do make jokes, but it’s the episode we’ve rated the highest thus far.

    • My own take on “Willoughby” isn’t quite this severe, but your point is well-taken. I agree with you wholeheartedly on “Walking Distance,” of course. It’s just a beautiful little film, one of those rare times when everything comes together like a symphony.

      Thanks for the comment — and the link!

  6. Great post! That said, I’m going with the master on this one. But, as you mentioned, not for the nitpicking. In fact, I’ve always guessed the the guy at the counter in the drugstore was only giving a minimal amount of attention to Martin Sloan, maybe even dismissed him as a nut-job. If he wanted to nit pick, what about the fact that nobody noticed the hearse being tagged with Willoughby? I think Rod was too tough on himself in reflection. I think Willoughby is easier to relate to. It happens in a dream, not some cosmic intervention and Garth wants out. Who hasn’t felt that way once in a while? In any case, they are high on my list of favorite episodes.

    One thing I wished we could have is some follow-up episodes. Personally, I’d like to see the one that opens with Jannie being evicted from her house :)

    Thanks again for another great one!

    • You bet, Dan. You’re right, anybody can nitpick these episodes to death, but they deserve better. I agree, “A Stop at Willoughby” is a very relatable episode (who wouldn’t love to explode at the boss?), but then again, they both are. As you know from my ASAW post (which you commented on as well), I’m a huge fan of it too. I wrote this one not to knock ASAW in any way, but to rebut what Serling said about “Walking Distance.”

      And yes, seeing Janie evicted would suit me just fine! Thanks, as always, for stopping by, Dan. :)

  7. Such a great post. But I’m going to have to side with Serling on this one.

    Walking Distance doesn’t even make my top 25 list, I’m afraid. It honestly has never appealed to me. I’ve often wondered why that is, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. That idea of “going home again”… you can only feel that way once you’ve tasted what “home” is. But what makes a place “home”? I’ve come to realize that home isn’t a “where”. Home is a “who”. And a very specific “who”. It’s not just anybody. So for me, the ending of Walking Distance (and the entire episode, tbh) isn’t satisfying at all. Yes, I suppose we want a second chance, a fresh start, but to me… geez, I don’t know. I guess Martin does get that in a sense, but it also feels like he doesn’t get that at all. Under my definition of “home”, that’s not where Martin got to go.

    This is such a strange episode for me, as you can tell by my lack of an adequate explanation for how I feel about it. :P But as always, you wrote a fantastic post, my friend. Nicely done.

    • Thanks! I consider that high praise. It’s one thing to enjoy a post about an episode you like, but if you enjoy one about an episode you DON’T like, well, the writer must have done something right. Which I’m very pleased to hear!

      You’re certainly correct about home being more than a place. One doesn’t feel that strongly anchored to a location merely because of THINGS, but because of people. And as you say, not just any person!

      In Martin’s case, I think Serling is saying that home is personified by his parents and by his younger self. “The zenith of this film is when he meets his mother and father,” he said, “That’s when everything explodes.” His message coalesces in the conversation Martin has with his father at the end, and with what he somberly tells his 12-year-old self about the importance of enjoying the moment.

      So often we take happy times for granted, and never really give thanks until they’re gone. Give thanks NOW, Serling is telling us, and who can doubt the wisdom of this? Added to that, we have the father’s encouragement to stop looking behind and find moments in the present that can be enjoyed and appreciated. I believe Serling was admonishing himself (and all of us really) not to let our understandable yearning for nostalgia blind us to TODAY’S joys.

      So although the ending is indeed bittersweet, it is, I believe, one that can be very profitable to meditate on if we really think about it.

      Serling’s nitpicking aside, I think “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby” offer us two outstanding examples of him at the top of his craft. I truly believe they are every bit as poetic as the literature that Henry Bemis mooned over.

      Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful comment. I really enjoy diving a bit deeper into these episodes. :)

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