A Doorway to Sanity: “A Stop at Willoughby”
A high-paying job at a prestigious firm. An expensive home in a nice part of town. A wife dressed in the latest fashions.
Gart Williams has it all. Yet he’s miserable. Why? Take a closer look.
The job comes with a boss who whips him like a racehorse and berates him in front of others. The home is filled with fancy belongings he couldn’t care less about. The wife loves only his paycheck and belittles him at every turn.
Small wonder that Gart Williams, the main character in The Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby,” stirs up so much sympathy. His plight is a universal one. Anyone can understand his desire to escape such a miserable existence.
We’re rooting for Gart, and ultimately ourselves, when Rod Serling, in a script filled with poignant and lyrical touches, asks the ultimate question: How do you escape when you have nowhere to go?
Some people abuse drugs or alcohol. Some lash out at others. But here, we’re concerned with the fate of those who run away. And as Gart shows us, there’s more than one way to flee.
He does it in stages: First in his mind, then with his body. His feverish search for an exit begins long before he’s even aware of it, let alone manages to accept it.
And accept it he does. That acceptance, in fact, is what makes it possible to break free.
We meet our prisoner on the battlefield of business. He and several other ad executives, all withering under the glower of his overbearing boss, are wordlessly awaiting the arrival of a junior ad man that Gart recruited. He’s late.
They soon learn why. He’s left for another job at a different firm — and taken a lucrative account with him. Gart’s boss, Mr. Misrell, explodes:
Don’t sit down! And don’t con me, Williams. It was your pet project. Your pet project! Then it was your idea to give it to that little college greenie. Now, get with it, Williams! Get with it, boy!
So what’s left, Williams? Not only has your pet project backfired, but it’s sprouted wings and left the premises. I’ll tell you what’s left to us in my view. A deep and abiding concern about your judgment in men.
This is a push business, Williams. A push, push, push business. Push and drive! But personally, you don’t delegate responsibilities to little boys. You should know it better than anyone else. A push, push, push business, Williams.
It’s push, push, push, all the way, all the time! It’s push, push, push, all the way, all the time, right on down the line!
We saw Gart’s face twist in knots as he learned the news about his “protege,” as Misrell mockingly calls him. We watched him grimace in pain as his ulcer flared. The strain is clearly mounting to an intolerable degree. So who can blame him for interrupting Misrell mid-tirade and blurting out: “Fat boy, why don’t you shut your mouth!?!”
What makes Misrell’s rant all the more intolerable is that we can see he targeted Gart deliberately. Notice how the episode begins with a shot of Misrell at the end of a conference table in his office. The camera pulls back to reveal the others ringing the table, Gart seated in the foreground. He’s staring off vacantly, tapping a pencil on one of his hands. We focus on the pencil, then up to Misrell. He’s holding a cigar … and looking intently at Gart.
Misrell can plainly see the strain etched on Gart’s face, the anxiety reflected in every nervous gesture. And he smells blood in the water. You can tell he relishes the opportunity to tear into his employee.
Now, a slacker might deserve a good tongue-lashing. But Gart is no slacker. He’s plainly trying very hard to do a difficult, high-pressure job.
His colleagues sit in silence during the barrage, avoiding any eye contact, surely grateful they’ve been spared. Gart is alone.
Things at home are no better, unless you count a drop in decibels as an improvement. His wife, Janie, has heard about what happened. But she can’t even dredge up a pretense of compassion for Gart. Her sole concern is if he still has a job. Assured that he does, Janie sits in utter boredom as Gart vents his frustration with the rat race. He’d rather be in Willoughby, he says.
Willoughby, he explains. A smile creases his face. His jaw relaxes as he describes an idyllic stop he saw on his train ride home:
It was an odd dream. Very odd dream. Willoughby. It was summer, very warm. Kids were barefooted. One of them had a fishing pole. It all looked like a Currier and Ives painting. Bandstand, bicycles, wagons. I’ve never seen such serenity. It was the way people must have lived a hundred years ago. Crazy dream.
Janie replies sarcastically, “You let me know when you wake up.” She leaves, and Gart continues his reverie. He’s content to speak to an empty room (more content, one suspects) about this paradise he saw and longs for.
But there is no such stop, the conductor later tells him. Not now, not ever. It must have been a dream, right? After all, he “arrives” at Willoughby only after he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes, he’s no longer aboard his modern-day commuter train; it’s an old-fashioned, wood-paneled one with gas lanterns. A different conductor is telling him it’s 1888, and there are no other passengers.
Yet it feels real. And it offers the only respite he can find, as his problems crowd even into his resting or sleeping mind.
At one point at work, he stops in the restroom to splash his face and retreat from Misrell. He then “sees” his nemesis, chanting his grating push-push-push mantra, appear repeatedly in the mirror, which Gart smashes.
The first time we see him doze off on his ride home, he “hears” Misrell again, then bolts awake, crying out, “That’s enough!”
Not that Misrell would throttle back even if he could hear Gart. The unrelenting pressure continues at work, where Gart is expected to stage a big TV special for an important client. “I’ll do the best I can,” he tells Misrell. “Do MORE than you can,” the boss replies in an illogical and misguided attempt at motivation. “It’s got to be bright,” he keeps saying, even as the shadows darken around Gart.
He calls Janie in desperation. It’s hard not to pity a man who has no one else to turn to but this reptile. He pours out his frustration: “I’ve had it. Understand? I’ve had it. I can’t take this another day. … Will you help me, please?” Her reply? Not a word. She just hangs up.
No one is making demands or ignoring him in Willoughby. The first time Gart sees it, he’s puzzled. The second time, he’s so intrigued that he nearly disembarks. The third time, he smiles. He’s made it. He leaves his work portfolio behind on the train, and steps off to a better world.
Then (spoiler alert) we’re back in our world. We’ve gone from a warm July to a cold November. A body lies dead in the snow. It’s Gart. The train conductor tells a signalman how Gart “shouted something about Willoughby” and jumped. They load his body into a vehicle. Only then do we see the name on it: “Willoughby & Son Funeral Home.” (Cue goosebumps.)
The name is superimposed on a shot of the town as Serling’s closing narration begins:
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.
It’s obvious that Serling feels tremendous empathy for Gart. He mined this same territory to great effect in his break-out work, the pre-Zone live teleplay “Patterns,” then returned to it in the Zone classic “Walking Distance” He would revisit it once again a decade later in the Emmy-nominated Night Gallery episode “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.”
But are we listening? Will the lesson of this episode be forgotten once the credits roll? Or will it sink in and change the way we treat other people?
It’s easy to demonize Misrell and Janie, and yes, they deserve our scorn. But any one of us can be a junior-league version of those two characters without realizing it. The fact is, when we beat down an employee, when we fail to speak up at an injustice, when we scoff at a dream … we’re pushing someone off a train.
Gart found his peace only in the next world. He could have experienced at least some of it in this one, had he not been scourged and driven away by unkind and uncaring people. How would we react to his predicament? Serling, I believe, challenges us to ask ourselves this troubling question.
Let’s rethink that “push business” — and pull together instead. Our life on this side of the grave will never be heaven. But there’s no reason it has to be hell.
For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also sign up for email notifications of future blog posts by clicking “follow” in the upper left-hand corner of this page. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!