Give Peace a Chance: TZ’s “The Passersby” Presents Us with a War-Time Dilemma
Twist endings, of course, are a Twilight Zone staple, but not every episode concluded with a bang. Sometimes we experienced a slow-burn reveal — more of a dawning realization than a sudden shock.
That’s certainly the case with “The Passersby”, the first of two Civil War-themed episodes that aired in TZ’s third season (prompted, no doubt, by the war’s centennial that year). Well before the final scene, we know that the hundreds of soldiers shuffling past Lavinia Godwin’s dilapidated house are no longer among the living.
But far from detracting from our enjoyment of this episode, the lack of a final-curtain surprise actually adds to it. It enhances the tone of Rod Serling’s story perfectly. (Spoilers ahead; if you haven’t seen this episode, or it’s been a while, you can watch it on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.)
I realize that my love of history probably causes me to rate this episode more highly than others might. But I’m convinced that much of my admiration for it flows from the elegiac beauty of Serling’s reminder that, when the guns fall silent, acceptance and healing must follow — or true peace is impossible.
Some criticize “The Passersby” as TZ’s version of “Gone with the Wind”. Others claim that having an Abraham Lincoln walk-on at the end is a bit corny. But I think they’re missing the point. Serling isn’t taking sides — he’s offering a requiem for all the dead, north and south. He’s also reminding us of how easy it is to turn a blind eye to what we don’t want to see.
I find it interesting as well that in the most memorable scene — when Lavinia (Joanne Linville) and the Sergeant (James Gregory) meet with the Union officer on horseback — it’s the woman who takes a shot at the officer. One might expect belligerence from a soldier, but no. The Sergeant is the one who must plead with Mrs. Godwin to spare a man who represents the side that has left her a widow.
But this is entirely fitting. Serling, who had witnessed some horrifying scenes in the Pacific as a paratrooper during World War II, knew that war — however just it may be at times — is indeed hell, to quote Civil War General William T. Sherman. And beyond the grave, there are no sides.
Consider what the Sergeant tells Lavinia at the end. He’s been up most of the night thinking, he says:
Sergeant: “And in that quiet just before dawn, it come to me.”
Lavinia: “What did?”
Sergeant: “I don’t know just how to explain it to you, ma’am, but it’s got to do with that road and those men moving down. There was Union soldiers, too, ma’am. Some of them helping my boys, some of my boys helping them, but all of them … all of them moving down that road together just as if –”
Lavinia: “Just as if what?”
Sergeant: “I don’t know, ma’am. But there’s something down the end of that road, and I got to find out what it is.”
“The Passersby” is also a warning of the dangers of harboring hatred and nursing thoughts of revenge, as this earlier scene indicates:
Sergeant: “Yes, ma’am.”
Lavinia: “What do you suppose happened to that Yankee who killed my husband? Do you suppose he’s marching home to his own kin now? Do you suppose he’s laughing and singing and telling all his neighborhood about the rebels he’s killed? All the bullets and all the heads he shot them through?”
Sergeant: “No, ma’am, I don’t reckon anything like that at all. And you let that kind of poison set on your mind, you’ll die from it, ma’am.”
Gregory may be a bit old and gruff to be playing the part of a soldier who supposedly went off to war “to become a man” in his father’s eyes, but he’s so good in the part that this is a minor demerit. Linville, too, shines as the weary but angry Lavinia.
Their performances are beautifully staged and photographed by director Elliot Silverstein and cinematographer George T. Clemens, respectively. The shadow-laden black-and-white images lend an appropriately haunting, dreamlike atmosphere to Serling’s meditative tale.
Peace is possible, “The Passersby” tells us, but not if we stand still and hold on to hatred. We have to step onto that “road that won’t be found on a map,” as Serling puts it in his conclusion, and go out to meet it. The question is, do we have the courage to do that?
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!