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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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. james-gregory-in-the-passersbyThere 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.”

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“The Passersby” is also a warning of the dangers of harboring hatred and nursing thoughts of revenge, as this earlier scene indicates:

Lavinia: “Sergeant?”
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?passersby6 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.

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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!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 10/07/2016, in Rod Serling, Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Great post, Paul. This is one of those episodes that I watch and see something new each time. I was recently struck by the indifference of the dead. It doesn’t matter anymore. Almost a “why were we fighting?” sense about it.

    • True. Now, obviously, there was a very important cause at stake, but did it have to be settled at the point of a gun over such a long period? Maybe it did, but yes, once you’ve become a casualty, you surely adopt a very different POV. Glad you enjoyed the post, Dan!

  2. Terry Washington

    Much like Lincoln in 1865, Franklin D. Roosevelt was arguably one of the last casualties of WWII, even though Germany surrendered nearly a month after his own death on April 12, 1945 and whilst he admittedly died not of wounds sustained in battle, it is at least arguably that FDR worked himself to death in the service of the American nation and its people. All in all, a useful and haunting reminder that even the most righteous and justifiable cause leads a legacy of grief and bitterness( I once watched a documentary about the “Troubles” in NI in which the family of a soldier killed by the IRA said that there are times when they look at his picture and can;t stop crying!).
    “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart!” runs an Irish proverb, perhaps our hearts have been as stone for too long!

    • He did indeed, Terry, and I would rank FDR among the military casualties too. It’s a shame he had to come to such an end, but we can all be grateful that he and this nation fought so hard to rid the world of such evil.

  3. There is so much to comment on, about war, its “necessities,” who “wins” and who “loses,” and I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that all wars are composed of individuals…and it’s those individuals who pay the price. Individuals compose war…and individuals can DEcompose war. This episode brings that out from the shadows and into light, pardon the pun.

    • Very true, Frank. Troops may be represented by lines on a map, but those lines are indeed comprised of people. We forget that at our peril. Serling’s script is a moving reminder of that important fact.

  4. This episode has always been in my second tier of favorites. I’m wary of this one being set on Confederate side… but they lost the war, so it makes sense to set an elegaic episode among them rather than up North. I love the Lincoln appearance at the end — it’s a great jolt. And agreed on James Gregory being 100% the wrong casting choice for the role as writen, but he is a pretty commanding presence on screen.

    • I have a few “tiers” of my own, so I know what you mean. I also agree that its Confederate setting is appropriate. And ah, you are a pro-Lincoln-walk-on vote — glad to hear it! As for Gregory, he was a Serling veteran, with roles in TZ, Night Gallery, and in a pre-TZ teleplay, “A Town Has Turned to Dust”. Definitely a good choice for this role, age aside.

  5. Great post, Paul. This is one of my all time favourites of this series. A very moving and character driven episode. Lincoln’s appearance I think is what makes Lavinia realise/accept the truth of what the Sergeant says about their situation.It is only after she speaks with the late President that she freely runs down that road after her love.

    • Thanks, Maddy. Good observation — that action does seem to free her to accept what has happened. I find it a beautiful episode, albeit in a bittersweet way.

      • Thanks. It certainly is bittersweet. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this episode really moves me quite unlike any other of the series. Joanne Linville is at her best as the Southern Belle left alone in the shattered remains of the South.

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