Original Air Date: May 6, 1960
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Parrish
“I’ve never seen such serenity…
the way people must have lived a hundred years ago.”
“This is Gart 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’ 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. Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment, will move into the Twilight Zone—in a desperate search for survival.”
Gart Williams (played by James Daly) is a New York advertising executive who has grown listless and exasperated with the burdens of his busy job. Every day his demanding boss, Oliver Misrell (played by Howard Smith who appeared in some classic films as well as Hitchcock episodes) enforces a “push, push, push” work culture. One day, Gart seems especially on the verge of a breakdown when he loses a major account. He is lambasted by his boss for his apparent failure while the phone rings incessantly for him. Later on the train ride home he falls asleep by the window until he is suddenly awoken on a seemingly different train by a much older porter. The year is 1888 and things seem to move a bit more slowly and freely. People are friendlier and life seems peaceful. Gart looks out the window as the train stops in a town called Willoughby -a place which appears carefree and idyllic. A horse-drawn carriage gently trots by while a well-dressed couple idly meander arm-in-arm past a bandstand in the park. However, before he can get off the train at Willoughby Gart snaps back to reality.
Shaken by this glamorous vision, Gart heads home to his unhappy marriage. His shrew of a wife (played by Patricia Donahue) berates him for having a nervous breakdown at work and she chastises him for behaving like a child. Her primary focus is on money. The next day, he falls asleep again on the train and has the same vision of Willoughby but once again he is awakened before he can step off the train. He vows the next time he will stay in Willoughby for good. When it happens again, this time he steps off the train and happily walks toward a group of friendly 19th century Willoughby denizens who seem to know him well.
Meanwhile back in 1960 several men inspect Gart’s body as it sits lifeless in the snow. Apparently he shouted something about Willoughby before stepping off the moving train to his death. A funeral home arrives to whisk Gart’s body away. The name on the car reads: “Willoughby & Son Funeral Home.” The episode closes with the serene image of Gart walking toward the Willoughby bandstand, finding hope and peace at last in the phantasms of his mind.
“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.”
Gart Williams might as well be anybody trapped in the urban rat race. By all accounts he is living the American Dream yet he finds himself deeply unsatisfied. He is a victim of the business cycle and failed expectations, only in the end does he succumb to his own particular breed of escapism. “A Stop At Willoughby” is a sentimental yet melancholic episode about an imagined and romantic paradise that has gone by the wayside -it survives only as fantasy inside one man’s head. Rod Serling explores similar themes found in other classic episodes like “Walking Distance” and “The Time Element.” However, whereas in “Walking Distance” (an episode Rod Serling ironically considered a failure) the lesson is hopeful and optimistic, in contrast “A Stop At Willoughby” offers a fatalistic romantic nostalgia that only ends in suicide. In the former, there is a lesson about perspective which is reframed as the cure for romantic nostalgia, in the latter a fantasy is indulged to the point of death. In both cases there are limits to the idea going back to some edenic golden age that lives in the past, both have their own dangers.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Rod Serling cited this episode as his favorite story from the first season of the series. Producer Buck Houghton went so far as to identify this episode as Rod Serling’s finest teleplay of the first season.
- “A Stop at Willoughby” is informed by Serling’s personal interactions with advertising executives and their demanding schedules.
- Producer Buck Houghton noted in an interview with Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion (second ed., Silman-James, 1989) that the Willoughby sets for the episode were on the MGM back lot and were originally constructed for the Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
- No one knows how Serling came up with the name Willoughby. The two most likely cases are either 1) the name of a town in Ohio (Serling was certainly familiar with the area from when he attended Antioch College in Ohio) or 2) the name of a street in Hollywood, Los Angeles about a block north of Homewood Avenue (in allusion to the town of Homewood as featured in “Walking Distance’).
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.
Click here to read my reflections on Rod Serling’s short story “A Stop at Willoughby.”
For an episode whose twist might indicate a form of suicide, it was certainly as daring as a Twilight Zone story for get for its classic era. Anybody can have their own Willoughby that they might want to escape to. But whether this episode ends happily or sadly, it certainly haunts us with the realism of how a seemingly unchangeable world that Gart needs to escape from could be most dangerously overwhelming to the human mind. I think I’ll re-watch it again today to get a better understanding of it. I just bought it on iTunes. Thank you for your review.
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This episode has always stuck with me too, much like walking distance or even kick the can. Haunting is a great way to describe it. Thanks as always for your thoughtful commentary Mike!
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You’re very welcome.
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