The Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959This isn’t the first time that a dream world ends up being better than reality for a character in The Twilight Zone, but there’s something very appealing about Willoughby.  Once again, I’m struck by the chicken vs the egg idea when watching this series.  Did I see this before and remember the episode, or am I so into SF stories that I saw only one way this story could go?  A Stop At Willoughby feels like it should be a pleasant episode about an idyllic place where people ride penny farthing bikes, but it ends up being a very sad story indeed.

Gart Williams is a man whose been pushed into his career by an ambitious shrew of a wife.  She claims he lives in a permanent state of self-pity.  In his career, he misjudged an underling and lost a $3M contract and his boss wants to push him through a window.  In fact, the boss makes it very clear just how much push, push, pushing he wants to do.  While on his way home on a train, he dozes off and wakes up in Willoughby but he fails to get out to explore.  He can tell only that it is a place of his dreams.  (Literally, it turns out.) This is underscored by the background music playing the lovely Beautiful Dreamer, one of my favorites!  Gart is a good, simple man who is hooked on a dream; he is the beautiful dreamer.

Now there’s only so much you can do with this and seeing the 25 minute format leaves only one option as far as I could tell: by the third visit he had to get out.  Like A World of Difference, we are being introduced to a man who will find peace in fantasy.  Hell, maybe that’s what I do, playing my games and watching my shows, but I haven’t given up on reality and I think that’s an important difference.  Gart finds life too hard to cope with.  Look, I’m all for getting lost in a fantasy world but not when it means giving up!  I do find it interesting that we associate peace with a bygone age.  We live in a “push, push, push” society now and I know plenty of people who are not cut out for that lifestyle so we long for of the “good old days” but I can’t help wondering if those days felt so good while they were being lived.  My youth was wonderful but I spent my days in school.  I would walk home from the bus stop in the freezing cold.  Is that good?  Perhaps we just have rose tinted glasses on, remembering the easy days of our youth and we allow that to translate that into something it wasn’t?  Sure, I admit that I run long hours and am neck deep in responsibilities but I also have so much more of the things I love now.  Maybe it’s not about going backward but balancing what you have with what you want.  If I had a massive windfall, I don’t think I’d even move!  Why?  I love my home!  By contrast, Gart has a nasty wife who seems to find him a dreamer (which also makes me wonder: was this an arranged marriage or should she have known who he was before she said “I do”?)  If she had hoped to mold him, she didn’t want him!  I also gathered they lived above their means and Gart’s constant hand on his stomach put me in mind of a man with an ulcer, undoubtedly brought on by stress.  Gart thinks he wants Willoughby finds it not as a wonderful paradise, but as the family name on the hearse.  I guess that’s what happens when you try to find a place that only exists in your mind.  Instead, he could have tried to identify the issues in his life that needed to be changed and then do something about it.

Gart is a scared man who takes the easy way out rather than change what he has. I feel sad for Gart. And it was made worse the day after I watched this, while talking to a dear friend who finds himself in a similar situation and mentioned that if not for his kids, the end would be preferable.  In that instant, the realization hit me that Gart effectively commits suicide.  There’s an ambiguity around how Gart dies though; it appears he thinks he’s stepping into a lovely town, but perhaps he knew the end all along, if that phone call to his wife was to be taken as his suicide note.  Willoughby might be a lovely place but I still want to go about my busy, job-filled life, learning and growing and rushing for deadlines because I also want the fun I have of escaping into my games and being able to afford them and enjoy the things I have.  When the day comes that I tire of the rat race, I won’t be looking for a way off the train, but maybe a train with a different destination.  I hope that’s a long way off…   Gart needed to address the issues in his life: a wife who wanted to be more than she was and a house that was probably too big for the two of them.  Then he could settle down to a relaxing life of happiness; one that would reward him in all the ways he had hoped.  I hope my friend can find the same path forward.  It would certainly beat the one way trip Gart took into the Twilight Zone.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Gart Williams is living an unpleasant life. His career is not going well, and he has just called his boss “fat boy” and told him to shut his mouth, which is not a typical route to promotion. But that’s not the biggest problem in his life, because he is married to the latest in a fairly long line of Twilight Zone monstrous wives. Janey couldn’t care less about Gart’s feelings, worries, hopes and fears. She just wants her husband to be a success. To escape from the horror of his life, Gart commits suicide. The end.

This episode makes me uneasy, because I don’t like what it’s advocating, not one little bit. Mercifully the ending is open to interpretation, to some degree. Willoughby is clearly supposed to be a representation of heaven, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether it’s a real place where Gart ends up, or a construct of his troubled mind as he sinks into insanity. He is, after all, a man who shouts out “that’s enough!” on a train, railing at his own troubled thoughts. The twist at the end indicates that Willoughby has at the very least been named by Gart because the name of a funeral home stuck in his mind at some point in the past. The question is whether his subconscious has simply named his heaven, or has entirely constructed it. Unfortunately, what we see has to lead us more towards the latter conclusion.

Willoughby is very much the rose-tinted view of the past. Everyone who had at least a reasonably happy childhood will have their own Willoughby, a time when the world seemed like a better place, although in reality it probably wasn’t, in many aspects. I grew up in a world that seemed idyllic, and yet, to take a couple of random examples, it was a world where casual racism and sexism were far more common, and I had to share indoor public spaces with clouds of cigarette smoke. But we look back on childhood, which had more freedom and less responsibility than adulthood, through those rose-tinted specs. That’s what Gart is doing in this episode, seeing the past as a lost paradise to which he wishes to return, and then he will escape from the responsibility of a horrible job and the metaphorical shackles of a horrible marriage.

None of that, of course, precludes the possibility that he does genuinely escape to a real place, and that Willoughby is his particular version of the afterlife. But I would rather see a man of just 38 years find the strength to battle the problems in his life than throw in the towel, and here’s where A Stop at Willoughby makes me uneasy, because it’s dangerously close to being a pro-suicide text. I know there are limits to the subtleties a writer can explore in 25 minutes, but it would have been useful to have had at least some acknowledgement of another path available to Gart, maybe even somebody who would mourn his loss, perhaps a secretary whose unrequited love offered up the possibility of a new life with somebody who admired him for who he is. Instead, his life is shown to be unremittingly grim, he jumps off a moving train, and he dies. The problem is not simply that his course of action is shown to be a positive thing for Gart (or at the very least the writer leans in that direction), but it’s shown to be the only thing for him to do. And that feeds the lie that drives many a Gart to take a one-way ticket to Willoughby, the thought that there is no alternative.   RP

If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, help is only a mouse click away. For readers in the UK, a good place to start is https://www.samaritans.org.  In the US, there is a National Suicide Prevention hotline, that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Chaser

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Few sci-fi shows may make repeatable story ideas acceptable enough by making them significantly different each time. This can certainly qualify with James Daly (who we remember as Mr. Flint for Star Trek’s Requiem For Methuselah) as Gart humanly resonating with us as much as Howard Duff as Arthur/Jerry. As I once mentioned, in my comments for A World Of Difference, the possibly real ability to literally create and shift into better realities via quantum physics could make such stories all the more popular for this generation. Has Gart simply gone to Heaven or mentally at least to an alternate dimension? The ending’s explanation for the name Willoughby might be a synchronicity at best. But the human mind’s potential for trying to overcome a most unsatisfying life in the most extraordinary way, for better or worse, indeed sparks much debate. Thank you both for your very important reviews for this episode and for the hotline information which, speaking from personal experience, is very helpful to many people.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What I find interesting about this episode is something that Rod Serling may not have foreseen….but I expect he’d appreciate it

    Here in the early 21st Century we have a subset of conservative white Americans looking back on the 1950s as the “good old days” when everything was supposedly simpler and right with the world and America was “great”. Well, here’s a story set in the late 1950s… and it’s a cold, miserable, stressful, superficial world. The protagonist of this story actually lives in this era, which at the time was the present day, but he definitely does not see it as a “great” era. In fact he looks nostalgically at the late 1800s… when, in his mind, everything was supposedly simpler and right with the world and America was “great.” But as the end of this story reveals, it’s a lie, that world never actually existed. As Serling argues throughout the run of The Twilight Zone, the so-called “good old days” never actually existed, in any era.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      A great observation, Ben, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. As I mentioned in mine, the “good old days” are really about a simpler life with a lack of responsibilies, but that’s a reflection on the stage of life of the individual, not an indication of life actually being better at any particular point in time.

      Liked by 2 people

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Like Roger, I think that’s a stellar observation and I too think the good old days are really a reminder of when we were young and had no responsibilities to speak of. I loved my “good old days” but my life is infinitely richer now. The only thing is that me and my friends had no responsibilities and were able to get together and have fun whenever we wanted. So our memories of that time are strictly based on what’s gone rather than contrasted against all that we have now. Humans are a weird race! ML

      Liked by 2 people

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