The Western has never been my thing. Barring Tombstone, which was excellent despite being very true to form, most Westerns have some good scenes but are usually all about violence and revenge. I don’t mind a good revenge movie, but I like them as occasional action movies, not an entire genre being about it. The whole of the Western genre is about little more than cowboy justice. Oh, I know some Western fans are going to tell me there’s more to it than that, and maybe there is, but Dust is a prime example that proves the rule. Sure, it’s got a surprise ending but it’s a Twilight Zone episode, so what do you expect?
We are introduced to the utterly contemptible slob, Mr. Sykes. This is a loathsome man who delights in others’ misfortunes and is out for making a quick buck at anyone’s expense. He arrives in town to mock another man, Mr. Gallegos, who is to be hanged in a few hours. Gallegos’s crime? In a surprisingly modern twist, he was drunk driving. Doesn’t matter that it was driving a horse and carriage, the end result is the same: a dead child. His sin has destroyed his soul long before the noose will destroy his body. We are also introduced to Mr. Koch, the town sheriff who is tired of the misery he sees every day. He even chastises a man for bringing his kids to see a hanging, asking if to teach them pain, he gives them a shot in the arm. He is a good man, tired of so much suffering. He’s particularly aggressive with Sykes for being a “fat carcass” and dislikes the way he enjoys the pain of other people. Lastly, we meet the senior Mr. Gallegos who is heartbroken to think that his son will soon be dead; another in the litany of people who suffer the eye-for-an-eye justice that is so prevalent in the Wild West.
The episode goes to great lengths to show us what a slimeball Sykes is. Equally, we go through an entire ordeal just watching the Sheriff being disappointed by his fellow man. And we are shown how much the senior Gallegos loves his son despite the terrible mistake he made. So when Sykes sees gullibility in the senior Gallegos, he offers to trick him by selling “magic dust” for 100 pesos (paid for with gold coin). Needless to say, we hate Sykes all the more. He’s such a sleezy character that he even dumps out whatever was in the bag to fill it with common sand. But that doesn’t stop the old man running to the site of the hanging pleading with people to believe the magic of love. Now here’s where the Twilight Zone does the unexpected…
There is no “magic dust”. As the audience, we know that the bag was filled with sand, but we’re still primed to be expecting magic or a miracle. And Serling delivers, but not the way we expect and that’s what made this a stand-out episode. Not only is the man saved when the brand new rope snaps, but the parents of the dead child decide there’s been enough suffering for one day. The rope snapped; maybe it was divine intervention. Maybe people should forgive, even when it’s nearly impossible to do so, rather than respond with violence. This is the best of human nature depicted in a place that the best seldom shines through. To further the surprising twist, Sykes gives the gold coins to the nearby children, walking away speculating about the hand of providence. His next laugh might be that of a new man, one born again into realizing there are beautiful things in the world. I don’t claim to like Sykes at the end, but I saw a man changed by the unexpected. A perfectly new rope broke and saved a man from hanging. Serling ends his narration reminding us that the human heart is full of wizardry and I found myself smiling. I love stories that reaffirm the best parts of humanity. I never expect to find them in a Western, but after all, this did take place in the West of The Twilight Zone… ML
The view from across the pond:
Dust presents us with a tragic situation. A young man got drunk, drove dangerously, and accidentally killed a little girl. Now he is going to hang for it. To a certain extent the previous episode has primed us to have at least some sympathy for Gallegos. The Night of the Meek showed us a man who drinks to escape the sadness of the poverty he sees all around him. Instead of being punished for his alcoholism he is rewarded for his compassion. Gallegos also drinks because of poverty; he was jobless, hungry and living in a town in the middle of a barren landscape. His reward will not be to ride off in Santa’s sleigh. Instead he will be taken to the gallows.
The villain this week is Sykes, a heartless trader who makes money out of misery. He sold the rope for the gallows and now he is trying to trick Gallegos’ father by selling him some “magic dust”, which “turns hate to love”. He’s not just a con artist, he’s sadistic, chuckling at his cruelty and taking advantage of a tragedy. At the end there is a hint that even this monster of a man might be redeemable, when he gives the money away to some children. We are left to guess as to whether he is concerned that there might be more to the world than is dreamt of in his barren philosophy, and is trying to tip the scales a little in his favour, which must be weighed down by his cruel actions, but it’s not clear. He seems confused and deep in thought, but it is far from being a man showing remorse at his actions. A stronger ending might have been Sykes giving the money back to his victim, rather than tossing it in the sand in front of some random children, so if Rod Serling’s intention was to show a man learning the error of his ways then he does that in an unsatisfying way.
One message that does come across strongly instead is the power of compassion and the self-defeating philosophy of an eye for an eye. There is a fine line between justice and vengeance, and the latter helps nobody. The town was going to respond to a horrible tragedy by putting a body into another coffin, leaving another family to grieve, including Gallegos’ young daughter and elderly and desperate father. The broken rope motivates the parents of the victim to have second thoughts, and realise that “one victim is enough”. The choice of vocabulary is key there, because the Canfields understand that Gallegos would be a “victim” of their actions, a death prompted by the instinct for revenge, not justice.
There is virtually no supernatural element here. The dust doesn’t even come from a mysterious source, and the revolting Sykes certainly isn’t gifted with any magic powers. He simply scoops up some dust from the ground and puts it in a bag. There is perhaps a sense that the barren land that has failed to provide for its people has finally given something back, but Serling never quite connects those dots, and nobody reacts to it with anything other than laughter. Instead, the broken rope is what gets the reaction and prompts the change of heart, and that’s the only real mystery here. Sykes was certain that he didn’t con anyone with that transaction for once. The rope should not have broken. We could speculate about somebody sneaking out in the night and fraying the rope, perhaps even the sheriff himself, who is clearly miserable and troubled by what he has to do. Again, Serling doesn’t connect any of those dots either, but I think he shies away from showing us anything that is specifically and undeniably supernatural for a very good reason. It would take something away from the moment that the town has a change of heart and the Canfields spare the life of their daughter’s killer. That doesn’t need to be magical, because it shows us instead that humans are capable of compassion, even in such desperate people as these, living in a barren landscape, unable to feed themselves properly, and suffering from a terrible tragedy. The moral of the story has to be this: we don’t need magic in order to be decent humans who make the right choices. We can turn hate to love by ourselves. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Back There
It feels mostly from the heart to write about Dust on the day of Remembrance Day (my native Canada) and the anniversary day of my father’s passing. Because for any story with a message about breaking cycles of darkness and pain, and how the magic, as with any Twilight Zone metaphor, can indeed symbolize a real power that we all already have within to heal our suffering with love, light and peace, Dust is a most special example to reflect on. Particularly now in a time when such gritty TV dramas are really taking over in this generation. Rod Serling, whether it was a western, war or prejudice story, knew how delicately such a violent story must be handled to get the right message across to the audience and certainly enough for the redemption of Sykes (Thomas Gomez in a brilliant performance) to seem plausible to some extent even if it’s the most miraculous element. As someone who has had to heal a lot in my life and especially in this century, I can agree that however we interpret the actual cause of the miracle for Dust, the realism is to remember that we don’t necessarily need magic to be at our best. As paradoxical as it may sound, that’s the best magic of all. Thank you both for your reviews.
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Sorry for your loss, Mike.
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