When The Passersby started, I rolled my eyes because it was immediately apparent that we were in for another of those historical stories. I get the impression that Serling was a fan of history and like writing about it in whatever form he could. That’s fine, but those Civil War stories never did much for me. I’ve seen plenty and don’t really want my entertainment to be about a horrible period in our past. In this case, some dude walking down the road past a woman living by herself since her husband died with his “mind if I…” questions just didn’t spark any interest. No sir, I was certain this was going to be just a 25 minute waste of time. But being the diligent reviewer that I am, I stuck with it. And then a rider comes along whose face couldn’t be seen. The lady of the house fires a shotgun at him and I think the shot hit me because I suddenly realized what was happening and the episode took on new meaning. Well, color me surprised!
I love allegory. Used well, allegory is a fantastic tool for storytelling. This story gave me thoughts of the Beatles song, The Long and Winding Road. I imagined the long road we are all on as some inexorable march to a common conclusion: death. Depressing as it is, there really should be nothing to fear from it; it’s a club we all join eventually. But there’s that sense of self that we hold onto. I don’t claim to be any different. We have a fear of losing who we are when we die as if we’re really somehow important. Take a look at a Nat Geo map of the universe if you ever want to be reminded of how small we really are. And yet, somehow Serling puts a very sweet spin on death. Even with all the souls walking past the house – people lost during the war – we still get a focal character who gets reunited with her husband. He accepts that his house isn’t his home anymore and is willing to walk on and wait for his wife. “I’ll be seeing you again at the end of that road.” The allegory of life as a long road is kinda nice; peaceful even. He knows she’ll be following him eventually, once she’s ready to accept that the inevitable has happened. And though she’s reluctant to let go, she eventually does and runs off to be with her husband who turns and extends his arms to her. They embrace and, like all those who have gone before and will come after, they are lost to the march of time. But we can assume that they are together.
I think the episode took a little trip into self-indulgence for Serling when Abe Lincoln showed up. I’m reasonably sure Serling added that because he just felt a need to add an historical figure, but Lincoln wasn’t really needed to make the point. In fact, in a way, he hurt the story, claiming to be the last fatality of the war. That’s not strictly true; the war went on after his death, so it actually did nothing for the story short of showcasing the lookalike quality of an actor to Abe Lincoln; certainly not something the story needed. Frankly, the woman reconnecting with her husband was all we needed. It added a sense of beauty to the scariness of death. I’ll see my dad and my grandparents again one day, down that road. That’s a nice thought. Although, I won’t deny that I hope that’s long, long way down the road.
“This too shall pass. Wait and see…” The episode did impress me in the end and I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt considering where I started. I also had one more surprise in store for me while watching. I could swear that the woman looked familiar so I looked up Joanne Linville and found she played the Romulan Commander in Star Trek’s The Enterprise Incident. What a radically different role! It didn’t make me like her more in this story though. In fact, there’s something to be said for a great idea. The characters in this story had no real personality to me but the idea carried the story to another level. Serling didn’t always give us great characters, but this was one time that he delivered on the story and gave me a lot to think about as I travel down my road. ML
The view from across the pond:
Until its closing moments, The Passersby is a bleak episode to watch, with its parade of thousands of war victims struggling along a road past a house that has been damaged in the Civil War. With two thoroughly miserable episodes in a row, The Twilight Zone is in danger of becoming unpleasant to watch. The final scene ends the episode on a more upbeat note, but that doesn’t cancel out the previous 20 minutes of depression. It also doesn’t help that a moment of unintentional silliness is used in an attempt to turn the viewers’ frowns upside down.
I’m not sure how long Rod Serling thought the viewers would remain in the dark about the fact that everyone we are watching is dead, but there is certainly no doubt that by about eight minutes into the episode nobody can fail to grasp what’s happening, when the sergeant notices the blood on Charlie’s cap, and remembers that “they said he had been killed in Gettysberg, shot through the head.” That robs the big reveal of the Union Lieutenant’s fatal wounds of their impact, later in the episode, beyond the horror of the scene. We are not actually being provided with any new information at that point.
But I don’t think the big, all-too-obvious revelation that everyone’s dead, Dave, is really the point of all this. There’s more to it than that. Instead, it’s about everyone being dead, and one of them struggling to accept that. It actually makes perfect sense for it to take far longer for the penny to drop for Lavinia than for the viewers, because it’s her life and her death. It’s one thing to figure out what’s going on when you’re an onlooker, but Lavinia has to think the unthinkable. She’s dead. The burden of proof in her situation is obviously going to be far higher, because it’s personal for her, and she also has a reason to cling on to the broken shell of her former life: her husband is still missing.
This is why the ending is so messed up, because Jud should have been the one persuading Lavinia to accept the truth and move on to the afterlife with him. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t hanging around because she likes her dead tree, and we can see that a powerful impulse is drawing these people towards heaven. Just look at Charlie’s expression when he is interrupted en route: his gaze fixed on a point in the distance, a look of excitement on his face. Lavinia’s love for her husband makes sense of her ability to resist that impulse, but as soon as he turns up she should no longer be stuck in her limbo. Instead, she needs Abraham Lincoln to persuade her.
The scene is well-acted and as understated as it could have been, and it also makes a lot of sense as he’s the “last casualty of the Civil War”, but it can’t avoid being an extremely silly moment, and an oddly muddled message. Why would Lavinia’s husband fail to persuade her to go with him to heaven, and yet a man she has never met before changes her mind because… what, he’s good at delivering speeches? Because he’s very famous? Because he’s Abraham Lincoln? It’s more than a bit cultish, and maybe works better for an American viewer who has more of an emotional connection to their own country’s history. This is an episode that doesn’t cross the pond well. I’m fairly sure my reaction to the final scene wasn’t supposed to be laughter.
But there’s one more element to this that elevates the episode. Lavinia isn’t just stuck because she’s waiting for her husband. In fact, she thinks he isn’t coming back. She’s stuck because she isn’t ready for heaven yet. She’s still looking for revenge, trying to fight a war that is already over, and she’s ready to kill because she’s so consumed with rage. Before she can pass over, she needs to let go of her anger, and again that’s where seeing her husband should have been the moment to change her as a person, rather than some well-crafted words from a politician. In his rush to give us a twist at the end, emotionally more than narratively, Serling never quite joins the dots of his own bigger picture. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Game of Pool
Not one of the high notes for me from The Twilight Zone. But still another nice memory of Joanne Linville. Thank you both for your reviews.
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