The Twilight Zone: “Nightmare As A Child”/“A Stop At Willoughby”
B+

The Twilight Zone: “Nightmare As A Child”/“A Stop At Willoughby”

“Nightmare As A Child” (season 1, episode 29; originally aired 4/29/1960)

In which the past informs the present

“Nightmare As A Child” feels like a pretty solid installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I mean this as a compliment, mostly. Hitchcock, like The Twilight Zone, can be a little hit-and-miss, but when it was on, it was turning out some of the best suspense stories in the history of TV. Sure, “Nightmare” has a fairly typical Twilight Zone twist, but what it’s really about is a woman realizing that the death of her mother wasn’t what she thought it was and slowly coming to terms with the fact that she knows who her mother’s murderer was. There are some issues here and there in this episode, but every time we’re hanging out with Helen and watching her slowly uncover her past, it’s aces.

A lot of this is due to Janice Rule, who’s playing one of Rod Serling’s favorite types: the addled woman who isn’t taken seriously by others. (Notice how the murderer seems to dismiss her as a fairly easy mark.) We’ve talked a bit about Serling’s nascent feminism, and while I wouldn’t proclaim the guy to be a feminist hero, he was awfully fond of stories where men dismissed seemingly “hysterical” women and only later found out the women were right. Now, you could make the argument that this is the plot arc of at least 80 percent of all Twilight Zone episodes, but that arc takes on an extra punch when it involves a woman, instead of a man. I’m not sure “Nightmare” would work as well with some dude at the story’s center, because we need to believe Helen is really helpless to make the moment when she kills the man who would kill her that much more powerful. Serling uses our own stereotypes—including ones that exist to this day—against us.

Serling brings in another trope he’s really fond of here as well: a spookily precocious little kid. Our hero comes home to find a little girl sitting on the stairwell by her apartment, whistling “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to herself. The little girl’s name is Markie, and Helen realizes that, hey, that name sounds familiar. It’s right about here where the average viewer who’s seen an episode or two of this show will figure out that Markie is actually the young Helen, a little girl version of herself Helen is hallucinating for some reason. This is probably the biggest flaw in the episode, since that means a lot of time is spent with Helen trying to puzzle out just why this little girl has appeared to her. Roughly the first half (before Selden shows up) is taken up by this, and it keeps the plot from really taking off. (This is, you may have noticed, a common complaint in this first season of the show.)

But Helen and Markie have a fun, twisty relationship all the same. It’s enjoyable to watch Rule bounce off of the preternaturally confident and comfortable Terry Burnham. Kids who have major roles in the Zone tend to be just a little this side of normal. They often seem like adults trapped in kids’ bodies, and in this case, at least, Burnham is playing literally that. This sort of performance can be unsettling or unfortunate if done poorly, but Burnham walks the line between hammy and childlike fairly well, and that gives the scenes where we’re just waiting for Helen to figure out just what’s going on a bit more of a lift than they might have had otherwise. The two have good chemistry—as you might expect someone to have with themselves—and the episode makes good use of that eerie sound of Burnham singing the nursery rhyme to suggest her presence when it can’t actually have her around. The scene where Helen can hear Markie singing but Selden can’t might be my favorite in the episode.

This is another Twilight Zone that could be very easily staged as a stage play, but unlike some of the others we’ve talked about here, it’s one that doesn’t really do much to take advantage of its cinematic powers. This is probably what separates this episode from an actual Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That show was consistently one of the best directed in TV history, and it’s easy to imagine what the stable of directors there would have done with this scenario—lots of darkness and long shadows and menacing camera angles. “Nightmare” plays around with that a bit, but it doesn’t really push things enough to make this as claustrophobic and terrifying as it might be. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is excellent, with several fantastic cues, but everything else feels a little lacking.

Strictly speaking, the story here doesn’t make a lot of sense. Our murderer, Peter Selden (Shepperd Strudwick), has a scheme that doesn’t really track, if you accept the facts the show presents at face value. If he were a serial killer who preyed on a certain kind of woman, sure, but he’s just a guy who apparently killed Helen’s mom in a fit of pique, then returned to finish what he’d started decades later when he saw Helen one day. But it’s pretty clear that Helen remembers nothing, even as he tries to push her to remember what happened that night (and perhaps cover up those memories with his own story). I’m not really sure what his plan here, unless he secretly wants to confess. Serling’s script doesn’t really give him a motivation that makes sense; he’s just the boogeyman.

But that’s all right when the monster’s played by someone like Strudwick, who makes his transition from folksy grandpa to cold-blooded murderer seem like the most natural thing in the world. There are episodes of The Twilight Zone saved by brilliant direction or scripting, and then there are episodes saved by the actors, and I’d say this is a great example of the latter. I’ve spent much of the above griping about some of it, but I can’t deny that when you’re in the middle of this one, it just works. Much of that is due to Rule and Burnham and Strudwick, who form an efficient trio for creating a tense situation (even though I’m pretty sure they don’t ever share screentime all at once—unless you count that snapshot of Burnham). There’s a very primal fear to being trapped in a small space with someone who wants to kill you, and thanks to these actors—and that musical score—all logic flies out the window when Strudwick lunges at Rule. It’s suspense and terror and very entertaining TV. Just like Hitch might have made it.

What a twist!: Little Markie is actually Helen’s vision of her childhood self, returned to tell her adult self that the man she saw on the street today was actually the murderer of her mother.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • My apologies this is so very late. I’m at the Television Critics Association press tour, and it has a way of eating up my time. It won’t happen again.
  • That final bit with the new little girl Helen tells to never lose her smile is pretty cheesy. It doesn’t leave things on the best note.
  • I love the way Strudwick plays the moment where he decides, “Well, hell. Might as well just kill her after all.” He makes it seem like he’s just crossing something off his to-do list.

“A Stop At Willoughby” (season 1, episode 30; originally aired 5/6/1960)

In which an ad man longs to slow down… way down.

When I recounted the plot of this episode for a colleague here at press tour, he jokingly scoffed. “What? A Twilight Zone episode where somebody ends up dead as the twist? That’s madness!” And, yes. I take his point. There’s a predictability to “A Stop At Willoughby,” particularly after watching this whole first season (which kept returning to the same basic story structures again and again), that keeps anything here from being truly surprising. There’s something very corny about the episode, too, particularly in the performance of Howard Smith as the boss, Mr. Misrell, who takes apart every line he’s handed, chews on it thoughtfully, then spits it out in the most hilariously overwrought fashion ever. (I really liked his performance, to be clear.) But if the twist of this episode is predictable, and if the story’s predictable, those were never the best reasons to watch this show anyway. The best reason to watch The Twilight Zone has always been longing.

I firmly believe you can distill any great work of art down to one word, that you can get down to what gets you on a gut level by talking about that one thing that drives everything else. There aren’t a lot of variations in these words, honestly. In fact, you can find a great many science fiction shows driven by that idea of longing (The X-Files springs readily to mind), since feeling like something’s missing is always a good way to force someone to go on an incredible journey. Yet I feel it palpably in the very best Twilight Zone episodes, particularly the ones that Rod Serling himself wrote. (And let’s just stop here to note that Robert Parrish does a wonderful job directing Serling’s script for “Willoughby.”) Everybody in The Twilight Zone wants something. They’re willing to do incredible things to get it. But they almost never get what they want. This is a world where the carrots dangle endlessly in front of you. Maybe you catch them when you die. Probably not.

Our hero is an ad man—what is it with this period and advertising agent heroes?—who’s grown tired of the frenetic pace of his life. Named—curiously—Gart Williams, he’s played by James Daly, who gives a sweet, soulful performance, one that’s so nice that you’re predisposed to hate his wife for shitting all over his dreams, even though she has some pretty trenchant critiques of the stupid stuff her husband’s always spouting at her. Daly, in fact, might give one of the best performances of this first season, and it stands out all the more because he’s an earnest man trapped in a world full of bawdy stereotypes, simply there to reinforce how right he is to want to leave that world for a time filled with stereotypes, sure, but simpler ones, representatives of an easier time. He’s got the floozy wife who wants more money. He’s got the fat old boss who always pushes him too hard. He’s got colleagues who are faceless yes-men. He’s the only one who feels in a world designed to grind that feeling down.

So why wouldn’t he get excited when he falls asleep on the train and dreams into existence a town called Willoughby, a stop on the line that everybody tells him doesn’t exist, yet one that he has to make exist, because without it, he’ll have nothing? As humans, we’re always tempted by the thought of a purer past, a place where people were just plain decent to each other. We’ll paper over unfortunate realities to get there—by, say, not exactly pointing out how the 1950s were also a deeply racist time for the United States—or we’ll literally just make shit up. But what we really want is something that was simpler and better and not as hectic and full of conflict as our modern lives. Modern life is full of ambiguity, see, and when you go back to the past, you don’t have to worry about who you are or where you stand. You just know.

It’s this world that Willoughby represents, and it’s to the episode’s credit, I think, that it’s presented as an illusion. It’s one that’s harmful on one level—you have to die to get there, as Gart does when he jumps off the moving train—but it’s also a sweet and slow place to go after you die. This world of the past might not have ever actually existed—notice how Gart’s wife speaks of his fantasies in strictly fictional terms—but it’s still a place you can get to whenever you head off to some other ideal. Perhaps it’s just a moment you cling to in the few seconds before dying (which, if fiction has taught me anything, last eons). Perhaps it’s literally Heaven. Either way, though, there’s no getting to it by hanging on to what you have here. You have to give up everything to have a chance at that kind of life.

If there’s something here that doesn’t entirely work, it’s that scene with Gart’s wife, Jane. It’s clear we’re meant to think of her as another villainous person holding Gart down from realizing his potential of, uh, killing himself, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Perversely, that turns this scene—which could have been terrible and one-note in the hands of other performers—into something that works in spite of itself. Patricia Donahue is very good as a woman who’s just had enough of her husband’s fantasies and his refusal to take responsibility for his own happiness and live in the life he already has. When she dismisses his fantasies as being out of Huckleberry Finn, it’s a great line, because there’s a stab of truth to it. Did Serling himself have this conversation with anyone? It’s easy for a writer to become lost in flights of fancy, to neglect the world as it is, and Serling certainly had a powerful imagination. It’s a scene I love because it doesn’t entirely work. It means for us to read it one way, I think, but becomes possible to read in an entirely different way thanks to the actors. And that’s not something that happens often on this show, which can tend toward the polemical.

Honestly, that’s one of the things that makes “Willoughby” work so very well: ambiguity. Most Twilight Zone episodes tell you roughly how to feel about everything going on. Rod Serling steps in at the end to tell you the moral, too, even if it’s abundantly clear. And yet nothing here is clear. Does Gart get to stay in Willoughby? Or does his longing ultimately kill him with no purpose? Serling’s final narration seems to say that Willoughby is a nice thing to desire, but he doesn’t come down on the question of its actual existence as an afterlife one way or the other. We don’t see Gart in Willoughby in that final shot, either. It’s just a place that exists just past the window for us, a place we can see but can’t really get to. It’s an illusion for us—and for Serling—as much as it is for Gart. Wanting things in The Twilight Zone can kill you, but sometimes, it’s the wanting and the longing that are the only things that make it possible to live.

What a twist!: The funeral home that comes to collect Gart’s corpse? Willoughby and Sons. Cue strings.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • If it turns out that this whole Willoughby thing is a psychic illusion created by the funeral home to drum up more business, this episode becomes an instant A+.
  • Actually, the way Misrell treats his employees is exactly how I treat the TV Club underlings. It’s a push-push-push business!
  • The fade from the pendulum on the clock in the Willoughby station to the guy waving the lantern back and forth is a very nice edit. It’s flashy, yet subtle at the same time, somehow.

Next week: Zack figures out how love potions and trumpet players fit into the Zone, as season one nears its end.

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