“Walking Distance” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 10/30/1959)
In which Martin Sloan finds you can’t go home again
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”—1 Corinthians 13:11
“And also like all men perhaps there'll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he'll look up from what he's doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there'll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he'll smile then too because he'll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man's mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”—Rod Serling, from the script for “Walking Distance”
Sometimes, we seem caught in a never-ending nostalgia feedback loop. There have always been those who longed for the world of their childhood over the world of their adulthood, but it seems, more and more, as if the world is built around catering to those who want to remember how much better it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s, a supposed golden world where things were simple and easily understandable, where there were still Saturday morning cartoons, and the weekend was long and lazy, and the summers were warm and friendly. It often seems as if our whole country is trapped in a nostalgia snare, longing for a small town world we haven’t really existed as for a good 75 years, if that world ever existed at all. I grew up on the outskirts of a small town being choked to death by modernity, and my grandmother used to talk at length of what the town had been like. Why, if I could just see it how it was when she was a young woman, I might see that it was really something. What I realize now, too late, is that she was making a case for both her staying and my staying. But we get older, and we have to strike out for the unknown.
We’ve all got things we associate inextricably with our childhoods, and we sometimes get a little too defensive of them. Think of how often you’ve seen someone say online that maybe The Goonies or Ghostbusters or Star Wars or something is fine, sure, but it isn’t all that great, and the people who respond, woundedly, often seem as if the initial comment is attacking them. And, really, that’s because it is. It’s assaulting something fundamental about who they were when they were young, and for many of us, when we were young was the last time we were truly worry-free, truly happy without having to constantly realize that the wolves were at the door. We all, at one time or another, find ourselves longing for ghosts that we can still see around us in people who’ve grown older, in buildings that have slowly crumbled, in movies we once loved beyond reason, in our own faces in the mirror.
“Walking Distance” captures that feeling as well as any episode of television ever made. Rod Serling’s voice chokes up a little bit as he reads the closing narration and for good reason. This was clearly a deeply personal script for Serling—the park that the older Martin Sloan explores so wistfully is based on an actual park in Binghamton, N.Y., that Serling frequented as a child—and he brings to it an ocean of feeling, one supplemented by an excellent performance by Gig Young and a deeply moving score by Bernard Herrmann. The last time I watched this episode must have been when I was watching Twilight Zone reruns religiously in high school and college, when I still lived at home or visited frequently. And while I liked it in theory, I didn’t quite put it up there in the pantheon. This time around, sitting in my office in California, far, far away, it knocked me out. It might be one of the best episodes of television ever made.
The story’s simple: Martin Sloan is an ad executive in New York, and he’s gotten tired of the life he leads there, one that constantly seems to be rushing by him at top speed. (Serling doesn’t even need to say much more than “ad exec” and “New York City” to get us to fill in the blanks ourselves, so entrenched was this trope already in the world of ‘50s pop culture.) He gets in his car and starts driving. And when he stops driving, he realizes he’s close to Homewood, his boyhood home. He leaves his car at a station to be serviced, and he decides to walk the one-and-a-half miles into town, to slow down his life as much as it was when he was a boy. What Serling does here is kind of ingenious, as he implies that the mechanism by which Martin travels through time involves slowing down, rather than the reverse.
He stops in town, and the first place he goes is old Mr. Wilson’s shop. Mr. Wilson’s been dead for a few years now, but maybe having a chocolate ice cream soda will taste just a bit like he remembers it tasting as a boy. When he orders the soda and finds out it’s still just 10 cents, we in the audience know what’s going on, most likely (and if we don’t, Serling tips his cap by having the man behind the counter go and talk to Mr. Wilson, alive again and ready to place another chocolate syrup order). But Martin doesn’t until he heads into town, bumps into Ron Howard who says that he’s not “Marty Sloan,” and discovers the 11-year-old version of himself, as well as both of his parents, who are still alive and understandably a bit horrified by the grown man claiming to be their son. Martin finds Marty at the carousel in the park—one he will later be told is torn down in his own time—and in the ensuing chase, Marty injures his leg, an injury that carries forward to Martin, who spends the rest of the episode limping. Martin/Marty’s dad finds Martin in the park, sitting on the carousel’s edge, despondent, and he tells him he believes Martin’s story. He’s got the right papers and money with future dates on it. But this is not his time anymore. It’s Marty’s time, and if Martin tries to invade it, that would be wrong. And so Martin leaves Homewood, now in 1959 again, and when he tries to pay for a soda, it’s now 35 cents. He decides not to. That was a different time, a different version of himself. And as Serling talks, he drives back to New York.
Into this relatively simple setup, Serling packs an ocean of feeling. Too many works of nostalgia—which this is, as it longs for the small-town America of Serling’s youth that was already on its way out in 1959—think that nostalgia is enough, that to simply recreate a time and place as it was and lose yourself in it all over again will be just fine. But Serling doesn’t think that’s enough. It’s not that he thinks he has to teach Martin a lesson—not exactly—but he does seem to think that Martin needs to realize that the world of his childhood is a place he can never get back to. And even when he magically does, it’s no longer the place he belongs. Now, his place is in New York, in his new life, even if it wears him out. Homewood, even with all of the teenagers hanging out in the soda shop, will always be a ghost to him, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to stay the same forever and ever. It can be a different Homewood for each generation that grows up there, just as the small town of my grandmother’s youth was a very different place from the small town of my own.
This is one of those things that we talked about a couple of weeks ago. Like a lot of works of art of the time, The Twilight Zone is intrigued by the way that the United States has become a world superpower but has also had to shift inexorably from the United States of Serling’s youth. Coupled with Serling’s wish to tell Martin that his place is now in New York, his life is now as an adult, is a deep, impossible to fully articulate yearning for the world that was. If you look at photos of Recreation Park online, the bandstand and carousel in this episode are very, very close to the bandstand and carousel there. Serling is, in some ways, creating his own youth, and even if he rejects it at the end, there’s a powerful sense that he, via his proxy Martin, wants to return there, as much as he knows it’s impossible. (Director Robert Stevens accentuates this sense of longing with long shots of the town, its houses, its idyllic summer days.)
There are awkward moments here and there. Martin’s obsession with finding the younger Marty to tell him that he needs to hang on to each moment and remember it as well as he can feels a little clumsy. Herrmann’s score stays just on the right side of overwrought, but I could see others disagreeing. (It is all but omnipresent, with complex instrumentation that’s unusual for television.) And the scenes where Martin sees his parents again are rather close to any number of scenes from other stories like this, particularly the scene where George Bailey sees his mother again, now an angry old spinster, rather than the caring woman he knows, during the climax of It’s A Wonderful Life. (At the same time, isn’t this how anyone would react to seeing someone in a vastly different context than they usually do? Wouldn’t you react this way if your long-dead mother was at the door of your childhood home?)
But like all of the best works of art, “Walking Distance” makes sure you don’t care about any of those things. What really matters as the episode draws to a close is the sense that no one can truly revisit their childhoods, nor should they want to, but they can always recreate it in memory, or, should they be so lucky, on the set of the television series they just happen to have gotten on the air. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, easy to lose yourself in if you get too wrapped up in it. In “Walking Distance,” Rod Serling invites us to his own childhood, spends a little while showing us how wonderful it was, then gently reminds us that the world is older now and so are we. And then he gives us a path to get back out, to the place we know we are meant to be.
What a twist!: There isn’t one, really. I guess the fact that Martin scares Marty and causes him to injure his leg, an injury Martin will now bear, sort of qualifies.
- Herrmann’s excellent score for this episode has apparently been released on CD a number of times. It was influenced by Samuel Barber, which sort of makes sense, listening to it. Thanks, Wikipedia!
- Man, if you ever see a little kid in something made around this time, you should probably just assume it’s Ron Howard, huh? Because it’s always him. (A Random Roles with Ron Howard would be really fun, but I’ll bet he doesn’t remember a damn thing about filming this episode.)
- It’s sort of amazing how pervasive the myth of the American small town is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an old-fashioned soda fountain, yet I know exactly how they work thanks to things like “Walking Distance.” This is just one of those things we don’t seem willing to let go of (nor should we, I guess).
- J.J. Abrams once waxed philosophical about this episode for Time magazine, and his brief discussion of what makes the episode great is worth looking at here.
- I’m not sure why this episode isn’t more readily acclaimed. I know that it’s considered one of the best Twilight Zone episodes, but it’s not nearly as well-known as many of the other episodes considered among the best. I suppose much of that is due to the fact that it doesn’t boast a twist ending, but Serling’s script is so strong, and the sense of sweet nostalgia gently undercut by reality is so well-expressed that you’d think this would be a go-to episode for a lot of people. Instead, it’s a, “Say, have you ever seen…” episode, and when you meet someone who has, you smile and nod, briefly remembering how great it is. Nostalgia’s funny like that.
“Escape Clause” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 11/6/1959)
In which the Devil has a fine sense of irony about immortality
How many Twilight Zone episodes revolve around someone making an ill-advised deal with the Devil? I’ve covered but four episodes so far in this series, and at least two would have moments that could be seen as following this old trope (though the first involves the man making a deal with the Angel of Death and ends with him going to Heaven, not Hell). And I can think of a handful of others that contain it as well, which means there must be more. The Twilight Zone has always had a fine love of irony, of course, and the Devil is well-known for his sense of ironic punishment, so it would seem the plot device is a natural fit. But it’s still a very odd thing to have pop up again and again in the series that’s seen as the father of U.S. sci-fi TV.
Our “hero” in this episode—and that’s putting it very loosely—is Walter Bedecker, played by David Wayne as a relentlessly insufferable malcontent and hypochondriac, constantly certain that he’s going to fall into ill health and die. This attitude irritates both his wife (a subtly unhinged Virginia Christine) and his doctor, who wish he’d just get over his preoccupations. While he’s laying in bed, fretting over his latest self-diagnosis, he starts talking to a voice that just pops up in the room—I love the way the episode works this voice in so gradually that it almost seems as if it’s Walter talking to himself—and then a jolly fat man is in the room, calling himself Mr. Cadwallader and telling Walter that, sure, he could live in such a way that he’d never have to worry about death. He’s right, after all, to tell his wife that a man’s life is but a blip in the face of the existence of the universe. Actually, several millennia is a blip in the face of the existence of the universe. And Cadwallader has all the time in the world. Why not just give Walter what he wants in exchange for, oh, his soul?
My favorite thing about this episode is how quickly Walter catches on to the game he’s playing with Cadwallader, how quickly he realizes that he’s negotiating with the Devil himself. The episode doesn’t waste any time on having Cadwallader prove himself. He’s simply who he says he is—and all he has to do is materialize in someone’s bedroom to prove it. The little acting duet between Wayne and Thomas Gomez here is very fun, particularly Gomez’s not-too-goofy, not-too-serious performance. He plays the Devil as the kind of being who takes great joy out of tricking humans into signing everything that really matters away, which is the best kind of depiction of the Devil there can be.
I also like the way that this episode, unlike “One For The Angels,” wastes absolutely no time in just getting down to brass tacks. We establish Walter very swiftly, then have the scene where he discusses the terms of his deal with Cadwallader. And then we immediately cut to Walter testing the deal by tossing himself into all sorts of certain-death situations. He dives in front of trains. He drinks ammonia (to the horror of his wife). And he threatens to jump off of buildings, only to have his wife actually take the dive. Well, he figures, I’ll see how the electric chair feels, and he confesses to the murder of his wife. But his lawyer’s too good and gets him life in prison. Cadwallader pops up in his cell, asks if he wants to invoke the “escape clause” in his contract (something which will have Cadwallader immediately kill him, should he wish it), and kills him after receiving a nod of consent. It’s a swiftly moving, rather brutal little piece, particularly for these early episodes, which have a tendency to meander a bit.
I really like the fact that Walter is played as someone who seems to approach the process of trying to mutilate himself beyond recognition—since he knows he can’t—as a fun way to pass the time. (He can’t age, and he can’t be too badly injured, so what else is he going to do?) Rather than try to improve himself, he becomes obsessed with the idea of lording his immortality over everyone around him, particularly his wife, who finds it horrifying, as she should. There have been plenty of stories about people who find themselves all but immortal, and when we see them recovering from grievous injury, they’re almost always in terrible pain. But Walter—like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day—seems to take a sort of curiosity that turns into a kind of excited, gleeful terror at the prospect that he can’t die, no matter how hard he tries. The best sequence is easily this section, and Wayne makes Walter both understandable and terrifying. He remains our protagonist, but he increasingly becomes someone inhuman, fitting his new status, and that pushes him away from us, even as we gravitate to those around him. Before, he was understandable as a fellow human being; now, he’s something else.
If there’s a problem with this episode—and it’s far from perfect—it’s the fact that the story is almost too truncated. I realize I just praised the way the episode moves, but I do wonder if another five minutes or so wouldn’t have made this one an episode at the level of the show’s very best. In particular, the final sequence feels a bit rushed. If we had gotten more of a sense of Walter’s trial and his amusement at the idea of tricking the judicial system than we did, it might have made the final moments in his jail cell all the more jarring. And he also seems to give up awfully quickly once Cadwallader shows up to ask if he wants to invoke the escape clause. He doesn’t try to escape or try to figure out a way out of his predicament. He just gives up. And that doesn’t really gibe with the character as he’s been established throughout the episode.
But there’s plenty of good stuff in “Escape Clause,” nonetheless, and Wayne, Christine, and Gomez make the episode a lot of fun to watch, even when the script is straining to incorporate all of the story it needs to tell. Wayne was a character actor, who’d mainly played supporting roles in films (including Adam’s Rib) and was now moving increasingly into television. Gomez received an Academy Award nomination in the ‘40s and starred in a large number of classic films, while also playing a few roles on television before dying in the early ‘70s. Christine, meanwhile, never became a star, but bounced around the edges of both film and television, often in parts that called for her to put on one of the many accents she could do well. Not a one of these three went on to a career filled with huge fame, like other Twilight Zone guest stars would. But the interplay between the actors in this episode makes obvious that one of the true strengths of this show was casting. It was always able to find just the right actor for almost all of its many parts, a trick that couldn’t have been easy with no recurring characters, and this episode—for all of its goofiness—is proof enough that that was one of the reasons the show endures.
What a twist!: Walter attempts to get the electric chair after confessing to his wife’s murder (when she died in an accident). Instead, he gets life in prison, and the Devil asks if he’d like to invoke his “escape clause,” meaning he will die. Walter nods and is immediately struck by a heart attack.
- I can’t decide if the guard saying, “Poor devil” at the end is too cutesy or one of those great Serling kiss-off lines.
- The scene where Walter cheats a bunch of insurance agents out of cash (and the agent from the train company recognizes the one from the bus company) is a great, ghoulish bit of dark comedy. Walter’s got the smarts to profit richly off this scheme, but he outsmarts himself in the end.
- This episode, along with the very next one and “Mr. Denton On Doomsday,” was mentioned in a short promotional film Serling made to promote the series to sponsors who might underwrite the program. Thanks, Wikipedia!
- While writing this episode up, I ended up Googling how to sell your soul to the Devil. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no surefire methods.
- I quite like the moment when the newly immortal Walter, having tested his resilience by burning himself on the radiator, chucks his medicines out the window.
Next week: Zack takes a left turn into science fiction with “The Lonely,” then learns how there’s “Time Enough At Last.”