Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Walking Distance

I don't recall where I saw it, but I remember reading once that for most people, their ideal future is a return to an idyllic past. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and when we look back on personal history, specifically our childhood, and compare it to where we've ended up, it's easy to feel unhappiness and regret and to wonder, "What could I have done differently?" It's also tempting to wish you could remain in the past, in a time when you didn't have worries or responsibilities.

"Walking Distance" explores this idea with a story about a man who finds himself in his childhood town by literally walking into the past. Gig Young stars as Martin Sloan, a vice president who stops at a gas station for an oil change. Turns out, the service station is not far from Homewood, the town where he grew up and hasn't been to in twenty years, so Martin decides to hike over for a visit. However, everyone and everything is exactly as he remembers it, and it isn't long before he runs into his parents and his 11-year-old self.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, "Walking Distance" eschews the dark irony and twisted paranoia of other Twilight Zone episodes. In fact, its depiction of small town America with 10-cent sodas (with three scoops of ice cream), carousels, and kids playing carefree next to white picket fences, the episode is closer to Frank Capra than Richard Matheson. Homewood, as befitting of its name, is an innocent, carefree place, so it's no surprise that Sloan becomes enchanted when he recognizes everything and sees how nothing has changed.

It's about this point, when Sloan encounters his parents and his 11-year-old self, you'd expect the other shoe to drop, that there'd be some twist revealing that this presentation of Homewood is an illusion, a plot by someone or something to lure Sloan to his doom, but the episode avoids that route. Instead, Sloan, the overworked, stressed-out executive, tries to reconnect with his past and only ends up getting in the way while the mystery of how he traveled back in time is never brought up or answered.

Ultimately, Sloan's father, after being convinced that this weird adult calling him Pop and chasing after his son really is the same boy (it does seem strange that despite running after a boy on a merry-go-round that Sloan is never arrested or something. I guess even the time this show was made was more innocent, too), tells his son how he sees it. He tells Sloan he can't stay in the past, adding that "We only get one chance," He bluntly tells his grown-up son that he's unhappy because he's always been looking behind when he really should try looking forward. You can't change the past, but you can direct your future.

Ultimately, "Walking Distance" is not an episode I see myself re-watching anytime soon, mainly because it lacks all the fun, dark things that draw me to The Twilight Zone, and it's tempting to call it corny and sentimental. Still, it's got heart and an uplifting message. When Sloan walks back to the present and climbs back in his car, you get the sense he has changed for the better. It's nice when it's not just the audience who learns a lesson.

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