“A Stop at Willoughby” is not The Twilight Zone‘s most well-known episode (that’d likely be “Time Enough at Last”) or even its best (I’d argue for “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or “The Midnight Sun”). It is, though, a perfect encapsulation of the mid-century tension between the pressures and thrums of modernity and the idealized nostalgic regional space, and it plays out the negotiation between the two beautifully.
A summary, if you’d rather read than watch (and I recommend you watch over reading – I can’t do Rod Serling justice!): Gart Williams is an overstressed New York advertising executive who has grown exasperated with his career and is unable to cope. He has a boss who keeps telling him to “push, push, push!” and a wife who doesn’t respect him and sees him as valuable only for the size of his bank account. While on his train commute from work, he falls asleep and dreams that his train has stopped at a picturesque small town called Willoughby in 1888; he wakes up before he’s able to get off the train in his dream. On telling his wife about his dream and his desire to be in a town like Willoughby rather than New York, she laughs at him and calls him Huckleberry Finn. On the subsequent train ride, he falls asleep again and this time, attempts to get off the train at the Willoughby stop, but is unable to do so in time. During the third dream, he exits the train and is welcomed like an old friend, by name, to the town by its inhabitants. The shot of the old station clock fades back into 1960, where (spoiler alert!) a train engineer is standing over Williams’s body. Williams, we learned, jumped off the train and killed himself. The hearse that carries him away has printed on it Willoughby and Son Funeral Home.
Willoughby is perfectly representative of the idealized regional. This is the space that so many critics of literary regionalism were criticizing for its insularity, its refusal to engage with history, its provincialism, its purported homeopathic nature (will cure you of the ills of modernity).* And for the first 20 minutes of the 22 minute episode, Serling seems as though he’s reinforcing this problematic embracing of nostalgia. Willoughby is “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure,” rather than base it around feeding the hungry monster of capitalism.
HOWEVER. There’s that great twist of an ending, which suggests that Willoughby is not only fantasy, but it’s always already impossible – to achieve it means death – there IS no functional, sustainable regional space that looks like these fantasies. There is no homeopathic cure for modernity; that the modern experience – the shocks, the jostles, the push push push, the need to feed the capitalist machine – are inextricable from contemporary life, and the only escape from them is death.
In structuring the episode this way, Serling dismantles the binary of rural fantasy vs. urban horror, and suggests the utter futility of nostalgia to cultural survival and forward movement – though he criticizes the modern experience of shock/jostle, he also implicitly criticizes the space of Willoughby by caricaturizing it to such great lengths, and by ending with the realization that one cannot be a functioning, breathing human being and occupy Willoughby. That the space of Willoughby is white and primarily male (we never hear a woman’s voice in Willoughby) suggests also that this is a white male bourgeois fantasy – this would never be the dream of a woman of color.
*Actually, most regional spaces in regional literature aren’t anti-modern or insular, but practicing a kind of complex “provincial cosmopolitanism” (Tom Lutz’s fantastic term; read his Cosmopolitan Vistas for more).