The past is an elusive thing, we remember it but our memory is constantly changing, forgetting, being influenced by the world we are experiencing right now. I’d argue instead then that the the core of our memories for the past are more intangible. They don’t feel concrete, they’re simply impressions and feelings that we associate with the past we held on to. These aren’t always positive, in fact for a lot of people they can be down right awful, but when they are positive we tend to call it nostalgia.
Nostalgia didn’t occupy the same place in society in 1959 that it does now. So much of our pop culture is based on things that remind us of our childhoods, things that are often based on entertainment from the childhood of it’s creators. Think about how many peoples favorite movies are Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, all properties created from the nostalgia of their creators. It’s odd then that “Walking Distance”, one of the most critically acclaimed episodes of The Twilight Zone, feels very much out of a modern mold at first glance. Working off the classic template of a disillusioned man, and it is almost always a man, who seeks to leave his stressful modern life and return to his carefree youth, “Walking Distance” might at first seem fairly rote. For all its acclaim I found it fairly pedestrian, well acted, well directed, until the show put it’s own personal exclamation point on what could have been the same story I’ve seen a million times.
I’m speaking of the conversation that Martin has with his father, a masterpiece of acting, writing, and directing. Backed by a custom score made for the episode by Bernard Hermann, a titan of the industry who would do work for The Twilight Zone multiple times over its run, Martin and his father discuss how Martin needs to leave the past to his past self. While looking to find the joy in modern life through embracing ones inner child or teenager isn’t exactly a novel idea what makes it work for me especially here is the scene that proceeds it.
In that scene Martin attempts to reach his younger self and tell him to enjoy every moment of his youth but in doing so causes young Martin to fall from a carousel and injure his leg. We learn at the end of the episode that Martin now carries a limp from that fall, a fall he himself caused. This is what really got me, the idea that by lionizing the past, by yearning to return to it, we are not only harming our memories of the past by making them into something they’re not but that we also hurt ourselves in real lasting ways. We leave wounds in ourselves that stay forever.
Martin’s father addresses this by telling him that there isn’t any space in the past for him anymore. It’s not his summer anymore, it belongs to the past, to the Martin who exists there, not to the modern Martin. He shouldn’t try to make something that belongs to the past belong to the future as well. The conversation is incredibly well acted, with everyone playing their part in a subtle way that makes you feel that they really are father and son. Gig Young, a two time Oscar nominee before he played Martin and who would go on to win an Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, is incredible. The way he plays Martin, transitioning from a worried, almost fatherly adult, to a scared child, and back to an adult in the space of a couple of minutes is nothing short of spectacular.
While I’ve already heaped a lot of praise on Serling in the past few reviews for his scripts, this is the one that feels the most personal. It’s easy to see this a reflection on Serling’s own past and the way he has felt about it . Often Serling’s status as an auteur when it comes to The Twilight Zone is a bit overstated, ignoring the other talented figures who contributed to the show and the nature of network television production at their time. I don’t want to down play the strength of Robert Steven’s direction here in his second and final episode (he also did the exceptional pilot episode) but if there has been episode so far that feels like it could have only come from one person, it’s this one.
I’ve struggled often in looking back at the way I used to be, to the my own better days, and giving in to the desire to try to get back. If this was an episode that felt deliberately personal to Serling, so to did it feel very close to my heart. I want to feel like the man that Serling describes in his closing narration, someone who doesn’t yearn for the past but when reminded of it smiles. He hears the past, as a wish, as a “wisp of a memory” and knows that it isn’t too important really. Serling says that trying to go back home again is something that all men try at some point. For those who like me have been trying for a while, we should take Martin’s father’s advice to stop looking behind us and to “try looking ahead”.
The Twilight Zone
Season One Episode Five: “Walking Distance”
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Robert Stevens