Watch This offers TV and movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With The Last O.G. settling in on TBS and FX’s Legion returning from the astral plane for season two, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite TV homecomings.
The Twilight Zone, “Walking Distance” (season one, episode five; originally aired 10/30/1959)
The early protagonists of The Twilight Zone were all trying to get back to something. An Air Force man tries to return to civilization. A peddler haggles for his life. An addled gunslinger and a faded starlet grasp at former glories. Even the Rod Serling-penned episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse that set CBS’ course for The Twilight Zone contained traces of this tendency: In “The Time Element,” William Bendix plays a man suffering from a recurring nightmare in which he attempts to warn the people stationed at Pearl Harbor of an imminent attack from Japan.
Martin Sloan, skinny-tied man in the black flannel suit at the center of The Twilight Zone’s fifth episode, “Walking Distance,” isn’t just trying to get back. He’s racing there, introduced behind the wheel of a speeding automobile and eventually running through the streets of his hometown on foot. Actor Gig Young was pushing 46 when he played the 36-year-old advertising executive, the decade between them all the better to convey the toll Sloan’s fast-paced life has taken. He longs for simpler times, for summers of chocolate sodas, baseball diamonds, and carousel rides. He wants an escape. He finds Homewood.
The time warp he trips after hoofing it from the service station reveals itself slowly, though I do have to question whether the time that’s passed between “Walking Distance”’s 1959 debut and 2018 has rendered some of the initial clues illegible. (Should we recognize the syrup dispenser the soda jerk inspects as curiously old-fangled?) Not that it matters: By the time of the act break and that telling Bernard Herrmann harp glissando, it should be evident that Martin Sloan is performing an act greater than longing. He’s projected into his own past, encountering his 11-year-old self at the very ride where their fates will become further, irreversibly enmeshed.
It’s a later episode, season three’s “Young Man’s Fancy,” that puts a too-fine point on the themes of “Walking Distance”: “The old adage ‘You can’t go home again’ has little meaning in The Twilight Zone.” Here, that kind of punctuation is left to the theatrical lighting and then-cutting-edge-for-TV cinematography (Dutch tilt!) of the denouement, in which Young pours his heart out and The Twilight Zone calls back to its live-TV-drama descendants. “Walking Distance” gets a little treacly as it winds down, but its warning against trying to recapture the past lands nonetheless. The destination for Martin’s Billy Pilgrim routine is wisely chosen, geographically as well as temporally: a time between World Wars, before there was an A-bomb, two Koreas, a HUAC, and any number of the other contemporary fears that animated the imaginations of Serling and other Twilight Zone writers. (It’s one of the script’s many signs of restraint that “the war” isn’t mentioned until the very final scenes of “Walking Distance.”)
In a far-off depiction of days that were only a few months in “Walking Distance”’s future, a Korean war veteran who could’ve been Martin Sloan’s contemporary likens a carousel to a time machine. He, like Serling, knows that nostalgia is powerful and fragile. What he doesn’t mention is that if you spend too much time trying to go back on the carousel, you’re liable to wind up hobbled.
Availability: “Walking Distance” is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, along with the remainder of The Twilight Zone, and is available for purchase on iTunes. It can also be obtained on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon (which helps support The A.V. Club) or possibly your local video store/library.