His name is Gart Williams. Ad man. The Don Draper of his day. Assailed from all sides by the pressure to perform, to succeed, to blaze a path upward to financial and social heights, needled relentlessly by his boss, his peers, his wife... and yes, even himself.
The tension in the opening scene is palpable. A big account is on the line. Willaims sits, tapping his pencil nervously as Mr. Misrell, a boss from hell if there ever was one, stares at him expectantly. Something goes wrong. The account is lost, and the blame rests squarely on Williams' shoulders.
After a verbal tongue-lashing from Misrell, Williams rides the train home. He dozes off while gazing at the November snow falling outside. When he awakens, the car is filled with sunlight. Where is he? More to the point, when? The conductor calls it Willoughby, and it looks a lot like the late 1800s...
Serling's "A Stop at Willoughby," which first aired 50 years ago tonight, is considered one of the finest episodes of the first season, if not the entire series. It's a more bristly affair than its thematic cousin, "Walking Distance," right down to the musical score by Nathan Scott. Where Bernard Herrmann's "Walking Distance" score was soft and wistful, Scott's "Willoughby" score is brassy and intense, the perfect soundtrack to accompany a man born half a century late, and who finds himself coming unhinged because of it. James Daly effectively conveys Williams' growing turmoil and rising need for escape. Mention must also be made of Howard Smith's portrayal of the loathsome Mr. Misrell. I've had less-than-friendly bosses in my day, but nothing like this guy. When Williams finally tells him off (in a manner of speaking), the viewer can't help but wish he'd feed the bastard a knuckle sandwich too. I probably would. But not Williams: he's just a nice guy who's losing his footing in the modern world. As his bitchy wife observes, his "big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn."
The stop is Willoughby. Escape? Maybe. But at what cost?
Yeah, I know. This is a total spoiler. But come on, anybody reading this blog has seen this episode a dozen times. This dissolve is just way too cool not to include.
Next week: A love story with a twist. Spray on some perfume and join the party.