I first discovered The Twilight Zone in middle school, at the tender of age of 13, and by the age of 21, I’d seen every single episode at least once. Some episodes I’ve seen dozens of times over the two decades since, but there are others that I haven’t seen in 20 years or more. When I started this 5-year celebration of the series’ 50th anniversary, one of the things that excited me was the prospect of seeing those lesser-viewed episodes with older eyes. Perhaps I’d discover a gem that I’d foolishly shunned in my youth. This possibility, frankly, excited me more than simply rewatching episodes that I already knew by heart.
It’s happened. I've discovered that hidden gem.
I saw “The Passersby” once and only once, back in high school when I home-videotaped most of the series. In my teenage estimation, the episode was boring and slow. Worse, the “surprise” ending was obvious from the beginning. I chalked it up as one of Serling’s missteps, certainly not as offensive as “Mr. Bevis” or “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” but a stinker nonetheless. I might have never watched it again, were I not endeavoring to watch every episode on its 50th birthday.
I’m not a religious man, but thank god this wasn’t the case. “The Passersby” is truly remarkable, and the next time I revise my favorites list, it will most definitely be added.
Written by Rod Serling and directed by Elliot Silverstein, “The Passersby” takes place in the aftermath of The Civil War. A woman, Lavinia Godwin, sits on the porch of her house, which is in an advanced state of disrepair. She watches an endless stream of soldiers from both sides of the conflict lumber past in a smoky haze. One of them stops and asks for water. They talk. He plays his battered guitar.
A few other men stop by, including Lavinia's lost (and presumed killed) husband. Each interaction contributes to a dawning realization that all of them are in fact dead. Lavinia refuses to believe it, despite the mounting evidence. The stream of bodies dries up, save for one final passerby: Abraham Lincoln himself, newly assassinated, who stops to comfort her.
I normally eschew this level of spoilery, but the truth is pretty apparent from the opening moments. The soldiers, bathed in fog, are clearly the walking dead, and we're given several clues that support this truth. It does seem to take the main players a long time to deduce the obvious, but personally, I don’t think the ultimate truth is the point of the story. What we’re seeing is a meditation on the mind’s hesitation to accept a fundamental shift in the very nature of its existence. Wouldn't we need a lot of convincing, were this happening to us? We see this reluctance to let go of earthly reality at the core of the brilliant and visceral 1990 film Jacob's Ladder (a favorite of mine). Here in the Zone, season one’s “The Hitch-hiker” explored this same concept, as will the upcoming “Nothing in the Dark," but neither achieves the haunting grandeur of “The Passersby.” You can't argue with the episode's production design, either.... it's just damned gorgeous to look at.
Marc Scott Zicree, in his Twilight Zone Companion, dismisses “The Passersby” as “one of the weakest episodes of the first three seasons.” What a numbskull.
"The Passersby" features what must be the most beautiful closing shot in the entire series. Lavinia races down the fog-shrouded road to catch up with her deceased husband. Lincoln slowly follows. No more casualties of The Civil War shall pass here. Absolutely breathtaking.
“The Passersby” features one of the greatest original scores ever composed for The Twilight Zone. Fred Steiner’s music (heavy on the violins and harp) is beautiful and somber, mournful but ultimately hopeful. It rises slowly, almost liquidly (is that a word? It should be), growing in intensity like waves on a restless sea. It perfectly underlines the languid pace of the episode and, on its own, divorced from the visuals, is a moving and haunting listening experience.
Steiner's score has been made available many times. It was first released on vinyl in 1985 by Varese Sarabande (The Twilight Zone: The Original Television Scores, Volume 5). Varese Sarabande only released CD versions of their five LPs in Japan; in the US, they released two “Best of” CD compilations in 1990 (“The Passersby” was included on the second volume), which are both out of print. The score appeared on domestic CD again as part of Silva’s Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary boxed set in 1999, which is now out of print. I just checked iTunes, and it's not there. So the only way to get it is to buy either the Season 3 Definitive Edition DVD or the more recent blu-ray edition (both from Image Entertainment), both of which feature the score isolated on alternate music-only tracks. I happen to own all of the above items, so I’m planning on listening to the score tonight before I watch the episode… on vinyl, in a darkened room. Maybe with a glass of wine, or perhaps scotch.
A few weeks back, I mentioned that I keep a CD-R of favorite TZ music in my car at all times, and that I frequently revise it. I've been doing this for several years, and “The Passersby” has never once been rotated out.
REMAKES, KINDA SORTA
The 2001 film The Others (starring Nicole Kidman) seems to be a semi-remake of this episode (though it takes place in the aftermath of WWII, not the Civil War). It's a great film (it was recently released on blu-ray... I need to pick it up). The 2002-2003 UPN Twilight Zone revival spawned a semi-remake called “Homecoming,” which moved the action into the present, during the War in Iraq (I can’t comment on it, since I’ve never seen it, but what I have seen of the UPN series leaves me less than optimistic).
16 minutes and 10 seconds into the episode, a fly lands on James Gregory’s right suspender strap and nonchalantly crawls down his torso. I guess the little guy died in The Civil War too. I'm imagining a prequel story in which the fly is Gregory's ersatz Jiminy Cricket, keeping him on the straight and narrow while he navigates his way through the horrors of war.... hey, it couldn't be worse than George Lucas's ill-conceived prequels, right?
This is the kind of stuff you can’t get with VHS or DVD, folks. Only the pristine clarity of high definition can reveal delightful little details like this. Invest in the blu-rays. C'mon, take the damn plunge already. I’m gonna keep harping on you till you do.
Next week: TZ veteran Jack Klugman challenges Jonathan Winters to a deadly game of… pool?