Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Twilight Zone Goes West--Part 3

"Dust," which aired during The Twilight Zone's second season (January 6, 1961) was the show's third venture into the Old West. And, for the life of me, I can't figure out whether I like it.

There's a lot to like. The story is set in a "misery-laden" and dying town, where there's no longer much food, money or work. A Mexican man named Gallagos is in jail, waiting to be hanged after he accidentally killed a young girl while he was drunk. The townspeople have allowed their daily despair to turn into hate and have made Gallagos the object of that hatred.

A scummy peddler--who already sold the town the rope that will be used in the hanging--decides he can still make some money from it. He tells Gallagos' father that he has a bag of magic dust. Scattered into the wind, it will turn hate to love and inspire the people to spare Gallagos' life.

The peddler is a con man and the dust is just dust. But this is The Twilight Zone, after all, so when the desperate father does toss the dust into the air, you know something is going to happen.

The production design is excellent, really bringing across the feeling that the town is dying. The actors, especially Thomas Gomez as the peddler and John Larch as the sheriff, are all very good. Some of the dialogue can be seen as a little heavy-handed, but each line fits the personality of the character delivering it, so none of it sounds forced.

And, as far as it goes, the moral of the tale--dealing with the importance of showing mercy--is one that, as a Christian, I fully appreciate.

But--perhaps because the story had to fit into a 30-minute time slot--there's not enough time to talk about the concept of justice. Gallagos did run over and kill a child with a wagon while he was drunk. He's in jail and sentenced to death because he actually is guilty.

That's where the episode falls a little short for me. There needed to be more discussion about Gallagos' guilt and what constitutes appropriate justice for his crime. Personal forgiveness of those who wrong us, even when that wrong involves the death of a loved one, is important and the episode deals with that concept with sincerity. But civilization can only exist if there is justice meted out to those who commit crimes Personal forgiveness does not have to include setting this concept aside. If someone kills, robs or rapes, the victim benefits both from looking to God for the strength to forgive AND knowing the criminal will be dealt according to the rule of law. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. "Dust" gives us an ending that was too pat after setting up a situation where these concepts could have been dealt with in a more sophisticated way. The script is by Rod Serling, one of the best writers that ever worked in television. He was quite capable of giving us a script that would have intelligently debated the balance between mercy and justice. It's too bad he didn't quite get there.

On a side not, three of the eight Old West-themed TZ episodes involve peddlers as important characters. There is almost certainly no actual significance to that, but there you go.

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