Serling refers to the execution of an unrepentant murderer as “a necktie party,” but the characterization belies the seriousness of the subject, which is justice. The episode paints a stark contrast: a changing world, transformed by technology from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth, and justice, which doesn’t change. The invariance of justice over time is illustrated through time travel. Two time travelers – one traveling forward in time, the other back in time, can’t escape the justice they are due even though they’ve each traversed the better part of a century.
The first time traveler is a cowboy, plucked into the future at the moment before he is hanged. He arrives in a future that is bewildering, in the New York City of the 1960s, with its neon signs, swarms of people, tall buildings, horseless carriages, TVs, jukeboxes, and telephone booths. Yes, another telephone booth, and another victim, trapped inside.
But not everything has changed. A person who is morally bankrupt in the 1800s will be morally bankrupt in the 1900s. It’s even worse than that. The character flaws that contributed to the cowboy’s demise in his own time have disastrous consequences when he tries to cope with the unfamiliar technology of the 20th century.
The second time traveler doesn’t have the luxury of testing the waters of the previous century. He arrives at the time and place of the execution of the cowboy, and replaces him. As a murderer, it is a fitting punishment, and justice is done for the two evil-doers, though each is displaced by 80 odd years. Justice, virtue and vice are invariant across time, culture, and technology.