Can life be bad enough that death looks inviting? Or could death be good enough that life pales in comparison? In “A Stop at Willoughby” we experience the confrontation with attraction of death from both the inside and the outside. From the outside, we see Williams, an advertising executive trapped in a life of obligations to a despotic and stupid boss, a materialistic and unloving wife, and a world where one certainly cannot relax and live life in “full-measure.” There appears to be no way out. There is no breathing space, no alternative lifestyle or even alternative values. The values of middle class 1960s America are as artificial and stultifying as those of the fascist society depicted in “Eye of the Beholder.” Williams is on the the train of success, and there’s no jumping off. Or is there?
From the inside, we see the internal world of the imagination – the twilight zone – that Williams escapes to. On the real train, the train from Manhattan to Westport, CT, there is external peace and serenity. Everyone is sleeping or relaxing, and the conductor treats Williams like a person, rather than as a means to some material end. And so it is a place where Williams can be at peace, can contemplate a life that can be valued, that can be experienced in “full measure.” As he nods off, Williams enters the world of the 19th century, with horse-carts, children returning from the fishing hole, and folks gathering in the town square, listening to live music performed on a gazebo. It’s just a glimpse, but a glimpse at what’s missing – a glimpse at peace and serenity, a glimpse at the town a Willoughby.
On waking, Williams is puzzled that he came up with the name “Willoughby” for his imagined town. Is the name appropriated from a real town? The answer turns out to be negative, but we don’t imagine things out of nowhere, and the puzzle of the origin of the town’s name remains, until the end. When that mystery is solved, in the final shot, we know what Willoughby really was in Williams imagination – a representation of death itself – a generous and compelling representation of a place far better than Westport or Manhattan or anyplace in between. From the inside the choice to go to “Willoughby” seems perfectly rational. From the outside – from the perspective of his wife, his employer, even of the benevolent conductor, it is inexplicable. If suicide can be a rational choice in some circumstances, it may very well be the case that we have to try to see that choice from the perspective of the individual who is making that choice, since from our perspective, the contemplation of such a choice will always put the individual in an extraordinary context, a context far removed from typical rational deliberation about what is best.