Thursday, January 22, 2015

One of the Best Episodes in Twilight Zone's First Season

By the time she appeared in "The Hitchhiker" on Twilight Zone 55 years ago tonight, Inger Stevens was an entertainment veteran, having appeared in several films and TV series — even though she was only in her mid–20s.

Her face should have been familiar, even if her name was not, and that face really was perfect for the part she played in "The Hitchhiker" — bewildered, frightened, vulnerable. Well, I guess that could describe most of the lead characters in Twilight Zone episodes. They typically found themselves cast in thoroughly illogical situations, and Stevens' character was no exception.

I am tempted to suggest that this episode really set the tone for future Twilight Zone episodes. It was, after all, the 16th episode of an anthology series that lasted for another 140 episodes. It was still evolving when this episode first aired.

But then I remember that there had already been several episodes that set the tone for the series before "The Hitchhiker" was shown. So I must conclude that it wasn't as influential on the series as I first thought. It is, I have discovered, a general favorite among Twilight Zone fans. In fact, I have a friend who watches for that episode in particular when Syfy has its New Year's and Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathons.

Stevens' character, Nan, a buyer for an East Coast department store, was making a cross–country trip and experienced a blowout when she was driving through Pennsylvania. She was unhurt and managed to get the tire replaced — she even joked with the fellow who replaced the tire. He told her she was quite lucky; with a blowout like the one she had at the speed she had been traveling, she should have been killed, but she had walked away without a scratch.

Then suddenly she began seeing the same strange little man hitchhiking at every point along her route. She began to panic. It wasn't possible that the same hitchhiker should always be ahead of her, was it? At one point, it was suggested that maybe he kept catching rides and getting dropped off just ahead of her. Nah, that seemed a little too coincidental.

Nan became progressively worried. At one point, she picked up another hitchhiker, a sailor, and offered herself to him (in the manner of early 1960s television) if he would stay with her until they reached the coast.

But the sailor couldn't see the hitchhiker and had concluded that Nan was unstable; he declined the offer. So she proceeded alone — but never completely alone. The hitchhiker was always there, just around the bend.

Finally, in need of reassurance — or perhaps just a desire to hear a friendly voice — Nan stopped and called her mother. A woman she did not know answered the phone. When Nan demanded to know who she was, the woman replied that Nan's mother had been hospitalized following a nervous breakdown she suffered when she learned her daughter had been killed when a tire blew out in Pennsylvania.

Nan walked slowly back to her car, realizing that she was, in fact, dead — and the hitchhiker, rather than wishing her ill, was the embodiment of death, waiting for her to come to the realization that she was dead. When she eased into the driver's seat, she adjusted her mirror, revealing the hitchhiker in the back seat. "I believe you're going ... my way?" he asked.

"Nan Adams, age 27," said Rod Serling at the end of the episode. "She was driving to California, to Los Angeles. She didn't make it. There was a detour … through the Twilight Zone."

I would say it was one of the best episodes of Twilight Zone's first season.