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The Twilight Zone (Episode #48): “Dust” (airdate 1/6/61)
The Plot: A young man sits behind bars in a small town in the Old West, accused, tried, and convicted of killing a child while drunk at the reins of his wagon. It’s the day of his hanging and while the townspeople clamor for vengeance his father puts his faith in a bag full of magic dust.
The Goods: Luis (John Alonzo) is set to be hanged and spends his final day staring out the window at the outside world. The townsfolk are building his gallows in plain view, the funeral procession for the young girl passes before his eyes, and an insensitive traveling salesman names Sykes (Thomas Gomez) jokes about the convict’s imminent and deserved demise. When Luis’ father comes along and pleads for last minute lenience Sykes sells the hopeful and faithful old man a bag of “magical dust” guaranteed to sway public opinion and save Luis’ life.
This episode stands apart from most others in the series for a couple reasons. First, it’s a cruel and somber story for the vast majority of its run time. And second, there’s absolutely no supernatural or unnatural element to be found here.
Or is there?
“How do you teach them pain James, shoot ’em in the arm?”
Twilight Zone has never been a show to shy away from the mean or downbeat, but it’s usually only been a factor in the setup or final twist ending. “Time Enough At Last” is a perfect example of an episode that sets up an interesting story then ends it with a cruel twist of fate. In contrast, “Dust” is mean spirited and mournful from the very beginning up until the final couple of minutes.
The town itself is a dry and quiet place, and the air is heavy with loss and cries of vengeance. One man brings his kids to the execution as both entertainment and a warning, the dead girl’s parents are deaf to the pleas of Luis’ father and younger sister, and every word out of that bastard Sykes’ mouth is laced with hatred and insincerity.
But it’s Sheriff Koch (John Larch) who makes this the bleakest damn episode yet. Seriously, someone get this poor guy a Zoloft. He’s the most depressing lawman the Old West has ever seen. He’s moping at his desk from scene one, and later on when a relieved Luis asks if he’s free the sheriff replies “Are any of us free?” Talk about a Debbie Downer.
The other relatively new element is the lack of an outside force altering reality in some way. There’s no genie in a bottle or magical contraption here, just a bag of ordinary dirt. Even when it’s used there’s no flash of light or other effects meant to symbolize something spectacular or otherworldly is actually happening. And yet something that could be termed miraculous still occurs.
What’s not so new is one of the episode’s minor themes. Along with the ideas of forgiveness and second chances there’s an underlying and unspoken critique on racism. It’s less subtle than the one found in episodes like “The Encounter” and “People Are Alike All Over”, but it’s still there. Luis is Mexican and his judge, jury, and executioners are all white.
Interestingly, there’s no doubt as to his guilt in the matter of the little girl’s death, and by all accounts he should pay for his crime. We the viewers intentionally or otherwise are also passing judgement on him as the story gives us little reason aside from compassion as to why he should be forgiven.
“Dust” is a lesser known episode of the show, and it’s easy to see why. It’s far from flashy, methodically paced, and lacks a zinger of an ending. But it’s also quite good. Rod Serling, who wrote the ep, wisely poses the question of magical intervention without ever confirming it. Instead, he offers the possibility that just as cruel as mankind can be at times we can also be quite kind.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: Thomas Gomez also starred in Beneath the Planet Of the Planet Of the Apes. Speaking of which, you should go see Rise Of the Planet Of the Apes.
On the Next Episode: “At a prominent club in Washington DC, a socialite argues about whether it would be possible to change history by traveling back in time. When he leaves the club he finds himself in 1865, on the night President Lincoln will be shot.”
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.