“The clue is large! That doesn’t make any sense.”
Picture this: It’s 3:30, on a sunny Friday afternoon. It’s late June, so this might actually be the last day of school, and it’s 1967, so the kids are looking forward to a long, hot and mostly unsupervised summer. Mom’s been watching General Hospital, so the TV is tuned to ABC. The last notes of the Wurlitzer pipe organ playing the GH theme have faded away, as the kids pile into the house and throw themselves down on the living room floor.
And just at that moment, in a dirty prison cell in the basement of a haunted house, a man brings a tray of food to the pretty young woman who’s trapped there. They exchange a few words, and then he hands her a glass of poisoned milk.
In other words: welcome to the summer of Dark Shadows.
It’s been a couple months since Barnabas Collins came to town, and people have started to notice that something very strange is happening on ABC in the mid-afternoon. Now that the kids are out of school, there’s a whole new demographic opening up, and these are the kids who spent the last three years watching The Addams Family every week.
Dark Shadows kind of looks like The Addams Family, but there’s no laugh track, and — wait a minute, there’s poison in the milk?
Mom? Why is this guy putting poison in the girl’s milk?
Just as Maggie’s about to drink, Willie stops her.
Willie: Barnabas is planning to kill you. I don’t want you to die the way he’ll do it. That’s why I brought you the milk. I wanted your death to be easy.
So, wow, that’s super crazy dark, and we’re just getting started. The writers have just figured out how exciting a well-paced Friday cliffhanger can be, and there’s going to be a big plot twist every Friday from now on. No recaps today, and no filler. There are five characters in this episode, and every single one of them is a loose cannon.
After Willie leaves, Maggie throws herself down on the bed and sobs. Then the mysterious little girl appears in her cell, playing “London Bridge” on a recorder. Maggie looks up, dazed.
Sarah: Why were you crying? You mustn’t cry. Only babies do that.
Maggie: How did you get in here?
Sarah: I guess I wanted to know why you were crying.
Maggie: Are you real? Or am I just imagining you?
Sarah: You found my doll. I thought I lost it.
And that’s the kind of conversation you have with Sarah. She’s mysterious and dead and full of secrets.
Maggie asks Sarah how she can get out of the cell, and Sarah says that she’s not supposed to tell anyone:
Sarah: My father said that I couldn’t tell anyone. Not even my brother. I wasn’t even supposed to know about it, but I found out.
This is a clever tension-building narrative trick. Sarah wants to help Maggie escape — but if she just blinks her eyes and teleports them out, then it’s not very satisfying. So they’ve turned the answer into a family secret, which the girl has to respect.
Although obviously this brings up the question of why Sarah’s father built a prison cell in his basement, with a secret escape hatch. What the hell was going on in this family?
Sarah offers to tell Maggie a riddle, which will help her figure out how to get out of the cell:
One, two — away they flew.
Three, four — by the door.
Five, six — count the bricks.
Seven, eight — the clue is great.
Nine, ten — home again!
She can only say it once, and then she disappears. Now Maggie has to find the way out.
Next, Sarah visits Maggie’s father.
Sam thinks that she’s a neighborhood kid, who’s wandered into the house to look at the painting he’s working on. She asks if he can draw her picture. He’s a nice guy, and he misses his daughter, so he agrees.
While he’s drawing, Sarah asks if he has a little girl. Sam sighs, and says that he did — but she’s gone now. He’s looked everywhere, and no one can find her.
Sarah: Did you look for her on the beach?
Sam: The beach?
Sarah: The beach below Widow Hill. Did you look there?
Sarah: Why don’t you look for her on the beach?
Sam: Because I know I won’t find her there.
Sarah: You might, if you go there tonight.
A little violin tension-hook starts up, which is 100% justified. This is one of the great moments in spooky surprises. It’s got kind of a Twilight Zone feel to it; the weird, soft-spoken kid who’s in touch with something big and strange.
Sam: Why do you say that?
Sarah: I want you to find her. Don’t you want to find her?
Sam: More than anything else in the world. But I know I won’t find her there.
Sarah: You might. I bet you would.
Sarah: Aren’t you going to finish my picture?
He adds a few more lines, and then looks up — and the girl has vanished. Sam gets up and calls her name, but she’s gone.
Okay, back to the basement. Maggie is working on the riddle, and she’s using thinks, the amazing new trick that they’ve just figured out: recording her internal monologue, and playing it while she stands there and makes acting faces.
This time, Maggie is actually whispering in thinks, which is fantastic. Why would you need to whisper inside your own head?
Maggie (thinks): Seven, eight — the clue is great. What does that mean? The clue is great? Meaning big? Large? Important? The clue is large! That doesn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, the kids at home are also trying to figure out the riddle, an interactive educational-TV moment that’s a bit like Blue’s Clues for mental patients.
And here comes the crazy. The sun sets, and Barnabas sits up in his coffin.
Maggie figures out the riddle just in time, because she’s smart and amazing.
The clue is “grate” — meaning the grating of the ventilation duct high in the wall. She counts six bricks down from the grate, and tries to push on the bricks to find the secret door.
Meanwhile, Barnabas is approaching. When we first saw the cell a couple weeks ago, it was right around the corner from Barnabas’ coffin. Now, it appears to have drifted farther away. Barnabas walks down a long hallway, then down some stairs and some more hallway.
And as the secret door swings open, you can see that they’ve finally figured out how suspense works. There’s a lot of action here, a ticking clock, and real danger approaching. But on its own, that situation isn’t suspense — it’s just peril.
Peril is easy; anyone can do peril. Barnabas could just grab Maggie by the throat and say “I’m going to kill you,” like he’s done a dozen times already, and that’s peril. But we’re pretty sure he’s not going to actually kill her in that moment. That situation isn’t dramatic enough to justify killing a heroine.
If Barnabas just showed up and killed Maggie, that wouldn’t really advance the plot very much. He’d hide the body somewhere, and the story would be exactly the same, minus one character.
Everything that happens in this episode — the poisoned milk, the riddle, Sarah giving a hint to Maggie’s father — it’s all there to cue the audience that something new is coming.
And that’s what suspense means — The audience knows that something big is about to change, and we have no idea what it’s going to be.
It’s not just a set of two options — will Maggie escape, or will Barnabas kill her? It’s bigger than that. If Maggie gets away, and Sam finds her — does she expose Barnabas as a vampire? Will people believe her? Will the villagers show up with pitchforks and torches to kill the monster and burn down the house?
And — more importantly — is that what we want? We like Maggie, we want her to live, and we definitely don’t want to watch her sitting around in the basement anymore. But if Barnabas is exposed and destroyed, then the show gets boring again, and we don’t want that either.
That sick feeling in your gut, that anticipation mixed with uncertainty — that’s what suspense feels like. You’re not just worried about Maggie; you’re worried about the show. This is exciting, and you want it to stay exciting, but you have no idea how that could possibly happen.
Lying on the floor in the living room, staring at the TV screen, a million kids imagine the thriling summer that they can now see unfolding in front of them, thirty minutes every afternoon.
And then Mom comes in, and asks if they want a glass of milk.
Monday: Bigger on the Inside.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the commercial break, as the camera pulls in for a close-up on the poisoned milk, it bumps the table, and you can see the milk splashing in the glass.
When Sarah tells Sam to look on the beach, she calls the cliff “Widow Hill”; it’s supposed to be Widows’ Hill.
When Barnabas follows Maggie into the secret passage, look at the top right corner of the screen. As Barnabas moves out of the frame, a crew member walks through the set behind him.
Monday: Bigger on the Inside.
— Danny Horn