Episode 291: The Alchemist

“The basis of your problem is the destructive nature of your blood cells.”

In Friday’s episode, Julia baited Barnabas into coming to her room to strangle her. But she knew he was coming, and waited quietly in the corner. Now she steps into the moonlight, and delivers some absolutely explosive dialogue.

Julia:  I know what you are. You’re Barnabas Collins — the only Barnabas Collins, who died over a hundred and thirty years ago.

Barnabas:  That’s an absurd statement.

Julia:  Don’t try to deny it. I’ve investigated you thoroughly, and I’ve seen you in your coffin.

Barnabas:  You realize that such knowledge puts you in great danger.

Julia:  Well, of course. That’s why I took the precaution of putting a dummy in the bed.

Which is an unbelievably badass thing to say. Whenever someone asks you for an example of why Dark Shadows is the most surprising and therefore the greatest television show of all time, you can direct them to this scene.

(Note: There is a very good chance that nobody will ever ask you this question. But it’s good to be prepared, just in case.)

291 dark shadows barnabas cue

Of course, because this is Dark Shadows, the sublime takes a hairpin turn toward the ridiculous within forty-five seconds.

Barnabas backs Julia up against a bedpost and snarls, “What is it you want?”

Gasping, she answers, “You.”

With fire in his eyes, the vampire growls, “I don’t know what you mean, but it doesn’t matter. Because… I am going… to KILL YOU! Miss Hoffman.”

And then he stands there and glares at her. There’s a bit of an awkward pause, because he’s supposed to be strangling her, and he forgot. Apparently, if you want Jonathan Frid to start strangling somebody, you need to write START STRANGLING HER on the teleprompter.

291 dark shadows julia helps

So Grayson Hall — who will basically spend the next four years of her career as a backup teleprompter for Jonathan Frid — reaches over with her left hand and tugs at his wrist, to remind him that he’s supposed to be grabbing her throat. He takes the hint, and the scene continues.

291 dark shadows julia speaks

Now her problem is how to get him to stop strangling her, so she tells him that she’s a doctor, and she makes him a surprising offer — he doesn’t have to live this life.

Naturally, he’s stunned.

Julia:  I’ve spent my lifetime studying conditions such as yours.

Barnabas:  How could you have done this? Have there been others like myself?

Julia:  No. You’re the only one I’ve encountered. That’s why you’re so important to me, that’s why I need you.

Barnabas:  Need me?

Julia:  From the time I entered medical school, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship of life to death. I believe that one is a continuance of the other, and that someday they will merge, and that life will not terminate. That day is close at hand, now that I’ve found you.

People often describe Dark Shadows as if it was only the sum of its influences — you mix together Jane Eyre, Dracula, The Telltale Heart and The Turn of the Screw, apply heat, serve for five years. But as far as I know, this plot point is completely original to Dark Shadows.

Stumbling along from day to day, groping for some way to extend the vampire storyline, the Dark Shadows writers have come up with a bizarre, laughable and utterly brilliant idea.

291 dark shadows julia theory

So: get ready for the science.

Barnabas:  What is this… theory of yours?

Julia:  Whole blood is insufficient to sustain you. That’s why you constantly have to replenish your supply.

Barnabas:  If I were to permit you… what would you do?

Julia relaxes, shifting into the confident tone of a lecturer. She’s got him hooked now, and she knows it.

Julia:  Well, the basis of your problem is the destructive nature of your blood cells. There’s an imbalance which causes more cells to be destroyed than replaced. My objective then, is to alter the cellular structure of your blood, by introducing a new plasma into your arterial system.

Barnabas:  You begin to intrigue me, Dr. Hoffman. You begin to intrigue me very much.

Yeah, no kidding. This is one of those moments where you can’t wait for them to come back from the commercial break because who knows what the hell they’re going to say next.

291 dark shadows willie briefing

Barnabas takes Julia over to the Old House, where they can talk about crackpot science without worrying about being overheard by a sensible person.

They give Willie an update.

Barnabas:  Willie! Dr. Hoffman will be spending some time here.

Willie:  Doctor…?

Barnabas:  Yes. Dr. Hoffman has fooled us all. She’s been investigating us very carefully.

Willie:  Has she?

Barnabas:  Yes, she knows everything.

Willie:  Well, what’s gonna happen?

Barnabas:  That remains to be seen. You see, Dr. Hoffman is a very… unique doctor.

291 dark shadows julia doctor

So, here’s a question: What kind of a doctor is Dr. Julia Hoffman?

She started out as a “blood specialist”, but she’s also been treating Maggie with hypnosis, to help her uncover repressed memories of her abuse. She has quickly moved beyond even the catch-all expertise of the TV doctor, and become kind of a cross between a mad scientist and a sorceress.

Going back to the literary influences for a moment, the character that she most resembles is Professor Van Helsing from Dracula.

In Bram Stoker’s novel, Jonathan Seward describes Van Helsing as “a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day; and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind.”

That “open mind” is key, because for both Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. Hoffman, the boundaries of medical science are too limited to understand and deal with the vampire menace. This “condition” is partly a physical one, which can be described in terms of flesh and blood. But it’s also a spiritual failure, a moral lapse which drives well-bred gentlemen to give in to their appetites for blood and sex and a general deflowering of the innocent.

291 dark shadows willie upset

So Barnabas isn’t sure what to make of Julia’s mind-opening offer. He flip-flops several times during the episode, vacillating between hope and fear.

While Julia is in the basement, picking out a room to use as a laboratory,  Barnabas talks things over with Willie.

Willie:  You’re gonna kill her?

Barnabas:  I’m afraid I’ll have to. I went to her room tonight with that intention, but she anticipated me, was waiting for me. I planned to bring the body back here — but now, she’s made that so much easier for me.

Willie:  She told me what she was gonna do. The kind of experiment she was gonna make. Well, what about that, Barnabas? Can she really cure you?

Barnabas:  I don’t really know.

But this isn’t really an “experiment”, is it? Julia said that Barnabas is the only individual with this condition that she’s ever encountered. There’s no control group, no accumulation of data. She hasn’t even examined Barnabas yet. She’s diagnosed him and devised a complicated treatment plan, based entirely on an analysis of Maggie’s blood.

291 dark shadows julia plan

Here’s how she describes the first steps of her plan:

Julia:  The first thing I have to do is purge your entire arterial system. There won’t be any discomfort, and there won’t be any aftereffects. Now, I think I’ve done enough for one day.

So that sounds simple enough, right? “I have to purge your entire arterial system.” Why would you imagine that might cause discomfort? Patients are such crybabies sometimes.

Clearly, we’ve left actual medical science far behind, and entered the realm of alchemy. In the Middle Ages, alchemy was both a proto-science and a philosophical tradition, based on the idea that achieving material perfection — for example, turning lead into gold — was the key to spiritual and moral perfection.

If you look at her plan as a metaphor — and that’s the only way you can look at it, because medically it’s nonsense — then “purging the arterial system” is another way of saying that she’s going to cleanse him of his destructive and antisocial impulses. Her plan to “introduce a new plasma” is basically a spiritual reawakening, the redemption of the antihero.

So Barnabas’ indecision about Julia’s plan is ultimately a moral and spiritual question. Is there enough human empathy left in his undead heart? Can he learn to trust, and to feel?

291 dark shadows barnabas choke

Okay, that’s a no. He grabs her by the throat, and tells her once again that I am going to — KILL you!

But she’s got one more ace up her sleeve, and she chokes out: “Maggie Evans!”

Barnabas:  She’s alive?

Julia:  And well hidden.

Barnabas:  What has she said?

Julia:  Nothing specific as yet. I traced you through my own deductions. At present, she’s suffering from traumatic amnesia. But eventually, she will recover. And then she’ll tell everything she knows.

So with that, it seems like Julia has all the ingredients that she needs to transmute Barnabas’ lead heart into gold, and lead him to a new understanding of empathy and human connection.

291 dark shadows julia smile

Or… maybe not.

Barnabas:  But she’ll do that whether you’re alive or dead.

Julia:  No, she won’t. Because if I’m alive, I will be in charge of her treatment. And I can see to it that her amnesia… remains permanent.

Okay, so she’s not perfect either. This might get a little complicated.

Tomorrow: I Know Who’s Dead.

Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

Barnabas has the ring on his left hand again, so it’ll be in shot when he’s got Julia up against the bedpost.

Barnabas tells Willie, “My existence may not have been what it should be, but at least I have permanence.” (The sensible way to say that would be: “My existence may not be what it should have been.”)

Julia tells Barnabas that Maggie hasn’t said anything about him yet: “I traced her — traced you through my own deductions.”

Barnabas tells Julia, “I have re-evalued our relationship, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to trust you.” He means re-evaluated.

While Barnabas is telling Willie that he can’t trust Dr. Hoffman, a fly settles on his forehead. When Julia enters the scene, Barnabas takes a little swat at the fly. It flies away for a second, and then comes back and settles on his cheek.

Tomorrow: I Know Who’s Dead.

291 dark shadows barnabas fly

Dark Shadows episode guide – 1967

— Danny Horn

18 thoughts on “Episode 291: The Alchemist

  1. The 1945 Universal film “House of Dracula” featured the titular vampire asking a doctor to find a scientific cure for vampirism

  2. I love this Julia: crafty, unflinching, goal-oriented, manipulative. And not a villain either! I know it will go downhill for her 10 times over, but for now, she’s on top of it all.

    1. Julia could have also simmered Barnabas down a notch by shoving him in the family jewels that may have awakened them. He would have probably thought twice about grabbing her and attempting to strangle her a second time. She was graceful, however.

  3. Wait. This is the first time Grayson Hall has done the opening narration? But has anyone else done it before this besides “Victoria Winters”?

  4. There is so much to unpack here that one’s head truly spins as to know where to begin.

    But right from the jump, I have to say that I think it’s the single.best.episode.since.210. and the beginning of the whole Barnabas arc. So much goes down here in this “re-establishment of the ground rules” episode that I had to watch the episode twice.

    And then there’s The Fly. I probably spent 10 minutes replaying that scene over and over to just try and track where the fly was going, whose head it was going to land on next, and whether or not Frid actually captures it in his hand and HOLDS onto it for the remainder of the scene. What an absolutely exquisite moment in the series. A friend of mine had told me to look out for it a few weeks ago but couldn’t remember when the scene came but simply told me “it’s between Willie and Barnabas and it’s in black and white.” Well, he was right and it’s the second-to-last b&w episode and it is the capstone to this whole climactic arc that one feels is really just getting started.

    And I love that Willie is brought into the DOCTOR Hoffman secret at once. Most soaps would have taken months to make that reveal. They do it in 5 minutes on DS.

    And poor Willie–he’s like, “Oh, we’re doing this now, are we?”

  5. Actually, by introducing the whole House Of Dracula cure-for-vampirism idea, they were able to shift Dark Shadows partly back onto familiar soap-opera territory with Standard Plot B — the Terminal Disease/Cure story. Naturally, being Dark Shadows of course, that familiar trope ends up taking a very weird twist as we go along.

  6. I thought Barnabus’ lack of reaction to the fly (at least at first) was rather eerie…it seemed to highlight his un-human nature. A normal person would have been driven to distraction by it, but he just let it settle and take off, and settle again. As if he truly were a dead thing.

  7. Julia plays the coquette in both this episode and the previous one, flirting shamelessly with both Woodard and Barnabas. I don’t get the fuss over the fly. A fly lands on your forehead and you brush it off, whether you’re a 175 year old vampire or an actor in a soap opera. So what?

    1. The fuss about the fly is, in part, because it’s a blooper and is funny (and keeps happening in the show). In this particular instance, it’s weird because the fly sits on Frid’s forehead for a LONG time without his doing anything about it, especially during a dramatic speech about killing Dr. Hoffman.

  8. Did anyone ever tally exactly how many times Barnabas grips Julia around the throat (with or without threatening, “I’m going to kill you.” )..?

    I think it may be at least seven or eight times, throughout the first 800 episodes, before he finally decides he trusts her implicitly.

  9. You begin to intrigue me, Dr. Hoffman. You begin to intrigue me very much.

    Oh Yes you do!

    He should have grabbed that fly and for effect, eaten it!!!

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