“They aren’t ideas, and I’m not imagining things.”
Well, it’s Friday, so we might as well talk about cliffhangers.
Over the next couple of months, the Dark Shadows writers are finally going to get the hang of how the show is supposed to work, and a crucial part of that is learning how to create episode endings that get people to come back for the next episode. That’s especially important on Fridays, when the cliffhanger needs to last us all the way to Monday.
High-quality cliffhanger construction is a very specific skill, and as the writers develop it, a cynical observer might start to wonder if the structure of the entire narrative is being twisted in order to service the audience’s bottomless hunger for bigger and bolder thrills.
In other words: Does this entire twenty-two minute slice of television exist only to set up a surprise twist in the last sixty seconds?
There are two answers to that question, which are as follows: a) Yes, it does, and b) Which is awesome.
There are five basic types of Dark Shadows endings. In order, from least interesting to most interesting, they are: Haiku, Restatement of Threat, New Information, Crisis Point and Spectacle.
So far, the episodes have leaned fairly heavily towards the boring end of that scale. The progress made in the next couple months will swing the balance over to the interesting side. This episode happens to be a great example of the emerging style, so let’s take a look at the current state of play.
First up: Haiku endings, which were the dominant style of the show’s early, pre-Barnabas days.
These episode breaks aren’t necessarily recognizable as endings in the traditional sense, because nothing is resolved and no progress is made. It’s just a little moment when a character pauses, and possibly has a feeling about something.
Some recent examples include: episode 218 (Barnabas poses in front of the mausoleum), episode 263 (Sam and Joe are still worried about Maggie), and episode 277 (Vicki makes a vaguely nauseous facial expression).
The defining feature of a Haiku ending is that the audience doesn’t necessarily recognize it as an ending until they see the credits. In some extreme cases, the audience may not realize that the episode is over until halfway through The Dating Game.
We’re still getting the occasional Haiku at this point in the series, but as they’ve transitioned into a full-time spook show, the default ending has become the Restatement of Threat.
A Restatement of Threat ending is basically just a Haiku ending in a bad mood. It doesn’t move the plot along; it’s just a gentle heads-up that if we’re patient, a story point should be coming along any minute now.
The Restatement of Threat ending, in its purest form, involves Barnabas staring off into the distance and planning to kill somebody. Examples include: episode 300 (“Burke Devlin must die!”), episode 318 (“Cousin David must be killed tonight!”) and episode 321 (“Goodbye, Maggie Evans. Now… you must die.”)
Note, obviously, that nobody ever dies as a result of the Restatement of Threat. If they were actually going to kill Burke or David or Maggie, then they wouldn’t bother with the Threat. Barnabas didn’t spend weeks vowing to kill Jason McGuire; he just killed him, and then we moved on.
Those are the two boring types. From here, the episode structure starts to get interesting.
A New Information ending provides an actual plot point, which either advances the story another step, or tells us something that we didn’t know.
An example from early in the Barnabas storyline is episode 215, when Jason notices that there’s blood on Willie’s sleeve. Okay, it doesn’t make your brain melt, but it poses an intriguing question for the audience to be curious about.
There was a great rising sequence of New Information endings as we watched Julia put the pieces together a few months ago — figuring out that the cemetery is important in episode 282, realizing that Maggie is afraid of Barnabas in episode 284, noticing that Barnabas doesn’t cast a reflection in episode 288, and then finding him in the coffin in episode 289.
New Information endings are the backbone of the series, the minimum standard that any episode should aspire to meet. After all, if the characters haven’t learned anything and the audience hasn’t learned anything, then why did we all bother to show up today?
The Crisis Point cliffhanger is the big game-changer, and for best effect, it should come at the end of a sequence that’s been building up for a while. This is a big turn in the story, and it should feel satisfying and thrilling.
Some of the examples we’ve seen so far include: episode 260 (Maggie escapes from the Old House), episode 270 (Elizabeth announces that she killed her husband), and episode 294 (the presumed-dead Maggie shows up at the Blue Whale).
The defining feature of a Crisis Point ending is that the resolution marks a change in the status quo, ending one chapter and setting up the next.
But the most exciting of all are the Spectacle endings. Obviously, plot advancement is always welcome, but every once in a while the show needs to set its sights a little higher. These are the moments when the show goes above and beyond, in order to surprise and dazzle you.
And what do you know, I just happen to have one right here.
While we’ve spent the last 21 minutes discussing cliffhanger theory, young David has been running around pissing everybody off. Liz is worried about him, Roger is furious with him, and Julia catches him prying at the locked basement door.
Something has to be done. The writers have written themselves into a bit of a corner here — if David keeps telling everyone that Barnabas is a vampire, then at some point, either people need to listen to him (which kills the vampire story), or Barnabas puts a stop to it (which kills the cute kid). Here’s how they handle that problem.
David is in his bedroom, when suddenly the window blows open.
David rushes to the window, and what does he see but a huge bat on a string, flapping and squeaking at him.
David backs away, but the enormous bat swoops at him, knocking him to the ground.
It’s no wonder he’s freaked out — this is the first time we’ve seen anything like this on the show. This is actually the first of many bats on strings, which are acknowledged in the closing credits with the delightful phrase “bat by Bil Baird”.
Bil Baird was a puppeteer based in New York City, who was fairly well-known in the 1950s and 60s. He performed the puppets for the 1958 TV special Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf, and in 1965, his marionettes were featured in the “Lonely Goatherd” number from The Sound of Music.
So this isn’t just any bat on a string; it’s a bat on a string with a pedigree. And like all the best parts of Dark Shadows, it is both ridiculous and sublime.
It’s easy to laugh at the puppet bat. Sharp-eyed viewers crow that they can see the string, as if that negates the amazing lunatic power of this moment.
Of course you can see the string. Good for you; you cracked the code. It turns out this isn’t a documentary after all.
Recognizing that it’s a bat on a string does not detract from the point of the scene, which is: This bat on a string is scaring the living daylights out of a 10-year-old.
Of course, we’re not really supposed to be scared for David. This isn’t a Crisis Point; there’s nothing in the structure of this episode that would suggest that a main character is about to be killed by a marionette.
The point of a Spectacle is: You can’t take your eyes off the screen. Housewives in the audience have put down the iron, and switched off the vacuum. Teenagers have stopped swatting at their siblings.
If this scene is happening on television anywhere near you — up to and including the house next door — then you’ve just stopped whatever you were doing, and this is now the focus of your attention.
A Crisis Point cliffhanger will bring you back for the next episode, because you want to see what happens next. But a Spectacle cliffhanger is bigger than that — you’ll be coming back for the next episode, but it’s because you can’t believe what you’re seeing, and maybe tomorrow they’ll do it again.
This is Dark Shadows. This is what television is for.
Monday: Bat’s Entertainment.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Liz is talking to David in the foyer, there’s a moment when her earring catches the studio light, creating a brief, blinding flash into the camera. This happens after the opening titles, just after Liz says, “That’s absurd, David. Cousin Barnabas is very fond of you.”
Roger plays the piano in the drawing room, and it’s out of tune. At the moment when Roger stops playing, you can hear someone speaking in the studio.
During the bat attack, when David cowers against his bedroom door, there’s a clear shadow of the rod that’s holding the bat puppet.
Behind the Scenes:
When I first wrote this post, I had a lot of fun with the phrase “rubber bat”. As it turns out, it wasn’t made of rubber at all. A Dark Shadows fan, BDB, left a comment on the episode 331 post, setting me straight on all things bat.
He said: “I must correct this fallacy once and for all: ‘The Original Bat From Dark Shadows‘ made by Bil Baird in 1967, first seen in episode 330; as stated here – is NOT made from rubber! Even though you will see older quotes all over the net, even by some cast and crew, it is a mistake. It is made from 85% wood, leather, metal underneath the wings, with green eyes, and considered a marionette puppet with special black strings. I hope this finally puts this myth to rest. It was used most famously as the bat that turned Barnabas into a vampire and the trick ending of House of Dark Shadows, and used extensively during the show’s run. I have had it in my possession since 1987.”
I love learning new Dark Shadows facts, so I’m happy to retract my rubber bat. I’ve revised the post. Also: It never occurred to me that somebody actually owned the bat, and now I am super jealous. Well played, sir.
Monday: Bat’s Entertainment.
— Danny Horn