“Loathsome I am, and evil. You can mock me for that, but leave my pain alone.”
Okay, it’s all blowing up. Dr. Woodard knows everything! He stole Julia’s notebook, and he’s read all about her experiments. Now Barnabas appears in Woodard’s office to confront him, and Julia’s there too, with a hypodermic needle full of blue look-like-a-heart-attack poison.
You know, there’s a better than average chance that something might actually happen today. This time I mean it.
But more importantly — Joe Caldwell’s back! This episode marks an important turning point for the show, so it’s good that we’ve got one of the best writers working on it.
If you haven’t been following the shakeup on the writing team, here’s a quick recap. There’s usually a three-person team writing the show. Malcolm Marmorstein was fired in August, and by now it’s mid-October. The other two writers — Ron Sproat and Gordon Russell — have been struggling a bit. The pace of the show has picked up considerably, and they’re burning through story a lot faster than they used to, with big cliffhangers every Friday.
So Joe Caldwell is here to fill in for two weeks, while they hire a permanent replacement. Caldwell is a New York playwright who worked on Dark Shadows for a couple of months before Gordon Russell joined, and he wrote some of the best episodes we’ve seen so far, including the “Exit Strategy” episode and Julia’s introduction.
So with Caldwell filling in, we’ve got a strong writer who’s done great work on the show, but doesn’t have any real investment in what’s going to happen two weeks from now. Let’s see how that goes.
To kick off, we’ve got a little game of supernatural chicken. Apparently, ABC doesn’t want the show to use the word “vampire”, even though this has been a full-time spook show for four months and counting. Caldwell pokes the bear a little.
Woodard: Are you going to kill me?
Barnabas: You’ve given us no alternative.
Woodard: For a moment, I was afraid I had.
Barnabas: What do you mean?
Woodard: Death wasn’t my worst fear. I prefer death to…
Barnabas: To what? Say it!
Woodard: You know to what!
Barnabas: Say it! I dare you!
Woodard: To being something like you are — something loathsome and evil!
Barnabas: Tell me more!
Woodard: I’d prefer anything rather than becoming… the undead.
So close! Woodard fumbles on the five-yard line.
Okay, so they can’t say the word yet, but Caldwell unearths something new.
Woodard: My only regret, Barnabas, is that I won’t live to be able to destroy you.
Barnabas: I see. So you’ve read the notes! Then you realize I have the power to turn you into something not unlike myself.
Wow, they haven’t gone here before. They alluded to this power during Maggie’s abduction story — Willie even built a coffin for the new “Josette” — but this is the first time Barnabas has threatened to turn someone into a vampire just for pissing him off.
Then Julia makes kind of a complicated suggestion.
Julia: Barnabas, if my experiments are successful, we can undo all the harm.
Woodard: Please, Julia.
Julia: But that way he wouldn’t have to kill you.
Woodard: I don’t want to live if it has to be that way.
So — okay, wow. It’s a little unclear, but it sounds to me like Julia is suggesting that Barnabas turn Woodard into a vampire — or at least a half-dead blood-slave, like Willie was — and then she can reverse it when she figures out the cure.
This makes sense to Julia, because she’s an alchemist, and she believes that the experiment she’s working on is both a material cure and a spiritual one. If Barnabas can be cured, then he can also be redeemed, and that redemption can extend to his followers and assorted victims.
But it’s still the weirdest possible suggestion that anyone has ever made. She’s basically live-tweeting her ongoing grief process.
Woodard shoots down the idea, and makes a startling suggestion of his own.
Woodard: Barnabas, if you make me into something like yourself, I swear I’ll find a way to destroy myself. But first, I’ll find a way to let people know what you are.
Barnabas: You believe that your free will would remain after my little treatment?
Woodard: Yes. Enough of it will remain. Enough of yours remains. If you chose, Barnabas, you could destroy yourself. You certainly could turn yourself in.
Woodard: No, of course you won’t. But you could. And I would.
And boom goes the dynamite.
Because that suggestion — that Barnabas has a choice, and he could choose not to hurt people — challenges everything that we’ve seen over the last few months. We’ve been seeing things from the vampire’s point of view, as he swats away one threat after another. But it’s been a long time since anyone’s suggested that he could just stop trying to cover up his crimes at any cost.
This is essentially a rejection of the “reluctant vampire” excuse, because for all his emo posturing, we never have any reason to believe that Barnabas is unable to stop. He doesn’t seem to have any built-in timetable for when he gets hungry — the one time he’s attacked a girl recently, Willie accused him of doing it because he felt scared.
In fact, Barnabas was bragging a couple months ago that “I have certain distinct advantages” over an ordinary man. He thinks he’s better than people. This is not reluctant. This is self-absorbed.
That’s why this moment is seen as a turning point in the show’s development. It’s not because we lose the beloved Dr. Woodard, and his unique take on life in Collinsport. Woodard is just one of the guys that stands around and speculates; most of the things he says are completely interchangeable with Burke, or Sam, or Sheriff Patterson.
No, this is an important moment because Joe Caldwell has come back after a few months away, and he’s noticed how far the show has drifted from any connection to human values. This is his critique of what Dark Shadows has become, and his challenge for the future.
When Julia takes the hypodermic from her purse, Woodard is horrified.
Woodard: Doctor Hoffman. One of the brightest, and — I thought — bravest doctors I’ve ever known.
Woodard: So much good you could have done. The lives you could have saved, Julia! The suffering you could have helped!
When Dr. Woodard was first introduced, he was supposed to be the Van Helsing character, tracking down the undead creature who’d been snacking on the locals and knocking some wood through its heart.
But the vampire was popular, so that storyline was postponed, and ultimately Julia was brought in as the substitute Van Helsing. And now Woodard can see that the Van Helsing figure has turned into a cringing Renfield, and all he can feel is contempt.
Julia: I can’t!
Barnabas: You no longer have a choice.
Julia: He’s my friend!
Barnabas: You no longer have friends.
Woodard: He’s right. You no longer have any friends, Julia.
It’s rock solid. I told you Caldwell was good. He doesn’t get this kind of material to work with all the time, but at the moment, he’s the writer who can take a dramatic conflict like this and just knock it out of the park.
Finally, Barnabas gets impatient and grabs the needle. But just before he’s about to finish the job, Woodard cries, “Sarah!” and points over toward the corner.
And it works! Only for a moment, but it’s long enough for him to make a mad dash for the door.
Barnabas grabs Woodard, and pushes him up against the door.
Barnabas: Is she here?
Julia: No. No one is here.
Barnabas: You dare mention her name to me?
And he stabs Woodard in the shoulder. The doctor crumples to the floor.
Barnabas looks down at his fallen enemy, and delivers one of the best lines he’ll ever get.
Barnabas: Loathsome I am, and evil. But leave my pain alone.
Oh, it’s lovely. High drama, at 3:30 in the afternoon.
They’re digging themselves into a hole right now, and it’s going to be hard to climb out. The two most popular characters on the show have just murdered a guy in cold blood, on screen, and he tells them exactly what he thinks of them before he goes.
But that line holds the key to redemption — not just for Barnabas, but for the whole show. When the new writing team assembles, three weeks from now, “leaving Barnabas’ pain alone” is the exact opposite of what they’ll do.
They’re going dig into that pain in stunning detail. And that’s how they save the show.
Tomorrow: Shadow of the Bat.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Julia walks around Woodard’s desk to approach Barnabas, you can see a boom mic dip into the shot for a moment.
Barnabas has a nice mysterious Fridspeak line: “You were a little less efficient than I expected, but you were fine, considering our entire success.”
At the Blue Whale, Sam points out the clear silhouette of a bat hovering right outside the window. Sheriff Patterson looks right at it from a few inches away, and says, “What, what?” as if he can’t see it.
When Sam and the Sheriff find Woodard’s body in his office, the Sheriff picks up the phone and says, “Operator, give me the hospital; this is the Sheriff.” Isn’t this the hospital? In episode 236, this office set is clearly a room in the Collinsport Hospital.
Tomorrow: Shadow of the Bat.
— Danny Horn