“I am unaccustomed to explaining things, sir!”
Ben Stokes has an axe to grind. I mean, literally — he’s standing in the woods near the Old House, sharpening his axe with a grindstone.
“She’s a witch, that Angelique,” he thinks. “A man like me can’t fight a witch. But I’ve got to. Mr. Barnabas… he’s the only friend I got. She says she’s doin’ everything cause she loves him. If only I could figure out some way I could help him, without her knowin’ it.”
Ladies and gentlemen, there he stands, the unwilling henchman — forced to follow the deranged monster’s commands, but openly struggling the whole way. This is such a common theme on Dark Shadows that it must be coded deep down in the show’s DNA.
So far, everyone that we’ve seen under the vampire’s spell — Willie, Maggie, Julia and Carolyn — have all had the guts to stand up and question what he’s making them do. And not just once, but over and over, even at the risk of their lives and immortal souls. There are no sell-outs or collaborators on Dark Shadows — only underground resistance fighters who haven’t figured out which way is underground yet.
Now we’ve got Ben, the spell-charmed slave of a sinister soap vixen, and he’s desperate to spare his friend. But then a huge floating witch head appears, and starts giving him orders. Looks like recess is over.
But there really isn’t a moment to rest this week. In 1795, every day is Friday.
When we left Jeremiah yesterday, he was rubbing his weird monkey lips all over his nephew’s fiancee, a slave to Angelique’s treacherous sorcery. But he’s fighting back, too — he doesn’t understand what’s happening, but he knows that every minute he stays in the house, he may destroy Barnabas’ chance for happiness with Josette.
So he has to leave. He can’t explain it; everything he says sounds ridiculous. But it doesn’t matter. He’s got to go.
And it’s thrilling, that’s the only word for it. This quiet little cow-town puppet show has suddenly transformed itself into the craziest thing on five legs, and by the end of the day, we’re going to build to what is absolutely the 100% money-back-guaranteed goofiest thing that they have ever went and gone and done in the entire history of the show.
It really is. I checked.
They know that something special is happening here, that they’re suddenly making the kind of show that nobody ever thought they’d want to make. Everyone has stepped up their game — the writers, the actors, the special effects, the hats. They’re all pushing at the edges of what’s possible, just to see how far they can go before the whole thing falls over.
And, honestly, their biggest challenge is picking up the pace. You can mess up the Chromakey, and it’s fine, everybody will come back tomorrow and we can try again. But there’s supposed to be a speed limit for soap operas.
Daily soap operas have always been cursed with the knowledge that most people in the audience won’t be able to watch every episode. So — according to the self-defeating received wisdom of the ages — you have to take things slow, with lots of extra padding before, during and after every plot point.
Of course, the problem with that strategy is that you train the audience to expect that kind of pace. You start losing viewers, so you slow down even more, and you can figure out how that story ends.
Ten years ago, NBC had a show called Passions that I think may have been a secret government experiment to determine the absolute zero of soap opera pacing. By the time the last episode aired in September 2007, the few remaining survivors in the audience didn’t even realize it was over. They think the last six years have just been an unusually long commercial break.
But you can tell that Dark Shadows is currently running at the maximum allowable level of intensity, because there’s so much backacting.
If you’re joining us late, backacting is a technique where you have an entire conversation while staring at the back of someone’s head. It looks fantastic on screen, because you get to see everybody in the scene emoting their hearts out, and it’s only when you imagine actually doing it in real life that you realize how impossible it is.
This episode is like a seminar on backacting. They do it in almost every scene. In fact, the goofy cliffhanger depends on backacting, so it’s possible they’re doing it on purpose through the whole episode to trick you into thinking that it’s a normal way for people to converse.
The actual story today — and there is one, even if I’m talking all the way through it — is that Angelique is desperate to keep Jeremiah from leaving the house. She wants Barnabas to lose faith in Josette, so he’ll realize that he really loves Angelique after all. If Jeremiah gets away, then her plan falls to pieces.
So once again, we’re seeing people struggling against the limits of their power. Angelique has some respectable witchcraft skills, but she has a noticeably shaky grasp on her victims. They keep slipping in and out of the trance; I don’t think she can maintain power over someone for more than five minutes. So she’s trying to figure out how she can gently nudge people into a position where Jeremiah will agree to stick around.
In fact, there’s an amazing moment where Angelique opens a drawer, and picks up her headless voodoo action figure, which represents Josette in a spider-web wedding dress. She looks at the doll for a moment, and then says, “She’s still under the spell! Good.”
So here’s your challenge: Explain that scene. Does the doll have a display screen that shows the remaining battery life? What the hell was she just checking?
At the heart of today’s episode, Joshua hears Angelique and Ben talking in the drawing room, and gives both of them a furious scolding. All of a sudden, the trickster-witch is a humble ladies’ maid again, and Ben — who’s probably strong enough to snap Joshua’s spine without even trying — just stands there like a stammering child.
It’s actually the one moment today when everybody stops backacting, stands in a line and apologizes. It’s humiliating.
And that gives Angelique the breakthrough that she’s been looking for. The proud master, Joshua Collins, needs to learn that there are limits to his power, too.
And then we just keep barreling along. Jeremiah only decided to leave at the beginning of today’s episode, but here he is, ready to go.
I know I keep saying this, but the change in pace is just breathtaking. This is a show that spent an entire week on Elizabeth deciding not to commit suicide. They could easily have stretched this plot point out for three days, but we’re going to finish it off in less than twenty-two minutes.
So here’s what I think is happening, behind the scenes.
The writers and producers would have story meetings every two weeks, to figure out where the show is going. Once the scripts were written, they’d tape the episodes about a week ahead of broadcast. That’s an absolutely impossible schedule for a daily television show, even if you don’t have time travel and Chromakey effects.
My theory is that the producers’ practical time horizon for the show was a maximum of three weeks; they never had any idea what was going to happen more than three weeks away.
Why would you even try to think that far ahead? Maybe people will get tired of vampires. Maybe somebody at ABC will turn on the TV at 3:30 some afternoon, and discover the nonsense that they’re broadcasting. Maybe the world will end. Why are we even talking about this? We have a show to make.
So we’re currently heading towards the end of the third week of this bizarre, experimental time-travel story. The insanely ambitious idea is that they’re going to stay here in the 18th century for a while, so they can explain who bit Barnabas, why Josette jumped, and how they trapped the vampire inside the mystery box.
But they don’t really know whether this is going to fly or crash. The vampire is a hit, and the ratings are going up, so they have some capital to spend right now — but somebody’s got to be wondering what they’ll do if the audience just doesn’t get it.
If that happens, then they’ll have to course-correct, and head back to 1967. With a three-week time horizon, that means we could be hitting the midpoint of this whole storyline by Friday. We have story to burn.
So, what the hell. If we’re going to fail, then let’s fail big and loud and crazy. Let’s push this concept as far as we can. Let’s dance on the edge of the cliff in the pouring rain, shaking our fists at the storm, defying the lightning and drawing down the moon.
Let’s do it. Let’s turn Joshua into a cat.
No, seriously. I know how that sounds. We’re doing it anyway.
Let’s turn Joshua Collins into a cat.
Tomorrow: Nine Lives to Live.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the first act, when Jeremiah leaves Barnabas to go upstairs to pack, the camera goes out of focus as it tries to zoom in on his anguished face.
Joshua tries to tell Angelique to avoid any familiarity with Ben, but the word he says is “famililarity”.
As she’s casting the spell on Joshua, she molds a cat figure out of tan clay. When the clay figure is finished, it’s turned black.
This isn’t really a blooper, just a quirk of this episode — there’s a rare film splice in the last scene, right before the cat appears on the table. They almost never made an edit in the finished tape, but in this case, they must have had a problem getting the cat in the right spot on cue.
Tomorrow: Nine Lives to Live.
— Danny Horn