“Your aunt is right. The cat is a sign, the Devil’s pet. The laughter after the joke.”
“Governesses are supposed to be trusting,” the Countess du Prés smiles. “One has to be in dealing with children. Think of me as a giant child.”
Joshua Collins has disappeared, all of a sudden and in the middle of an argument. While the men are out pointlessly searching the grounds, the Countess has decided to re-enact the mystery, with herself in the starring role as Joshua, and Vicki pinch-hitting for Jeremiah. As usual, Grayson Hall is having a wonderful time in the role of Natalie, who has all of Julia’s swagger, none of Julia’s guilt, and a much more extravagant wardrobe.
And then there’s Vicki, who’s come all the way from the 20th century, and refuses to have any fun at all.
“Now, let me play my scene,” Natalie insists. “It will not be difficult to conjure all the pompous statements Joshua must have made.” Raising her hand to her chest, she performs a broad imitation, shamelessly pandering directly to the audience. “But you can’t just leave, Jeremiah, what would people think!” she sneers. “The du Prés, and that — that Countess.”
But Vicki is determined to be a wet blanket. Even when Natalie prods her into facing the window as Jeremiah did, Vicki refuses to play the part. Instead, she delivers a lecture about how the Countess is being inappropriate and cruel.
So at a certain point, they just cut their losses and bring on the cat.
This is where Joshua disappeared to, by the way. In yesterday’s episode, the vengeful sorceress Angelique turned the Collins patriarch into a cat, in a spontaneous live-action adaptation of a Bugs Bunny Halloween special. Like so many pleasurable things, it felt great while they were doing it, but it’s awkward the next morning.
These early days of Angelique’s witchery are really just trial and error. As I said yesterday, they’re trying to see how far they can push this concept, and here’s the point when it turns out they actually pushed it too far.
The cat thing just doesn’t work. But it doesn’t work for interesting reasons, so let’s break it down a little.
To start with, my judgement about this has nothing to do with whether it’s “realistic” or not; we crossed that bridge a long time ago. I’m just talking about it as an aesthetic question — does it feel satisfying as a plot point, or not?
A truly satisfying witch-vixen scheme needs to get two things right — it needs to make sense tactically, and it needs to be metaphorically coherent.
For example, spiking Josette’s rose water perfume with love potion totally works, on a strategic level. Josette and Jeremiah find themselves drawn to each other, but they have no idea why. There’s no evidence that leads back to Angelique; everybody just thinks they’re unable to control their forbidden attraction to each other.
The best recent example of a strong metaphor was Julia’s experiments turning Barnabas into an old man. He’s actually a 190+ year old vampire, so the punishment made sense, and it felt right.
On the other hand, one recent gag that didn’t work was Barnabas and Josette opening a wedding present and finding a skull with a wig.
Tactically, it made no sense at all. Angelique’s plan depends on Barnabas believing that Josette has actually fallen in love with someone else. If he thinks that someone’s working to keep them apart, he’ll be on guard. So there’s no reason why Angelique would send them a message like this; it doesn’t get her anywhere, and it’s likely to backfire.
As far as the metaphor goes, “skull” means death, and she doesn’t actually want Josette to die, so it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a nice Spectacle moment, but then they just forget about it.
And then there’s the cat. Tactically, this is another clear mistake. Yes, Angelique’s goal was to keep Jeremiah from leaving town, and striking Joshua down is an effective way of doing that.
But the actual circumstances don’t allow for any kind of cover story — Joshua apparently disappeared in the middle of a conversation in the drawing room. He wasn’t even walking in the woods, or alone in the basement. Jeremiah knows exactly where Joshua was at that moment, and there’s no way that he could have silently left the house, even if he had a reason to, which he didn’t. Again, this just puts everybody on guard, and hunting around for a malign influence.
And as a metaphor, it’s even worse. Yeah, skull = death wasn’t particularly appropriate, but at least it means something. What does “cat” mean, in this context?
There’s no sense in which Joshua was a “cat”; the concept doesn’t connect to anything. There’s no symbolic resonance that would make it narratively satisfying, and so it just feels random and silly.
And then the reaction to the cat’s appearance is even less coherent.
Barnabas: The cat! Is that the cat Jeremiah saw?
Natalie: Have you ever seen that cat before?
Barnabas: No, I don’t remember whether I have or not.
What is that supposed to mean? How do you not remember whether your family owns a cat? Either you have a cat or you don’t; it’s not the kind of thing that sneaks up on you.
Natalie: Have you had cats around the house?
Barnabas: No, no. My aunt Abigail despises them. The Devil’s pet, she calls them.
“Your aunt is right,” Natalie scowls. “The Devil’s pet. The laughter after the joke.” And then the cat just gets up and walks into another room, and they forget all about it, like it’s totally normal to let stray devil-cats couch surf in your mansion.
But at least we’re going to get some movement on the most obvious loose story thread, which is Vicki Winters, the time-traveling governess. She’s supposed to be our point of view character, lost in another time, but she’s actually dropped out of sight for most of this week, as the more interesting characters carry the show.
Now, the spotlight shifts back to our heroine. Natalie believes that Vicki is the mysterious agent of evil who’s responsible for all the recent upheavals. On his way to the study, Nathan gets an earful.
Now, for me, the biggest mystery of the Dark Shadows production — the one thing that will probably never be explained — is what the hell they thought they were doing with Vicki this whole time. She’s supposed to be the main character, and she’s just a buzzkill.
They clearly know how to make appealing characters that the audience will love — we’ve seen three of them in this episode alone, not counting the cat — and it’s actually a remarkably simple recipe. If you want the audience to like a character, you give them a big hat and three funny lines. That’s pretty much all you need.
And then there’s Vicki Winters, the human equivalent of a light drizzle.
Nathan finds her in the study, and makes his move.
Nathan: Oh, wait. Don’t go.
Vicki: Mrs. Collins may need me.
Nathan: Oh, not while Barnabas is there.
Vicki: Please —
Nathan: I’m the one who needs you now. I’ve needed you ever since I first saw you.
Vicki: Lieutenant Forbes, may I say something to you?
Nathan: Yes! Anything.
Vicki: There is one quality you lack which I think is very important in a man.
Nathan: Well, if I lack it, I’ll get it. What?
Nathan: Taste? My taste is fine; my appetite’s healthy. What are you talking about?
Vicki: When I came into this room, I was thinking about… how I was going to explain Mr. Collins’ disappearance to Sarah. And you think that I have nothing on my mind but some crazy desire to fly into your arms.
Nathan: What a good idea.
Vicki: That’s just what I mean. I wish you’d stop treating me as though I were some girl, who —
Nathan: But you are! You’re a very beautiful girl.
Vicki: I happen to be a woman, and I think, and I get upset. I’m upset now about Mr. Collins. And I can’t turn it on and off, as you can and do.
Nathan: I see. That is a fault in my character.
Vicki: Oh, I didn’t mean to criticize you.
Nathan, suddenly serious: You shouldn’t. You may need friends.
Okay, let me pause this for a second, and acknowledge some of the gender politics going on here. Obviously, Nathan is sexually harassing Vicki. He’s acting like it’s playful and cute, but he’s a naval officer and a friend of the family, she’s a recently-hired servant, and he’s clearly physically dominant. This could turn ugly in a hot second, and in that sense, it’s admirable that Vicki is standing up to him, telling him that he needs to respect her feelings and her boundaries.
And yet — he really is playful and cute, and she’s a humorless pill. Natalie wasn’t sexually assaulting Vicki earlier in the episode, but she got the same sanctimonious treatment.
We’ve talked about this before: there’s something dark and interesting and flawed about us — about you, and me, and everyone who enjoys this kind of fiction.
As I noted before, the sexy bad-boy vampire is a cold-blooded rape fantasy that basically makes us bad people. That’s not necessarily something that we need to apologize for, or try to fix; it’s just a fact. There are a lot of good-hearted, respectable, law-abiding citizens who happen to enjoy fantasy-metaphor rape fiction, and that includes everyone who watches Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Being Human and Dark Shadows. And don’t even get me started on the sexy werewolves.
We like the bad boys. That’s dark, and uncomfortable, and very deeply human. Welcome to that.
So with all of that in play, let’s get back to the scene.
Vicki: Excuse me, I’m going to my room.
Nathan: The Countess suspects you of being a witch.
Vicki: I beg your pardon?
Nathan: A witch! Spells, potions.
Vicki: Really, Lieutenant. Good night.
Nathan: She thinks you may have had something to do with Mr. Collins’ disappearance.
Vicki: You must have misinterpreted her.
Nathan: Miss Winters… if Barnabas had told you that, would you believe him? If Jeremiah had?
Vicki: Yes, I suppose I would.
Nathan: Well, then, why not me? Miss Winters, I was in this house the night you arrived here. I remember those strange clothes you were wearing. You had no idea where you had come from. You were let stay because Mrs. Collins was kind enough to pity you.
Vicki: What is your point, Lieutenant?
Nathan: Yet you act as if you were above anything I say or do, and as if your position in this house was secure. I warn you, that is not the case.
Vicki: And I will not be intimidated into liking you, or anyone else. I do care what people think about me, but I won’t be blackmailed by their opinions.
Vicki: Now, if I have said or done anything that you could give to the Countess as evidence against me, well, I hereby give you my permission to do so.
She walks to the door.
Nathan, bitterly: I wouldn’t joke about that.
And here’s the strange tragedy of it all — I like him better. I just do. Even with all of the gender politics and sexual assault toxins in the mix. He’s more fun, and it turns out he’s not as dumb as he pretends to be. And I think that’s the problem: she’s just not being smart about this. She’s in an unbelievably precarious position, for all sorts of reasons, and she’s acting like she can boss people around.
Vicki: listen to me. There is a strange animal sitting on the furniture in the drawing room, and it is attracting less negative attention than you are. Please. Learn from this.
Tomorrow: Something Borrowed.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Natalie says that observing people is a hobby for her: “I prefer people to gardenwork. Gardening, or — or needlework.”
The cat is supposed to stay on the furniture in the drawing room, but it jumps off and walks off the set, twice. Just after Nathan enters the house, you can see a stagehand putting the cat back in place.
Nathan is eavesdropping as Barnabas and Natalie talk about Vicki. At one point, they cut to a shot of Nathan, and you can see one of the cameras on the right side of the screen.
Vicki asks Nathan why the Countess thinks she’s a witch. Nathan says, “I can’t guess what’s, uh — what’s on her mind.”
Natalie has a lengthy coughing fit for the first half of her scene with Vicki and the tarot cards.
In the final scene, Natalie trips on the carpet when she tells Barnabas, “I’ve told you all I will.”
Behind the Scenes
A props note from Prisoner of the Night: “In the Old House study of 1795, the tall, sloping black clock on the mantelpiece is the one from Vicki’s room at Collinwood from the start of the series (first seen in episode 2). Ironically, she is in the study when Nathan comes in to visit with her, but she takes no notice of the clock, which no doubt would have made her homesick for her room back in the Collinwood of 1968.”
Tomorrow: Something Borrowed.
— Danny Horn