“You made them take my dead body away! They threw me in the water!”
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: sanctimonious witch hunter Reverend Trask comes back to his room, and finds the corpse of streetwalker Maude Browning lying on his bed.
Now, just to be clear — violence against women is not funny. Murdering somebody to cover up for your crimes is not funny. And yet — Reverend Trask walking into his room and finding a dead prostitute in his bed is extremely funny. Let’s see if we can break this down a little.
One of the classic principles of comedy is the contrast between the high and the low — for example, taking an authority figure and putting him in a base, vulgar situation, which exposes the vanity and human folly in even the most dignified person’s heart.
In this case, Reverend Trask is the perfect subject for that kind of treatment. For all his many failings, Trask does appear to be entirely sincere. Look around his room — it’s a comfortable room at a Collinsport inn, but there’s nothing lavish about it. There are no ornaments or other worldly goods — just some books, and a small collection of simple black cloaks.
About a year from now, we’re going to meet Gregory Trask, one of the good reverend’s descendants. Gregory will actually be the hypocritical, sinful “man of God” — he claims to be holier than thou, but secretly he’s a greedy social climber, who will stop at nothing to pursue his selfish goals.
But this Trask is what he seems — a fanatic, sure, but a sincere one. He’s spent his life denying himself the pleasures of the flesh, so that he could pursue the more rarified pleasure of high-mindedly criticizing every single person he comes across. So this situation is completely outside his strike zone. He has no idea what to do.
He steps closer, putting out his hand. You get the sense that in a second, he’s going to get up the nerve to poke the body, just to make sure that it’s real.
Then disaster strikes — there’s a knock at the door, and scheming rogue Nathan Forbes wants to come in. Trask tells him to go away, but Nathan says it’s urgent.
So Trask does the funniest thing that he can think of — he covers Maude’s body with a blanket, and then lets Nathan in.
It’s adorable. It really is a perfect character moment, where you can tell that this is a guy who has never actually done anything impious in his life, and he has no idea how to handle himself.
Trask tries to keep Nathan at the door, but nobody can stop this. Nathan pushes his way in, because he’s got an emergency of his own — he has a plan to repair his relationship with Millicent, and he needs Trask to deliver a letter to her tomorrow morning.
Trask tries to put him off until tomorrow, but then Nathan catches sight of something…
Maude’s arm is hanging out from under the blanket.
Let the comic misunderstandings commence.
Nathan: Well, well, Reverend Trask… You’re a man after my own heart.
Trask: What are you talking about?
Nathan: I never would have persisted in talking to you if I’d known you had a guest.
And that’s a lovely character note for Nathan. A second ago, his Millicent crisis was the most important thing in the world, but he’s so amused by this discovery of Trask’s base humanity that everything else is secondary.
Naturally, this drives Trask entirely insane.
Trask: Forbes! Stay here, and be quiet!
Nathan: There’s no need to get angry about it; I’m not going to betray your little secret to anybody.
Trask: I swear, I didn’t know she was here when I came in this room!
Nathan: (chuckle) I must say, I never find them waiting for me when I come home.
In a complete panic, Trask tells him that the woman is dead. Nathan pulls back the blanket — and he recognizes that it’s Maude, a streetwalker that he’d met at the Eagle. Trask is now trapped in a nightmare that he’s never even thought of before.
We transition into the next phase of this comedy routine, which is an ironic reversal of Nathan and Trask’s relationship. Until now, Trask has always had the upper hand in the relationship — Nathan needed Trask’s help, to persuade Joshua not to report his conduct to the Navy. Trask has used that leverage mercilessly, forcing Nathan to accuse Vicki in court.
Now, the tables have turned, and Nathan — who is a natural-born folklore trickster, like Anansi the spider, Bugs Bunny and Julia Hoffman — quickly turns the situation to his advantage.
Trask: They’ll have to believe me, because I’m innocent! I didn’t even know this woman!
Nathan: Well, you knew who she was, you knew where she worked?
Trask: Everyone knows I would never associate with such a woman!
Nathan: Well, they may have thought that until now, but as soon as they find out that she was found dead in your room… you know how people can talk, Reverend.
And so we end this sequence with another comic turn, as Trask’s brush with supernatural horror turns into a business negotiation. Nathan offers to take the dead girl off Trask’s hands, if Trask meets his terms. Nathan puts this over with his usual quick wit.
Trask: How soon can you get it done?
Nathan: As soon as you personally deliver this letter to Millicent Collins.
Trask: Very well. I’ll take it to her first thing in the morning.
Nathan: Good. When you return from Collinwood, I’ll have someone here to help me remove the body.
I seriously love these two as an opposites-attract buddy-comedy team, and the wonderful thing is that it just developed organically out of the storyline. This is the kind of magic that can happen in an open-ended serialized narrative, where they’re just making it up as they go along.
When they introduced Trask, they didn’t know that they would pair him up with Nathan a few months later. But as the Angelique and Abigail plotlines reached their natural end, it left Trask and Nathan as the two strongest antagonists left on the show.
They ended up in a scene together, and you could see the sparks fly. A soap opera is basically a never-ending chemistry experiment, and these two have it. Unfortunately, that’s about to come to a definitive end very soon, so let’s enjoy this while we have it.
And then, just when you think you have a handle on the tone of this episode, they throw you into a dream sequence that takes another sharp left turn.
Trask falls asleep — this is after Nathan has removed the dearly departed from his bed, of course — and he follows Abigail’s voice into a spooky landscape made of recycled parts from other sets.
The door opens, and guess who’s there — it’s the ghost of Maude, with super crazy eyes and a haunted-house voice.
And just look at this. They actually put this on television, on a grown-up network.
Maude: Why didn’t you let me rest! You made them take my dead body away!
Trask: Don’t touch me! Stay away!
Maude: They threw me in the water! You shouldn’t have let them do that!
Trask: I didn’t know that’s what they’d do! I swear I didn’t!
Maude: Yes, you did!
And then he says that he didn’t, and she says that he did, and they just go back and forth like that forever. It’s a shame that ABC didn’t start expanding its soap operas to an hour until the late 70s, because they could have tacked on an extra thirty minutes of Trask and Maude contradicting each other, and it would have held the audience spellbound.
This is one of the wonderful things about daytime soap operas in general, and Dark Shadows in particular. They made five episodes a week, every week all year round, so it was okay if an individual episode had a noticeably different tone. They could go from epic Shakespearean tragedy to door-slamming farce, and from there to spooky haunted-house, or experimental black-box theater, or anywhere they felt like going, even within a single episode.
Every time you think you know where the show is going, there’s another left turn, from the sublime to the ridiculous — or, in this case, from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous. And then tomorrow they do it all over again.
Tomorrow: Cask Party.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Trask blows a line when he’s negotiating with Nathan: “I will not allow my… my name to be…” (checks the teleprompter) “I will not be the subject of vicious gossip!”
Behind the Scenes:
Barnabas’ floating hand with the onyx ring appears again at the end of the episode. This is Timothy Gordon, who’s played Barnabas’ hand before, reaching out of the coffin to strangle Willie in episode 210.
The Petofi box has moved again — it was last seen in the second-floor hallway outside Josette’s room in Collinwood; now it’s on the desk in the drawng room as Millicent reads the Tarot cards. It’ll stay in the drawing room, drifting between a couple different locations, for the remainder of the 1795 storyline. (Thanks to prop-spotter Prisoner of the NIght.)
Tomorrow: Cask Party.
— Danny Horn