“You must have always had so much hatred in you. No one could be filled with it so quickly.”
Friday’s episode ended with stern patriarch Joshua Collins descending into the basement of the abandoned Old House, poking into the buried secrets that should never be poked into. As usual in these kinds of situations, he arrives at the bottom step just exactly in time to see the mystery box open, unleashing a dark and primal terror that destroys everything in its line of sight.
Judging by past performance, this means that Joshua’s about to be killed. Dark secrets are a powerful story engine, because there’s lots of associated activity — mostly inventing, refuting and refining alibis and cover stories. That fills up time, and fools the audience into thinking that they’re getting somewhere. If you let characters actually discover the truth, then after a while you need to hire a writer who can come up with something else for them to talk about, and that runs into money.
So Dark Shadows has settled into a gentle rut over the last six weeks, essentially funnelling a single-file line of cast members down these stairs, to their immediate and lasting disadvantage. Joshua is just the latest patsy in the popular game of Let’s Kill the Collins Family.
But it turns out that this is the confrontation we’ve been waiting for. Remember those special promotional bumpers they ran the week before we went back to 1795? They promised that we would “discover the origins of this man” — Barnabas, natch — “and the secret of the chained coffin.” Fast-forward three months, and we’ve definitely got the-origins-of-this-man settled, but we haven’t covered the chained coffin yet. It’s probably about time we get to that.
Luckily, today’s episode is written by Sam Hall, the greatest of all Dark Shadows writers, and he’s got the chops to handle a big game-changing episode. Let’s go out there and change some games.
Now, Joshua was actually there when his son Barnabas died, so he has a hard minute trying to figure out what in tarnation is going on. His voice cracks as he races through the possibilities — this is a nightmare, it’s his imagination, Barnabas was in a deep coma, it was all a mistake. We’ve never seen him like this before, confused and vulnerable, and all of a sudden, he’s an old man. This happens to all fathers, eventually.
But then Joshua remembers why he came, and collects himself.
Joshua: There was a woman in the village — Maude Browning. And before that, a Ruby Tate.
Barnabas: Yes, I know the names.
Joshua: Is it true, then?
Barnabas turns away, and Joshua approaches and looks closely at him. He gasps.
Joshua: You did kill them! What kind of a monster have you become? How many others have you killed? Suki Forbes — did you kill her?
Barnabas: She was going to tell you and Mother.
Joshua: I wish she had. Have I ever known anything about you?
Joshua: I have always thought, despite our differences, that there was a feeling between us — an honesty, at least!
Barnabas: There was!
Joshua: Well, what happened to it? If you didn’t think of me — you should have at least thought of your mother.
Barnabas: I told you, I did!
Joshua: Yes, you thought of your mother, and your solution was to murder again.
Oh, it’s wonderful. So far, the coffin-side confrontation scenes have all been one-sided, with Barnabas having the upper hand. Both Abigail and Reverend Trask had to listen to self-righteous speeches from the vampire psychopath about their character flaws; Abigail practically got a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.
But here — at last, at long last — somebody is actually calling Barnabas on his self-absorbed whining. Oh, and the murders.
Barnabas says that he can’t help himself — he’s under a curse, he’s compelled to kill — and Joshua treats that claim like the nonsense that it is. Barnabas planned to kill Trask over several days, and he took obvious pleasure in it. If he really wanted to stop killing family members, he could have done something about it, like for example moved farther than a five-minute walk away from their house.
Joshua — who all of a sudden is completely perfect, if he ever had any character flaws then I’ve forgotten them all — is willing to make the tough decisions. He’s going to hand Barnabas over to the proper authorities, whoever they might turn out to be. There will be scandal, and shame, and there’s a better-than-average chance that Naomi will die of a broken heart. But Joshua can’t allow more innocent people to die at his son’s hand. We finally have a character with a functional sense of perspective.
And then the bad thing happens.
Stepping up behind Joshua, Barnabas puts his hands around his father’s throat, growling, “If you would forget, I would not have to do this!”
It doesn’t work, of course. It turns out that Barnabas’ murder attempts require the victim to be more or less frozen with fear. Joshua simply refuses to play that role for his son. He shakes it off, and then walks right up to the guy who just tried to kill him and gives him a scolding. Joshua is my new favorite person in the world.
Joshua: You would kill even me. You must have always had so much hatred in you. No one could be filled with it so quickly.
Barnabas: What I tried to do… was to make sure my mother never knew. I will do anything for you, Father, if you promise me… that she will think me dead.
Then Joshua does something which is utterly surprising, and yet it makes perfect sense when he does it. He pulls out the pistol that he brought with him, lays it on the coffin lid, and looks off into the distance.
Joshua: Then you know what you must do.
Barnabas: Aren’t you taking a chance, Father?
Joshua: Perhaps. But only one of us will leave this room alive. Which one of us it is to be… is for you to decide.
By the way, is this a good moment for me to mention that both of these actors are gay?
I’m not suggesting that this situation is intended to be a metaphor for a gay child talking to his father about his terrible, shameful secret life. For one thing, a lot of the tension in the scene is about the fact that Barnabas kills people, and dating a dude is nothing like murdering someone. We’re also about to embark on a storyline about Joshua trying to cure Barnabas of his dreaful curse, and being gay isn’t a curse.
But the “keep the secret, don’t tell my mother” part — there’s some resonance, isn’t there? At least, it’s a hook into the story that helps us to get closer, and really feel some of the horror of this moment. A father hands a gun to his son, and says, Kill yourself, so that your mother never finds out.
(By the way, attention gay kids: Don’t kill yourself. It’s not the 18th century anymore. Your mom will be fine.)
You can’t help but look at this story, and want to extend it — turn it into a metaphor, find a way to relate to it. It’s so big; the emotions are so raw. The vampire-fantasy angle is silly and unreal, but the show is playing it absolutely straight. They’re not making fun of these characters or this situation; there’s no ironic distance that keeps the story at a safe remove.
This is the story of a troubled family. They know how catastrophic keeping secrets can be, how much pain they cause — but father and son are still trying to keep this secret. This is a damaged, dysfunctional family, and everyone in the audience can see something from their own life reflected back, distorted like a funhouse mirror.
That’s a thing that literature does; that’s what stories are for. And when they get it just right — which is rare, but it happens — then, all of a sudden, this weird little soap opera tells the truth.
Tomorrow: My Family, and Other Crazed Animals.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Joshua tells Barnabas that he was in the room when Barnabas died. He wasn’t, actually. But everything else that Joshua says is true.
Naomi tells Joshua, “There is something — there is someone in this house that you don’t want me to know about.”
Naomi reacts to the gunshot just before it happens.
In act 4, Barnabas tells Joshua that he’s a vampire. Joshua protests, saying there are no vampires — “Only in books, they are tales written by the ignorant and the superstitious!” This is an anachronism; there were no books about vampires in 1795. The first full-length vampire story was Varney the Vampire, published as a serial in 1845; Bram Stoker’s Dracula followed in 1897.
Tomorrow: My Family, and Other Crazed Animals.
— Danny Horn