“How can ‘they’ possibly hear you or me, when we are both dead?”
Hey, remember when Barnabas wanted to turn Vicki into a new version of his lost love Josette, but he wanted her to come to him willingly, without having to use his hypnotic vampire powers on her? Yeah. I think we’re going to have to circle back and review that one again.
Because Vicki made the tactical error of actually going and having her own life outside of Barnabas’ immediate sphere of influence, and she met another guy. That made Barnabas get all bitey, and now he and Vicki are going away together.
But — and this is something I never thought I would say — Vicki is doing something interesting here. She’s agreeing to go, because she’s been hypnotized, but she doesn’t look happy about it.
When Carolyn got bit, she got a dreamy look in her eye, and she was super excited to be Barnabas’ new blood slave. All she could think about was how she could be helpful to Barnabas. Vicki’s affect is more like she agreed to go on a trip with someone that she isn’t that crazy about traveling with, but she promised to go and the tickets are non-refundable.
In fact, she’s so thrilled about this blossoming romance that she basically just passes out in a chair. I don’t think she’s even packed anything.
This is Vicki’s second dream sequence of the week, and it goes on for nine minutes, so apparently the writers believe that she’s more interesting when she’s unconscious. They’re not wrong.
The dream sequences on Dark Shadows give the directors a license to pursue a more theatrical visual style, which can be remarkably effective. They don’t use full sets for this sequence — it mostly takes place in complete darkness, with set elements appearing in little pools of light, and then Vicki moves back and forth as the light fades in one place and appears in another.
She starts out by visiting Peter in jail, where the fog machine is happily pumping away, inventing strange new interior weather patterns behind him. He’s condemned to hang, and she’s been trying to convince the judges that he’s innocent.
Desperate to find someone to help, she stumbles away into the darkness.
Then another spotlight illuminates Lt. Nathan Forbes, perched on a stool and slumped against his desk, fighting off the effects of a drowsy hangover. This is clearly not many steps away from Peter’s cell, just another area on stage, furnished with the bare minimum of set dressing.
This is another moment that reminds you that Dark Shadows was made by New York theater people, who must have been amazed that ABC was paying them to stage experimental black box theater for daytime television. There is literally nothing on television today that looks like this, which is a shame because it looks fantastic.
Vicki finds Nathan in this strange dark place, resting in peace. She approaches him nervously, unsure what to expect.
But he opens his eyes with a drowsy leer; this is clearly the early model sexy-rogue Nathan, rather than the Bond-villain Nathan who we saw in the last few weeks.
“Oh… Miss Winters,” he smiles. “What’s your pleasure?”
She tells him that Peter’s going to be hanged for murdering Noah, and Nathan has to tell the judges the truth. He reaches out, trying to put his arm around her.
Nathan: Look, why don’t we stop talking about Peter Bradford, and start talking about us?
Vicki: Why can’t you do something decent for someone?
Nathan: Why are you getting so angry with me? I mean, finally we have something in common.
She doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, and keeps asking him to help Peter. He tries to explain some basic facts.
Vicki: You’re the only one the judges will listen to.
Nathan: How can they listen to me, when they can’t possibly hear me?
Vicki: What are you talking about?
Nathan: My dear Miss Winters, don’t you understand? I am powerless to sway the court for the same reason that you are. How can they possibly hear you, or me, when we are both dead?
“Don’t you remember?” he chuckles. “You died by hanging, and I was strangled. Not a very dignified way to go, but then I didn’t have much choice in the matter.”
So I think we have to assume at this point that Vicki is actually making contact with Nathan’s spirit. Vicki didn’t know that he was strangled; it’s not buried in her subsconscious anywhere. This is new information, getting into her dream from an outside source, and there’s no reason to believe that it’s anything other than a dream-world conversation with Forbes himself.
And the remarkable thing is that he’s utterly delighted. One of the big themes of Dark Shadows is exploring how it feels after you’re dead, and this is the first time that question has been answered with a grin.
At the end of the encounter, he raises his tankard and proposes a toast: “To death! The best of all possible worlds!”
So why is Nathan having such a good time? Well, to start with, he seems peaceful and untroubled, remembering only the simple joy of drinking and flirting with Vicki. When Jeremiah and Josette’s spirits were roused from their graves, all they talked about is how much they want to rest. Judging from this scene, it looks like Nathan’s getting all the rest that he wants.
Nathan was a basically happy person; his only troubled thoughts were about wanting more than he had. When there was something wet in his glass and a pretty girl nearby, he was perfectly satisfied. It was only when he thought about the possibility of the Collins fortune slipping out of his grasp that he would get upset.
But here, in this little pool of light within a vast darkness, he’s no longer troubled by frustrated desire. The desk, book and tankard are the only things that exist in this place, and he owns all of it. It turns out that all he ever wanted was everything that there is, and now he’s got it.
Vicki, on the other hand, isn’t satisfied with the simple pleasures of the grave. She’s still trying to fight for Peter, even when she knows it’s hopeless.
She wakes up, screaming Peter’s name, and finds that her real life is even more of a nightmare.
Her ride is here, and she answers his questions with a dull resignation.
Barnabas: Who is Peter?
Vicki: He’s someone I met, a long time ago.
Barnabas: Someone you cared for.
Barnabas: Well, you must forget him now, Vicki.
Vicki: That will be very hard to do.
Barnabas: Well, you must try very hard.
So let’s talk for a moment about how completely not-redeemed Barnabas is right now. We’ve gone back in time to learn more about where he came from, but he’s still pulling the same nonsense on Vicki that he did on Maggie almost a year ago.
We’ve talked before about the fantasy-metaphor rape that’s at the core of all vampire fiction. It’s a physical violation, usually of young women and usually performed as if it’s a sexual act, and the fact that romantic vampire fiction is so unbelievably popular says something fairly dark about all of us, especially you.
Even worse, it’s usually presented in the context of “hunger”, something that the vampire just has to do periodically. Imagine a rape trial where the accused patiently explains to the jury that he raped a girl because he was hungry, and he should be released as long as he promises to only rape someone when he really needs to. There isn’t a stake in the world big enough to hammer into that dude’s heart. That’s not an acceptable excuse.
But the very worst part of this fantasy metaphor is that Barnabas actively changes the person that he bites, over-writing her feelings and her plans for the future. His plan for Maggie was to reformat her hard drive, wiping her clean and then uploading Josette’s personality into her empty body. He talked specifically about Maggie’s current self as being common and worthless, and he said she should be honored to take on the persona of a higher-status, more sophisticated woman.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that the obliteration of someone’s memory and personality is worse than physical rape, because you can’t really play “worse than” games with stuff like that. But it might be worse.
I mean, if you imagine someone going into your head and heart, changing who you love or who you think you are — deliberately inducing amnesia and then rewriting the story of your life, without your participation — think of the rage that you would feel. It’s just evil on a level that people can hardly even do to each other.
Ultimately, the core of Barnabas’ power is the ability to rewrite a narrative, changing it into something else for his own benefit. He does this all the time — first by changing the personality and loyalties of his victims and slaves, and later on jumping around in time to rewrite the history of his family.
Even the peace of the grave, which Nathan is enjoying so much right now, is not a guarantee that his story is his own. Barnabas is going to return to 1795, and Nathan’s destiny is still up for grabs. And that’s nothing compared to what Barnabas does to Quentin, and to Gerard.
As we saw a couple days ago, the date on Peter Bradford’s gravestone eventually gets corrected with a magic marker, and that’s exactly what Barnabas does to Quentin and Gerard — deliberately traveling back in time with a black magic marker powered by authentic black magic, writing his own version of history.
And he’s not alone in this role. Angelique is also famous for rewriting over other people’s personalities — she made Jeremiah and Josette fall in love, and her portrait is currently casting the same spell on Roger. In fact, it’s possible to see most of the series as a Wikipedia edit war between Barnabas and Angelique, each of them trying to impose their own versions of the story on everyone else.
Over the next year, Dark Shadows becomes primarily a show about time travel — intentionally structured as a series of chapters, which are defined by the time period in which they’re set. I think it’s possible to see this as a battle of competing narratives, with heroes and villains all engaged in the process of writing over other people’s lives.
And that’s what makes Dark Shadows such a compelling example of the soap opera genre. Long-running serialized narratives are always changing the past — both intentionally as retcons, and accidentally as continuity errors. Young people are aged up to adults in an instant, long-lost children are inserted into a character’s past. Dark Shadows just happens to be the example where they openly admit that they’re messing around with the show’s history.
In fact, it’s tempting to say that every continuity error that we see is just a manifestation of the unpredictable feedback and feedforward loops caused by people moving back and forth through time, over-writing everyone’s lives without caring about the impact.
So here are a couple of questions that have been puzzling us all week.
Q: If Vicki existed in Barnabas’ past, why didn’t he recognize her when he first appeared on the show?
A: Because she hadn’t gone back in time yet.
Q: Then why doesn’t Barnabas remember her being in the past now?
A: How do you know that this is the same Barnabas?
I mean, think about it — if you could stack up all the evidence that supports the idea that the world that Vicki has returned to is the same as the world that she left, next to the evidence that it’s not the same world, then the clear answer is that she’s now in a different timeline.
We’ve seen this play out all week. They had the seance because they were desperate to contact Sarah, and find out what was wrong with David — but now they’ve had a whole week, and nobody’s mentioned either Sarah or David at all. Julia gets a haircut, and tells everyone that she’s a doctor. Carolyn is resisting Barnabas’ vampire conditioning. Barnabas gets down on one knee and begs Julia to be his friend again. This is obviously a new place.
And here’s the proof. This picture is from episode 365, when Phyllis took Vicki’s place at the seance.
And this is the seance from episode 461, which was supposed to be just one tick of the clock later. They’re all in different positions, sitting in different seats, and in some cases wearing different clothes.
This is obviously not the same Collinwood that Vicki left. It’s similar, sure, but it’s not the same. Dark Shadows has invented Parallel Time, two years earlier than we thought they did.
In fact, we can actually watch this re-writing happen from one episode to the next. When they repeat the tail end of yesterday’s episode as today’s pre-titles teaser, they often don’t use a clip of yesterday’s scene — they just perform the scene again, sometimes with different dialogue or wearing a different outfit. We literally see two different versions of the same scene, one after the other. Which one is the “canonical” version? Have we been watching multiple Parallel Times all along?
So I have some hard news for the spirit of Nathan Forbes. He may think that he’s free — that death is a release, a final ending to the story that can’t be changed.
But a soap opera is a neverending story, where the dead never get to rest in peace. These characters will be writing and rewriting over each other until the very last episode. And for Dark Shadows in particular, even cancellation doesn’t stop things — there are still paperback novels, comic books, comic strips, fan fiction, three movies and a night-time show, each one taking place in a different version of Collinwood. If Nathan has actually found the best of all possible worlds, then he’d better enjoy it while it lasts.
Monday: Welcome to the Hellmouth.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There’s a nice clear boom mic shadow on Barnabas’ portrait when Vicki looks at it in the teaser.
The climax of the episode involves Barnabas and Vicki driving to the Eagle Hill cemetery and getting into an accident. The cemetery’s location fluctuates based on narrative convenience, much like the island in Lost. Back in episode 413, a ten-year-old ran from the front door of Collinwood straight into the cemetery in under a minute, wearing her pajamas.
Behind the Scenes:
In Vicki’s dream, the Gaoler is played by Peter Murphy, who’s almost done with his run of fill-in appearances. We’ll see him one more time, playing a gravedigger in a couple weeks.
The Hangman is played by James Shannon, who was also the hangman in 460 and 461; we’ll see him again in May as a policeman.
Monday: Welcome to the Hellmouth.
— Danny Horn