“He could be perfectly normal by now.”
We open today with Julia puttering around in the Old House with absolutely nothing to do, just staring into the fire. Barnabas walks down the stairs, sees her sitting in the drawing room, and smiles as he approaches.
He says that there’s something he has to do before Dr. Lang’s experiment on Friday, and he needs her help. She says, “Oh, I’ll do anything for you. You know that.”
So I’d say that’s pretty much the final destination of that particular journey. Barnabas + Julia: Best Friends Forever. And now that we’ve got that settled, it’s time to get the band back together. Gas up the car; we’re driving out to Windcliff Sanitarium to spring Willie Loomis.
This is good news. It’s been seven months since Willie was shipped off to the sanitarium, and I for one have missed him terribly.
John Karlen, who plays Willie, is probably the most skilled actor to ever appear on Dark Shadows. Almost everyone in the cast is a New York stage actor, but Karlen is the one who really brings that intensity to the part every day.
Karlen took Willie Loomis — a third-rate hood, looking for a quick score — and turned him into a haunted, soulful young man, tormented by the horrors that he witnessed and was unable to prevent. When everyone around him was doing cheap vampire soap opera acting, Willie was in A Streetcar Named Desire.
And apparently, I’m not alone in admiring his work. According to the book Barnabas and Company (which is excellent, by the way, and super affordable), Karlen never had a contract on Dark Shadows. Executive producer Dan Curtis thought Karlen was fantastic, and allowed him to basically leave the show and come back whenever he wanted. Karlen’s part of the cast all the way through the end of the series, but there are these periodic gaps where he decides to go off and do a play for a while.
And now he’s ready to come back, so all of a sudden Barnabas decides that Willie would be the ideal assistant for Dr. Lang’s experiment.
Now, Julia’s in charge of the Windcliff Sanitarium, where Willie’s been in stir for the last seven months, and she can get him out if she wants to. But she doesn’t approve of Lang’s experiment, so Barnabas has to come up with another excuse to set Willie free. He lands on “I feel sorry for him.” Julia is unimpressed.
Barnabas: He could be perfectly normal by now.
Julia: Or he could be a very disturbed man, possibly even a dangerous man.
Which is a good point, except that he isn’t.
So what’s happening in this scene is that Barnabas is proposing a retcon — a new version of what happened seven months ago — and he’s pitching it to a skeptical Julia.
Barnabas: The poor man was shot down by the police, accused of murder. He was judged to be insane, and confined to a mental institution, all because of me.
Which is mostly true, although I’m not sure why he thinks Willie was accused of murder.
What actually happened was that Julia and Barnabas deliberately framed Willie for Maggie’s kidnapping. After Willie was shot, Barnabas was planning to murder him to keep his mouth shut, but then Willie caught a bad case of convenient amnesia, and they packed him off to Windcliff.
He was never dangerous to anyone; the only “danger” he posed was that he might tell people about Barnabas and Julia’s laundry list of felonies.
But it’s been seven months, and that’s a long time for a soap opera audience — especially in 1968, when nobody had access to tapes of old episodes. The actual, by-the-numbers facts about what happened are less important than the audience’s “folk memory” of what happened.
There are basically three memorable images that the audience is guaranteed to remember — Willie opening the coffin and releasing Barnabas, Barnabas beating Willie with a cane, and Willie getting shot in the back trying to warn Maggie. The writers can count on people having fuzzy memories of exactly what everyone said at the time, but the big visual set pieces stick.
So if they’re trying to sell us a revised story where Willie actually deserved to be sent away to the sanitarium, then they have to address our memory of the cane mutinies.
Barnabas: Is it inconceivable to you that I could do an act of kindness?
Julia: Everyone’s capable of performing an act of kidness. But let’s be honest about it, Barnabas. With you, it isn’t — shall we say — characteristic.
Barnabas: You know perfectly well I’ve always been very fond of Willie.
Julia: You’ve also been very cruel to him.
Barnabas: Julia, are you going to grant me my request, or aren’t you?
This is a trick that TV Tropes calls lampshade hanging — dealing with a story element that might threaten the audience’s suspension of disbelief by acknowledging it, hanging a lampshade over it, and then moving on.
They’re rewriting this piece of history because we’ve entered a new Dark Shadows regime, where Barnabas and Julia are the most important characters, and the rest of the show bends around them. Since we returned from 1795 a month ago, the writers have been furiously rewriting history, asserting several new backstories that place these two nutjobs at the center of everything.
And just to clarify: I am entirely in favor of this change. It’s a great idea, and absolutely necessary for the survival and future success of the show.
Five months ago, in the lead-up to 1795, you could see that the fall 1967 storyline was heading for a crash. The cast was splitting into pro-vampire and anti-vampire factions, and if things continued along those lines, they would have either killed Barnabas, or started killing Collins family members. Continuing the 1967 story as it was written then would have damaged the show forever.
Besides, this is serialized narrative’s strongest advantage. The producers can respond to what’s working, and they change the story based on audience reaction, and based on their own sense of what feels story-productive and what doesn’t.
How attuned a show can be to the audience reaction is basically determined by the production schedule. The big question is: Can the production team get feedback and audience response while they’re still writing and filming?
Typically, a new network night-time show will get an order for 13 episodes in the first season, and if the ratings are promising, they get a “back nine” order, to finish the standard 22-episode season. They’ve got an opportunity at that point to respond mid-season to what’s clicking with the audience.
A filmed cable show doesn’t usually have that chance. On Mad Men or The Walking Dead, they’ve got a full season in the can by the time it starts airing. If they hit a rough patch, they can’t really fix it until the next season.
Daily soap operas can be very responsive, because there’s an ongoing production schedule. There are always new episodes being written and filmed all year round, so they can react relatively quickly to what’s working.
Dark Shadows was especially light on its feet, which explains how they could turn the show around so drastically in the first year. They only filmed a week or two ahead, and they wrote maybe three or four weeks ahead. There are lots of examples where the show does a quick pivot, to take advantage of something that’s working, or downplay something that’s not.
In general, I’m very much in favor of pivots and retcons when they benefit the story, or when they allow a good character to stay on the show. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t really work.
So let’s get to the sanitarium. A nurse brings Willie to a waiting room, to talk to Julia and Barnabas. It’s a nice, tense moment, because it’s not clear what’s about to happen. Does he remember Barnabas, and the horror that he lived through?
It’s a big entrance, and he milks it for as long as he can — approaching Barnabas with a quizzical expression, and getting really close.
Barnabas: Don’t you remember me? It’s… Barnabas.
Willie takes his time.
Willie: I haven’t seen ya in such a long time, Barnabas.
Barnabas: Then you do recognize me.
They sit down on the couch.
Barnabas: Do you remember where you lived before you came here?
Willie nods, and speaks in a gentle tone.
Willie: The Old House.
Barnabas smiles, like Willie’s a dog who’s just performed a trick. He says, “You remember, don’t you?” but what he really means is, “Good boy, you get a biscuit.”
We get our first close-up of Willie’s reaction… and he’s smiling.
Willie: Sometimes I think about the Old House.
Barnabas: Do you have… pleasant thoughts about it?
Willie takes a second to think about it…
… and he breaks into a wide grin.
So that’s certainly not what I would have expected. There are a lot of options for Willie’s reaction right now — fear, resentment, trauma, complete amnesia, angling to get out of the hospital so he can run away.
In fact, the only thing you wouldn’t expect is this. He’s doing a vague, gentle Flowers for Algernon thing. He remembers Barnabas and working at the Old House, but he doesn’t really have an emotional response to it. He hardly speaks above a whisper.
So it’s hard to tell what’s going on here.
Julia: Willie, I want you to tell me how much you can remember of the time before you came here.
Willie: Well… I remember I used to work for Barnabas at the Old House.
Julia: Do you remember why you were brought here?
Willie: Maggie Evans.
Julia: What about Maggie Evans?
Willie: Wait a minute, let me think. Yeah, it was at night… and I went to her house… and there was a lotta men outside. Policemen! I wanted to tell her something.
Julia: What did you want to tell her?
Willie: I’ve been tryin’ to remember that.
Julia: Would you like to leave here?
Willie: Well, I’d like… I’d like to work for Barnabas again. You see, him and me, we were good friends, and he did a lot for me.
So, I don’t know. I’m all for surprises — that’s the whole point of television, and especially Dark Shadows — and I’m happy to accept a good retcon, if it’s story-productive. But I don’t really understand what’s going on here.
I mean, I want Willie back. But I want the guy who left — the conflicted, self-aware Willie who offered a strong counterpoint to Barnabas’ self-obsessed madness. Willie was the character who saw things more clearly than anyone. That’s who I’m excited to see.
And instead we’re getting Lennie from Of Mice and Men.
Willie: Do you think there’s a chance I can get outta here, Doctor?
Julia: I don’t know, Willie. We’ll have to wait and see.
Willie: Well, see, I’m not weak anymore. The doctors, they fixed me up real good, and I’m strong, and honestly, if I got outside, I wouldn’t cause anybody any trouble, Doctor. You think you can get me outta here?
As far as I can tell, Willie is now living in the retcon that Barnabas and Julia proposed in the first scene. He was mentally disturbed, and everything that happened was his fault. He just needs to apologize, and then we can move on.
But it’s hard to get a handle on this new version of the character, because they can’t even keep him consistent through the whole episode. As soon as he gets home and Barnabas takes his eye off him for two seconds, Willie runs straight to Maggie’s house, and scares the hell out of her.
He tries to tell her that he never meant to harm her — he was just trying to warn her about the danger she was in. But he doesn’t get a chance to say what the danger actually was, so we don’t really know what he’s trying to do.
On the upside, he at least sounds like Willie in this scene, trying to do what he thinks is right. He gets chased off by Joe, and for just a moment, we can see the character that Willie used to be.
But by the end of the episode, he’s found an unloaded rifle, and he’s hiding in the shadows. He eavesdrops as Joe confronts Barnabas about why Willie was released. As Joe leaves, Willie steps out of the shadows and trains the rifle on Joe’s back, giggling like a madman.
This makes exactly no sense, and connects to nothing. It’s really a shockingly bad way to end the episode. Dark Shadows is creaky and slow sometimes, but it rarely does something that’s just fundamentally wrong like this. Willie is apparently playing three different characters today, and only one of them is Willie.
So for today, at least, this retcon doesn’t work; it’s just confusing. I think the problem is that there isn’t really a plot-motivated reason to bring Willie back. The on-screen rationale is that Barnabas wants him to be Dr. Lang’s assistant in the experiment, but that idea gets dropped tomorrow, so there’s not really anything for Willie to do. He’s just back because John Karlen is available again, and they want him back on the canvas. They’ll figure out who he is and what they want him to do later on.
Unfortunately, botching the reintroduction like this is a bad sign for later character development. We’ve got Willie back, but this isn’t the Willie that went away.
Tomorrow: Chekhov’s Gun.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the end of act 2, Barnabas tells Julia, “I could tell that your heart went out to him every much as mine did.”
In act 3, Willie and Maggie cross wires for a moment:
Willie: But I’ve gotta tell ya what happened that night!
Maggie: I know why!
Behind the Scenes
Nurse Jackson is played by Ann Davies, in her only episode. I can’t find any other screen credits for her, but there’s an Ann C. Davies listed on the Internet Broadway Database who was active in the 1960s. She appeared in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof from 1964 to 1972, and was an understudy in Pickwick in 1965. We saw Nurse Jackson in a few episodes last summer, when she was played by Alice Drummond.
And one other thing:
I didn’t include this in the post because it would have interrupted the story, but I have to mention this because I love it: When Barnabas is alone in the waiting room at the start of act 2, he looks at a magazine on a table, and flips through it for a second. It’s a rare moment where Barnabas interacts with something “modern”, similar to his car trip a few weeks ago. It’s not an anachronism, but it feels like one.
Tomorrow: Chekhov’s Gun.
— Danny Horn