“You broke into my room to tell me about a dream?”
Here’s the kind of thing that Dark Shadows had to deal with: They moved the taping schedule around to accommodate Jonathan Frid’s insane ten-city publicity tour a couple weeks ago, and as it shook out, there were three episodes this week that taped the day before they aired.
It’s actually hard to get your mind around how close to the edge that is. If anything went wrong with the taping, then there’s nothing to show tomorrow; it’s dead air. And this is Dark Shadows; of course something’s going to go wrong. Things go wrong, like, all the time.
So if this was a show produced by sane people, they’d probably want to throw together a couple episodes where everybody sits around in the living room and talks over the events of the day. That’s what every other daily soap opera ever made does all the time anyway. But, no — it’s Dark Shadows, which means we need three cops and a Frankenstein monster and a seance and a dream sequence and a skeleton and a brick wall falling apart and a root cellar.
In fact, they’re living so close to the edge of what’s possible that you can actually watch the production team struggling to figure out how to make the show.
At the end of Friday’s episode, they were wrapping up the sequence where Adam, the mixed-up Frankenstein monster, abducted Carolyn and held her against her will for two days. With the police hot on his trail, he brought Carolyn to Widow’s Hill, where she slipped and almost fell to her death.
You’d think that would be a perfect place to end the episode — a literal cliffhanger — but instead, they showed Adam pulling her back up to safety. Cornered by the cops, Adam jumped off the cliff himself, and then everybody just turned around and went home.
So, the question is: Why stop the episode there, when it would have been much more dramatic to end with Carolyn dangling over the edge?
Here’s where the production issues take over. The budget only stretches to five or six cast members a day, so if they started Monday’s episode with Adam pulling Carolyn up, they would’ve been stuck paying for Adam and Sheriff Davenport, with nothing for them to do after the first scene.
Unfortunately, Adam jumping off the cliff to his death isn’t necessarily a tense moment that brings people back on Monday. It actually feels like this is the end to the Adam story — the monster’s dead, Carolyn’s safe, everything’s fine.
To remind the audience that this is still a high-stakes plot point, they played Dr. Lang’s dying words that he recorded for Julia, explaining that Adam’s life force is draining Barnabas’ vampire curse. If Adam dies, then Barnabas will become a vampire again.
This message — which we’ve heard in a dozen episodes so far — is played over footage of waves hitting the rocks below Widow’s Hill. These are film clips they shot in 1966, before they started production, and the films are in black and white, so they have to put a blue filter over the footage so it’ll look like it’s in color.
That’s all very clever, and three cheers for creative problem-solving. Unfortunately, it means that we have to sit through Lang’s message twice — once at the end of Friday’s episode, and again at the beginning of Monday’s — which is simply intolerable. This is why you should always make sure that there’s at least one living character on your show who understands the lunatic plot contrivance that’s driving the main front-burner story.
So we kick off the week with a lengthy scene of Barnabas and Willie standing on the coastline with flashlights, calling Adam’s name. Willie is convinced that Adam hit the rocks, and washed out to sea. Barnabas’ position in the debate is that Willie should keep yelling “Adam”.
Willie says that Adam is dead, and Barnabas says that he’s alive, and there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it, so after a while, they start talking about the Dream Curse.
If you haven’t heard about the Dream Curse yet — and how I envy you, if you haven’t — then the gist is that the sorcerous soap vixen Angelique has cast a spell that’s given the cast a recurring nightmare, which hops from one person to the next until it finally reaches Barnabas, and turns him back into a vampire.
The weird thing about this — well, one of the many weird things, technically — is that it’s not totally clear why it matters whether Barnabas is a vampire or not. I mean, I guess it matters to him, but from the audience’s perspective, it doesn’t actually seem to make any difference to the story.
Alive Barnabas acts exactly the same way that he did when he was Vampire Barnabas. He’s got the same secrets, the same problems, and the same relationships. The “cure” didn’t unlock anything new in the story; it’s just a MacGuffin to fight with Angelique over.
Willie is the seventh character to have the Dream so far, and he’s just as exasperated with it as we are. He needs to pass it on to Carolyn by telling her about the Dream, which seems like a perfectly reasonable request. Barnabas forbids Willie from talking to Carolyn about his witch-generated nightmares, which I guess is something you could say to your employees in 1968.
So they bicker about it, and then they loop back around to arguing about Adam. This continues until it’s time to break for a word from Heinz ketchup or Bounty paper towels or whatever.
Meanwhile, back at Collinwood, Carolyn is sitting in her bedroom, not eating a sandwich. She recently spent two days locked in a root cellar with a 6’6″ Frankenstein monster and no food, but she’s a soap opera character, which means her need for nourishment is nothing compared to the need to process her feelings.
Surprisingly, she’s not that broken up about her terrifying ordeal.
Liz: Carolyn… did he hurt you?
Carolyn: No. Not really.
Liz: But he kept you against your will; he must have had to use force.
Carolyn: Yes, he did.
Liz: And yet, he didn’t hurt you?
Carolyn: He was such a strange, pathetic sort of man, Mother. I had the feeling he was trying, in his own clumsy way, to be gentle.
So that’s got to be one of the fastest recoveries on record.
This is a good example of how Dark Shadows is moving away from the traditional soap opera focus on how women feel. Carolyn isn’t actually very interested in talking about her own experiences; she wants to figure out the plot points.
This convenient superhuman resilience to trauma is more in the mode of adventure stories than soaps. The characters in monster movies aren’t really affected by their experiences for very long, because that’s boring and it gets in the way of the next adventure. Carolyn was terrorized for two days, but the main impact on her is that she doesn’t really feel like eating.
I’m kind of conflicted about this approach. On the one hand, this is another fantasy-metaphor rape story, which makes her instant emotional turnaround feel staggeringly inappropriate. Adam brutalized Carolyn for several episodes — grabbing her, pushing her down, even pulling her back to the root cellar by her hair at one point. Then he held her, yelping “Love! Love!”
This was clearly an assault. Adam didn’t see it that way, because he’s a newborn patchwork corpse-monster with no life experience, but from Carolyn’s point of view, it’s assault. And just like all the other fantasy-metaphor rapes that we have around here, her recovery and healing happens in the amount of time it takes to let her tea get cold.
But that’s how adventure stories work. This isn’t a story about Carolyn’s emotional journey; it’s a story about huge monsters who kidnap people and jump off cliffs. So even though Liz wants to talk about whether Carolyn feels safe, Carolyn wants to direct our attention back to what’s wrong with Adam. This episode fails the Bechdel test for sure.
At this point in June 1968, ABC Daytime is about a month and a half away from launching One Life to Live, a new soap opera that’s going to focus on social issues in a more realistic way. OLTL storylines were about interracial romance, class struggle, and drug abuse.
One of the strongest themes on One Life to Live was recovering from rape — the main character, Viki Lord, suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, which was eventually revealed as stemming from her father’s sexual abuse. Another major storyline involved a college gang rape, which drove stories for more than fifteen years.
One Life to Live is going to premiere at 3:30pm, bumping DS forward a half-hour to better serve the growing teenage audience who want to watch it after school. ABC didn’t mean it this way, but OLTL is basically a forty-year apology for allowing Dark Shadows to do fantasy-metaphor rape storylines in that timeslot for five years.
In fact, Dark Shadows is so insane about this that they actually do it to Carolyn again five minutes later. She goes to sleep, and Willie climbs up the wall, breaks in through the window, and wakes her up to tell her about the Dream Curse.
Carolyn is apparently not able to finish a day with only one terrifying physical assault to recover from. Her life is that complex.
Carolyn jumps out of bed, and he blocks the exit.
Carolyn: Willie, I want you to get out of my room right now. Now, get out.
Willie: Please, Carolyn, I gotta talk to you.
Carolyn: I said to get out of here!
Willie: Now, please don’t get mad; I’m not gonna hurt you.
She starts backing toward the window.
Carolyn: Willie, are you going to leave, or am I going to have to call for help?
Willie: Don’t do that; I said I’m not gonna hurt you!
This is not super comforting.
Carolyn: Willie, I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t care. I’d hate to see you get into trouble again, but if you don’t do as I say —
Willie: Carolyn, I swear! All I gotta to do is tell you the dream, and then I’ll go.
She puts her hand to her head.
Carolyn: The dream?
Willie: Yeah, that’s why I came here, to tell you the dream.
Carolyn: You broke into my room to tell me about a dream?
And that’s how they get away with doing this nonsense every day. They’re doing a pretty shocking scene that would be absolutely terrifying in real life.
A normal soap opera would spend weeks just on this, documenting Carolyn’s fear and shame, leading up to the dramatic moment when she files a police report, and then they all go to trial.
But Dark Shadows is the least normal soap opera ever made. At this point, the fantasy-metaphor part of the fantasy-metaphor rape is so outlandish that you just stop processing this as a real event.
After it all blows over, Liz tells Carolyn, “You don’t have to be afraid. No one can possibly get into this room now!” which as far as I’m concerned is just asking for trouble.
Tomorrow: The Spirit of St. George.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beach, Barnabas says, “Willie, we’re going to get nothing accomplished if you keep arguing like this.”
At the end of act 1, Willie breaks character just a half-second too early. We see him nodding and smiling at Barnabas, as the camera fades to black.
Carolyn has a sandwich and a cup of tea on her tray, but when her scene opens, she’s got a fork in her hand. It’s not clear what she was planning to do with it before she got distracted.
There’s a tape edit towards the beginning of Carolyn’s conversation with Liz; it jumps from the middle of one of Carolyn’s lines to another.
Tomorrow: The Spirit of St. George.
— Danny Horn