“Do you still believe we cannot gain help from the dead?”
Professor Stokes steps to the phone, and places a call. “Julia, thank goodness it’s you,” he says. “You must come here immediately.”
“What’s wrong?” says Julia.
“I’m afraid I’ve just killed a man,” Stokes says, and then the opening titles kick in.
See, I told you that Professor Stokes is amazing. Can you believe this guy? This is how he starts an episode.
While they’re drawing the chalk outline around the latest victim, I’ll step back for a moment and sketch out what’s going on here.
On Friday, Stokes was visited by Tony Peterson, a hard-boiled Collinsport lawyer who’s recently come under the spell of the show’s sorcerous soap vixen, Cassandra. Stokes has been interfering in her plans, so she sent Tony to Stokes’ house under an assumed name to put poison in his drink. A suspicious Stokes switched the sherry, and now Tony is gasping his last on the Oriental rug. Advantage: Stokes.
And so the baton has passed to another new character who’s going to take over the show for a little while. This happens periodically on soap operas when the writers realize that they’ve got somebody who’s inherently story-productive on their hands. The other characters who have done a full-court press like this are Barnabas, Julia and Angelique. He’s at that level.
When Julia’s finished treating Tony — he survived, by the way — Stokes’ explanation is unbelievably rock-star.
Julia: What happened?
Stokes: Well, he was strange — nervous. I suspected him. When I went to the kitchen, it suddenly occurred to me that he’d have an excellent opportunity to tamper with the sherry, so when I returned, I switched the glasses.
It’s as simple as that. That’s the universe that Professor Timothy Stokes inhabits. When a visitor appears uneasy, you automatically assume that he’s planning to murder you, and you take the appropriate steps. That’s just basic hospitality.
Stokes, like all the best characters, just goes ahead and decides to make the story more interesting, and reality kind of warps itself around whatever the hell he thinks he’s doing.
Stokes: Somehow, Cassandra Collins has him in her power.
Stokes: Now we know another facet of her personality. What she can’t do herself, she delegates others to do for her. We know now one person helped her. How many others have? When I said the other night that this was war, I was right.
Oh, man. There are others? We’re going to have to start switching glasses all over the place. I hope Mrs. Johnson has a new dishwasher on backorder, because this is going to get messy.
Amazingly, Stokes is so engaging right now that he actually dominates Julia, who’s accustomed to being the most interesting person in any scene. She’s forced to feed him straight lines, just to keep up.
Stokes: We must find someone she cannot affect — and that means, of course, someone who is already dead.
Julia: Already dead?
Stokes: Do you believe in ghosts, Doctor?
Julia: You really are being serious, aren’t you?
Stokes: Quite. Even a witch will fear a ghost. Particularly the ghost of a witch hunter. Have you ever heard of a Reverend Trask? He was a witch hunter here, in the 18th century.
Julia has to pause, and consider this ridiculous question. Of course she’s never heard of some random eighteenth-century witch hunter. She’s Doctor Julia fucking Hoffman; she reanimates the dead. She doesn’t have time to collect trading cards of Witch Hunters Through the Ages.
But she plays along, nodding and murmuring, “Oh, yes,” because there’s absolutely nothing else that she can possibly do.
She just keeps on throwing him softballs, to keep the scene going.
Julia: This is very interesting historically, Professor, but I feel to see why —
Stokes: Oh, I forget, you doctors are very literal-minded. Reverend Trask is extremely important to you and me, Doctor Hoffman.
Julia: I’m sorry, I don’t see it.
Then Professor Stokes does the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen anyone do: he crosses behind Julia, leans over, and forces her to turn her face away from the camera.
Stokes: Picture a religious fanatic. A man whose one passion in life is to kill witches. Don’t you suspect it would be his one passion in death, too?
Fortunately, that happens to be history’s single most preposterous remark, because nothing else could possibly be interesting enough to justify making Julia turn around. This is a woman who has built her entire career around her uncanny ability to rotate her chin at any angle, in order to stay in her light. Seriously, you do not get between her and the camera. GRAYSON HALL WILL MURDER YOU.
And then — impossibly — he does something even more ludicrous.
“This is my ancestor Ben Stokes’ memoir,” he announces, wielding what is clearly a composition book. “Somewhere in this book is the key to Reverend Trask.”
Only parts of Ben’s book have survived the centuries, but one fragment discusses Barnabas’ vow of revenge against Trask.
Stokes reads aloud: “Mr. Barnabas, in a rage because of the innocent girl sentenced to be hung, sent for… The name is missing.”
Then Stokes looks off into the middle distance, as he fills in the missing name with a pencil. When he’s finished writing, he looks down at the page.
“Good heavens,” he says. “Trask. It isn’t even in my hand. It’s in Ben’s writing.”
And then there’s a huge dramatic sting, and we go to commercial.
So that’s how powerful things can get, when you leave these two alone in a room for a whole act. They’re inventing new plot points on screen, in real time.
Stokes learns that Reverend Trask was sealed up behind a wall in “the coffin room.” Julia knows that this means the Old House basement, although obviously she doesn’t explain how she knows that.
So we’re propelled forward into the next story point — based partly on Stokes’ knowledge, and partly on Julia’s — and if there’s a missing piece, then Stokes is just going to sit there and write it himself. This is what the show is like now.
Today is Monday, June 10th, 1968. School’s out, and the summer of ’68 has now begun. And may God have mercy on our unrepentant souls.
Tomorrow: Séance Fiction.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the start of act 1, when Julia sits down on the sofa, the boom mic dips into the shot for a moment at the top right of the screen.
Thayer David (Professor Stokes) walks onto the set as the credits start rolling. He realizes that the camera’s on, and ducks back out of the frame.
Tomorrow: Séance Fiction.
— Danny Horn