“If that curse had been placed on you, or me… how would we have behaved?”
Barnabas Collins is dead! I mean, he already was. But now he’s even more dead than usual.
On Friday, Barnabas opened his front door and walked outside, and a huge bat shadow swooped down and bit him hard on the neck. Now he’s on the ground, weltering in gore. This was the shock ending to a three-month storyline that I am no longer under any obligation to discuss.
And so: here lies our main character, double extra secret-sauce dead. He’s got one of those nasty neck wounds that the people of Collinsport are so susceptible to, and his condition is not stabilizing. I know this is blasphemous talk on a soap opera, but I don’t think that stain on his collar is ever going to come out, not even with glowing white Sunshine Rinso.
Now, the problem with exterminating the most popular character on your television show is that it’s difficult to convince the audience that you actually mean it.
It’s a question of televisual literacy — the audience’s ability to understand what’s happening, and to predict what’s going to happen, based on our understanding of how television shows work. This understanding comes from a number of overlapping factors, including recognition of the genre, and familiarity with that genre’s basic tropes and plot structures.
For example: You’re watching a show that takes place in a workplace. The characters are basically civil to each other, and often friendly, but there’s also quite a bit of friction between them. They jockey for position. Each character has at least a couple of colleagues that they seem annoyed with, and they express that irritation through sarcastic quips at each other’s expense. They try to appease the people above them in the chain of command, and they’re willing to screw up a colleague’s work sometimes, just to prove a point.
In the episode that you’re watching, two characters are vying for a prestigious assignment, and one of them plays a trick on the other to get ahead of the competition. The other character is frustrated and annoyed, and threatens to get even.
So the question is: What do you expect is going to happen next? If you think that this is leading up to a murder, then you’re going to pay attention to certain parts of the story — the exact wording of the threat, which characters were around when the threat was made, and the exact timeline that follows. If you think that this is leading up to a pratfall and a good-natured chuckle, then you’re going to pay attention to a whole different set of signals, like which character is the pompous stuffed-shirt type, and the specific line of ironic dialogue that’s setting up their inevitable comeuppance.
You’re going to make that decision about how to watch the show on the fly — hardly even noticing that you’re making a decision — even if it’s a show that you’ve never watched before.
You base that expectation on a set of visual and audio cues — the way that the scene is framed and shot, the acting style, the incidental music, the editing, the sound effects, the wardrobe, and even whether the show is shot on film, videotape or digital video. If the show looks polished and modern, with handheld camerawork and a gloomy, intense atmosphere, then you’re watching House of Cards, and somebody’s about to get pushed in front of a subway train. If the show is a three-camera sitcom with a laugh track, then you’re watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Murray is about to sabotage Ted’s cue cards.
In addition to the on-screen cues, you’ve also got some paratextual information — details about the show that aren’t actually part of the fictional text itself. If you know that the show you’re watching is called The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and that the actress playing Mary Richards is named Mary Tyler Moore, then that’s a solid clue that you don’t have to worry about where she’s standing on the subway platform.
Another paratextual element is your awareness of time — whether the episode is a season premiere or finale, or if you’re twenty minutes into an hour-long episode.
That information can get lost in the translation to a different content delivery system, which means your experience watching an old show may be different from the way that the original audience watched it. If you’re watching Friends in daily reruns on broadcast cable, you don’t get any clues about whether you’re watching the season finale or not, so you’re not sure how seriously you should take Chandler’s proposal to Monica. On the other hand, if you’re watching Lost on Hulu streaming, then the entire interface is constantly telling you that there are six seasons, and that you’re watching episode 7 out of 22 episodes in season three, so Jack is probably not going to get shot in the head today.
For people watching Dark Shadows — and yes, this is still a blog entry about Dark Shadows — there’s a crucial piece of paratextual information that the original audience knew, which is completely obscured for people watching PBS reruns, DVD releases or streaming. If you’ve watched this episode any time after July 15, 1968, then you probably have no idea what day of the week it aired on, unless you’re actively checking an episode guide and paying attention to holidays and pre-emptions.
That’s why I make such a big deal about the day of the week on this blog, because it makes a difference in how seriously the audience is expected to take the current situation. This was a Friday-cliffhanger bat attack, and that’s the worst day of the week for a main character to get critically injured. They might actually go through with this.
On the other hand, they just pulled a stunt like this two months ago, with the mad science experiment that used Barnabas’ life force to bring Adam to life. That was on a Friday, too, and that episode went to some lengths to make it look like Jonathan Frid was actually going to leave the show, and have Robert Rodan take over the character. Barnabas made a string of farewells, including a particularly touching one to Julia, and then the room exploded in a shower of sparks.
It’s hard to pull that off twice in a row, especially after Frid’s insane ten-city promotional tour specifically established the paratextual promise to the audience that Barnabas is, was and will forever be the center of the show.
If they want the audience to entertain the idea that Barnabas might actually be on his way out, they’re going to have to muster some evidence that this is a big deal.
So here’s Exhibit A: Adam, in pain. That life-force bond created a mysterious connection between Barnabas and Adam — and now we see that Adam is also suffering from Barnabas’ bat bite.
Carolyn has brought Professor Stokes to the abandoned root cellar where Adam is hiding out, and they’re alarmed to find Adam grabbing his throat and gasping for breath, with no explanation.
The entire episode today takes place in two parallel tracks — Julia and Willie trying to help Barnabas at the Old House, and Carolyn and Stokes in the root cellar, doing the same for Adam. Mirroring the two connected events makes a stronger case that something might actually go wrong here; there’s no opportunity for a random B-plot scene to lighten the tension. This is a five-alarm fire.
But the key to selling this plot point is the reactions from the other characters. It’s not just that they need to take it seriously — these are soap opera characters, they can take anything seriously.
No, the secret here is that they need to react in a way that surprises us. They need to serve up responses that are so jarring and odd that we take our eye off the ball, and forget — even if it’s just for a moment — that the central character of the show is probably fine.
Enter young William Loomis, who’s been waiting for a chance like this ever since he came back from the mental institution two months ago. As an actor, John Karlen is always at his best when he can pretend that he’s playing the lead in a Broadway show that only exists in his head — usually A Streetcar Named Desire, with side bets on Death of a Salesman, Desire Under the Elms and Act Three of Our Town.
Willie adopts several different approaches over the next minute or so. Here’s a quick rundown.
Willie: Awww, now we’re gonna hear the dogs howlin’ again!
Willie: And every night, he’s gonna be out, prowlin’ around.
Willie: Every day, he’s gonna be in that coffin…
Willie: But I’ll keep them away. I’ll protect ‘im, like I did before! He’s gonna need me more now.
Julia: Willie, help me get him into the house.
Willie: … Unless we do what he told us we should.
Julia: Willie, I’ve got to examine him!
Willie: Y’know, just last week, he gave me a stake and a hammer. He said if this happened…
Julia: Willie, help me!
Willie: Are you gonna do it, Julia? Are you gonna end it?
Julia: Willie, will you help me?
Willie: I can’t do it! I can’t do it, Julia, and you can’t make me do it! Nobody can!
It’s phenomenal. I don’t often get the chance to say this, but right now, Julia is not the most interesting person in the scene.
So that’s where they start. It ramps up from there.
Their scene in act 2 begins with Julia listening for a heartbeat. Four seconds later, she looks up at Willie, and says, “He’s dead.”
We have to take that seriously — not just because Julia is a doctor using a regulation prop stethoscope, but because she didn’t even have to unbutton his jacket, vest and shirt. Barnabas is so dead that you can diagnose it through three layers of clothing. That’s pretty dead.
Then Willie starts to cry. He just stands there in the middle of the room, and he starts to cry.
And that’s how they do it. Like any magic trick, this is seventy-eight percent misdirection. Julia and Willie go through every possible emotional turn that they can think of, one after another, to the point where you literally have no idea what’s going to come out of their mouths next.
And then they go and get the hammer and stake.
It’s just unreal. Barnabas is still there, lying on the floor, while the Van Helsing twins survey the equipment, and try to figure out if they have the nerve to go through with this.
It’s a good stake, too. This isn’t some broken-off chair leg like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; this is an honest to goodness killin’ stake. They build ’em solid on Dark Shadows.
And there’s one more piece of paratextual information that everyone was aware of at the time, but is invisible to the post-July 1968 audience. This was the day that One Life to Live premiered on ABC, in Dark Shadows’ old timeslot.
For more than a year, ABC has only had two soap operas on its daytime schedule — General Hospital at 3:00, and Dark Shadows at 3:30. Then Dark Shadows transformed into the world’s most unlikely blockbuster, and ABC has decided to invest in soaps again. The new show, One Life to Live, takes the 3:30 slot, and Dark Shadows moves to 4:00.
So picture this: You’re a Dark Shadows viewer, on a sunny Monday afternoon in the middle of the summer. Last Friday, the three-month Dream Curse storyline concluded with a huge crazy bat attack climax, and you can’t wait to find out what happens next. But you don’t know about the schedule change, because you don’t pay attention to TV listings and promo bumpers for a show that you watch every day,
You turn on the TV — eager to see the next installment — and Dark Shadows isn’t even on. There’s a moment of panic — you check the paper — and now you have to wait an extra half hour to find out if Barnabas is okay.
When the show finally starts, Adam is howling, and Carolyn is screaming, and Willie is crying, and Julia is raising the hammer.
And Barnabas Collins is dead.
Tomorrow: Life Without Barnabas.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when Willie comes outside and bends down to examine Barnabas, Julia coughs.
Willie trips on the last line of act 1:
Julia: Willie, will you help me carry him into this house, now!
Willie: Okay, Julia. I’ll do… what you tell me. But remember… I gotta do what you tell me.
In act 3, Professor Stokes feels Adam’s wrist, and says, “There’s no pulse beat.”
Tomorrow: Life Without Barnabas.
— Danny Horn