Episode 537: Life Without Barnabas

“Not run out, Willie. Go. Because there’s no reason to stay.”

Barnabas Collins is dead and buried, planted in the Earth by the only two people who can stand the sight of him.

“So, it is over,” says the First Gravedigger. “The end… The end.”

“You’d feel better if you cried,” says the Second Gravedigger.

“No, I’m past crying, Willie,” says the First. “Far past that. If I could imagine living without him — I could cry. But I can’t. I can’t.”

“No,” says the Second, staring off into the middle distance. “Neither can I.” He turns to face the First. “What’s going to happen to us?” he asks. “What are we going to do?”

And then the opening titles begin, waves crashing on the bleak shore of a town where life has no meaning and God is dead.

In other words: Yeah, it’s going to be another one of those entries today. Sorry.

537 dark shadows dig

I know, I’ve been going to the “avant-garde” well pretty often lately. All I can say is that the show has seriously been advancing down a super weird road, and maybe this is what happens to a person when you watch half an hour of postmodern soap opera every single day.

Because this is not a normal way to open an episode of daytime television, with two characters standing at center stage against a pitch-black backdrop, questioning the nature of their own existence.

Julia and Willie are essentially asking: If we’re fictional characters developed for the specific purpose of supporting the Barnabas storyline, then what happens to us when Barnabas dies? Do we still have a function on this television show? Can we live without him?

537 dark shadows willie theater

Today’s episode was written by Sam Hall, a New York playwright who really didn’t intend to spend his entire career writing soap operas. He just ended up doing that because that’s how things turn out sometimes. Not everybody gets to be Arthur Miller.

And when Sam was feeling bored and mischievous with his television work, he would amuse himself by slipping things into a script that he expected would fly under the radar. Here’s a quote from a 2009 interview with Roll Magazine, talking about The Brighter Day, his first soap opera gig:

“I was really young and rather silly. I loved the producer of Brighter Day, Terri Lewis, and she was a fan of mine. The main character was this very pompous minister, and I would make fun of him by writing the most pompous possible speeches for him and then coaxing Terri to keep them in for my own enjoyment.

“I remember one of the most pompous speeches — because he was always talking in fake minister-isms — in which he told his sister — this is a direct quote — ‘If life is a river, love is a channel through which the ships pass.’ I conned Terri the producer into letting it go through. The actor, of course, loved it and gloried in it. And it was one of the worst moments of television of the year.’”

It’s my opinion that Sam Hall — being smart and strange and under-appreciated — occasionally decided to slip references to experimental theater into Dark Shadows, just for the sheer fun of staging an absurdist black-box production of Six Vampires in Search of an Author for an audience of pot-smoking teenagers on ABC’s dime.

537 dark shadows julia willie absurdist

So: a quick definition of absurdist theater, for anyone who didn’t realize that there would be a test today.

The Theatre of the Absurd was a post-World War II artistic movement in Europe that basically asked the question: If the tragedies that we’ve recently lived through make us question the existence of God and the fundamental moral nature of modern society, then what is the purpose of our lives? Are we all just actors, playing out our pointless roles for the benefit of nobody in particular?

The classic expression of that idea was Waiting for Godot, a 1953 play by Samuel Beckett. In the play, two men stand near a solitary tree, waiting for a man to show up who will give them direction and purpose. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t show.)

The characters speak mostly in short sentences, and often in fragments that pose questions that can’t be answered.

Estragon:  Let’s go.

Vladimir:  We can’t.

Estragon:  Why not?

Vladimir:  We’re waiting for Godot.

Estragon:  Ah! (Pause.) You’re sure it was here?

Vladimir:  What?

Estragon:  That we were to wait.

Vladimir:  He said by the tree. (They look at the tree.) Do you see any others?

537 dark shadows julia willie waiting

It’s pretty bleak. Not quite as bleak as two people standing at a freshly-dug grave talking about how much they’ll miss the vampire who wanted to kill them, but Beckett didn’t have the luxury of writing for a television network where the executives are seriously not paying attention.

Willie:  I mean, I never thought about being without Barnabas.

Julia:  Willie, please.

Willie:  I mean — even when I was at Windcliff, I kept thinking that maybe someday, he’d come and get me.

Julia:  And he did.

Willie:  And that I’d work for him again. Oh, it was pretty bad sometimes, but — it was all I had to look forward to. Now… I got nothin’. Nothin’.

(Pause.)

Willie:  I mean — how could somebody hate him so much? I mean, that’s what I don’t understand. I mean, how could she, that Cassandra?

537 dark shadows willie tell

That sounds like a simple thing to say, but Willie is essentially questioning the foundation of the Barnabas storyline, and therefore his own existence in this fictional world.

These are supposed to be the two characters who actually know Barnabas, and understand his secrets. If Willie really doesn’t get why Angelique hates Barnabas — the emotional throughline that carries the show through four years of story — then he doesn’t understand anything about his own life. He’s lost, and Julia is entirely alone.

537 dark shadows julia know

Another trope of absurdist theater is that the characters try to make plans, which are ultimately meaningless and confused.

Willie:  Hey — what are we gonna tell people, Roger and everybody up at the big house?

Julia:  I don’t know.

Willie:  Well — you gotta know. I mean, when they ask where Barnabas is, what am I gonna say?

Julia:  That he’s just gone away, that’s all.

Willie:  They’ll ask where.

Julia:  You don’t know.

537 dark shadows willie matter

Yeah, no kidding. For characters in absurdist fiction, “I don’t know” is pretty much the default setting.

As another touchpoint, here’s a bit of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which we discussed during the 1795 storyline, when Millicent was going through her Ophelia phase.

Guildenstern:  What’s the first thing you remember?

Rosencrantz:  Oh, let’s see. The first thing that comes into my head, you mean?

Guildenstern:  No, the first thing you remember.

Rosencrantz:  Ah. (Pause.) No, it’s no good. It’s gone. It was a long time ago.

Guildenstern:  You don’t get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten?

Rosencrantz:  Oh, I see. (Pause.) I’ve forgotten the question.

537 dark shadows julia question

Julia and Willie aren’t quite going that far into an existential vaudeville routine, but they are having problems with some basic concepts.

Willie:  But — but they’ll know that Barnabas just didn’t go away like that, and didn’t say anything, I mean, they might call the police! And if the police find out —

Julia:  Find out what?

Willie:  Well, that we buried him! I mean, that’s against the law!

Julia:  Yes… (Pause, as if she’s just remembered that civilization exists) Yes, it is!

537 dark shadows willie buried

They’re also questioning the nature of truth.

Willie:  Julia… you’re gonna have to tell them, up at Collinwood.

Julia:  That we buried him, before he could come back as a vampire? No, Willie. He kept his secret. We must keep it.

Willie:  But how? I mean, how can we?

Julia:  We must.

Willie:  I’m scared.

537 dark shadows julia black

Yeah, no kidding. We’re all scared.

Vladimir:  Well? What do we do?

Estragon:  Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.

Vladimir:  Let’s wait and see what he says.

Estragon:  Who?

Vladimir:  Godot.

Estragon:  Good idea.

Vladimir:  Let’s wait till we know exactly how we stand.

Estragon:  On the other hand it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes.

Vladimir:  I’m curious to hear what he has to offer. Then we’ll take or leave it.

537 dark shadows julia willie reason

For a minute and a half in this scene, there’s no music — just the whispering sound of the make-believe wind blowing through the imaginary trees. The characters are empty, and alone.

Julia:  You will leave tonight, Willie.

Willie:  What? You’re not gonna convince me to try to stay?

Julia:  No. No, we will both leave tonight.

Willie:  You’re gonna run out too?

Julia:  Not run out, Willie. Go. Because there’s no reason to stay. None at all.

I know that I’m vastly overselling today’s concept, but I think it’s a remarkable scene. The lighting, the sound, the blocking — even some of the dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in an off-off-Broadway production.

537 dark shadows julia willie shot

I mean, look at this shot! Somebody involved in this production must have realized what this looks like. You can smell the clove cigarettes from here.

537 dark shadows willie julia stay

Fortunately — just before they conclude that all is hopeless, and wander out through the fourth wall and into your living room — Julia remembers that this is a soap opera, and there’s a sudden swerve toward the sentimental.

Julia:  You will come with me.

Willie:  What? Back to Windcliff? Oh, no, I mean, I’m not going back there. I’m all right.

Julia:  Not as a patient, Willie. You can have a job, and stay as long as you like.

Willie:  You mean that? What kind of job?

Julia:  Oh, a gardener, an attendant — anything you’d like to do.

537 dark shadows willie julia wait

Willie is touched. It’s a moment of real feeling.

Willie:  Hey, why are you offering me that?

Julia:  Because — because he would want me to.

Willie:  You’re sure? I mean, it’s not because of the police?

Julia:  No, Willie, I’ve told you the reason.

Willie:  You want me to close up the Old House?

Julia:  Yes.

Willie:  All right.

537 dark shadows julia bright

So this might turn out to be okay.

Julia — the smartest character on Dark Shadows — has realized that yes, they’re fictional characters engaged in a storyline which has just spectacularly collapsed. There’s no further purpose to their existence; they’re going to walk off the set, and vanish into memory.

But in the middle of this spiritual crisis, she understands that there’s still one thing that she can do before they disappear. She can be kind.

Willie:  Hey, uh — what about Barnabas’ clothes? I mean, they’re gonna know he didn’t go anywhere if his clothes are still there.

Julia:  Pack his suitcase for him, Willie, yes. (She smiles.) It was very bright of you to think of that, Willie.

537 dark shadows willie time

And he grins. A huge, infectious smile spreads across his face, and Julia smiles, and we do, too. It’s one of the most genuine emotional moments that we’ve ever seen on the show.

537 dark shadows julia willie clothes

Their story is over. They’re leaving the show, and they’re leaving the world, and everything that they’ve done over the last year is turning to ash and falling to the ground.

But if this is their last moment — the end of the world, for them — then they can at least pretend that they’ll take care of each other once they’ve left the stage.

As a solution to the absurdist’s existential dillemma, this is desperately sentimental and middle-class, and French people are sneering at us. But what the hell. This is our tragicomedy. We can run it however we want.

Tomorrow: The Shaggy Dog.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

I edited one of the quotes above for clarity. What Willie actually says is, “Hey, what are we gonna tell people — Roger, and everybody up at the Old House, at the, at the big house?”

When Julia tells Cassandra, “Barnabas is dead”, somebody in the studio coughs.


Behind the Scenes:

On the day that this episode aired, Jonathan Frid appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated daytime talk show, to promote Dark Shadows. I don’t know what he said, but I wish I did.

Tomorrow: The Shaggy Dog.

537 dark shadows julia willie bleak

 Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Episode 537: Life Without Barnabas

  1. They do quite a lot of buried alive scenes over the show’s run. If they’re not digging them up after they died, they’re putting them in the ground while still alive.

    Taphophobia (fear of premature burial) was deeply ingrained in the Western cultural psyche in the 19th century, as reflected in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

    The technical term for the act that Julia and Willie have (unintentionally) committed is vivisepulture.

  2. Julia has a habit of leaving messes around Collinwood to become someone elses problem (such as burying Barnabas illegally and letting Adam roam the grounds and become a hazard to the Collins family who have a legitimate right to walk through THEIR property with a reasonable expectation of safety). Her sense of entitlement to take over someone elses home and blatantly cause harm or potential legal difficulties for the family really irks me at times like this).

    1. That’s one of the things I like most about her. Julia will move into your house, eat your food, break your stuff, have a panic attack in your drawing room, and then hit your housekeeper over the head with a fire iron. She is an agent of chaos and excitement.

      1. I think you can say that about the Grayson Hall characters Julia and Countess Natalie they will eat and overstay.

      2. You probably dont want her bitch slapping you either.Just the look on her face (dont fuck with me) would scare the shit out of anybody…lol

  3. “You’d feel better if you cried.”

    “No, I’m past crying, Willie, Far past that. If I could imagine living without him — I could cry. But I can’t. I can’t.”

    Such a beautiful, ultra romantic line. And an explanation for why Julia puts up with Barney Boo’s BS, in all its varying forms. She can’t imagine living without him.

    1. Yes, I was wondering that too. Technically, for the sake of some degree of consistency, if they were trying to prevent Barnabus reverting to vampirism, then they should have chained up his coffin, then buried it.

    2. It seems to me that they are doing the same thing Joshua did, just a different location because too many people know about the room in the mausoleum. Of course, if they really love him, they would just stake him – far better than being buried alive for eternity

    3. I think it must be to increase the sense that Barnabas is really dead, for the sake of the audience – as Danny was saying. He’s emphasised the elements that add to this sense for the audence – all the cues from televisual literacy are pointing to him being dead, and here the show is throwing more fuel to that fire. The characters that should know have given up and are assuming he is dead, never to return. I know it doesn’t make sense, but they decided to use it in this episode to add tension.

  4. Grayson Hall is my favorite actress in this show, and she looks spectacular in this episode. Her hair, her make-up, and her costume are flawless and flattering. She appears neither exhausted nor exasperated. So, perhaps your hypothesis is correct: Sam gifted her with some actual theater – and she bloomed in response.

  5. Oh yes, Julia definitely slaps Cassandra in this episode! I also love the absurdity (not necessarily absurdist) grave. They want to keep Barnabas’s death secret, but they’ve left a perfect human sized mound of earth with flowers on it, in the backyard. It won’t exactly take the hounds to find this grave. But it wouldn’t be as effective if Julia and Willie were having an existential crisis just on a regular looking lawn, I suppose.

  6. Does Julia kneel down and pray in this episode?this really stood out to me, as they almost never mention religion unless it is the phony vein in which Trask uses it. I enjoyed this episode very much.

  7. Uh… Willie loves Barnabas? We’re explicitly told this in the intro voiceovers in both 537 and 538. Certainly he has the strongest emotional reaction — repeatedly breaking down into tears, his stumbling walk, etc. He says he can’t imagine life without Barnabas. His whole life, his self-worth, seems tied up in Barnabas. Not that it’s much; he believes his crush/friend Maggie doesn’t respect him because of his lowly job. He doesn’t feel that he has “made anything of himself”.

    So what’s up with the love? I mean, Willie was initially utterly terrified, shocked to his core by the first days with the newly risen and starving Barnabas. Being in thrall didn’t result in any visible affection; far from it. Willie is still terrified by Barnabas, who cruelly beats him, makes death threats and makes Willie an accomplice in animal and perhaps human deaths. Not so long ago, Willie said outright to Maggie that Barnabas wasn’t a friend, just his employer. Not so long ago, Willie threatened to leave if he was going to be stuck manbaby-sitting Adam.

    As for Barnabas, even as a human he hardly gives Willie a second thought except insofar as Willie is a useful servant. (Julia is typically no better.) One gets the impression Barnabas didn’t spend much time at all with Willie, as opposed to the adventures of the Barnabas -Julia duo. Willie, after all, is distinctly lower class, unlike Julia who inserts herself as an equal.

    So where is Willie’s love coming from? is it Stockholm syndrome? (Willie certainly minimizes the brutality and terror he suffered at Barnabas’ hands). Some residue of mental instability? the drugs/re-education at Windcliff? Born of gratitude for being ‘brought home’ from Windcliff? Being given a steady, more or less honest, lifetime job working for Banabas (given that his prospects are otherwise bleak)? Having a home? Feeling valued as a protector? Being so lonely all the time? Is the love platonic? Despite Willie’s longing for Maggie, is the overt talk of love meant as intentional homoerotic fodder (especially given his slight physique and multiple beat-downs), perhaps as unrequited as Julia’s romantic love ? Is it just a reboot? Just convenient for drama? Is Willie’s emotional response used to make Julia look stronger / sadder, because she can’t cry? All the above? None of the above?

    Because if a female servant had had a similar back history with Barnabas, I think most people would find that the idea of her loving Barnabas (even platonically) to be alarming, and more than a little pathetic. Or maybe that’s a modern response. I suppose, back then no one would have blinked at a young woman feeling love for her captor/abuser.

  8. Am I the only one that finds Julia’s “very bright of you” remark to be condescending? Willie may stammer under stress, and tend to excitability and impulsiveness, but none of that reflects poorly on his intellect.

    That he involuntarily blossoms at Julia’s backhanded compliment is wrenching. His self esteem is minimal.

  9. Willie suspects that Julia is condescending to him when he asks if she really, really wants to hire him. He thinks she is just throwing him a bone out of pity. He can’t be too proud, though. He needs the job. Otherwise he’ll have to write a resume that says “April 1967 to July 1968 Was all purpose dogsbody to Barnabas Collins, an eccentric millionaire and vampire, now deceased (so don’t bother seeking a reference). Performed odd jobs including fixed up and maintained his house, imprisoned women for his benefit and fed his pet Frankenstein monster.”

  10. Congratulations, Willie – go blab to Maggie what you and Julia just agreed you wouldn’t tell – dumbass of the year award!

  11. It struck me as I watched this episode with Willie in the gravedigger role, that he played the town gravedigger years later in Racing With the Moon. He was Mr. Nash, father of the main character, played by Sean Penn.

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