“No matter how dangerous it is, I’ve got to have a showdown with Nicholas Blair.”
Really, the thing that everybody wants to know is: why can’t the Stormtroopers shoot straight in Star Wars? It turns out there are three simple answers.
#1. Stormtroopers shooting laser bolts are more interesting to look at than Stormtroopers who stand around complaining.
#2. Shooting Luke Skywalker in the head halfway through the first movie is going to leave a rather obvious gap in the trilogy.
#3. “Strong Guy Kills Weak Guy” is not headline news.
This ends the lit-crit theory portion of today’s post; we will now spend the rest of our time watching Dr. Julia Hoffman act like an unbelievable badass.
Now, Nicholas Blair is a satanic mob boss who’s currently hip-deep in malevolent master-planning. He can raise the dead, banish spirits to the underworld, and question people in their sleep — plus, he has a magic mirror that can show him what anybody in town is currently doing, with camera angles and background music.
He doesn’t actually do a lot of work directly; he mostly sits in his lair and works through a network of deeply flawed operatives, like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
Currently, Nicholas is coordinating a project to create a new race of people dedicated to serving Satan. He needs to get Barnabas Collins out of the way, for reasons that are too complex to go into right now, so he’s sent vampire soap vixen Angelique out to bite Barnabas on the neck, and keep him occupied.
Enter J. Hoffman, who’s determined to rescue her best friend from the seductress’ clutches, even if it means visiting the Devil and telling him exactly what she thinks of him.
Julia has no magic powers, and she doesn’t have an ancient talisman of a long-dead god. She’s not even carrying her memory-erasing medallion. She’s just strolling into the lion’s den armed only with her mind, her mouth, and her many, many facial expressions. Nicholas doesn’t stand a chance.
As Julia helps herself to a chair, Nicholas says some polite words about a recent dinner party. Julia is unbothered.
“Mr. Blair, I suggest we level with each other,” she says, tugging off her gloves and giving him the side-eye. “Let’s stop playing games. I know what you are, and you know why I’m here.”
And just for a moment, a little spark of panic dances across Nicholas’ eyes. This is a man who’s on Satan’s Christmas card list, and even he knows that he’s put his finger on something hot.
Naturally, he pretends that he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She rises and regards him coldly, as if to say, You underestimate the power of my handbag.
“I know you were behind the experiment from the beginning,” she says. “I also know what you’ve done to Barnabas, or had done to him.”
He wrinkles his brow in perplexity, trying on his best impression of a normal human being. “Well, then perhaps you’d be good enough to tell me.”
“Barnabas is the victim of a vampire,” she says, and the trilling violins on the soundtrack suddenly snap to attention.
So the question is: Where does Julia’s power come from? This is unique — no other character on the show could walk right up to the Devil, poke him in the eye, and then ask why he’s being such a dick about it.
Julia has earned the special status that’s awarded to fictional characters who willingly risk their lives to make the story more interesting. She doesn’t care about her own safety. She hardly even cares about rescuing Barnabas. She’s just pissed off because she hasn’t had a decent cliffhanger in the last six weeks, and she’s going to do something about it.
And we know that she’s going to win, because we have a functioning sense of televisual literacy, and we know that a scene that begins like this can’t possibly end with Nicholas waving his hand and setting Julia on fire.
There are lots of clues that help the viewers understand the true dynamic in this scene. Just at the level of basic scenecraft, she’s the character who’s roaming around the set, while Nicholas is stuck sitting on the couch, forced to turn away from the camera in order to register as an active participant. Upstaging is Julia’s Hoffman’s signature power move.
Also, Julia is a major character, and the reigning champion of Stand Next to Barnabas. We’re currently only ten minutes into the episode, and besides, it’s Thursday. Julia can’t even get singed halfway through Thursday; it would violate everything that we know about television.
So Julia is absolutely one-hundred percent rock-solid safe right now. Nicholas has no idea what kind of trouble he’s in.
“What I don’t understand,” she says, as if she gives a shit, “is why you’ve allowed it to go so far. I didn’t think you were a man who was subject to serious mistakes.”
Then Nicholas does something terribly reckless. He chuckles.
“Doctor…” he grins, “of course it goes without saying that I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. But there’s one thing you said that is quite accurate: I don’t make serious mistakes.”
See? She’s got him repeating her phrases back to her. Dead man talking.
“Then there is something that you obviously are not aware of,” she says.
“Mmm? What might that be?”
She cocks her head, aims and fires. “Barnabas Collins disappeared early last evening.”
See what I mean? Now, you might not happen to know why that’s a particularly devastating piece of information, the first sign of a crack that’s going to bring his entire operation crashing down. You could have just tuned into Dark Shadows for the first time five minutes ago, and you don’t even know who these characters are.
But that cadence — There’s something you don’t know, And what is that?, followed by a straightforward statement of fact, and a raised eyebrow — that pattern is recorded deep in a dramatically literate person’s DNA. That is a sucker-punch.
So I’ll sit back for a minute, and let Dr. Hoffman do her job.
Julia: He was in a very weakened condition. He’s probably even weaker today. And if he’s not found and saved by tonight… he may die.
Nicholas: You, uh — you say that you don’t know where he is at the moment?
Julia: If I did, I wouldn’t be here, would I?
Then she just starts kicking his “Machiavellian power-broker” ego to pieces.
Nicholas: I fail to understand, doctor, what made you think that I could help you.
Julia: Well, then I’ll tell you. You have a plan involving Adam and his mate.
And then he gives away his tell — right there, in front of her. He looks out the window to see if the sun’s gone down, and then he checks his watch.
Julia: But for your plan to succeed, it is imperative that Adam be alive and healthy. And you know as well as I do that if Barnabas Collins dies, Adam will die too.
Nicholas: Have you finished, Dr. Hoffman?
Julia: Not quite.
Nicholas: Well, I have. If you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid that I have a great deal of work to do.
Yeah, no kidding. Julia just walked into your life four minutes ago and beat the stuffing out of you, and she’s not even winded. Just imagine what she could do if she actually gave a damn.
Tomorrow: Sets and Violence.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Barnabas moans, “Please, Vicki… trust me,” there’s a clatter in the studio.
When Nicholas walks to the door, the camera pulls back too far, and you can see one of the studio lights.
If Nicholas’ house is called “the House by the Sea,” then why is Julia able to spy it on from what is apparently a deep forest? I’m super confused by what the landscape is like “near the sea” these days.
While she’s watching Nicholas’ house, she makes a big deal about how the sun will be going down soon, and we hear birds chirping on the soundtrack — but the lighting suggests that it’s the middle of the night.
Given the blocking on their tiny little sliver of a forest set, there is a one hundred percent chance of Angelique seeing Julia as she walks by, but she doesn’t.
Tomorrow: Sets and Violence.
— Danny Horn