“What kind of life do you lead, Mr. Jennings?”
Two weeks ago, Dark Shadows entered a period that I’m calling The Great 1968 Wrap-Up, a long overdue narrative house-cleaning. Soap opera storylines are always a bit of a tangled web, but if you’re not careful, the structure becomes so dense that it collapses in on itself, and becomes a dangerous gravitational singularity.
- Barnabas Collins isn’t a vampire anymore, because his life force is shared with
- Adam, a Frankenstein monster who’s trying to start a family with
- Eve, a female monster who’s animated by the life force of
- Danielle, a French Revolution-era murderess, who’s madly in love with
- Peter, the 18th-century lawyer who’s traveled through time to follow
- Vicki, the Collins family governess, who was just left at the altar by
- Jeff, who’s discovered that he’s actually a reincarnation of
- Peter, and he’s not very happy about it.
Obviously, that’s a complex set of facts and relationships for the audience to keep in mind, especially because the one thing that absolutely everybody knows about Dark Shadows is that it’s the story of Barnabas Collins, who yes he is a vampire, what are you even talking about that he’s not a vampire anymore?
So that’s the level of mess that we’re dealing with here. We’re currently two weeks into this massive clean-up project, and we’ve now reached the stage where they’re just strangling cast members and leaving them in the closet.
In fact, this episode is the perfect example of the Great Wrap-Up at work, because this is actually an accelerated version of several planned episodes.
One of my DS-nerd bibles is the Dark Shadows Almanac, a huge grab-bag of facts and trivia. The Almanac includes the writers’ synopses for four episodes — 628 through 631 — which were squeezed down into about one and a half. As originally planned, the aftermath of Jeff and Vicki’s aborted wedding was supposed to ramble on for more than a week.
In the original, expanded version of these episodes, Jeff strangles Eve, but takes pity on her, and lets her live. Angelique spends several days shaking Adam’s confidence in Nicholas, and they spy on Eve and Jeff for a while. Eve finds Jeff’s bus schedule, and packs a suitcase. There’s a pointless confrontation between Jeff and Elizabeth, a pointless scene where Angelique bites Joe again, and it all wraps up with the eternally pointless Sheriff Patterson, questioning Jeff about Eve’s murder.
Eve was supposed to be killed for this week’s Friday cliffhanger. Instead, they killed her at the end of Monday, so we’re already way ahead of the game.
So, the question is: Why did they hit fast-forward like this?
Well, for one thing, Vicki’s leaving. I should probably make a bigger deal out of this than I am, because one of the themes of the blog so far has been the ongoing war between Victoria Winters and the audience.
She’s the main character, the girl from Dan Curtis’ dream. Every episode of the show used to start with the words, “My name is Victoria Winters,” even if it was an episode that Vicki wasn’t actually in.
But that was several monsters ago, and the world has changed. Barnabas, Julia and Angelique stepped onto the stage, snarling and snapping their jaws, twisting their necks into impossible positions in order to find their light. It was the Age of Kaiju, and all the attention shifted to the big, theatrical characters with tragic storylines and not much in the way of self-awareness.
As it turns out, Vicki wasn’t really able to compete in this new environment. They sent her back in time to the 18th century, and she was the only character in the entire original cast to appear on the show for four months — and she still ended up offstage most of the time, hiding in an attic or locked up in jail.
They’ve tried their best to keep her involved — Dan is incredibly loyal to the people that he likes, and Vicki is the girl from his dream — but Alexandra Moltke knows that this isn’t going anywhere. In the Saturday Evening Post article from a few weeks ago, she complained about being stuck in a five-year contract, playing a dumb character who’s constantly being upstaged by mental patients.
So she did what any smart actress would do: she got pregnant, and told Dan to go to hell. You can’t really tell, but she’s been pregnant for two months, and today’s her last day in Collinsport.
According to the synopses, the original plan for this week had the whole climax of this story thread happening after Alexandra Moltke left. Jeff would be alone when he discovered Eve’s body, and he’d have a long discussion about it with the useless Sheriff.
Part of the decision to speed things up must have come from a desire to have Vicki in the room when this all blows up. It avoids a long, agonized thinks monologue for Jeff, and it allows the wounded almost-newlyweds some dignity, before Vicki ducks offstage and gets recast.
Then we’ve got the Adam/Angelique sequence, which was supposed to fill the better part of three episodes, and instead is condensed to about three minutes.
Yesterday, Adam strangled Eve as a momentary impulse, and left her in Jeff’s closet because for some reason he thinks you’re supposed to stuff dead people into closets. This has actually come up before; it’s the central pillar of Adam’s post-murder protocol. But Angelique is determined to pretend that she has the slightest idea what’s going on, and she makes like it was her idea in the first place.
“I think you were right to kill Eve,” says the woman who spent several episodes gaining Eve’s confidence last week. “She was an evil woman,” she continues, which is a non sequitur, plus look who’s talking.
Angelique launches into her sales pitch. “When Nicholas finds out that Eve is dead,” she explains, “he’ll think that Jeff Clark killed her, which is exactly what I want him to think, because it will fit in so well with my plans.” This is utter nonsense.
And then, in one of those marvelous onstage/backstage correspondences, her gaze flickers toward the teleprompter, which is basically admitting that she has no idea what her devious plan is supposed to be.
“What I want you to do,” she says urgently, “is go back to the house, as though nothing had happened, and when Nicholas tells you that Eve is dead, then you must pretend to be shocked — stricken with grief — and do anything he wants you to do.”
Again: nonsense. As we’ll see a little later, Angelique goes straight to her secret hideout crypt, and summons the Devil to report on Nicholas’ activities. Her plan has absolutely nothing to do with whether Nicholas thinks Jeff killed Eve or not. This scene is just a vestigial leftover from the old version of these episodes, where it actually mattered what Angelique wanted Nicholas to think.
Then Angelique tells Adam to hurry. “We have very little time,” she says, which is the only sensible thing she says all day.
And then we move on. This is still act 1, by the way; we’re just tearing through the plot points today.
Next we go to the hospital, where Joe is still recovering from a self-inflicted stomach wound. As we join him today, he’s being observed through the window by a mysterious figure, for basically no reason at all.
Enter: random nurse. There are nine people in the credits today, including Eve who’s just lying on the floor dead, which is practically a record for Dark Shadows. There’s only a handful of episodes with eight speaking parts, and it typically happens in episodes like this, where they’re determined to break through to the next storyline, and they’re willing to pay extra for it.
The nurse asks if Joe would like to rest now, and Joe says yes, even though he’s already resting about as much as you possibly can. It’s kind of a waste of a nurse, but whatever, it’s their money.
But then the most wonderful thing happens.
The door opens, and a man enters the room, and all of a sudden, Joe starts to scream: “No! NO! You’re DEAD! You’re DEAD!”
And, hooray! It’s sexy vampire boy Tom Jennings.
Tom was kind of an experimental character that they tried out a few months ago, when they suddenly realized that men were made out of meat, and it might be possible to turn that to the show’s advantage. So they cast a good-looking guy, got him vampire-bitten a couple times, and then turned him loose on the viewing public, all hair and fangs and smoldering eyes.
It worked, obviously, and the teenagers of America were appropriately smitten, but the writers couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him, so they put a stake through his heart and killed him. Now they’ve spent the last two months trying to figure out where to put all the fan mail asking when the sexy vampire boy is coming back.
So he’s back! Except this isn’t Tom; it’s his brand new identical twin brother Chris Jennings, who’s just as appealing, plus he can be out in the daytime. He wasn’t around when Tom was killed, because of mysterious backstory that we’ll spend the next couple months digging into.
And look at this, he’s not wearing a tie or a turtleneck or anything, in direct contradiction to previous Dark Shadows fashion mandates. Free access to the neck area, that is the Jennings family philosophy.
I know that my recent focus on open collars probably makes me sound like a pervy Victorian getting overheated thinking about a woman exposing her ankles, but this was material social progress for 1968 daytime television.
Also, just look at the man. Joe has been the title holder for Only Hot Guy on the Show for quite a while, but Chris is outclassing him right out of the gate. His clothes, his Southern drawl, the way that he stands and pouts and smolders — this is actually new for Dark Shadows. He’s got a little bit of that Jim Morrison “Young Lion” energy, a kind of casual and confident sexuality that is right up to date for 1968.
It is possible that I am overstating the appeal of Chris Jennings. If that bothers anybody, then all I can say is that you’re going to have to put up with it until at least March 1969, when I will transition into obsessing over the appeal of Quentin Collins. The invention of sexy boys is going to be a major theme on the blog for pretty much the next year, and there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it, so there we are.
While I’ve been chattering away, Joe and Chris have been pitching in and establishing backstory.
Chris: I’m sorry I scared you, Joe, I guess I shoulda sent word in that I was here.
Joe: When did you get into town?
Chris: Early this evening.
Joe: It’s too bad you couldn’t have gotten in for Tom’s…
Chris: Yeah. Sorry you couldn’t find me. You know me, I’m never in one place very long. Joe — I want you to tell me how Tom died. I mean, what killed him?
Joe: That’s… that’s still a mystery.
Tom’s death isn’t a mystery to us — it was vampires, we saw the whole thing — but Chris has some intrigue of his own. Where has he been all this time? Why was it hard to reach him? Is it possible that this is the tormented bad boy we’ve been waiting for, ever since they domesticated and neutered Burke Devlin?
So they spend a couple minutes establishing a storyline for Chris — he wants to find out what happened to his brother, which puts him on track to interact with all of the important characters.
This is basically the most perfect thing they could do on the show right now, a huge step forward that’s going to solve a lot of the current storyline problems. At the moment, the show is chock full of exciting, larger-than-life creatures, but they’re all tangled up in that impenetrable continuity-fest.
Chris is easy to understand. His brother died under suspicious circumstances, and he wants to find out what happened. He has a secret backstory of his own, which we’ll want to learn more about, but you don’t need an episode guide to explain why he’s standing here. This is exactly what Dark Shadows needs right now.
Plus, he comes equipped with his own problems to brood over.
Joe: Have you seen your sister?
Chris: No… I haven’t seen her yet. How is she?
Joe: Molly kind of fell to pieces when Tom died. She needed you then.
Chris: Where is she now?
Joe: She’s in a hospital not very far from here, a place called Windcliff. Dr. Hoffman had her taken there for treatment.
Chris: What kind of treatment?
Joe: Well, losing the only person in the world that cared anything about her was a little bit too much for her; she’s been in a state of shock ever since.
Chris shakes his head, and looks gloomy. “I didn’t know,” he says. “I just didn’t know.”
And then who should walk in but Dr. Hoffman herself, who takes one look at the newcomer and screams, “Aaah! Tom, NO!” So that’s enjoyable.
They’re doing the speed run version of this episode, so Chris doesn’t really react to Julia freaking out. He just introduces himself, and they go on with the scene.
And check out what happens next.
Julia: How do you do, I’m Julia Hoffman.
Chris: Oh, Dr. Hoffman, you’re one of the people I want to talk to. Do you have a few minutes?
Julia: No, I have to get back to Collinwood.
Chris: Well, I have a car outside. Suppose I drop you off, we can talk on the way.
So that’s awesome. Julia just met the new boy twenty seconds ago, and he’s already offering her a ride home. Julia is a rock star.
Julia asks for a moment to talk to Joe, so Chris leaves the room. As soon as he’s gone, they start talking about him, because what else could you possibly want to discuss.
Joe: He’s not an easy man to locate. He keeps moving around, never stays in one place.
Joe: It’s a strange story. We went through high school together, he was always a very bright guy. He went on to college — study architecture. Then something happened to him.
Joe: Nobody knows what. Whatever it was, it seemed to change his whole personality. He dropped out of school, alienated all of his friends, started going off to the mountains for weeks at a time. Finally, he just disappeared from Collinsport altogether. Didn’t even come back two years ago, when his parents died.
Man, that’s a shame; he must be really messed up and damaged and sensitive and misunderstood. I bet all he needs is somebody to take care of him, somebody to open up to. Maybe someone like you, or every other member of the Dark Shadows audience.
So they’re zipping through all of the Vicki-Jeff-Peter-Adam-Eve-Angelique-Nicholas material as fast as they possibly can, tying everything up and punting it offstage, because this is what they want to spend time on — a new character, with a storyline that you can actually understand.
And to make him even more delicious and appealing, he has a little sister that he’s now responsible for, which also checks off the “moms” and “kids” boxes on the Dark Shadows demographic Bingo card.
Julia: She’s doing very well, and getting very good treatment at Windcliff, but it would be very good if she had someone close to turn to.
Chris: Meaning me?
Julia: You’re her brother.
Chris: Yes, I’m her brother, but the kind of life I lead, it’s… it’s all wrong for her, that’s all.
Julia: What kind of life do you lead, Mr. Jennings?
That’s the big question, which we’re going to spend the next several months investigating: What kind of life does Chris Jennings lead? And what kind of life will Dark Shadows lead, once we’ve ditched the girl governess?
She comes back, by the way, for a hurried conversation with Julia. Jeff’s in jail, apparently; they locked him up while we were busy flirting with the new guy. Vicki gives Julia an update, and then exits to find Roger. It’s a weird, muted finale for the original star of the show.
Later on, they asked Alexandra Moltke to return to Dark Shadows, and she said no. She’s told interviewers that she might have stayed if they’d done something interesting with her character, but she didn’t want to do the same dull things over again.
The way that she talks about it, it’s obvious that she thinks that she had all these hidden depths as an actress that the Dark Shadows crew didn’t take advantage of. That’s where Alexandra Moltke and I disagree. Vicki was dull because Alexandra was dull, and that’s all there is to it.
Jonathan Frid was supposed to be on the show for thirteen weeks, and then get staked by Dr. Woodard. Grayson Hall was supposed to be on the show for six weeks, and then get strangled by Barnabas. Lara Parker wasn’t supposed to survive past 1796, and Thayer David was supposed to rest in peace when Matthew Morgan was frightened to death by ghosts.
But all of those actors — the true stars of Dark Shadows — were able to connect with the audience in surprising ways. They brought more to the part than just saying the words on the page — they jumped to life, and the fans responded, and those actors stayed on the show right to the end.
Alexandra Moltke didn’t take those opportunities. Vicki was exactly what she seemed to be. In the end, that just isn’t enough.
So Victoria Winters fades away as Chris Jennings arrives, and the world belongs — as we always knew that it would — to the monsters.
Tomorrow: Horrible Bosses.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the reprise teaser, the furniture, books and clothes that were scattered around Jeff’s room have magically been packed away. The rocking chair is gone, and so is the sport coat, which was hanging on the light fixture next to the closet.
In the hospital, when Chris takes a note out of his pocket, a camera peeks into shot on the right.
Chris offers Julia a ride back to Collinwood, with no prompting. How did Julia get to the hospital in the first place, and how did Chris know that she didn’t have a car?
When Joe fills Julia in on Chris’ backstory, she tries asking “Why?” during two different pauses, and doesn’t really manage to get the word out either time.
The camera moves slightly during the closing credits.
Behind the Scenes:
Alexandra Moltke gave birth to her son Adam on June 27, 1969 — coincidentally, the third anniversary of Dark Shadows’ premiere. She didn’t do a lot of acting work after this — she was married to Philip Isles, a lawyer who was connected to the New York investment bank Lehman Brothers. She worked behind the scenes in theater for a while, and with the Museum of Broadcasting.
In 1981, she was involved in a huge national scandal — she was reportedly having an affair with Claus von Bülow, a New York socialite who was accused of attempting to kill his wife Sunny. There were various trials and legal proceedings dragging on through 1987. Alexandra’s part in the story was actually pretty minor, but it’s a weird connection for anybody who remembers the trials.
In the 1990s, Alexandra became a documentary filmmaker, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She made two films about the Holocaust — The Power of Conscience: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews (1994), and Porraimos: Europe’s Gypsies in the Holocaust (2002), and one about the McCarthy era — Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist (1998). Her films were shown at film festivals and at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and they were broadcast on PBS. So she turned out to be a lot more interesting than you would have guessed, from watching her as an ingenue on a lunatic vampire soap opera.
The nurse in today’s episode is played by Greta Markson, who doesn’t have a lot of credits that I can find in the one minute of Google searches that I feel like spending on her. She appeared in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1954, and she’s got a couple of late-50s Broadway credits. Then she was in an episode of The Defenders in 1965, and Dark Shadows in 1968, and that’s all I know.
A couple other notes: Tom and Chris’ sister is referred to as Molly in this episode. She’ll be renamed Amy Jennings by the time she makes her first appearance next week.
Also, Chris is clearly supposed to be Tom’s identical twin, but they never actually use the word “twin” on the show. They just say that he’s Tom’s brother. And that is just about everything I need to say about this episode. At last.
Tomorrow: Horrible Bosses.
— Danny Horn