“The problem with you, Judith, is that you hate the fraudulence of gypsies.”
Okay, let’s review what it means to be a “couple” in fiction.
The mistake that people sometimes make is that they think that a couple needs to be romantic. Obviously, there are lots of love stories with a romantic pairing at the center, but there’s a deeper definition that’s more useful if you’re trying to figure out how stories work.
A couple is two people that you want to see on stage at the same time, because they have chemistry together. A scene with both of them is funnier, or more exciting, or more romantic, or more interesting, or the plot moves faster. It doesn’t matter exactly why that pairing makes the scene better, as long as the structure of the story bends around putting them together.
Sulley and Mike from Monsters, Inc. are a couple. Bertie and Jeeves are a couple. Holmes and Watson, Starsky and Hutch, Laverne and Shirley, the Doctor and Amy Pond, basically any two characters who are best known as “X and Y”.
In fact, sometimes giving one member a love interest can be a distraction. Buzz Lightyear has a romantic subplot with Jessie in Toy Story 3, but the main story beats are Woody/Buzz, because a Woody/Buzz scene is more interesting than a Buzz/Jessie scene. (Except for the Spanish dancing scene, obviously, but that’s an outlier.)
This is why a “will they/won’t they” relationship can be so compelling — Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Clark and Lois, Kermit and Miss Piggy. It’s an evergreen structure, because it’s fun watching those characters interact, whether they happen to be officially “together” or not.
If the couple doesn’t appear on screen together very much — because they’re separated, let’s say, and they’re trying to find their way back to each other — then they don’t really count as a couple. In the lit crit biz, we call that a “Princess Peach” — a kiss at the end of a story that wasn’t really about the kiss after all. You can always tell what the important relationships in a story are, even if the characters pretend otherwise. The important characters are the ones they point the camera at.
This goes double for Dark Shadows, because it’s a soap opera that’s not really about romance most of the time. They don’t have time for the common soap tropes like weddings and babies — instead, they use ideas and plot structures borrowed from a mix of genres, including gothic romance, monster movie, film noir, door-slamming farce, avant-garde black box theater and the Doors’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
So the idea of a romantic couple on Dark Shadows is almost irrelevant. The couple that everybody talks about on the show is Barnabas and Josette, but they hardly appear together, even during that brief window when Josette is alive. Most of the action in 1795 centers around Barnabas and Angelique; Josette’s love is just the MacGuffin that they play for.
But the most important relationship in Dark Shadows is Barnabas and Julia, who are paired together because they’re just fascinating to look at. Their chemistry is so powerful that it even works when Julia puts on brown makeup, and pretends to be somebody else.
Which brings us to the show’s latest supercouple, Barnabas and Magda.
Here’s the recap: Barnabas is desperate to confront Quentin Collins, the mad ghost who’s been terrorizing the family in the late 60s. To do this, he’s used the ancient Chinese secret of I Ching, which has propelled him backwards through time to the late 90s, back when Quentin was terrorizing the family in person.
Barnabas has just been released from his coffin by grave-robbing gypsy Sandor Rakosi, and now he’s at the Old House, meeting the missus.
Naturally, Magda immediately recognizes that Barnabas is a vampire — an obvious fact that eludes the other 100% of people that he ever meets — because gypsies are like Native Americans, elderly black people, lunatics, children and all the other low-status characters in fiction who are closer to the primitive, and therefore in touch with the ancient truths that we gringos have forgotten, what with all our civilization and cell phones and book learning.
Under normal circumstances, you’d expect Barnabas to kill Magda and move on with his day, but she’s played by Grayson Hall and is therefore indispensable. The writers have taken the correct approach, which is to put Grayson Hall in the same house as Jonathan Frid and just let them do their thing.
From here on, the best measure of whether a period of Dark Shadows is good or bad is the amount of time that the Jonathan Frid character and the Grayson Hall character appear together. I will now demonstrate.
Cowering, Magda asks, “Why did you come here? What do you want?”
Barnabas pauses, because he’s forgotten what he’s supposed to say. He looks at the teleprompter.
And that’s when Magda opens her eyes even wider — as if the fact that he’s pausing and looking over her shoulder makes him even more menacing.
He finally gets his line out, “That is your… concern for another time. But your concern now is to protect me during the day.” And she just goes on as if that was a totally normal way for the conversation to proceed. This is half of Grayson Hall’s job, and nobody can do it as well as she can.
The other half of her job is to make us accept the lunatic plot contrivances, by being so interesting to look at that the audience doesn’t bother to ask questions.
Barnabas buys her silence by promising her a small but valuable selection from the Collins family treasure. He holds out a ring, and she snatches it from his hand, examining it in the light and then rubbing it across her lips. “This is all we get, just one jewel?” she says, not taking her eyes off the ring. She’s fantastic. Barnabas and Magda forever.
Now let’s turn to the other important couple in the current storyline: Quentin and Beth.
As I’m sure you’ll recall, Quentin and Beth were introduced several months ago as ghosts, in a Dark Shadows version of The Turn of the Screw. As in the original story, there are two kids and two ghosts, one apiece.
In The Turn of the Screw, the male ghost was a servant, and the female ghost was a governess, and they apparently died because they had sex, or fell down a well or something off screen.
On Dark Shadows, servant Peter Quint became troubled ancestor Quentin Collins, and governess Miss Jessel became Beth. We didn’t learn much about Beth’s backstory, except that she lived in the servants’ quarters and that her last name, believe it or not, is Chavez.
So it’s obvious that the original intention was that Beth, like Miss Jessel, was the governess. I guess this is what dead governesses looked like in the late 19th; I couldn’t say.
But now that we’re actually doing a whole storyline in 1897, producer Dan Curtis wants to start with a new governess arriving at the house, and she’s got to look like Josette, because apparently we’re just going to keep on doing Jane Eyre until we get it right, and Barnabas gets to be Mr. Rochester this time.
So Beth got downgraded from governess to maid, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that Terry Crawford got upgraded from silent day player to cast member, and she’s terrible.
When the ghosts were introduced, there was no plan to head for another time travel story. It just happened, because it turned out that David Selby was amazing as Quentin, and they couldn’t think of anything else to do. So Terry Crawford kind of bobbed along in Selby’s wake, and now she’s a main character too.
This is her only major screen role; most of the other parts on her credits list are for roles called Nurse, or Friendly Woman, or 2nd Woman at Party. She has one facial expression, and I’m sorry to say that this is it.
In today’s episode, Quentin — a member of her employer’s family who has previously expressed sexual interest in her — suddenly enters her bedroom, and closes the door.
Beth’s response to this alarming situation is to say, “Isn’t it customary to knock before you enter a lady’s room?” and then she just keeps on tying up her shawl.
He smiles, and swaggers. “I’ve never been a prisoner of custom.”
“How well I know,” she pronounces. When Beth speaks, she delivers each individual word as if it has been translated from the Albanian for her personal use. She is terrible.
Quentin, faced with this dreadful scene partner for the foreseeable, decides that he’d better keep acting, and hope that something turns up.
“And I might remind you,” he says, looming, “as a member of this family, I have the right to go anywhere in this house.”
She doesn’t move. “You are not the master of the house,” she says, sticking with her default acting choice, which is sulking.
“You never can tell,” he says, waggling an eyebrow or two. “I may be someday.”
She says, “Ha.” Just like that. And then she keeps on tying up her shawl. This must be the most complicated shawl in the history of the dramatic arts.
And so it goes on, like every Quentin/Beth scene that ever was or ever will be. He’s alternately flirty, threatening, teasing, childish, romantic, bossy and angry. She is standing in the room while all of that happens.
Here’s a particularly bad moment, in a scene that’s chock full of bad moments:
Quentin: I think you stole this money.
Beth: And I think you’re contemptible! (She takes the money from him, and puts it in her bag.) Now, get out of here and leave me alone.
(She tries to leave, and he grabs her and spins her around.)
Quentin: You know what I like about you, Beth? You have my kind of spirit.
Beth: I don’t consider that a compliment.
And you know what? She doesn’t. Her dialogue is full of lines like “I don’t care” and “It’s none of your business,” and Terry Crawford decides that the best acting choice she could make would be to play it as if Beth sincerely means every word that she says. This is different from what a good actor would do in every respect.
She should be fencing with him, half-flirting and half-angry and half-guilty. Yes, she should be playing three halves right now; that’s the point of the scene. But Terry Crawford gives you what’s on the page, because somebody explained the concept of “subtext” to her once, while she was thinking about something else.
So this is the problem with the 1897 storyline; they’ve got a phenomenal new lead villain, and he’s paired with an actress who is fundamentally miscast. Quentin and Beth should be the throbbing heart of the next nine months of story, but it’s tough to get a throb out of this dame.
But we can’t complain about it, because this is what happens in serialized narrative — a developing sequence of ideas and adjustments and accidents, happening in real time. If the creators are smart and attentive, then the good parts stick around, and the bad parts fade away. You don’t get Barnabas and Magda and Quentin without the occasional Beth. It’s just part of the game.
Tomorrow: It Just So Happens.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas tells Magda, “I don’t intend to harm you… unless you’re not going to uphold your end of the bargain.” (I’m not 100% sure that’s a blooper, but there’s a triple negative in there that makes my head spin.)
Magda steps on Barnabas’ line:
Barnabas: Don’t let your greed get the better of you.
Magda: We will —
Barnabas: Be happy with what I’m going to give you.
Magda: We will not betray you, don’t worry.
Magda asks what will happen tomorrow night. Barnabas looks at the teleprompter, and then says, “I will be at Collinwood. And they will be… seeing a strange visitor, a distant cousin from England.”
Judith tells Quentin, “I’m sorry you came back, Quentin. I’d forgotten what — how peevish and boring you can be!”
After Magda leaves Collinwood, you can see by the shadow behind Judith that the door has swung open again.
There are a lot of shuffling footsteps in the studio when Judith asks Barnabas to wait in the drawing room. This is followed by whispers when Barnabas is left alone in the room.
During the credits, Barnabas walks into the shot, carrying his clothes. He realizes his error and quickly ducks out of the frame. This means that Barnabas joins Professor Stokes (in episode 510) as the only two characters who are aware that sometimes names appear in midair. See the posts about episode 531 and episode 637 for more on this subject.
Behind the Scenes:
The colorful afghan shows up in a new time period, on Beth’s bed. The afghan was last seen in the present day, in Chris’ cottage.
Tomorrow: It Just So Happens.
— Danny Horn