“If he stays dead now, then the course of history will be changed.”
Well, that didn’t last long, did it? They just let Quentin show up alive five weeks ago, and now he’s flat on his back, dead all over again. It looks like we’ve solved the big mystery of how Quentin died. It was the wife with a knife in the cottage.
We didn’t actually witness the stabbing, but Jenny came straight home and told Beth all about it, case closed. So this isn’t a whodunnit as much as a what are we gonna do about it.
Groundskeeper Dirk is out looking for Jenny, even though she’s already home and that sequence is over. But he doesn’t know that, because cell phones haven’t been invented yet. Back in the 1890s, you could go off the grid by walking into another room, so news doesn’t travel that fast. On the up side, we don’t have to watch Dirk scowl at his phone and complain that he’s not getting a signal.
So Dirk checks to see if Jenny’s in the cottage, and there’s a Collins family member lying on the floor, with a knife in his chest. It’s a shocking discovery — Quentin’s dead, and Dirk didn’t even know he was sick.
Suddenly, eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins appears at the door, and he sees Dirk crouching next to the body. Dirk tries to run, but Barnabas isn’t having it. “You’re going to stay here,” he growls, “and you’re going to answer a lot of questions!”
Okay, I’ve got one. Does anybody want to check the vitals? Cause we kinda like that character, and we’re not done with him yet.
For a minute there, it seemed like Dark Shadows was onto a real winner. They found an actor who’s charismatic and sexy, and he’s playing a cynical bad boy character, with secret wives and I Ching wands and his own theme song, and that kind of combination doesn’t come along very often.
Quentin Collins is a breakout character, which is the kind of thing that happens in long-running serialized narrative, if you’re very lucky and you keep your eyes open. A breakout character is a surprise that emerges while you’re in production, an unexpected crowd-pleaser that becomes so popular that they change the shape of the show.
The classic examples of breakout characters are the Fonz from Happy Days and Steve Urkel from Family Matters — both minor characters introduced during season one, who became the focus of the show by season two.
Another key example is Miss Piggy, who was literally a member of the chorus in the first season of The Muppet Show. Piggy didn’t have a consistent puppeteer for the first year; she was passed back and forth between Frank Oz and Richard Hunt.
That’s why she doesn’t have a real name. A couple years before, the Muppets did a “Froggie Went-a-Courtin'” sketch for a Valentine’s Day special, with Kermit a-courtin’ Miss Mousey, and “Miss Piggy” followed that model. That’s what you name a character when you don’t realize that she’s going to be the female lead in eight of your movies.
Now, this doesn’t happen because the producers say, “This would be a great moment to introduce a breakout character.” It’s lightning in a bottle. It happens when it happens, and it usually doesn’t happen.
So if you’re lucky enough to have it happen once — for example, introducing a vampire named Barnabas who completely takes over your soap opera and turns it into a spook show — then it’s very unlikely that it would ever happen again. But Dark Shadows has four breakout characters — two major ones (Barnabas and Quentin), and two minor (Julia and Angelique) — and they’ve all been introduced in the space of two years. Capitalizing on breakout characters is one of Dark Shadows’ core competencies.
So the thing that you don’t do in that circumstance is to let your shiny new charisma machine bleed out on the carpet while two other characters stand around and bicker. And yet, here we are.
Barnabas starts bossing Dirk around, claiming that he’ll tell the police that Dirk killed Quentin if he doesn’t answer some pointed questions. There isn’t any physical evidence, so Dirk could actually say the same thing back to Barnabas. But Dirk isn’t very smart, and a stalemate wouldn’t make the scene any better, so let’s go with this.
Barnabas: Who are you looking for?
Dirk: Look, I don’t know what you’re after, Mr. Collins, but you’ve gotta understand something — I’m just an employee of this estate —
Barnabas: You know more than you pretend to know! Now, who are you looking for?
Dirk: I can’t tell you.
Barnabas: Why not?
Dirk: I can’t!
The two of them are pacing back and forth across the room, just criss-crossing the crime scene. I hope they’re watching where they step, or this could turn out to be a messy evening.
But no matter what, this is an irritating conversation, because Barnabas is using his not-very-enhanced interrogation techniques to get information that the audience already knows.
We know that Dirk is looking for Jenny, and we know that Jenny killed Quentin. We also know that Dirk has nothing to do with anything, so he might as well get on with whatever information transfer needs to occur, and clear the shot. We need to use this space for interesting characters, and maybe a paramedic or two.
Dirk says, “I gave my word,” and then Barnabas gets that hunted look in his eye that says: this is a four-minute scene, and I’ve only learned two minutes of dialogue.
Barnabas opens his mouth, pauses, turns to the teleprompter, and finally delivers: “You gave your word before there was a MURDER!”
Luckily, that’s a strong enough line to get everybody back on track. Dirk says, “You know I’m innocent. You’re not just going to stand by and see something happen to me, I know that.”
“I can and I will!” Barnabas declares, crossing the room to glare at Dirk from close range. “I had a reason for coming to Collinsport.” And then he opens his mouth and nothing comes out.
After another quick prompter check, Barnabas decides that he wants to know who killed Quentin.
Dirk asks, “Why do you think that I know who killed him?” and Barnabas is foiled again. “It’s very easy to understand that,” Barnabas grouses, and changes the subject.
Upset, Dirk says that he’s got a good job, and he doesn’t want to lose it. Barnabas assures him, “I promise you that this will be kept in the strictest secrecy!” This is not as comforting as he seems to expect.
By this point, Dirk is struggling to stay afloat.
Dirk: Mr. Collins, you gotta understand that she’s crazy in the head! She could hurt herself — or somebody!
Barnabas: Who do you mean by “we”?
Now, you might have noticed that Dirk didn’t say “we”. The word “we” is not yet a factor in this conversation. But Dirk grabs on to this — the first decent cue he’s heard in a while — like a drowning man clutches a life preserver.
“Beth! Beth and Miss Judith!” he says, and they just pick up the scene from there, wherever that might be.
Then we get one of the all-time great Dark Shadows bloopers. Barnabas continues browbeating the staff, and Dirk protests.
Dirk: I’ve gotta go back to Collinwood sometime.
Barnabas: Then go back now!
Barnabas: But tell them that you saw no one here.
Dirk: Oh, that’s fine. What am I gonna tell them?
Barnabas: That you saw no one here!
It’s lovely, a little accidental Abbott and Costello routine. Meanwhile, Quentin is still underfoot; they must be ankle-deep in crime scene by now. And this is a soap opera, too, where the housewife audience is expected to be emotionally invested in keeping the floors clean.
But the episode keeps rolling on, with Quentin just lying there at sea level, wondering why he even bothered to glue on the muttonchops today.
Dirk exits eventually, probably to update his LinkedIn profile, and then Barnabas is joined by Angelique, which is helpful for two reasons. First, she’s revived people from the mostly-dead before, so she’s Quentin’s best hope for a respawn, and second, she’s just more fun to watch than Dirk is.
She’s got some tough questions for Barnabas.
Angelique: Let’s discuss your motive. I’m very curious to know why you want Quentin alive.
Barnabas: Because he isn’t supposed to be dead. At least, not now.
Angelique: Well, when is he destined to die? How?
Barnabas: By being sealed up in his room at Collinwood. If he stays dead now, then the course of history will be changed.
… which is exactly why you came here in the first place. Isn’t it?
I mean, I thought that “changing history” was number one on Barnabas’ time travel bucket list. He wants to make sure that Quentin doesn’t become a poltergeist with hurt feelings who wants to destroy the 1969 Collins family. Getting sealed up in his room seems like the primary trigger for the ghost’s revenge plot, so if Barnabas wants Quentin to die that way but not get angry about it, then it’s going to be tricky to thread that particular needle.
But as always, the temporal physics on Dark Shadows are entirely beside the point. The real question for this week is Quentin Collins: dead or alive? It doesn’t seem possible that they would kill the breakout character just at the moment that he’s breaking out, so if the audience has a decent grasp on televisual literacy, then we know that they can’t just let him die… can they?
It’s going to be a tough week for the audience, because Dark Shadows is going to let that question dangle for as long as they can. How long can they keep people tuning in, before we give up and change the channel? And how are they ever going to get those stains out of the carpet?
Tomorrow: Uncle Deadly.
(More) Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Dirk tiptoes into the cottage at the beginning of the show, the boom mic appears over his head.
When the camera first pans across Quentin’s body, there’s a yellow blocking mark on the rug near his head.
When Angelique tells Barnabas she wants to be sure that he’ll agree to her terms, something metal in the studio falls to the ground with a clatter.
Barnabas stumbles again when he talks to Beth: “You must go back to Collinwood, and tell them you’ve — seen nothing here.”
Tomorrow: Uncle Deadly.
— Danny Horn