“An afternoon of cards — a night of murder!”
The curtain rises on what is honestly one of the most irritating scenes that Dark Shadows has ever done.
So you already know the thing with Tim Shaw, we’ve talked about this. He’s played by Don Briscoe, who only three months ago was the undisputed titleholder of Only Hot Guy on the Show. Except he’s not the sexy haunted bad boy werewolf anymore, with a Southern drawl and an easy smile and a tendency to take his shirt off on camera whenever he feels like it. Now he’s a prissy schoolmaster with a tight collar and a weird part in his hair, and he translates Latin for kicks. Oh, and he’s being secretly trained as an assassin.
You’d think that maybe the trained-assassin thing could be kind of sexy and interesting, but no. They’ve decided they want to do The Manchurian Candidate this week, because that’s what you do when you’ve got a spare few minutes on your soap opera spookshow. So Tim is being hypnotized into murdering someone on cue, without being consciously aware of it.
Now, I’ve never been opposed to having the cute boys hypnotized and forced to do shocking and terrible things against their will. That concept is entirely okay with me. But the way that they hypnotize Tim is that they paint the edges of a book with magic hypno-assassin juice, and they ask him to read it. So he sits there and reads, and every time he’s done with a page, he licks his finger and turns to the next page.
This is a deeply unsexy thing to do.
But that’s how they establish that Tim is being hypnotized, so they spend several long scenes with us just watching him sit there and read, licking his finger. They even have a conversation where they specifically point out that he licks his finger to turn the page, just to make sure we’re spending a lot of time focusing on this entirely aggravating and unsanitary habit.
Even the murder weapon is boring and lame. When Tim sees the hypnotic trigger — the Queen of Spades, just like in The Manchurian Candidate — then he goes and pours a drink, dumps some poison in it, and hands it to whoever’s in the room with him at the time. And they spend several scenes running drills — showing him the trigger, and making him go put poison in a drink. This is not a particularly difficult skill to grasp, but they make us watch it three times over the course of two episodes. And honestly, that poison drink looks more and more appetizing every time we see it. The whole sequence is dull and baffling and unpleasant and disappointing, and it makes me want to hit somebody.
And yet this is one of the most thrilling Dark Shadows episodes ever made. Explain that!
Because today is the day that Magda Finds Out.
We’re three months in on the 1897 time travel storyline, and so far it’s been a lot of fun — vivid, funny characters having overlapping interpersonal conflicts, with a brand-new pop star lead character — but it’s also been kind of unfocused.
The 1795 storyline had two big anchor stories, one for each of the two lead characters — the toxic love triangle between Barnabas, Josette and Angelique, and everybody in the 18th century ganging up on Vicki. It hasn’t really been clear what 1897’s story is ultimately about.
Quentin’s been ping-ponging around through a lot of different stories, never quite committing to any of them long-term. He started out scheming to get his grandmother’s will and claim the family fortune, but after he lost that battle, he basically forgot about it. He’s declared war on Barnabas, and then un-declared it. He’s sort of fallen in love with Beth, but he’s still hitting on every other character. He can’t even stay dead.
But the werewolf story is the one he can’t just shake off. He murdered his crazy wife Jenny in a thoroughly pre-meditated misunderstanding, and then it turned out that Jenny was related to Magda, the comedy gypsy who suddenly became the most sincere character on the show. Furious and grieving, Magda hit Quentin at point-blank range with a curse that turns him into a unstoppable murder machine when the full moon rises.
Finally, the player has become the played, and they’re not going to let him out of this one. They’ve had several months to establish Quentin’s roguish bona fides, and now comes the consequences. “Suddenly, I’m beginning to pay for all the things I’ve ever done and gotten away with,” he says. That’s a big moment for this character.
But there’s one more step required to make this the top-drawer storyline it needs to be: making a direct connection to one of the other A-Team characters. They just established last week that they can bring together the four permanent stars of the show — Barnabas, Angelique, Quentin and Julia/Magda — to form an unbeatable team of scene-stealers. If they want the werewolf story to stick — and it has to, because it’s the connection to the 1969 storyline that we left behind — then Quentin has to get the other big shots on board.
Unfortunately, Barnabas’ relationship with Quentin’s story is fairly abstract. Barnabas came back to 1897 to find a way to stop Quentin’s ghost from taking over Collinwood in the 20th century, but he’s not quite sure how to go about it, and he may just end up being a spectator. Angelique is even more distant from the story — her only interest is protecting Barnabas, and she has no skin in the werewolf game.
So they need to keep the story connected to Magda. You’d think that would be easy, since she’s the one who cursed Quentin. But it’s one of those long-term spells that doesn’t require regular maintenance, so it’s not clear what else she can do. This was the problem with the Dream Curse in spring 1968 — Angelique cast the spell, but then the story rambled around from one character to another, leaving Angelique with nothing to do.
The revelation that Magda is Jenny’s sister was a powerful blow, initiating the curse, but that’s over, and she can’t curse him again. So now what? She just stands around with a satisfied grin as Quentin runs around in circles, chasing his tail?
That’s why this moment is so important. Beth runs to Magda, to beg her to stop the curse. Magda says no, naturally, because what kind of revenge would it be, if she only cursed Quentin for a couple nights?
And then we get the big reveal that they’ve been holding back: Magda tells Beth that the curse will be passed down to Quentin’s children, which means that Jenny’s twins are also cursed. Magda didn’t know about the twins, and now she realizes that she’s cursed her own family.
It’s an astonishing moment, tying up lots of little clues that they established back in the 20th century. The little boy buried in the woods with a silver pentagram around his neck was Quentin and Jenny’s son, and now the tragedy hits both Quentin and Magda with equal force. Just like Angelique cursing Barnabas in 1795, the curse rebounds on the reckless witch.
For a minute there, it looked like the story was just a simple good-vs-evil morality play. Magda was the injured party, finally bringing Quentin to justice. “Suddenly, I’m beginning to pay for all the things I’ve ever done and gotten away with.” That could have been the whole story.
But now it’s clear that Magda is also part of the cycle of violence that will destroy them all. She was willing to sacrifice practically everyone else she knows, setting a vicious animal in their midst. She’s responsible for Dorcas Trilling’s death, and all of the werewolf’s future victims. She doesn’t get to stand back, and tell herself that this is all for the best.
Magda is not an avenging angel of justice. She’s messed up, like everybody else on this show. She’s set a curse on herself and her own family, and she has absolutely no idea how to stop it. That’s good soap opera.
Tomorrow: Straight Outta Collinsport.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There’s a dramatic reveal moment when Tim asks what the signal will be, and Evan says, “This!” — and then shows him the Queen of Spades. Unfortunately, when Evan raises the cards, the Ace of Clubs is also peeking out from behind the Queen. Evan has to tuck the stray card into the pack with his pinky.
When Quentin reaches for the brandy, Beth says, “Don’t!” Quentin frowns at her and says, “Don’t you say another word for me.”
Beth tells Quentin, “I’m just not going to sit here and wait for evening.”
Right after that, she crosses the room and poses in front of his full-length mirror. The boom mic can be seen in the mirror, crossing behind her. At the end of the scene, when Beth runs from the room, you can see a studio light reflected in the mirror a couple times.
Not a blooper, just a random fact: the brand of cards they’re using is Bicycle Playing Cards. You can see the back of the cards most clearly when Quentin and Beth are playing, showing the distinctive design involving cherubs riding bicycles. I thought this might be an anachronism, so I looked it up, and found out they’ve been making Bicycle Playing Cards since 1885. Well played, Dark Shadows.
Tomorrow: Straight Outta Collinsport.
— Danny Horn