“My father won’t let her be dead!”
Okay, quick recap: Reverend Trask wants Evan Hanley to get Tim Shaw to kill his wife. No, not Tim’s wife, Trask’s wife. Tim doesn’t have a wife. Apparently, Evan does have a wife, but we never see her, so who knows. Look, it doesn’t matter whether Evan has a wife.
The point is that Reverend Trask has future plans that do not involve Minerva Trask as an active participant, so he needs her out of the way. Enter Satanist lawyer Evan Hanley, who’s worked up some kind of weird juju where he can hypnotize a guy into killing somebody by licking his fingers. I mean, the guy licks his own fingers, and then they play cards, and whoever plays the Queen of Spades gets poisoned. End of recap.
So, yeah, this is not one of Dark Shadows’ all-time coherent user-facing plot points, but today’s the day it all pays off. Tim’s got some nightshade, Minerva’s playing solitaire, and it looks like it’s going to be one of those magical evenings.
As usual, Minerva is crabby and dismissive, berating her employee and making excuses for herself. Minerva runs this Dickensian nightmare punishment school, and Tim is no longer her star employee.
Until recently, Minerva had wanted Tim to marry her daughter, so that they would be stuck at the school forever, permanently under her control. But the Trasks have recently made the acquaintance of the wealthy Collins family, and Minerva has revised her expectations upwards. Seeing an opportunity for Charity to ensnare soft-brained bachelor Carl Collins, Minerva has no further use for Tim, and she makes no attempt to conceal her contempt for him.
Naturally, Tim has every reason to despise Mrs. Trask in return, plus he’s spent the last several weeks being painstakingly trained as a deep cover assassin, ready to murder her when he sees the Queen of Spades.
Now he’s standing by, watching her solitaire game, and waiting for the signal to put an end to her miserable life. What we’ve got here is a literal case of player hating.
Now, the interesting question is: what are we waiting for? Neither of these characters are particularly likeable, and we’re not rooting for either of them. But the show has successfully set up a situation that generates suspense, and that has value of its own.
Suspense is that pleasurable sensation of knowing that something in this story is going to change, but not quite knowing what the change will be, or how it’s going to play out. It’s basically a trick that writers play on the audience, building up expectations and then delaying the resolution just long enough to keep us interested. If the resolution takes too long, we’re going to lose patience and realize that we don’t really care what happens to these imaginary people, so timing is everything.
In this case, there are two options for how this scenario is going to go: Tim will successfully poison Minerva, or something will get in the way and interrupt them. Both options are equally likely — we know that Tim’s got the nightshade and is ready to roll, but we just saw Charity leave this room a few minutes ago, and there’s no reason why she couldn’t walk back in and derail the assassination.
But there are several cues outside of this particular scene that shape our expectations about what’s going to happen. For one thing, over the last couple weeks they’ve spent the better part of four episodes on Tim’s hypno-training. We’ve seen Evan and Tim doing a series of trial runs, sometimes twice in the same episode, to the point where we simply cannot wait until this is over.
If Charity comes in and interrupts the current poisoning, then we’ve wasted a lot of time, and there’s a non-zero chance that we might have to sit through more training sessions, which would be intolerable.
Also, Tim handed Minerva the poisoned tea at the end of yesterday’s episode, which marks this moment as a cliffhanger that we’re supposed to care about. Yes, that was a Tuesday, and what are the odds that somebody’s going to die first thing Wednesday, but Minerva’s a secondary character at best, so it’s plausible. If the resolution is that Minerva spills the tea and we have to start over again, then that would be a boring waste of a decent cliffhanger, and it might impair our trust in the show’s thrilling cliffhangers.
Note that the critical threat is not to Minerva herself. She’s a make-believe person, and not even a main character. The real tension in this moment is the threat to our patience, and our continued enjoyment of a show that we like. That is the only suspense that actually matters.
So let’s watch this play out for a minute.
Tim sees Minerva play the Queen of Spades, so that’s his sleeper-agent barista cue to serve her a piping hot venti nightshade.
She gives him a grudging “thank you,” sets the cup down on the table, and continues her game.
Noticing that he’s still hovering around her, she says, “You may go now, we have nothing further to talk about.”
But he can’t take his eyes off of her. He says, “I want to be sure that the tea is all right,” enunciating each word to make sure the audience knows exactly how thrilling this customer service moment really is.
So she takes a sip, very exciting, big crescendo, and that’s the end of Tuesday.
When we return, she’s basically brushed her mouth against the tea, and she makes a face. “Oh, it’s so bitter!” she complains. “I shouldn’t have let it steep so long.”
Then she puts down the cup and resumes her solitaire game. And Tim is just standing there, making a hand gesture that basically translates as Oh, for Pete’s sake! What does a guy have to do to poison somebody around here?
He offers some sugar, but she says no, it just needs a little more hot water, and she gets up and helps herself.
Settling herself back down at the table, she takes another sip. Tim is agog, as if he’s never seen a human being drink tea before, and it’s a captivating spectacle.
Minerva gets a couple sips down her gullet, and then turns to her entourage.
“What are you staring at me for?” she snaps. “Why don’t you go to your room and finish that work you’ve been neglecting?”
Tim doesn’t move, and she says, “Well, what are you waiting for?”
That turns out to be a very good question, and it applies to us as well. What are we waiting for?
Tim is watching Minerva carefully — and so are we, following along with every tiny step of this process. Excited when she picks up the cup, disappointed when she puts it down, wondering when it’s going to happen.
In this moment, we are Tim, eagerly watching so that we don’t miss a second of this crabby old woman’s excruciatingly painful death. We’re not waiting anxiously and wondering when the cavalry will arrive — there’s no tracking shot of another character sprinting down the hallway, ready to intervene. It’s just Minerva, and Tim, and the nightshade, and us. Nobody is leaving this room until we watch this lady breathe her last, on camera.
We are the unwitting killer now, dragged into this through no conscious act of our own, just hypnotized into watching and waiting for the first sign of success. And we’re smiling, as Tim is smiling, knowing that it’s about to come, and sharing in the grim pleasure he takes in this act.
The first stab of pain hits. Minerva says, “What’s wrong with you?” as Tim leans in for a close-up, directing our gaze to her anguished expression. And that’s another excellent question — what is wrong with us, that we take pleasure in this moment?
We watched Minerva take her first sip at the end of yesterday’s episode, and we waited a whole day, excited to see what would happen next. We specifically tuned in today, making sure that we were in front of the TV at 4pm sharp, to watch this lady choke and scream and die. What is wrong with us?
She clutches her chest, and starts to gasp.
“Reverend Trask has told me not to get too excited,” she pants. She’s finding it hard to catch her breath. “I have very high blood pressure, you know.”
“Why, no, I didn’t,” Tim says, taking everything in.
Our victim sinks back into her chair. “Oh!” she breathes. “I have this — pain!”
Turning to Tim, she snaps, “Why don’t you leave?” which is another good question.
The dead woman struggles to her feet, and Tim urges her to sit back down. “Phone! Doctor!” she cries, fighting for her life.
“No, no, sit here,” Tim murmurs. “I’ll do that for you.”
He glides to the phone, as the condemned woman chokes out a few last words.
“I don’t — I don’t know what this is! I’ve — never — had anything like this — ohhh!”
And then Tim picks up the phone and taps at it for a while, clearly not calling anybody. “Operator?” he chirps. There’s no reason why he has to dick around like this, she’s clearly not going to pull through. He’s just amusing himself with a few more moments of tantalizing false hope.
“It’s — it’s dark!” she whispers. “The light — it’s — it’s getting so dark!”
And yeah, it is. It’s been getting dark for a couple minutes now. There’s no hope of saving her at this point; even if Charity burst through the door with an entire hospital in her reticule, we’re clearly watching the final moments, in detail.
They could cut away at this point, if they wanted to. They could go to a different scene, and spare us the gruesome sight of watching every individual organ shutting down, one by one. But that’s the point, obviously. They want us to see every step, because they know that we’re taking pleasure in her slow and painful demise.
This is the way that people respond to stories. When someone is telling you a story, your only loyalty is to your own patience. You want something interesting to happen, and interesting things are better than boring things.
So, picture this: Tim hands Minerva a cup of Sleepytime Nightshade. She takes a sip, puts it down and returns to the solitaire. Tim stands there and watches. She takes another sip, and keeps on playing solitaire. Then another sip, and another. At some point you realize that you’re just watching an ordinary evening, and sooner or later she’s going to ask for a refill.
Imagine how you would respond to a scene like that. You’d be going out of your mind. What the hell? you would say. When is this bitch going to start dying?
And there you are: an accessory. Even worse, you’re eager about it. You can’t wait. You have specifically chosen to turn on your television and watch this woman die.
Now, I actually like Minerva, as a character. She’s bossy and crazy, and she shouts a lot, and I don’t think she’s ever had a boring scene. She’s a lot better than Tim, who’s just lame and brings nothing to the table. Wouldn’t you rather watch Tim drink poison? That would be a way better scene.
Except it wouldn’t, and what is happening to your values? It’s not funny to poison somebody; it’s evil and sad. You’re not the kind of person who walks into a room, and chooses the person you’d like to see drink poison. Except for right now, of course, when you absolutely are.
Minerva actually looks directly at us, right through the screen, and in a last rattle of breath, she screams, “Why are you just STANDING there? WHY DON’T YOU HELP ME?”
Feeling another wave of pain break over her, she reaches out to us. “HELP ME, PLEASE!” she begs.
And we don’t, obvously. We just watch, and she suffers, and she dies.
There is something powerful and amazing and unbelievably dangerous about the way we process stories. The structure of a story, the preparation and promise, the way that a scene plays out — it can make you want things that in other circumstances you would absolutely not want.
A story can make you watch a woman die, and enjoy the spectacle. A story can make you take pleasure in other people’s suffering.
It’s even possible for a story to make you fall in love with a serial killer. There are a surprising number of stories like that. One of them is called Dark Shadows.
And a story can make you hate people, too — hate them so much that you want them to lose their job, or go to jail, or get deported from your country. Just imagine the terrible things that a story could get you to do. Then go watch the news.
Tomorrow: What’s Up Dirk.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when the scene shifts from the Queen of Spades to Charity drinking from her teacup, there’s a lot of whispering and footsteps from the studio.
There’s more studio noise a few minutes later, when Evan picks up the Queen of Spades and re-hypnotizes Tim. It’s kind of a rhythmic tapping sound, possibly hammering, and it goes on for about 15 seconds.
Dark Shadows Wiki says that you can see Minerva blink after she’s dead. I’m sure that’s true, but I didn’t notice it, and I don’t really have the patience to go and look for it, so you’ll have to locate that on your own.
Rachel reminds Tim of the abandoned house that they hid in the first night that they escaped from Worthington Hall — Peabody’s Farm, on the Collins estate. But Worthington Hall was nowhere near the Collins estate then; it was at least a lengthy carriage ride away. The school only moved to Collinwood a month ago.
At the start of act 3, Evan is knocking on Rachel’s door, and he calls out, “Miss Shaw…” A minute later, when Rachel gasps, “Mrs. Trask?” Evan says, “Ho ho, you do that very well, Mrs. Drummond!”
Evan throws his gun on Rachel’s bed when he starts manhandling her, and then he forgets all about it. A minute later, he leaves and locks Rachel in, with the gun still on her bed.
Behind the Scenes:
Here’s a note on the sets from friend of the blog PrisoneroftheNIght:
Tomorrow: What’s Up Dirk.
— Danny Horn