“This is a little more grisly than your usual request.”
There was a storm kicking up that night, one of those dry storms you get this time of year that are heavy on sound effects and light on moisture. The boss had a plan, or at least he said he did.
The gypsies were in town, he said. Black-robed, silent, faceless gypsies with curved scimitars and impenetrable cloaks, who could melt into the shadows and then appear over your shoulder, ready to chop something off and keep it as a souvenir. Some kind of unstoppable Persian ninja gypsy with a prop-closet sword, who needs an extra hand in a big hurry.
The boss said he saw them in somebody else’s dream, which figured. It’s just the kind of thing an android vengeance gypsy would do, show up in some hallucination next door just to let you know they’re en route. Everything’s got to be a legend with gypsies; they’re theater people with a bad case of mythology. But the boss had a plan.
Come on, he said. Let’s go out back and see what we can dig up.
So there they are, another unrepentant pair of ghouls, out defiling the dead on a dark and purportedly stormy night. And it’s a big relief, honestly, because the show’s been getting kind of weird lately, and a spot of grave robbing is just what we need to help us relax and focus. Every Dark Shadows storyline turns into a grave robbing spree eventually; it’s one of their core competencies.
Now, I don’t feel, at this stage of the game, that it’s necessary for me to go through the ins and outs of exactly why mad Count Petofi has decided to create a decoy magic hand, in order to pull a fast one on some Romanis from Beantown. It’s just one of those situations where somebody wants to chop your hand off, and you have to pretend like your hand is already cut off and it’s just sitting around somewhere, no big deal.
I mean, we’ve all had nights like that, right? I mean, metaphorically. We have all metaphorically carried a shovel and a hacksaw out to the graveyard, to dig up a fresh corpse and rip off its hand, in order to metaphorically dodge a howling pack of killer gypsies.
So that’s what’s happening right now. It’s one of those.
The next morning, Count Petofi pays a morning call on his pet artist, Charles Delaware Tate, who he’s installed in a nearby cottage. Tate’s made some kind of shameful bargain with Petofi. There’s some Faustian talk of a contract, and the implication that Tate wouldn’t be the well-regarded painter that he apparently is, if Petofi didn’t do whatever he apparently did. The details, as always, are beside the point.
The lovely thing about this arrangement is that it’s another example of accidental depth — a little plot-mandated eccentricity that makes a character more interesting. In this case, the writers want to do a Picture of Dorian Gray thing with a portrait of Quentin Collins, so that means they need an oil painter on the canvas somewhere. As a result, we now have a warlock crime boss who has a covert-ops art department on retainer. I think this may be another first in the history of the dramatic arts. Those have been piling up lately.
Anyway, Petofi’s come over with a human hand inside a little alligator-skin leather bag, which he presents to Tate as his latest commission. The mad count wants the man to doctor up the hand somehow to make it look like a convincing replica of the Legendary Hand of Petofi that the gypsies are searching for.
Now, if it were me, and somebody gave me a severed hand and told me to make it look like a different severed hand, I don’t think I’d have the slightest idea where to begin. I wouldn’t even have a step one. The only thing I can think of would be to talk things over with the hand, and see if it has anything to suggest; either that, or you just dim the lights and tell everybody that the hand hasn’t been feeling well lately.
But Count Petofi apparently has complete faith in the skills of his private Picasso, who can apparently whip up some kind of mixed-media manicure. I suppose hands pretty much look alike anyway.
So Petofi struts back to his secret underground lair, and basically holds office hours for anybody who feels like stopping by. Today, the applicant is Magda Rakosi, a local gypsy who’s recently fallen on even harder times than usual.
“My dear Magda,” the count says, “if you’ve come to implore me to release Barnabas Collins –”
“No, I ain’t,” she stammers. “I came to ask if you would help me.”
That’s all they say about Barnabas today, just a passing mention. He doesn’t even get a complete sentence. Barnabas has been chained up in a coffin in the other room for a week now, and nobody appears to have any interest in letting him out. Barnabas used to be the main character of Dark Shadows. I guess Petofi is the main character now; he’s the one holding court at his Baker Street lodgings.
This is what I’m doing today, by the way, just sort of strolling through the show and pointing out interesting architectural features. I don’t really have much of a point for today’s seminar; I just started typing, in the hope that something would turn up. The only thing that I can say in my defense is that Gordon Russell is doing exactly the same thing with the script. We’re fellow travelers, Gordon and I, just running out the clock until the credits roll.
Magda’s brought a note that she found pinned to her door with a dagger; this is what people used to do before instant messaging was invented. Petofi reads it. “Between life and death, there is not room for a flea to jump,” the note says, followed by a couple skull emojis. He asks who wrote it, and Magda says, “Nobody. It’s an old saying of the gypsies,” which is hard to follow. It may be an old saying, but somebody still wrote the note; he’s not asking who owns the copyright. It sounds like a fortune cookie to me, but she knows more gypsies than I do, and she’s pretty upset about the whole thing.
Naturally, Magda’s disquiet means exactly nothing in Count Petofi’s life. I’m not sure why she bothered to even come over, except to give Gordon and me something to do for a minute.
“I see,” he says. “You know, too, that the gypsies are coming here. I suspect the neighborhood will be swarming with them soon.” She asks how he knows, and he chuckles, “Well, I would like to say that it was an act of clairvoyance, but honesty compels me to tell you the simple truth: I found out purely by accident.”
This is the great thing about having a stone cold eccentric like Petofi on the show; every script is just a list of preposterous things that he says and does. He’s been dominating the show for weeks, and I don’t think he’s had a bad scene yet.
So here’s another one: his plan hinges on the fact that the gypsies don’t know that he’s in town, and the only person who could tell them is Magda. This is absolutely untrue — I can think of at least six other people. He’s apparently running a consulting firm in this basement, and he gets a surprising amount of foot traffic. The gypsies have probably already spotted the bus kiosk ads with his toll-free number.
But never mind that, he’s enchanting someone. “You won’t betray me, my dear Magda, because you won’t be able to speak or write my name!” He strokes her face with his magical hand, and she’s silenced.
“Go on, try!” he urges. “Try to say my name!”
And she tries. She turns to the camera, and does the most extraordinary impression of a woman trying and failing to say someone’s name. This is what that looks like. You really never know what you’re going to see on Dark Shadows these days.
But we’re not done yet; there’s more. Magda comes back to the Old House, and finds a shambles, which is always fun. The gypsies have come through and ransacked the house, looking for the legendary Hand. which they apparently thought might be under the wrought-iron candelabra.
The curtains have been torn down, there are chairs knocked over, the floor is strewn with overdue library books and random bits of colored paper. I love a good shambles, it’s like the drum solo of set design.
And then guess who strolls down the stairs, making a big entrance. It’s Johnny Romana — King of the Gypsies! — and, oh, look at that outfit. I’m not sure what I would have expected from a gypsy king, but this isn’t it. He’s got a burgundy check sportcoat on, which I think he must have taken from a production of Guys and Dolls.
He advances on Magda, demanding to know who has the Hand. She cries, “I can’t say!” and he spits, “You can’t say. You are Magda, who can say anything — anything you want to say.” I don’t know what that means, but at this point, dialogue is just another sound effect.
“Maybe you need some help!” he growls. “Help in remembering! Well, I will give you that help.”
And then: WHAM! A vicious slap across the kisser. “How about THAT?” he cries, and then: WHAM! He knocks her back in the other direction. We’ve now identified another thing that’s okay to do on afternoon television.
And just when you think you’ve seen everything the show has to offer today, here’s the big reveal. Under a chair, not three feet away from where they’re standing: the legendary box, containing the ersatz Hand — prepared by Charles Delaware Tate, and delivered by invisible drone while the occupants were smacking each other around.
So now King Johnny has the Hand that he’s looking for, in the original packaging. Magda’s off the hook, Petofi is safe in his underground lair, and Tate can get back to his oil paintings. It’s a happy ending, I think. I guess it all worked out.
Tomorrow: The Big Switch.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Tate tells Petofi, “Nothing you should say should really surprise me.”
There’s a nice teleprompter moment when Petofi says, “You have an obligation to me, in the form of a contract.” Tate looks at Petofi, says, “Look, uh…” Then he turns to check the teleprompter, and all of a sudden he’s angry: “What do you want me to do this thing for, anyway, huh?”
When Amanda is packing her suitcase, the mirror behind her shows members of the stage crew, and a cable.
The music plays over Amanda’s first line to Petofi.
When Magda comes back to the Old House, the door won’t quite close behind her.
Behind the Scenes:
King Johnny is played by Paul Michael, who appears in five episodes. I will now tell you surprising things about Paul Michael. He appeared in Broadway musicals, starting in 1956 with Bells Are Ringing, as well as Whoop Up, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Man of La Mancha and Fade Out, Fade In. He also toured the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. On TV, he appeared on Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Falcon Crest, Seinfeld, Gilmore Girls and Frasier. His partner was Marion Ross, from Happy Days.
Tomorrow: The Big Switch.
— Danny Horn