“I’m accusing you of painting a portrait of a wolf!”
“Things don’t always have to have explanations,” says Mr. Tate, and that might as well be Dark Shadows’ mission statement. “You don’t have to know about everything in the universe. Things just happen, it could be one of those things that –”
And then he’s cut off, by someone threatening to kill him. That happens a lot in 1969, when people start babbling about the universe.
So what are these things, and why did they just happen? Well, to start with, Charles Delaware Tate has been going around painting portraits of people without their permission. He was hired to paint a portrait of teen werewolf Quentin Collins, who didn’t want it and refused to have anything to do with it. But as you know, ever since Facebook, there’s no such thing as privacy anymore, so Tate did an image search for Quentin and then painted the portrait based on that.
And he did such a good job that it captured a piece of Quentin’s essence, which is amazing because he hardly even met the dude. I mean, Quentin’s pretty free with his essence in general, but there are limits.
This is one of those Dark Shadows not-really-adaptations of classic literature — in this case, Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray — where they take the original story to a chop shop and strip it for parts, turning symbolism and social commentary about art and society and decadence into bite-size plot points for their haunted house soap opera.
So now Quentin, who is nothing like Dorian except for being handsome, is now the proud owner of a magical portrait that turns into a werewolf so that Quentin doesn’t have to. And Tate, who is nothing like Dorian Gray’s Basil except for being an artist who talks about himself all the time, is apparently gifted with magical powers that he didn’t even realize he had. Quentin and Tate are on opposite ends of the same miracle, and you’ll have to excuse them if they’re a little stunned by the experience.
But this is what happens when you let something like Count Petofi into your life. The mad god of the Boston metropolitan area is that most dangerous of literary creations, the master planner. He’s smarter than everybody else, and he sets up complicated schemes that the participants don’t understand. He has wheels within wheels. He is Lex Luthor and Ben Linus and Moriarty and the Master, the perfect nemesis who can keep people coming back for the next installment because we can’t wait to see how his plan fits together.
The problem with a character like this in serialized narrative is that at some point he has to stop twirling his mustache, and actually deliver on the plan. And if you’ve been making up the story as you go along — as was the case with Lex Luthor and Ben Linus and Moriarty and the Master — then it requires some fancy footwork down at the other end, knitting scattered plot threads together, inventing retcons and backdoors and then announcing, Aha! This is exactly what I was planning the whole time.
They’ve tried this before on Dark Shadows, a year ago, when warlock Nicholas Blair showed up at Collinwood and started shooting his mouth off about his clever and diabolical schemes. He was very convincing in those early weeks, when everything was a raised eyebrow and a wave of the hand. But as the months wore on, it became clear that he didn’t actually have anything to offer, and there was a slow, sad decline as the air ran out of his storyline.
They finally settled on having him try to breed the local Frankenstein with a Bride, so they could create a new race of monsters that would serve Satan. This actually would have been a decent approximation of a scheme — it clearly wasn’t what they had in mind at the start, but it’s vaguely diabolical if you don’t think about it too hard — but by then, his chess pieces were already moving in directions that didn’t advance the plan.
For one thing, Adam was far too easy for Nicholas to manipulate. He believed everything that Nicholas told him, so there wasn’t much room for scheming. Even worse, setting Adam up with a new Bride meant taking him away from Carolyn, his only link with the Collins family and anybody the audience cared about. Setting up Adam and Eve on a dream date was a storyline cul-de-sac — basically, the three of them could go off and live happily never after, and nobody else on the show would even notice they’d gone.
But with Count Petofi, they’ve done the impossible — they’ve given the master planner character an actual master plan. Petofi introduced Charles Delaware Tate into the show six weeks ago, and set him to work painting Quentin’s portrait. Two episodes later, Charity saw the unfinished portrait change temporarily into the image of a werewolf — setting up the idea that would finally pay off today, when Petofi reveals that the magical portrait is the key to lifting the curse from Quentin’s shoulders.
Now, I know that it probably sounds ridiculous when I congratulate the writers for thinking ahead a whole six weeks in advance, but this is literally the only example of advance planning in the entire series. Everything else is accidents and retcons.
This is possible right now, because they currently have a dream team of writers — Sam Hall, Gordon Russell and Violet Welles — who enjoy working together and are all pulling in the same direction. When Ron Sproat was on the team, Sam and Ron were always arguing over style, pace and direction, which is why they ended up with a master planner who didn’t have a decent plan. But Sam, Gordon and Violet actually like each other, and hang out together to write the show. That opens up creative possibilities that the show never had before.
So when Petofi tells Quentin, “My plan is cosmic! So gigantic, so complex that the full implications of it will not be clear to you for a long time” — it’s not just hot air. I don’t know if I’d call it cosmic, but it’s the only time in Dark Shadows history that the word “plan” even applies.
And the astonishing thing is that there’s a whole other layer of this insane plot that’s going on in parallel.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only magical element is the portrait of Dorian — and that magic comes from some vague molecular affinity that’s not meant to be taken literally. Dorian Gray isn’t a science-fiction story; Basil doesn’t have midichlorians or anything. Dorian spends a moment wondering how this miraculous thing has taken place, but quickly decides that it’s not worth wasting time on.
But Dark Shadows has nothing but time — five half-hours a week that need to be filled up with cliffhangers. So in this version, the painter actually does have mysterious magical powers. In fact, Quentin isn’t even his first customer.
Two years ago, Tate painted a picture of a woman who he saw in a dream — his ideal woman, he says. And it turns out that Tate’s dream girl is Amanda Harris, who was introduced as part of the Tim Shaw/Reverend Trask revenge story.
In her first episode, more than a month ago, she told Tim that she refused to talk about her past, and that anything beyond two years ago was a sealed book. That didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but it turns out that was part of the writers’ diabolical scheme as well. Once Tate meets Amanda, he puts two years and two years together, and comes to some startling conclusions, all of them correct.
So once again, we see plot points laid out a month in advance, supporting the “magic portrait” gag, but also contributing its own parallel story thread. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about that; I’m just pointing it out because it’s unlike anything else that this show has ever done. I think this must be what it’s like when you watch a good television show. I’ve never actually experienced this before.
Disturbed, Tate heads home to his studio, for one of the silliest scenes ever recorded on tape.
He decides to take his mind off things by sketching a still life, so he scatters some fruit on a table and makes with the pencil.
He decides that there’s something missing in the composition, so he sketches in a tall vase…
Then he discovers, to his horror, that the vase he drew on paper has suddenly appeared on the table, his imagination made real.
And Charles Delaware Tate, like the Dark Shadows writers, stands there, stunned — looking at the astonishing thing that he’s created, and wondering where the hell it came from.
Tomorrow: The What’s-Thatters.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beginning of act 1, Quentin stumbles as he walks through Tate’s door.
When Charity enters the drawing room to confront Amanda, the camera has trouble framing them — Charity is hidden behind the bell of the gramophone for a while.
I’m told that the vase that Tate creates at the end of today’s episode has previously been seen in his studio, although I’m not going to go back and look for it, because life is too short.
Tomorrow: The What’s-Thatters.
— Danny Horn