“You can’t just go on killing until you find the right hexagram!”
If the 1897 storyline has an overall theme — and it absolutely doesn’t, but let’s say it does for a second — then it’s this: Can villains build a better world?
It’s been about two years since the villains took over Dark Shadows, first with Barnabas and Julia stealing all the screen time, and then the rise of Angelique as the antagonist’s antagonist, reducing all the other characters to the role of chess pieces. By 1968, the continuing saga was essentially just the story of the Collins family enduring the intrusion of one monster after another — Adam, and Cassandra, and Nicholas Blair, and Danielle Roget, and a swarm of vampires, and finally a werewolf and a handful of angry ghosts. For the most part, the villains were the characters that drove the plot; they were the ones with story arcs. The would-be heroes basically turned into goldfish, swimming in circles in the background, as the villains clashed at stage front.
So as the 1897 storyline begins ambling towards a conclusion, the show is essentially asking, why do we even bother having characters who aren’t villains? If we assemble a diverse cast of gold diggers and grave robbers and spell casters, can they produce a long-term, productive storyline? Or does it all end with a big smoking hole in the ground, and a handful of singed survivors? At the moment, the smart money’s on big smoking hole, but stay tuned.
So, yeah, let’s open the episode with an evil wizard forcing the dude whose body he stole to bury the remains of a prostitute that he semi-accidentally stripped of flesh in a dark magic ritual. Do you have any better ideas? I didn’t think so.
I suppose I’ve been thinking about 1968 a lot today, because once again the show has become so complex that there’s no way I can effectively recap what the hell is going on. Count Petofi wants to travel to the future to escape from a pack of angry offscreen gypsies, so he’s stolen Quentin’s body — because Quentin’s body exists in the future, thanks to the magic portrait that also keeps his werewolf curse in remission — and now he’s running I Ching experiments, dialing up random hexagrams and trying to figure out the difference between the take-me-to-the-future hexagram and the turn-me-into-a-bug-eyed-skeleton hexagram.
And that’s just one story thread; there’s a whole bunch of those, all operating simultaneously. I don’t think the show’s been this hostile to newcomers since around this time last year, at the height of the “Eve is a Bride of Frankenstein with the soul of a French Revolution murderess who lived in Collinsport for some reason and fell in love with Vicki’s lawyer, before he turned into a wristwatch” era.
Dark Shadows fans tend to think of fall 1968 as being an insane mess, while fall 1969 is a creative high point. But the show has just as many randomly possessed people now as it did then, the same preposterous time-travel tangle, the same style of infernal crime boss with an irrational master plan. “Why doesn’t Nicholas Blair provide a life force for Eve that actually wants to mate with Adam?” is the same amount of head-scratchy as “Now that Count Petofi is in Quentin’s body, why doesn’t he forget about going to the future, and just let the gypsies cut off Quentin’s hand?”
The difference, really, is that the dialogue is so much better now. Fall 1968 had Ron Sproat on the writing team, and his dialogue was so boring that we had to pay attention to the holes in the storyline, because there was nothing else for us to do. Fall 1969 has scripts by Violet Welles, and they sound like this:
Quentin: I would have buried her, even if you hadn’t forced me to.
Petofi: Of course.
Quentin: I felt sorry for the poor girl. She died for you — you, and your mad scheme!
Petofi: Oh, my dear fellow. You’re altered in form, yes, but you’re still as sentimental as ever. It’s embarrassing. What would people think of Petofi?
Quentin: You can’t just go on killing until you find the right hexagram!
Petofi: You try and stop me! Do you think I care how many people die along the way? Do you think I care how many leaves are on this tree? All I care about is reaching the future. And believe me — I will reach it!
Do you think I care how many leaves are on this tree! It’s extraordinary. This used to be a show about doctors and police officers, sitting around and reviewing the case. Petofi isn’t the only serial killer on Dark Shadows, willing to sacrifice other people’s lives to get what he wants — he’s not even the only one in this episode — but I don’t think it’s ever been expressed so openly, or so well.
And then Petofi goes back to Quentin’s house, for an encounter with Quentin’s lunatic fiancee. Two months ago, sinister sorceress Angelique made a bargain with Quentin that backed him into proposing marriage to her, a mysterious plot point that has not been explained even a little bit.
Quentin isn’t in love with Angelique, and she doesn’t seem to be noticeably in love with him either, apart from the general background radiation of every living person being a little bit in love with Quentin. She doesn’t appear to have anything to gain from this arrangement, and yet here she is, two months later, insisting upon it.
Angelique: We’re going on a trip on Friday, right after our wedding.
Petofi: … Friday?
Angelique: Yes, on Friday. And don’t try to renege! I don’t care if we go through the rest of our lives together like two balky horses pulling in opposite directions —
(Petofi chuckles, and turns to face her.)
Angelique: — you are going to marry me, Quentin!
Petofi: My dear, you are the most beautiful balky horse I’ve ever seen.
(He kisses her, passionately.)
Angelique: Quentin… Romance? From you?
Petofi: No, my dear, not romance — realism. I’ve taken a long, hard look at both of us, and decided that we deserve each other.
It doesn’t work, really, as a story. For two months, we’ve been wondering why Angelique needs to get married, and there have been zero clues so far. I don’t think anybody’s even asked; it doesn’t appear to be a question that the show is particularly interested in.
Story-wise, it’s just as random as last year’s plotline about guillotine fangirl Danielle Roget falling inexplicably in love with frowny lawyer Peter Bradford. But that story had Peter in it, and no funny lines, and this has Angelique and pseudo-Quentin talking about balky horses.
And then there’s Dr. Julia Hoffman, who’s traveled back to the past to rescue her vampire friend Barnabas, a task which she did not accomplish. He was staked in his coffin last month by a young woman who believes that she’s a Cockney music hall vampire slayer, and since then, Julia’s been crashing rent-free at the well-appointed but unaccountably abandoned old rectory, working on a mysterious project that she claims Barnabas asked her to complete, pre-staking.
In lieu of explaining anything to anyone, ever, Julia is standing in the middle of the room, time-dazzled, as she listens to a weird whistling sound that appears to be coming from nowhere in particular.
Julia has called Angelique and asked her to come over, because they’re friends now, which I suppose is another innovation that sets the 1897 storyline apart. All four of the show’s major kaiju are now allies — Barnabas, Julia, Angelique and Quentin — and that means they can have more scenes together. I mean, sure, Barnabas is dead and Quentin isn’t Quentin anymore, but we’ve still got the two craziest ladies on the show, urgently discussing the soundtrack.
“It stopped,” Julia says, pacing around the room, “but it’ll start again. It’s all part of… of everything else.”
Angelique asks, “Everything else?” because what are you even talking about. She can’t hear the whistling noise, so she just has to take Julia’s word for it.
“Yes. I know it has to do with the way I came to this time.”
Angelique tries throwing another softball — “What do you mean, Julia?” — and this is what she gets for it.
“When I arrived from my own time, only my astral body came. Count Petofi tried to have me killed, but he couldn’t, because I’m not alive in this time, so I can’t die.”
“Well, if you can’t die, then what can happen to you?”
“I don’t know.”
Yeah, figures. I can’t make heads or tails of this, either. This is vintage Dark Shadows necrobabble, first bottled in late ’68, like so many things in this storyline.
This “astral body” malarkey actually originates with the Jeff Clark story, where the spirit of Vicki’s boyfriend Peter followed her through time to 1968, and called himself Jeff. At the time, it looked like Jeff had a real, physical body — he was tranquilized and trussed up on a mad scientist table, for one thing — but in the end, he turned out to be made of artron energy, and he slipped back into the past, where they arrested him and tried to hang him, until Barnabas’ astral body went back to the 18th century to rescue Vicki’s astral body, which may have been inhabiting the physical body of Phyllis Wick. It was a whole thing.
But, again, the 1897 version of this story point is vastly improved, because last time it was about Vicki and Jeff, and this time, it’s about Julia, who’s wearing a gown and looks fantastic.
Also, when Jeff was called back into the past, he just saw some twinkly lights, while Julia is hearing selections from Now That’s What I Call Musique Concrète.
She hears the spectral wind again, and then a man’s voice, distant and full of reverb.
“– I cannot tell how long it will be, before we can –“
“Do you hear that?” Julia gasps, and Angelique shakes her head.
“However, I do know that the vital life signs have not been suspended –“
“I hear somebody… somewhere, speaking!” Julia wails. “I hear talking!”
“– change, I’ll let you know.”
And then Julia recognizes the voice. It’s Professor Stokes — little cut-up fragments of a scene taking place in 1969, near Julia’s comatose non-astral body.
I will not be able to say enough about how great this moment is. It is a genuinely avant-garde use of the soundtrack, with a texture that they’ve never done before. We’ve seen people speaking to ghosts, and willing themselves to travel through time, but it’s always been an all-or-nothing deal. Either you see the ghost, or you just stand there, shouting at the air.
Julia is interacting with a cut-up conversation taking place seventy years in the future, which is coming through in pieces, as if the whistling sound is static, interfering with the reception. After Angelique leaves, Julia even manages to transmit across the spectral divide.
“There is no way — — — succeeded. But I tell you this, Roger –“
Julia gasps. “Roger!”
“Did you hear someone, calling your name?”
“– like her voice! How could the –“
“They can hear me! Stokes, Roger! It’s Julia!”
“– is her voice! Julia? My god, where are you?”
“In the PAST! Stokes, I’m in the past, and I’m frightened!”
“– Julia! — — to me, please! Speak to me, Julia — try –“
There’s that spectral whine the whole time, the weird static that sounds like nothing on Earth. Hearing the broken snatches of conversation makes us fill in the gaps ourselves, and we become Julia, straining to reach through time, not knowing what happens if we do actually make contact. It’s an unsettling moment, and it feels more like The Twilight Zone than anything they’ve done on Dark Shadows.
Then they take it a step further, tangling up this unearthly effect with another inexplicable storyline. Quentin is struggling to find an ally, someone who’ll believe the incredible story that he has to tell. Julia gives him a hearing, but she’s learned, as everyone has, that Count Petofi cannot be trusted.
But the whistling static returns, and the old man can hear it.
Quentin: What’s that?
Quentin: An eerie wind… it’s strange.
“– the presence can be felt, with –“
Quentin: The voice! I heard a voice.
Julia: You heard it?
Quentin: Of course I did. “The presence can be felt.” Who was it? I don’t understand.
But Julia, as always, is on the case.
Julia: You couldn’t have heard it, unless — wait. You say that Petofi saw Quentin in the future, and he wanted your body…
Julia: I have a body in the future, which is why I can hear. If you can hear, then you must have a body there, too! And that body must be — Quentin’s!
Quentin: Then you believe!
Julia: Yes. Yes, I believe. There’s no other possible explanation for it!
She’s right, obviously, because it’s Julia, but that explanation is nonsense, because it’s Dark Shadows. Everything is nonsense on this show, but now it’s beautiful, stylish nonsense, featuring the actors and characters that we like. With Vicki and Jeff, this would be unbearable, but this time it’s Julia and Quentin and Angelique and Petofi and Barnabas and the disembodied voice of Professor Stokes, all mixed up, on a haphazard, messy set that has a terrible secret locked up behind a door that we can’t see.
It doesn’t make sense, this television show about dueling villains who spend their days revealing their secret plans to each other. But in the previous version of these storylines — the same plot points, but with nice people — it was a disaster. This version, the black hat reprise of last year’s fiasco, crackles with astral energy, and these impossible explanations sound possible, after all.
Julia can go back now, she can transform into astral Chromakey and head south for the winter. She’s brought the story’s main villains together, united in their perplexity. Now she needs to take the knowledge that we’ve accumulated, and bring it back to the nineteen sixties. It might be time for all of us to head back home, pretty soon.
Tomorrow: If I Were You.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the opening shot of Collinwood, the word “SHADOWS” is written across the bottom of the screen. It looks like the bottom of the production slate. This happened a few weeks ago too, in episode 843.
This isn’t a blooper, just a weird little nitpick — the teaser begins with a shot of Skeleton Wanda, sitting at the I Ching table in front of a brick wall, which in Dark Shadows usually means a basement. In yesterday’s episode, she actually died in the cottage, with no wall behind her. But obviously, they’re not going to set up the cottage set just to give Wanda context, and besides, the brick wall looks great. It kind of looks like she’s doing a stand-up comedy routine.
At the end of the teaser, Petofi turns around to refer to the leaves on the tree behind him. A little twig gets caught on his chin, and bobs up and down as he says his last line.
When Quentin and Beth are talking in the drawing room, the camera aims too high, and reveals the top of the set.
At the rectory, Quentin says, “Who was it? I don’t understand.” Julia replies, “I don’t understand, you couldn’t have heard it.” It’s not clear who was actually supposed to deliver that line.
And by the way, where is Beth living now? She apparently moved out of Collinwood when she went to work for Petofi. Now that she’s left Petofi, there’s no sense of where she lives, or who’s feeding her. The set where Quentin finds her isn’t her room from Collinwood; I’m not sure where that’s supposed to be.
Tomorrow: If I Were You.
— Danny Horn