“Oh? And what a strange suicide that would be!”
Fridays have always been fairly freaky on Dark Shadows, but this week they’ve upped the ante with a body swap story featuring the mad wizard Count Petofi’s hostile takeover of teen idol pop star Quentin Collins’ body. Petofi claims that he’s stolen his co-star’s face because he wants to escape from a pack of gypsies baying for his blood, but I think there are some other things at play. I know what I’d do if I suddenly looked like Quentin Collins, and I wouldn’t be wasting my time researching I Ching hexagrams.
But body swap stories tend to be light on the benefits and heavy on the downsides, a way to explain and reaffirm the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. This goes back to the first example of the trope, an 1882 comic novel called Vice Versa.
I’ve been reading Vice Versa lately, and it’s pretty funny. It’s about a pompous English businessman named Paul Bultitude who can’t stand children, up to and including his own son Dick. In the opening chapter, the winter holidays are over, and the boy’s about to go back to boarding school. Dick isn’t looking forward to it, so Mr. Bultitude delivers a pompous lecture about the joys of school and boyhood, ending with a wish that he was a boy again.
As it happens, Bultitude is holding a magic stone that his brother-in-law brought back from India, a region with a high rate of magic stones per capita. His wish is granted, and he’s turned into a perfect duplicate of his son. Delighted at the chance to skip school, Dick wishes himself into his father’s body, and then sends his perplexed dad off in his place.
The novel follows Mr. Bultitude through a very uncomfortable week at his son’s terrible punishment school. He tries to act like the mature gentleman that he is, in order to demonstrate that he’s not actually Dick — which gets him bullied by the other boys, persecuted by the headmaster, and generally ill-treated by everyone.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but I assume that it ends with father and son going back to their own bodies, wiser for their experiences, and then they go and burn down the school, to the delight of all. That’s the point of body swap stories, seeing the world from the other person’s point of view, and learning to appreciate other people’s perspectives. Except for the movie Face/Off, of course, which is about figuring out whether it’s better to be born looking like Nicolas Cage, or to be born as somebody else and become Nicolas Cage later on in life.
So far, Quentin’s transformation has been nothing but downsides, because he’s been tricked into inhabiting a body that’s relentlessly pissed people off for more than a hundred years. He doesn’t have the power of the Legendary Hand of Count Petofi — Petofi took the legendary part with him, leaving Quentin with a fistful of useless fingers — but he’s still got all of Petofi’s enemies and detractors.
At the end of yesterday’s episode, Quentin had just managed to find the one person in the world who would believe his unlikely story — the eminent Dr. Julia Hoffman, temporarily tumbled down the rabbit-hole and willing to believe just about anything — when the wound she’d made in the time-space continuum reopened, pulling her back to her proper place in history.
And now, to add insult to injury, Lady Kitty Hampshire rolls in and accuses him of causing her recent Josette-related fugue states, which aren’t even Petofi’s fault, much less Quentin’s. Quentin hardly even knows this broad. But you kill one unicorn in this town, and you’re on the most-wanted list for life; that’s just the way it is.
Quentin’s protestations of innocence just infuriate Kitty, who dares him to deny what he did to her husband, when they knew each other in England several years ago. Quentin has no idea what she’s talking about, but her recital of grievances gives him his first decent idea of the week.
“I can’t convince her,” he muses in thinks, “but if I can’t… can I use her? If she thinks I am Petofi, and if she knew him before, then she must have known his powers — and been afraid of him!”
So he straightens his tie, and smiles at her, and delivers his best Petofi impression. “How wise you are, for one so beautiful, Lady Hampshire!” he cries, taking a moment to relish the weird irony of his imposture. And she falls for it, obviously, because she already thought he was Petofi in the first place. All he has to do is relax, and stop denying what everyone else already knows is true.
Kitty continues to pile more accusations on top of each other, and look how delighted Quentin is; he’s beaming. That’s the look of a man who’s finally found an angle.
The key to surviving in Count Petofi’s body is to actually become Count Petofi, to stop struggling against the current and use the powers available to him. In his own body, Quentin had some tricks that he simply can’t play anymore– like seducing someone, or threatening physical violence, which he can’t pull off in this unwanted new suit. But he can use the resentment and the fear that Petofi has earned, and that’s something.
If he has any hope of getting some leverage on Petofi, he needs access to the magical portrait, which grants the immortality that Petofi’s time travel scheme requires. So he threatens Kitty, using a Legendary Hand that she doesn’t realize is currently shooting blanks.
“I will do nothing for you!” Kitty declares, but Quentin was hoping for an opening like that.
“But you will, my dear,” he rumbles, in a tone that stops her in her tracks. “Or you will disappear, as poor Julia did!” He brandishes the Legendary H. “You remember this Hand, Lady Hampshire! Look at it. It has certain powers… if I pass it over your face, you will disappear. Shall I prove it to you?”
It’s the curse of a child — I’ll wave my hand, and make you disappear! — but it gets the job done, and Quentin takes a step towards becoming the enemy that he despises.
Meanwhile, Count Petofi is getting comfortable in his stolen property, to the point that he’s even willing to make jokes about it.
Edward: Perhaps the best thing is to forget what Barnabas Collins was. He’s merely an ancestor, now.
Petofi: No better and no worse than some of the others.
Edward: How can you say that?
Petofi: I’m a realist, Edward; I believe in being honest.
Edward: Throughout your life, you’ve managed to conceal that fact very well.
Petofi: (raising an eyebrow) Ah… but I’ve changed, Edward.
That’s rather bold; it was only a few days ago that Petofi was worried that someone might see through his charade. Now, he’s waggishly drawing attention to it.
Although I suppose that’s typical for Quentin, the mercurial trickster. All the way back in the first episode in 1897, he shrugged off his grandmother’s suggestion that he was like the Tower of Destruction, the worst card in the Tarot deck.
“This card always has the same picture,” he pointed out. “People change.” And he’s changed a dozen times since then, taking on new roles and discarding the old. Lover, cheater, liar, monster — and then, somehow, the family protector. Subletting his body to a new occupant is just another turn of the wheel.
But the tables turn again, and Petofi finds himself in one of those body-swap downsides. Kitty returns to Collinwood and reports that the odd woman who’d been staying at the rectory has disappeared — and when Edward finds out that the mysterious woman who appeared on his doorstep last month was living on-property all this time, he heads out to investigate.
When Edward finds his little brother already on the premises, he jumps right back into their childhood squabbles.
“You’re somehow involved in this, Quentin!” Edward cries. “Who is this woman? How do you know her? Where is she? I want answers, Quentin, truthful answers!”
Using Quentin’s eyes, Petofi frowns. “You never change, will you, Edward? Anything you don’t understand, you blame on me!”
And that’s a weird moment. Count Petofi should be delighted that his masquerade is working so well, the way that Quentin was, when he realized that he could frighten Lady Hampshire. Upsetting Edward is just another testament to Petofi’s success; making Edward suspicious is the least suspicious thing that “Quentin” can do.
But he doesn’t see it that way. In the heat of this particular moment, Petofi experiences one of Quentin’s longstanding frustrations, and he reacts as Quentin would, with no irony intended. Petofi is learning to be Quentin, just as Quentin is learning to be Petofi, and — as I’ve wondered all week — maybe there wasn’t that much difference between them in the first place.
There’s another revealing encounter later on in the episode, when Quentin returns to the rectory, and finds Petofi there. Things start out on a relatively light note.
Petofi: So you’ve come back, huh?
Quentin: I would not have come, if I’d known you were here.
Petofi: I should think that you’d enjoy seeing me. Most people want to see themselves, as others see them.
Quentin: I could kill you…
Petofi: Oh? And what a strange suicide that would be! The man who killed himself, remained alive in another body!
But that only lasts for a moment, before Petofi’s mood grows darker.
“You will not get away with this,” Quentin warns, and Petofi flares up.
“You go tell your sad story to someone else,” he hisses. “There’s nothing you can do. No one would believe you! You are nothing but a senile old man, raving mad! Now run along, my boy.”
And I think that’s key to what’s happening here: Petofi’s fury, unable to stand being in the same room with the man that he used to be.
The harmless body-swap comedy of Vice Versa and Freaky Friday hinges on the idea that you should be satisfied with what you are. The adult can’t live in a body that doesn’t have a driver’s license, and the child isn’t ready for grown-up responsibilities. The prince wants to reclaim his throne, and the pauper is happy to escape the grinding courtesies of the royal court. Dorothy remembers that there’s no place like home, and Alice realizes that the Queen’s soldiers are just a pack of cards, and everybody returns happily to their proper place.
But this isn’t a midsummer night’s dream for Count Petofi. He didn’t leave his body by accident; it was an escape plan, and he’s damned if he’ll return to the prison of his old flesh. Seeing himself now, as others saw him, he realizes how feeble and odd he looked, and it repels him. Petofi’s dream — to escape his body, to escape his life — it’s fueled by self-hatred. He looks at himself, and feels nothing but contempt.
For all of his proclamations about the Legend of Petofi, about his power and cunning and exquisite taste, the mad god actually despised himself, and longed for a way out. That’s often the case, that the people who endlessly brag about themselves are over-compensating for the inadequacies that they know only too well. That’s what makes them so spiteful, and dangerous. Luckily, there’s nobody of any importance in American public life who acts like that, so it’s not like it really matters.
Tomorrow: Mesa of Lost Women.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Quentin terrorizes Kitty by reminding her of the powers in Petofi’s magical Hand — but when Kitty knew Petofi in England, he didn’t have the Hand at the time.
When Edward moves to embrace Kitty in act two, he says, “Katie, you can’t go on like this!”
In the rectory during the third act, the camera pulls back, trying to track Petofi as he walks away from a two-shot with Quentin, and approaches the door. But there are candles in the way of the shot, so the camera tilts up a bit, trying to get the candles out of the frame. The result is a really odd shot, with the actors seen from shoulders up in the bottom half of the screen.
In the rectory, Petofi finds the clothes that Julia was wearing when she arrived in 1897. If it was only her astral self that made the journey, why did she leave her clothes behind when she returned to 1969?
Tomorrow: Mesa of Lost Women.
— Danny Horn