“Have I come back to tragedy and death again?”
We left off yesterday with Erwin Schrödinger and his magical cat, trapped in a thought experiment about quantum indeterminacy that threatens to destroy us all.
Here’s how it works: The theoretical cat is placed in a sealed chamber with a Geiger counter, a hammer, a flask of cyanide, and a small chunk of something radioactive, which may or may not decay over the course of an hour. Within that hour, there are two possibilities:
#1. The atom decays, which is detected by the Geiger counter, which trips a sensor that makes the hammer smash into the flask, releasing the cyanide and killing the cat.
#2. The atom doesn’t decay, which means no Geiger, no hammer, no cyanide. In that case, the cat is alive at the end of the hour, and it can go about its business.
Now, according to quantum mechanics, the atomic decay in the radioactive substance is in both states simultaneously — both decayed and not — until it’s observed, at which point it resolves into one state or the other. And if the cat’s life is determined by the unresolved atomic decay, then the cat is both alive and dead at the same time — until you open the box and look inside, which causes the wave function to collapse into either “alive cat” or “dead cat”. And then you feed the cat, or bury it, as appropriate.
But Schrödinger completely missed the third alternative, which is that the cat would look at all this equipment, and figure out what’s going on.
At that point, you have an undead cat, sitting alone in a steel box with a flask of cyanide, a hammer and an active source of plutonium, and nothing to do for the next fifty-five minutes but think about the future. Schrödinger has created a dangerous supernatural entity, and provided it with an arsenal.
You don’t resolve a situation like this by opening the box. Opening the box is the beginning of act two.
Meanwhile, on daytime television, we have our own set of undead creatures, passionately resisting any attempts to get them to collapse into one state or another. Eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins is both an unwell houseguest and a charred briquet of vampire bones, smoldering in a sealed cave. Black sheep heartthrob Quentin Collins had his hard drive wiped, and replaced with the mind of mad old Count Petofi. And prim Charity Trask now answers to the name of Pansy Faye, the spirit of a Cockney showgirl.
All of these dueling dualities refuse to cooperate with any sensible plan for story progression, so here we all are, stuck with each other, wistfully counting Geigers to pass the time.
And there isn’t that much time left, I’m afraid. The 1897 storyline is scheduled to wrap up in three weeks, and there’s no clear path to get there. The difference between box Barnabas and bed Barnabas is unclear, but either way, he needs to find a route back to 1969, before everybody in the present loses patience and just moves on to 1970. Quentin needs to get his own body back, and then he has to figure out what to do with his portrait, his bedroom and his scattered love life. And as for Pansy — well, who even knows what we’re going to do with her?
We need to resolve these superpositions somehow, and so far it’s not a promising outlook.
So that’s how you get two grown-ups to have a conversation like this:
Judith: Don’t you think it’s terribly strange for two different men looking exactly alike, both claiming to be from a distant and unknown branch of the family, to arrive within the space of a few months?
Edward: Yes, it is strange… but the fact that this man can walk about in broad daylight proves that he’s not what the other Barnabas was.
Which is simply a distraction and not an answer to the question at all. I mean, if you’ve recently had a dangerous impostor staying at your home who’s responsible for the deaths of your brother, your sister-in-law and two members of the household staff, and then — just when you’ve ended his reign of terror, using carpentry and fire — an identical impostor shows up at your house with exactly the same cover story, do you give that man the run of the house, just because he arrived at a different time of day?
On the upside, at least we’ve got some grown-ups in the house. Most of the time, I don’t have a great deal of interest in the sober, budget-balancing members of the principal cast; I like my vampire soap opera noisy and outré. I want to see the big kaiju characters screaming, and stomping around, and deploying targeted psychedelic dream sequences.
But once we get to the end of a storyline, it’s crucial that we establish a new social order for this generation of the family. Barnabas and Angelique can lay waste to the countryside as they please, but if the Collins family history is going to have any structural integrity at all, we need to have a couple of adults left behind to raise the children. In 1796, that meant setting up Joshua and Ben as the odd-couple caregivers for Millicent and Daniel, and in 1897, it looks like we’re moving towards a stable Edward/Judith led environment for Jamison and Nora.
That means Edward and Judith need to settle down right now, and establish some likeable characteristics. The squabbling sibling routine from the beginning of the 1897 storyline is not acceptable anymore. We need some reasonable adults.
Establishing a decent baseline for Judith is especially crucial, because she just got back from the sanitarium two weeks ago, and she has a lot to catch up on. Judith was the foolish lottery winner, who won the entire Collins fortune and had no idea what to do with it. She fell for Reverend Trask’s transparent lies, and married him, and was packed off to the looney bin. There isn’t a lot to work with, grown-up wise.
So they’ve made a very clear decision here, to get the audience to like Judith, and they’re doing it in the same way that The Mary Tyler Moore Show got the audience to like Rhoda. (See the previous post “Time Travel, part 5: Consider Rhoda” if you don’t have your Mary Tyler Moore theory at your fingertips.) They’ve taken a character that everyone likes — in this case, Pansy Faye — and they’re aggressively pushing the idea that Pansy and Judith are friends.
This is exactly in line with the rules for how to get the audience to like a character — make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen. Judith’s joke is that she’s bought the portrait of her faithless husband’s most recent crush, and her plot point is that she’s going to hang it in the master bedroom.
But it’s the choice of friend that makes the difference here. Pansy has become the clear favorite of the show — the all-purpose human interest who can make any scene more colorful and fun — and Judith gets major points just by choosing her as a confidant. Their scene together actually ends with Pansy saying, “I get to like you more and more every day,” which is obvious pandering. It works anyway.
Meanwhile, out in the foyer, there’s another quantum meltdown that nobody is attending to. Lady Kitty Hampshire walks into the house, puts down her coat, looks around, and makes the following face.
That’s the face that Kitty makes after being indoors for eleven seconds, with no specific stimulus to respond to. “Something’s happened in this house!” she gasps, which I suppose is true. This is what it looks like when you let these quantum superpositions drag on, without opening the box and resolving them.
Kitty also happens to be two people, like almost everybody else in this house. She thinks that she’s Lady Hampshire, but inside sources say that she’s also the reincarnation of Josette Collins. This information is currently being represented through the medium of a beam of light falling across Barnabas’ portrait, and the insistent thump-THUMP heartbeat of a timpani drum just offstage.
She approaches the portrait, to observe the phenomenon. She backs away. The sound continues. She clutches at her chest. This goes on for longer than you would imagine. It actually goes all the way through a commercial break for Alka-Seltzer and the International House of Pancakes, and when we come back it’s still happening.
The girl is falling apart entirely, just based on a mild lighting effect, and she’s pulling the house down with her. She is emoting on a catastrophic scale. The very last thing we need is to put her near a Geiger counter; we have moved beyond that stage of the experiment.
But here come the grown-ups, doing their best to calm things down and resolve some wave functions. In the brief spaces between identity crises, they’ve built a genuine and rather sweet affection between Kitty and Edward, and today he works up the nerve to propose marriage. And she accepts, which she should, because it turns out that Edward is a caring and supportive guy, when there aren’t any gypsies around.
The question is: can Judith and Edward actually solve this problem? They have a consistent methodology at least, which is to accept people at face value. According to them, Kitty is Kitty, Quentin is Quentin, Charity is Charity, and Barnabas is just a cousin from England. The grown-ups are surrounded by refugees from Schrödinger’s lab, pulsing with quantum potential, and their answer is to dismiss the supernatural elements and just go by the birth certificate.
But the most important unresolved issue is still the question of Barnabas: is he the main character that we’ve followed for the last two years, or is he the haunted mortal man who showed up on our doorstep two days ago? And by the end of the day, we finally get some closure on this question, thanks to Kitty.
Barnabas has recovered his strength, and has a pleasant dinner with the family. After the meal, Edward hands everybody a sip of champagne, and announces that he and Kitty are going to be married. That’s when the mask slips. Barnabas reacts to the news with an uneasy jolt — a clear sign that this is our Barnabas, still hung up on any woman who he thinks may be the reincarnation of his long-lost love.
So the episode ends with a pair of definitive resolutions. Barnabas — who really is Barnabas, of course — sends out a psychic call to Kitty — who really is Josette. She responds to his call, and tells him, “I am your Josette, and I shall be, always.”
And then they kiss, because Josette and Barnabas never really do anything else. They only talk about how much in love they are; it’s the only thing they have in common.
But that’s what brings the show back to a recognizable pattern, resolving these quantum concerns. Storylines on Dark Shadows tend to end this way, by returning to 1796 and reliving the primal conflict between Barnabas, Josette and Angelique. That’s how they ducked out of the “what do we do with Barnabas” problem in mid 1967, and it’s how they resolved all the loose ends during the craziest days of 1968. They’re going to do it again in three weeks, here in late 1969. Once a year, apparently, they have to return to the 1790s and reset the show.
So the key turns out to be Lady Hampshire — she’s the collapsing cat that pulls reality back into shape. Why do you think they call her Kitty?
Monday: Give Me Back My Talent.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 2, just as Petofi is about to use the Hand on Barnabas, the boom mic dips into the scene for a moment.
Edward tells Kitty, “I believe that the trauma of being widowed so young, of losing someone who was as devoted to you as Gerald was, can over be — can only be replaced by the love of someone else.”
Monday: Give Me Back My Talent.
— Danny Horn