“You mustn’t touch this, Julia. It happens to be very old.”
Barnabas was boring, is the problem. Around this time last year, they wrapped up all of his storylines — Angelique was banished back to Hell, Adam ran away, and all the other villains just burned or fell to powder. At last, Barnabas was triumphant — free from his vampire curse, surrounded by friends and family, universally respected and trusted. It was a nightmare.
With nothing else to do, he became Barnabas the butler, a facilitator for other people’s story progression. The show always faces a crisis when they don’t know what to do with the star attraction, and their usual response is to visit a different time period. When “toxic Barnabas” was getting too hot to handle in November 1967, we went back to his origin story, and when “tame Barnabas” ran out of story potential in March 1969, the show packed him off to 1897.
Barnabas is at his best when he’s on the defensive, struggling and scheming and making terrible mistakes. His trip to 1897 put him on the back foot immediately — no allies, a vampire once again, and generally confused about what he was even supposed to be doing. He had to ingratiate himself with a whole new family, and learn everybody’s secrets without letting on about his own.
And it worked! Even a month-long vacation didn’t diminish his charms; his miraculous return gave the show its all-time best ratings. But now he’s heading back home, where the outlook is even more drab than it was before he left: Quentin’s evil spirit is gone, and Collinwood is more or less at peace. The immediate future looks even more butlery than before.
So the writers, in their infinite lunacy, have decided to dodge the butler problem by making Barnabas the bad guy again. Instead of a happy homecoming, they’re giving him a mysterious new agenda, which splits him away from his friends and family.
It’s a risky idea, with the potential to squander all the good will that they’ve built up with the audience. But what is Dark Shadows except a string of terrible ideas, which sometimes turn out to be amazing?
So, the new status quo: There’s this ancient time-traveling death cult who believe that the water shall nourish each grain of sand, wedged between ancient sacred stones. I don’t know what that means, and I suspect that they don’t either, but they seem super serious about it.
Two converts named Oberon and Haza set up a pop-up sacrificial altar and recruitment stand on a busy transit route near Collinwood, and when Barnabas walked by, they pounced, offering him a free stress test. Once they’d got his attention, they gave him some kind of magical space roofie that turned him into the leader of their unearthly conspiracy, following instructions as prophesied in a forbidden book stolen from the library at Miskatonic University. It’s a screwy thing to do, but Oberon and Haza think of themselves as disruptors. Bless their hearts, this is what they think a startup is like.
Now Barnabas has used the magic altar like it’s a TARDIS, traveling from 1795 all the way to the present day. Shimmering into existence in a clearing that nobody was using anyway, Barnabas exits the contraption, carrying his legendary book. Lightning and thunder crash wildly as he exits the cairn, although it doesn’t seem to be raining anywhere. But you can make a special request to get lightning for dramatic emphasis; they’re usually really cool about it.
Arriving at the Old House, Barnabas finds his best friend Julia, who’s been waiting and worrying for who knows how long. She runs to his arms, and he gives her one of those sinister soap opera hugs where he looks at the camera and has secret feelings.
So this is the moment we’ve been waiting for, since Barnabas exited 1897 last week — the Junior Detectives, reunited in the present day. Their plan worked; he didn’t get killed with a stake after all. Now they get to catch up — he’ll tell her about what happened to Quentin, and then she can fill him in about Chris and Sabrina and the painting that she found, and they’ll be a team again, wrapping up one case and getting to work on the next.
It’s not often that I actually want to see characters sit down and recap information that we already know, but this is a special occasion. We’ve missed seeing Barnabas and Julia together, and they need to reconnect. This is the core of the show — two best friends, solving other people’s problems.
Except this episode is all about denying us that pleasure. They’ve spent three days leading up to this reunion, and now that it’s happening, it’s no fun at all.
He says, “Yes, Julia. I’m back.” And then he extricates himself from the hug, and takes a couple steps away.
She hardly notices. “Oh, thank God!” she sighs. “Oh, Barnabas, I’d begun to give up all hope.”
He raises an eyebrow. “How devoted of you, to wait for me all that time.”
And he says it with a sneer, like he’d be just as happy if she’d forgotten all about him. Lose my number, is the basic vibe.
“How did you do it, Barnabas?” she beams. “How did you get back from the past?”
“The same way I went into it. Through the I Ching.”
This isn’t true, and she knows it — she told Carolyn that she locked the basement door so that nobody would disturb the I Ching hexagram, so if he’d returned that way, he’d be stuck downstairs. She gets a little twinge of uncertainty, and the audience waits to see what she does.
We know that there’s a problem here, and we want her to figure it out. We can already tell that the happy reunion scene is off the table, snatched away from us at the last minute. So now our attention is focused on helping Julia realize what’s going on, through the power of our psychic audience telepathy.
She stammers, “But, Barnabas,” and he says, “What, Julia?” like he doesn’t even want to deal with her.
“Nothing,” she says. “I didn’t think it was possible.”
“Well, it was. And here I am.”
And then he sits down in a marked manner, indicating: that part of the evening is over.
So this is what it looks like, when Barnabas turns evil again. He doesn’t kidnap pretty young women this time, or torment nine-year-olds, or feast on the blood of the living. We won’t see him doing anything remotely like that, for a while. His new reign of terror basically consists of having awkward conversations with Julia. As a piece of villainy, it’s fairly subtle, and it underscores how important this relationship is to the show’s appeal.
She looks at him closely. “Barnabas, are you all right?”
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t be?”
“Well, I don’t know. Did anything happen to you, on the way back?”
And then he just looks at her. It’s devastating.
But Dr. Julia Hoffman doesn’t give up without a fight. She parks herself in a chair, and keeps on pressing.
“Well, tell me what happened there. You came back because everything got resolved, didn’t you?”
“I came back because I wanted to.” Another roadblock.
She asks about what happened to Quentin and Petofi, and he gives her one sentence apiece, and then says that he’s tired and doesn’t want to answer questions anymore.
So that’s just unforgiveable; he’s breaking every rule of soap opera. What kind of character comes home with a hundred story points in his pocket, and refuses to recap? Count Petofi, Nicholas Blair, Reverend Trask — even the show’s most fiendish villains wouldn’t pull a stunt like this.
And then there’s an exchange that is actually one of my all-time favorite Dark Shadows conversations. He gets up from his chair and picks up the secret mystery box, which he got from the Leviathans and left on the mantel for some reason. Deciding that he wants it to be even more conspicuous, he carries it over to a side table.
This sparks Julia’s curiosity, as naturally it would, and she asks, “Barnabas, what is that?”
“What?” he says, because Barnabas is pure stealth.
“That box. It wasn’t in the house before, where did you get it?”
“In the past.”
She reaches out, saying, “Oh, may I look at it?”
“No, don’t touch!” he snaps, and moves it out of reach. “You mustn’t touch this, Julia. It happens to be very old.”
Well, sure, cause it’s from the past. Everything from the past is old; that’s what “the past” means.
So things just keep getting worse. We cut away for a Carolyn/Sabrina scene, and when we come back — look at the body language! Barnabas has had enough of Julia, probably for life.
She’s still trying to engage him — updating him on how Chris is doing, and the Charles Delaware Tate painting that she bought yesterday — because if he’s not going to keep up his end of the recap, then she’s just going to go ahead and do her half anyway.
He says, “I see.” And then he just keeps on waiting for her to stop talking.
Julia has one more flicker of hope when Chris comes over, panting, “I still need your help, Barnabas — desperately!” Surely this will perk Barnabas up, a new crisis to accommodate.
Barnabas’ response: “In all the time I was in the past, I found no solution for you. I am afraid there is nothing I can possibly do.”
He’s completely still, and stone-faced. He doesn’t even use contractions. “I am afraid there is nothing that I can possibly do,” he says, as if he no longer has any use for emotions.
There’s a point late in the series’ run, when Jonathan Frid said that he was tired of playing Barnabas, and he wanted to do something new. So they hopped over to a different time band and had him play a guy named Bramwell, and it was the last nail in the show’s coffin, if you’ll pardon the expression. Losing Barnabas kills the show; everybody knows that.
The devastating thing about this story point is that it feels like even Barnabas is tired of Barnabas right now. He can hardly be bothered to walk through this scene; clearly, he can’t wait for it to be over.
So the question is — if they’re going to deny us the core pleasure of Dark Shadows, namely Barnabas and Julia playing Junior Detectives, is that okay? Does this materially damage our experience watching the show?
It could go either way, depending on how they play it. It kind of depends on whether the show sees this as a problem. If this is it — Barnabas and Julia are split up, forever — then that would be a grievously wounded show.
But if the show agrees that this is a problem — that we need to see Barnabas and Julia together, and this new attitude is an obstacle to overcome — then this is exciting, rather than catastrophic.
The most important thing is that they’re still interacting, even if they’re suddenly adversaries. Barnabas and Julia are one of the three main supercouples on the show — the others are Barnabas and Angelique; and Quentin and almost anyone. As you can tell from those examples, supercouples don’t have to actually be “in love” and happily married. They’re just a couple that has amazing chemistry when they’re together on screen, and seeing those people together is a major source of audience pleasure.
When Angelique was living at Collinwood and calling herself Cassandra, it was a frustrating period for the show, because she had to pretend that she didn’t know Barnabas, and they hardly had any scenes together. We don’t need Angelique and Barnabas to be friendly; most of their best scenes are fights. But they have to keep interacting, their stories revolving around each other.
An evil Barnabas is not a problem. Barnabas can be weird and cold with Julia, and the scene is still exciting. The only problem is if he actually drives her away.
And hooray, Julia agrees, because her interests are entirely aligned with the audience’s interests. Barnabas hustles Julia and Chris out the door, and while they’re still standing on the porch, Julia takes issue.
“Something has happened to him!” she announces. “He’s undergone a frightening change! There’s no reason for him to lie to me!”
Chris asks what she’s talking about, and she brings up the locked basement door thing, which she and the audience have been chewing on for more than ten minutes. It seemed like she might have forgotten about it, but no, she’s on it. Have some faith. Julia is a rock star.
So: three cheers for smart characters, who recognize when the show’s got a problem, and take steps to correct it. There must be a reason for Barnabas’ sudden character collapse, and Julia knows that if there’s a mystery to solve, there’s only one thing to do — find a mystery box, pry it open, and accept the consequences.
Tomorrow: The Curious Belief.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the reprise, there are lit torches around the altar. They weren’t there yesterday.
Two episodes ago, Barnabas announced, “It is written that only this box shall accompany me.” Major chunks of today’s episode and tomorrow’s involve Barnabas and the box. But when he appears in front of the altar at the beginning of today’s episode, he’s carrying the book, not the box.
Chris talks to Julia about Sabrina: “We were engaged, you know. She’s still in Collinwood.” He means Collinsport.
Barnabas tells Julia, “Petofi may have been killed in the fire.” He should have said “killed in a fire,” because Julia doesn’t know that there was one.
When they come back from the Carolyn/Sabrina scene, Barnabas and Julia appear to start one line later than they should. Barnabas says, “Yes?” and Julia says, “Good, because there are certain things that we’ve got to deal with.” It’s the response to a question that we didn’t hear her ask.
Julia tells Barnabas, “Today, I was given reason to believe that Charles Delaware Tate may still be alive!” Barnabas’ response: “There’s no reason to believe that’s true.” That may be the line as scripted — the point of the scene is that Barnabas is blowing her off — but it’s a deeply peculiar line.
Tomorrow: The Curious Belief.
— Danny Horn