Episode 900: The Long Con

“You begin to sound like some hysterical woman novelist!”

It’s been twenty years since Paul Stoddard was in town, and you can tell, because he is not in tune with the reality of modern Collinsport life.

Tonight, he noticed that someone had tattooed a four-headed snake on his wrist while he wasn’t looking, and then he had a worrisome conversation with a harbinger at the Blue Whale. Returning to his hotel room, he drew a pentagram on the rug with chalk, placed a candle at each point, and sat down in a chair in the middle of the unholy sign, just to stop the threatening voices who demanded payment.

That’s all that happened, and he’s super stressed out about it. He needs to pull himself together; this is a slow night for Collinsport. There’s a very good chance that he might actually survive until morning, and think how silly he’ll feel.

900 dark shadows paul pentagram

So here’s Paul Stoddard, defiantly ruining the carpet based on a set of rules that he doesn’t understand. There’s no particular reason why sitting still inside this specific chunk of geometry would make any difference to the threatening psychic broadcast that he’s receiving, but it seems to work, so he’s sticking with it.

Today’s episode is essentially a struggle to define the rules of this new storyline — to determine what’s real, what’s true and what’s fair in this strange narrative being perpetrated on our television screens. Paul wants an explanation for what’s happening to him, so that he can figure out how to make it stop, and so far he’s just been presented with a series of unfortunate events.

Paul walks through rooms that he has no business being in, he stares at artifacts in the woods that he doesn’t understand. He circles a date on the calendar that means nothing to him, and shows his wrist to sailors. The rational rules of cause and effect are breaking down, and he’s desperate to understand what’s going on. He’ll learn the answers by the end of the episode, to his lasting disadvantage.

900 dark shadows paul carolyn pentagram

In order to talk about this properly, I’m afraid that I have to adopt an essentialist worldview that holds that men are rational and logical, whiile women are emotional and intuitive. This is a completely reductive and sexist idea that I only partly believe. If it helps, the rational male side of the story is ruthless and sinister, while the emotional female side is helpful and socially productive. I’m aware that this does not actually help at all.

Carolyn finds her father sitting in the middle of his protective polygon, and rushes to his side. He shouts, “Go away! Stay out of this!” but when she asks out of what, he yells, “I don’t know! I can’t tell you!” He knows that there’s some sequence of events, some story, that could explain what’s going on, but nobody’s told him what it is.

Carolyn doesn’t care. She sees that her father is in distress, and she takes steps to help him. This is what happens when order breaks down; all you have left is kindness.

Looking at the shape he’s scrawled on the carpet, she realizes that she has the same sign — a silver pentagram, hung on a chain around her neck. “Father, if that will protect you,” she says, “then so will this.” She takes it off and puts it around his neck, lowering the chain slowly, like a good fairy casting a protection spell.

“As long as you wear this, no harm can come to you,” she announces. “If you believe in that sign on the floor, you must believe in this!”

She has no idea why that would actually be the case, but she’s a woman, and she operates on gut feelings and instinct. She doesn’t understand the mechanics, and she doesn’t care. She loves her father. It turns out that matters.

900 dark shadows julia barnabas rational

Meanwhile, in the Old House, two former friends are having an argument along the same lines. Lately, Barnabas has turned cold and distant, refusing to treat Julia with the customary warmth and respect that he should feel for her. For her part, she’s operating on pure instinct, and she can’t understand why Barnabas won’t play along.

Julia:  Barnabas, you’re not listening to me! If Olivia Corey is connected with Amanda Harris, then it’s obvious she’s come here for Quentin’s portrait.

Barnabas:  Well, she won’t find it, will she?

Julia:  But she’s acting for him! Quentin is alive, I’m sure he is!

Barnabas:  Julia, you make a bad detective! You’re wasting your time as well as mine!

And, oh, that is a truly devastating thing to say. Barnabas and Julia’s favorite game is Junior Detectives, where they team up to investigate and defeat the latest outbreak of diabolical witchcraft in their social circle. That’s how they became friends; it’s the core of their relationship. Now Barnabas refuses to play, and he even impugns her detective skills. That might be the meanest thing he’s ever said.

900 dark shadows barnabas julia stiff

Barnabas is determined to be as unfeeling as possible — posing in stiff positions, arms at his sides, staring impassively at not very much. Julia circles him, trying to catch his eye.

“Barnabas, I contacted Jamison Collins,” she says, “and he said that Quentin’s spirit was gone. That can only mean that Quentin is alive!”

He rounds on her. “Julia, you begin to sound like some hysterical woman novelist!” That’s how bad this has become; he’s playing the novelist card.

What we’re actually seeing here is a live debate about the direction of the show, straight from the writers’ room. Barnabas has no interest in wrapping up the loose ends of 1897, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

“What matter does it make whether Quentin is alive or dead,” he shouts, “or whether Amanda Harris is here — I’m simply not interested in them!”

Julia narrows her eyes. “What are you interested in, Barnabas? And don’t tell me ‘nothing,’ because I won’t believe that. I know that you must care about something, but what, Barnabas, what?”

And that’s the question, really — what does the show care about right now? Julia gets her answer a moment later, when Carolyn rushes into the room, upset about her father.

Suddenly, Barnabas is all concern, and Julia narrows her narrowed eyes even narrower. “You’ve just given me a clue, Barnabas, about what you do care about,” she says. He looks back at her, and she raises her chin, defiantly. “See how bad a detective I am!” she declares.

And I guess that’s true, in a sense — Barnabas acts like he cares about Carolyn, at least — but it’s not clear that he actually cares about her specifically, or if he only thinks of her as part of the Leviathans’ clockwork plan. This whole storyline might turn out to be a showdown between the show’s emphasis on plot vs the audience’s interest in the characters’ feelings.

900 dark shadows barnabas paul bar

And so we end up here, in the Blue Whale — where it all began, apparently. Hassled by phone calls from anonymous creditors, Paul has fled the safety of his star-spangled hotel room, and he finds Barnabas Collins, the new king of clockwork, ready to explain the twisty story construction that ties up everything we’ve seen in the last three weeks, in one clever cliffhanger reveal.

This is the fractured two-step of the Leviathan storyline, which is silly and unworkable for reasons that we have only begun to touch on — but at its core, there’s one of the greatest drop-dead plot twist surprises in the entire show. Say what you like about the antique shop and its pointless prophecies; this sequence is exactly what serialized storytelling is supposed to be. This is Darth Vader and “I am your father”; it’s River Song and “The only water in the forest is the river”; it’s Jack Shephard and “We have to go back!” It’s the kind of moment that makes a writer grateful that he didn’t commit suicide, the last fifteen times it occurred to him.

900 dark shadows barnabas paul talk show

The weirdest thing about this sequence is that it takes Barnabas, the show’s protagonist and star, and turns him — for one night, and one night only — into an amused, disinterested observer, like Rod Serling wrapping up a particularly ironic episode of The Twilight Zone. Although I suppose the Serling stuff happens at the very end of the scene; in the early stages, Barnabas is hosting a weird mix of talk show, shakedown and therapy session.

“Do you remember the night that you left Collinsport?” Barnabas asks. His tone is friendly, but with a sharp edge, like a blackmailer opening up his opposition research files. “I should think you’d remember such an important night in your life. What did you do that night, Mr. Stoddard?”

“Well… nothing important happened.” Paul sputters, trying to figure out where this is going. “I’d just had it, living up there, turning into stone like the rest of the Collinses, and I got out!”

“Think more carefully,” Barnabas urges. “Begin in the afternoon.”

900 dark shadows barnabas paul breeze

Paul:  Well… things were going on as usual. Roger was pouting, the baby was crying…

Barnabas:  Yes, she did cry a lot, didn’t she? Because you paid no attention to her.

Paul:  How did you know that?

Barnabas:  I heard.

Paul:  I don’t know how she turned out to be… such a nice person. Well, Jason McGuire and I were having a few drinks, that’s all. Just sitting around, shooting the breeze…

Barnabas:  The truth, Mr. Stoddard. You’ll never discover what is happening until you tell the truth.

Paul:  Jason knew how unhappy I was there. He knew what I was going through, living up there in that big house, and — well, we talked about all the money that was up there, and how I was unable to get any of it.

Barnabas:  And after you and Mr. McGuire had your little talk?

Paul:  Well… I got out of there.

Barnabas:  Yes?

Paul:  Well, I came down here to try and think something out.

Barnabas:  How to get the money.

Paul:  What’s wrong with that?

Barnabas:  Nothing. Nothing at all.

900 dark shadows paul strack jolly good

Barnabas asks if Paul talked to anyone, when he was at the bar that night. Paul casts his mind back, and the camera pans across the room to an old radio sitting on the bar, playing a snatch of big band music, circa 1949.

Then there’s a stranger — Mr. Strak, he calls himself — singing a chorus of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. And now we’re back in time, twenty years into the past, doing a flashback of the kind that Dark Shadows almost never does. When this show flashes back, they don’t just do it for one scene — they like to dig in, and stay for months.

But this is a lovely theatrical moment — a pan across the room, a subtle change in the lighting, and the actor playing Paul Stoddard steps offstage for a moment, and comes back on with dark hair, twenty years younger. I’m not sure anybody was doing this kind of thing on television in 1969 — certainly not on daytime, for sure.

Anyway, Strak. He’s a loudmouth chin-wagger, clearly a traveling salesman-type con artist who ingratiates himself with everyone he meets, just in case he runs across a real sucker. Tonight is his lucky night.

900 dark shadows paul strak anything

Paul says, “I’d give anything to change my luck,” and Strak leans forward with a crocodile smile.

“Ah, come on, now,” he grins, baiting the hook. “We’re both drinking, and we’re getting a little philosophical, but I don’t think that you would do anything.”

Paul insists that he would, so Strak turns the idea into a game.

Strak:  Now, let’s assume that I have the power to give you whatever you want. What would you take?

Paul:  Money. Success. No limits!

Strak:  Aw, c’mon now, if we’re playing this game, there has to be some limits!

Paul:  Then — anything I can collect in twenty years! How’s that?

Strak:  And what do I get in return?

900 dark shadows strak paul outwit

Paul takes a moment to consider.

Paul:  Well, now, let’s see. The object of this game is to outfox your opponent, right?

Strak:  Yeah, yeah. Outwit the buyer if you can.

Paul:  How about — in return, I will give you anything I have of value, even my most precious possession, collectible in twenty years.

Strak:  Done! I say, we got a deal. Let’s shake hands on it, and have another drink, shall we?

Laughing, Paul says he’ll buy the next round, because Strak just lost. “I said you can have anything I have of value — and, my friend, not what I may have in the future. Because right now, I have nothing.”

Strak smiles again, that unnerving predator smile, and congratulates Paul on outsmarting him so beautifully — and a laughing Strak cross-fades back into Barnabas, in the present day, on the other end of that diabolical bargain.

900 dark shadows barnabas paul bargain

Barnabas reminds Paul that his little game with Strak was exactly twenty years ago tonight.

Barnabas:  How have things been going for you, those twenty years?

Paul:  Very good — oil wells, the stock market… So what?

Barnabas:  Well, I think we upheld our end of the bargain. But lately?

Paul:  Well… not so good, but then, things happen in a man’s life…

Barnabas:  Yes. We know. You lost everything. You see, we planned it that way, so that you would be here for our meeting tonight.

Paul:  What do you want of me? I have nothing now. I had nothing, then!

Barnabas:  Oh, think, Mr. Stoddard. You did have something then, except you never realized it.

900 dark shadows barnabas paul laughing

And Paul starts to laugh, all the anxiety and confusion melting away.

Barnabas:  What are you laughing at, Mr. Stoddard?

Paul:  I’ve just realized — my most precious possession! It’s supposed to be my soul! Well — you can have it! It’s all yours!

Barnabas:  No, your soul, Mr. Stoddard, is not your precious possession… obviously.

900 dark shadows barnabas paul carolyn

Then Carolyn enters the scene. She’s been searching for her father all night, and she’s thrilled to find him, safe and sound and in such a good mood. “Oh, father, I’m so glad you two found each other!” she cries, hugging him. “I’ve been so worried!”

Paul grins. “It’s all right now, Carolyn. Everything’s going to be all right!”

“Indeed it is,” Barnabas smiles, “now that you’re here. You’re your father’s most precious possession, you know.”

And that’s how you do it, one of the niftiest bits of clockwork you’ll ever see. Even if this only lasts for a moment, grab hold of it — we may need the warmth of this beautiful surprise, later on, when the weather turns colder.

Tomorrow: Sympathy for the Devil.

Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

Julia tells Barnabas, “If Amanda — Olivia Corey is connected with Amanda Harris, then it’s obvious she’s come here for Quentin’s portrait!”

When Paul rants about what he remembers of the night he left Collinwood, Barnabas starts his line too early — “Think –” — and he has to start over.

There’s also a bit of a blunder towards the end:

Barnabas:  What was the date of that night?

Paul:  December, 1949.

Barnabas:  The month?

Paul:  Uh, December, and I think —

Barnabas:  The day?

Behind the Scenes:

There was an unplanned pre-emption two weeks ago, when the show was bumped off the air for the Apollo 12 splashdown. That’s moved all the episodes one day later in the schedule, so the episodes that were planned for Friday are being aired on Monday. That’s what happened here — the week was supposed to end on the big reveal of the Leviathans’ plans for Paul, an exciting Friday cliffhanger that would bring viewers back on Monday. Instead, the episode that aired on Friday ended with a door opening, and this episode aired on Monday.

The non-speaking bartender in the 1949 flashback was played by either Jean Pierre Boru or Jean Pierre Boro, depending on which source you prefer. The Dark Shadows Almanac cast list says Boru; the Dark Shadows Wiki and IMDb say Boro. I believe the Dark Shadows Almanac  list, which was compiled from production documents. Either way, he never appeared on DS again, or anywhere else, as far as I know.

There are no end credits today, so the spelling of Mr. Strak’s name comes from The Dark Shadows Almanac and The Dark Shadows Program Guide.

Tomorrow: Sympathy for the Devil.

900 dark shadows strak smile

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

36 thoughts on “Episode 900: The Long Con

  1. One of Frid’s best ever lines when Paul Stoddard asks what he/they want from him: “Only what is due (pronounced so eloquently, of course, as ‘dee-yu’).”

    Viewing this through the first time on DVD, at this point I thought, too, they would just want his soul, so it’s a big plus to raise the stakes and make it about Carolyn being sacrificed. At least it keeps an element of human drama going, emphasizing the potential tragedy unfolding between the daughter and her recently rediscovered wayfaring father. For now, the Leviathan story remains a family drama.

    1. The scene between Barnabas and Paul might have been Jonathan Frid’s best of the entire series as he snarked and sneered at Paul.

      Also the way it was done with the quick flashback and then the devastating punch line at the end “you are your father’s most precious possession you know” and then Paul’s stunned reaction. Dark Shadows was rarely better.

      1. I felt that way too. It seemed like he was the completely different Baranbas that he should have been, almost a different actor taking Frid over.

        1. I’ll vote for Frid channeling Boris Karloff! Maybe because of the time he spent doing “Arsenic & Old Lace”?

    2. Yes, the brilliance of that scene, and maybe even just that line, possibly justify the whole switching of Barnabas back to villain.

      And oh, so heartbreaking his denial of his entire friendship with Julia! And literally abandoning Chris to the wolves.

    3. I forgot how good this episode is. Indeed, I am struggling to remember why I believed I didn’t much care for the Leviathon story… ??

      Maybe upcoming episodes will remind me; but for now, between the quaint charm of the antique store set and the above DS standard of writing and acting on everyone’s part, I am sitting back relishing rewatching these! 😸

  2. The setup with the father hiding in the pentagram and the long ago promise of his daughter to an evil cult is a direct pull from “To The Devil a Daughter” by Dennis Wheatley.

      1. Yes, that’s a good catch — Wheatley is not listed as a literature source in the Dark Shadows wikia, nor in any other such source listings I’ve looked at.

        It could have been Hammer Films that suggested to Dan Curtis the possibility of adapting something from Dennis Wheatley. Richard Matheson, who would later work with Curtis on more than one occasion, adapted The Devil Rides Out for Hammer the year before, in 1968. Lots of devil stuff in Wheatley titles. Also that year Hammer Films adapted Wheatley’s novel Uncharted Seas for the movie The Lost Continent.

    1. Hammer did the film version of To the Devil a Daughter, didn’t they? Or maybe it wasn’t hammer, but Christopher Lee was the main villain, with Denholm Elliott as the father.

  3. Unlikely Carolyn would have been Paul’s most precious possession if he had hung around for the teenage years or her Buzz Hackett phase…

        1. Interesting you say that because I’ve noticed that my teenage daughter’s friends whose parents are divorced/separated generally tend to have boyfriends. I know it’s anecdotal and armchair psychology, but it intuitively seems to make some sense.

          1. Well, it’s more specific than that in Carolyn’s case. She dated Buzz in response to Liz’s involvement with Jason Maguire, which wouldn’t have happened if Jason hadn’t faked Paul’s death eighteen years earlier.

  4. Paul: Well… things were going on as usual. Roger was pouting, the baby was crying…

    This sets off the Dark Shadows Continuity Alarm. We have Roger’s statement during the Jason McGuire Blackmail storyline that his knowledge of Liz’ marriage to Paul is limited because Roger was “away during that whole sordid period of my sister’s life.”

    Now here’s Paul indicating Roger was pouting around the estate in 1949. Which of these two characters do we believe? Or do we dismiss it as another illustration of Collinwood False Memory Syndrome, like 1995 Carolyn reminiscing about Mrs Johnson brushing Carolyn’s hair when Carolyn was a child?

    1. As I recall, Roger said he was in school around that time. So I guess he could have made occasional visits home on pouting holidays.

      1. But upon Jason’s arrival in 1967 when Roger wanders into the drawing room and Jason says that they’d met once before, in that very room 18 years earlier, Roger is baffled. Later when talking to Carolyn and Vicki in the study he reiterates how he doesn’t remember McGuire from that time, but admits that Jason was apparently a frequent house guest, based on what Liz told him more recently.

        I suppose continuity would only count if you have the same writer/writing team doing all the storylines all the way through. One time during a writers’ meeting, when they were trying to recall a particular story element from years earlier and no one could remember, they had to go and get the information from the fans gathered outside the ABC studio.

        1. There was an infamous story about what a change of writers meant. In on soap they had made a story about a character’s hysteresectomy. Very moving. A couple of years later, they had new writers, and the character got pregnant….

        2. Actually, I can see a young Roger not paying much, if any, attention to one of Paul’s friends. I certainly wouldn’t remember a one or two time meeting with my sister’s husband’s friend. Roger would remember Paul and that the marriage was a disaster and that Paul deserted Liz. Other than that he was self centered enough to not pay that much attention to the details.

      2. Pouty Easter. I can just see it. And of course Sulky Christmas, since this is December on the show.

  5. More Behind the Scenes:

    We so recently were vocal fans of John Harkins, yet now we forget to note that he played Mr. Strak (however you spell the characters name). Hard to recognize without the beard and brows and big chain.

    Also, The ends credits begin “Starring Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins,” which is a first in the credits. This is the “Starring Joan Bennett” treatment, and Frid is now getting it, with or without a pay raise – that I do not know. When Frid appears along with Ms. Bennett in an episode, as occurs in 904, Frid will have second billing in the style of “Also Starring Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins.”

  6. So far, this has been the gayest storyline the show has taken on yet.

    In 899, the sailor offers to buy Paul a drink, and Paul shouts “I buy my own drinks!” This isn’t subtext- any man getting that reaction in a bar will know that the other fellow has interpreted his offer as including more than the drink. Paul apologizes and becomes friendly, indicating that he is willing to abandon that interpretation and set aside the hostility that accompanied it.

    In this episode, we’re back in the same bar. Barnabas beckons Paul to his table with his index finger. I invite any man who doesn’t think we are intended to read this as a reference to a sexual come-on to try that move on a homophobic tough guy in a bar.

    Paul’s face shows his inner struggle as he tries to resist Barnabas’ advances, but he can’t. Barnabas coaxes him into reminiscing about yet another night in the same bar, when a casual encounter with yet another guy led to something that seemed at the time like a little harmless tomfoolery, but that has now grown into a threat to his relationship with his family, his standing in the community, his physical well-being, and everything else.

      1. Thanks! It’s a bit of a puzzle- so far as I know, none of the writers on the show at this time was gay, so I’m not sure why they decided to go so deep into these themes just then.

    1. Absolutely! The sailor scene also had him trying to get Paul to say what it was he really wanted/needed, with Paul finding it hard to resist doing so. That whole scene was super gay.

  7. Great scene between Barnabas and Paul and God help us but Frid actually seems to be enjoying himself. I agree with an earlier commenter that there’s a good deal of Boris Karloff in Frid’s portrayal. I know Frid often cited an earlier Blue Whale confrontation with Burke Devlin as a personal favorite but this scene packs much more of a punch.

  8. The scenes at the Blue Whale are really good and I love the way Frid and Patrick play it but I have never in my life considered children their parents’ possessions.

    1. This is yet another storyline with a fairytale aspect to it, hearkening back to a time when children were indeed considered possessions–not just of their parents, but of their fathers specifically (which is why Liz doesn’t get a say); daughters of the nobility especially, who were often betrothed at a young age to the sons of other lords in order to form political alliances. The Leviathans are clearly old-fashioned that way. But the contract is flimsy as these are very different times. I think Paul could’ve benefited from a Daniel Webster type arguing his case.

  9. I have not watched this far before that I can remember. Maybe I did back in 1969. Am I right to think Strak= Trask!

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