“I’m in the curious position of knowing the criminals, but not the crime.”
There’s a popular myth that vampire Barnabas Collins is “redeemed” at some point during the run of Dark Shadows, and becomes a “sympathetic” character. In fact, that myth is so popular that pretty much everyone believes it except me, and even I believe it sometimes.
Still, it’s difficult to identify a moment in the series when he isn’t willing to murder someone, or cover up a murder, in order to protect himself or further some goal that he has. It is true that sometimes the person he’s planning to murder is not very nice. Whether that counts as “sympathetic” depends on your opinion of mass murder as a lifestyle choice for fictional characters.
At the moment, Barnabas is participating in a conspiracy led by the Leviathan people, an ancient and perplexing time-traveling death cult that appears to be mostly interested in Carolyn Stoddard’s love life. This cosmic conspiracy now includes several members of the Collins family, as well as the people who run the antique shop where Carolyn works.
As a collective, the Leviathan-minded characters have done the following:
- Opened a box
- Adopted a baby
- Boarded up some windows
- Read a book
- Bought some clothes
- Gave medicine to the baby
- Stayed out later than they were supposed to
- Talked to somebody at the Blue Whale
- Pretended that a weird noise was the radiator even though it wasn’t
- Invited their ex-husband to move back in
- and drew circles on a couple of calendars.
And that, I think, is the extent of the current reign of terror. Except for Barnabas Collins, of course, who intentionally ran somebody down with his car, and is now planning to finish the job by choking the life out of the unconscious victim in his hospital bed.
As usual, the only person who’s even thinking about murder is Barnabas. Everybody else is basically fine.
So here’s Barnabas, doing a thinks monologue, as he looms over a man who appears to be his distant cousin, Quentin. As Barnabas knows, Quentin is being kept alive by a magical portrait that makes him functionally immortal, so what he’s actually trying to accomplish here is anyone’s guess.
“To think I drove that car, determined to kill the man who was to meet Carolyn — and that man was YOU, Quentin! I must kill you now!”
But as he reaches for his co-star’s throat, he has a moment of pause.
“No!” he disagrees with himself, in thinks. “You saved me once, when dawn was coming. I owe you one chance at life — the same chance that you gave me. But only one! After that, I will have paid my debt. I can do whatever I must then.”
This, as with everything else that Barnabas ever does or says, is nonsense. How is thinking about and then deciding not to murder somebody the same thing as saving their life? What is the duration of this grace period between murder attempts? If Barnabas walks out of the room and back in again, does he get another shot?
But the interesting thing is that this is basically the first indication in the last month that this Barnabas Collins is still the same guy who knew Quentin in 1897. Until now, I think you could make the case that the Barnabas we’ve seen over the last month could be a Leviathan agent wearing a Ben Cooper Halloween costume. I mean, this guy came back to the present day in mid-November, when the unsold Barnabas costumes were on the discount racks at Woolworth’s. You have to admit it’s a possibility.
Meanwhile, Dr. Julia Hoffman — once Barnabas’ best friend and confidant — has been on the outs with him for several weeks. He’s refused all of her attempts to interest him in her crackpot detective games, and they haven’t spent a lot of time together. She knows that it’s not possible for Barnabas to go for more than a couple weeks without planning to kill someone, so if he’s not talking to her about it, then he must be planning to kill somebody that she likes.
So she’s been snooping around, listening through keyholes and getting involved in other people’s business. And today, she walks into the house as Paul is in the drawing room declaring, “Barnabas Collins is an evil man!” which is basically like winning the lottery, eavesdrop-wise.
Paul is ranting about Barnabas, who’s conspiring with the antique shop owners and who knows who else. “They have an organization; you can’t tell who’s one of them!” he says. “Elizabeth, they’re going to kill us all!”
He’s over-reacting, obviously. As I explained, so far the Leviathans have expressed exactly one percent interest in killing anybody, namely Barnabas with Quentin, which he may be doing freelance anyway. And the fact that Barnabas is an evil man is hardly stop-press news for Julia. But she needs this kind of information, because it helps her to position herself appropriately.
The biggest danger to these characters is not that Barnabas will kill them — I’m sure he will eventually, when he gets around to it — but that he might lose interest in them. As always, the only game in town is Stand Next to Barnabas, and the winner gets to live in Collinwood and listen to other people’s private conversations.
Julia’s main kick against Barnabas has nothing to do with him being evil and murdering people; that’s baseline for their relationship, and she’s used to it by now. The real problem is that he refuses to participate in her storylines, and goes off to have scenes with other people. This is intolerable.
So if they can’t be besties then they’d better be worsties, is Julia’s assessment of the situation. When she gets to the hospital and finds Barnabas in Quentin’s room, she snarls, “What are YOU doing here?” If she can’t be with him, then she must be against him; it’s the only acceptable option. To do otherwise is to fade into insignificance, which is even worse than death for a soap opera character. Characters come back from the dead all the time; being forgotten is forever.
When they’re in the hospital room with Carolyn, they discover that Quentin has lost his memory, and doesn’t know who they are. This leads to an angry hallway conversation that makes very little actual sense.
Barnabas: It was very stupid of you to ask if he recognized you. You might have given the whole thing away, in front of Carolyn.
Julia: Given what away?
Barnabas: The fact that he’s Quentin Collins, and that he’s nearly a hundred years old.
Julia: That’s why you did it!
Barnabas: Did what?
Julia: Took his memory away. I knew you had something to do with it!
Barnabas: Julia, be rational! You must listen to me. The man was hit by an automobile. Whatever happened to him, his memory was lost because of that.
Julia: Perhaps. But I think that you had something to do with that loss.
She glares at him, straight in the face, and then she turns and walks back into Quentin’s room.
So, there’s your challenge: explain anything about that conversation. Every line is its own little zen puzzle, but I’d like to focus specifically on this baffling turning point: “That’s why you did it!”
Barnabas is expressing concern that Carolyn would find out that this is Quentin, and Julia met him when she was traveling in time. It’s not actually very clear what the Collins family remembers of the haunting of Collinwood, or if they know that Barnabas and Julia actively intervened to set things right. You could interpret it any way you like. But if Carolyn did find out, then — what?
But putting that aside, how does Barnabas’ concern about spilling the beans make Julia say, “That’s why you did it!” What’s why?
It doesn’t actually matter, of course, because dialogue on Dark Shadows is basically a sound effect. Julia could literally be saying anything at all, as long as she’s narrowing her eyes and emphasizing pronouns. What are you doing here? she says. That’s why you did it! I think that you had something to do with that loss! Pronoun emphasis is a drastically underrated dramatic technique.
And then there’s the encounter later in the episode, when Julia is asking Paul about the organization he believes is working against them. They’re in the drawing room at Collinwood, and she tells him that she believes there may be something behind his strange forebodings. But just as he’s about to dig into the details, Barnabas appears at the door, welcoming Paul back to Collinwood.
Paul stiffens, glares at Barnabas, and walks out of the room. Then Julia steps forward for her turn. “You have quite an effect on him, Barnabas,” she spits, and then walks toward the door.
She’s brushing past her former friend, when he says, “Julia –”
She pauses, still staring past him, and says, “Do we really have anything to say to each other?” Then she keeps on walking, into the foyer and up the stairs.
And those are the moments that matter, today. Quentin’s amnesia and Paul’s paranoia are hardly important; they’re just there to provide some context for these Barnabas/Julia interactions.
When we are old, and Dark Shadows is over, and we look back at these days, we won’t remember exactly what Julia asked Paul, or what lie she told to Carolyn. We will remember these moments instead, the heartbreaking sparks of the Barnabas/Julia relationship going up in flames. We loved them, of course, and we didn’t want their friendship to end. But oh, what a lovely sound it made, when it crashed to the floor.
Tomorrow: Jim Henson’s Gaslight Babies.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Paul hands Liz her sherry, it sounds like he says, “Liz — sorry.” It sounds like he’s apologizing — like he’d just spilled some sherry on her, or something — but I can’t figure it out. I may be mishearing it.
After Paul, Liz and Carolyn drink, a camera appears on screen behind Liz.
In act 2, when the scene changes from the hospital to the Collinwood foyer, Paul stands at the top of the stairs for a second, waiting for his cue to start walking.
Quentin says to Carolyn and Julia, “Now, look, I miss — I may be some clinical case to both of you, but –”
Paul steps on Julia’s line:
Paul: Well, now, you don’t waste time, do you, doctor?
Julia: No, and I —
Paul: You come right to the point.
Julia: I hope you will, too.
Tomorrow: Jim Henson’s Gaslight Babies.
— Danny Horn