“You don’t understand the enormities of your problems!”
It’s not really about the future, of course. If it was, they wouldn’t be doing Turn of the Screw II: The Returning.
Dark Shadows has a future, of sorts, in reboots and reruns and spinoffs, but right now, they’re running out of energy and ideas. They spent the spring making House of Dark Shadows, a feature film that explicitly rejects the idea that Dark Shadows is a continuing story, and kills off every character that you could possibly be interested in, just to make sure that there won’t be a sequel. (They make a sequel anyway.) Now they’re back to making a daily TV show, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to imagine a future that runs as far as the next six months.
But for two weeks, at least, they’ve managed to put together a tight, emotionally engaging mini-storyline set in 1995, which focuses on exactly the right characters and manages to turn the familiar sets into an alienating nightmare landscape. Today’s episode is essentially the season finale, with Barnabas directly challenging the Big Bad, and daytime soaps don’t even do season finales. My argument, based on this episode, is that they should.
Chronologically speaking, this is the last evening that Barnabas Collins will ever see, so it’s a shame he doesn’t enjoy it more. It begins with the vampire opening his coffin, and finding Collinsport’s Model Sheriff of the Future holding a cross in his face. I don’t know how Robocop here decided, with everything that’s going on in this savage murdery wilderness, that the problem is Barnabas, but I suppose when you’re a Collinsport cop, you take the wins any way that you can get them.
The Sheriff got a tip that something interesting was happening in the Old House basement, so he grabbed his emergency cross-and-silver-bullets kit that everyone in Collinsport keeps handy, and came over to deal with the situation. You can’t actually kill vampires with silver bullets, that’s werewolves, but even in the future, they’re not up on the latest developments. This is just going to make everyone look silly.
But the lawman raises his pistol, and yells, “I know all about you, Barnabas Collins!”
And then: Carrie!
Or Hallie. It’s somebody. We don’t know about Hallie yet, so it’s probably Carrie, except she’s wearing modern clothes so who even knows. It doesn’t really matter either way.
The important thing is that she’s a ghost, silently materializing in the basement, an event that the Sheriff takes in a big way.
“You!” he cries. “It’s you!” and the audience says, who?
“You’re the one!” he continues. “You’re the one I saw!”
So I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I have no idea what the Sheriff is talking about. Was there a scene in some episode that I’m not aware of, where the Sheriff saw Carrie? Is somebody making episodes of CSI: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern that I’m not aware of?
But somebody needs to save Barnabas from this cliffhanger, so here comes Carrie (or Hallie). The last time they did The Turn of the Screw, the male ghost was malevolent and the female ghost was helpful, which is not at all the way that The Turn of the Screw works, but it was story-productive, which is all that matters. They haven’t done a lot with the “friendly female ghost” motif this time around, so they might as well use it here, and it might as well be Hallie (or Carrie), since we’re going to see her at the end of the episode anyway.
But they can’t just pretend that there’s a previous scene that established that the Sheriff is terrified of the blonde ghost girl. Can they?
Well, I guess they can. The Sheriff is distracted, so Barnabas gets up out of his coffin and strangles the lawman, and now everybody’s dead and nobody’s responsible for explaining what the hell is going on.
It’s good to know that even twenty-five years into the future, the Collinsport police are still utterly useless. I believe the score is now Monsters and Murderers 900, Law Enforcement 0.
Meanwhile, the mean ghost is upstairs, staring contentedly at Julia as she falls noisily to pieces. Gerard has taken control of Julia’s will, more or less, and he wants to destroy Barnabas, so he arranged for her to squeal to the cops. Now he’s keeping an eye on her, so that she doesn’t go downstairs and help.
She’s not happy. “Have I done enough for you?” she wails. “Have I done enough now?” She sinks into a chair and bursts into sobs. “Why do you keep watching me? Are you determined that I be here, and hear the shots?”
And then, suddenly: Barnabas.
“Julia!” he says. “The sheriff — he’s dead. I killed him! We must move quickly. The police will be here — they know about me! I saw the silver bullets! I don’t know who told him –”
She positions herself across the room, and gives a little chuckle. “Don’t you?” she says.
The music cuts out, and Barnabas stares at his friend, as the penny drops.
“You betrayed me,” he realizes. And that’s how you set up a kick-ass commercial break.
This scene is pretty much the entire point of this adventure, so I’m going to give it to you in detail.
Barnabas: You told the Sheriff!
Julia: I will again. Believe me Barnabas, I will betray you over and over!
Julia: You’re not safe with me!
Julia: Don’t tell me anything, and don’t ask me to go with you anywhere, Barnabas. Just go! Go!
They’re playing all the notes here. Julia is horrified by what she’s done, but she knows it’ll happen again, and she can’t stop it. Gerard isn’t clouding her mind, and turning her into a puppet. He’s letting her feel everything. It’s worse this way.
So Julia’s flinging herself about the room, acting as hard and as loud as she can, and Barnabas just walks over to her, and says, “Who’s done this to you?”
Because he knows this isn’t her. He’s not angry; he’s not even scared. He’s worried, for her.
Julia: Barnabas, they will be back. You’re right. And if you escape them… when dawn comes…
Barnabas: You will come to my coffin, to kill me? Oh, Julia… who has saved me so often… what has he done to you?
Julia: Nobody’s done anything to me.
Barnabas: Julia… you have been with him.
Julia: Don’t talk about him!
Barnabas: Why not? Are you so terrified of him?
Julia: Barnabas, I told you to go, while you can!
Barnabas: And leave you to him?
He approaches, quietly.
Julia: You can escape.
Barnabas: Not without you.
Julia: You can’t take me with you.
Barnabas: Never without you.
And his voice is soft, and gentle, and there are so many feels.
So this is why 1995 works. No matter what happens after today, this two-week time tunnel was definitely worth exploring. We don’t know why the Sheriff is afraid of Carrie, or why Carrie is helping Barnabas, or why two teenagers are haunting an impossible playroom filled with toys suitable for eight-year-olds. It doesn’t matter. They got the people right.
The other thing that makes this work is that everyone believes one-hundred percent in the ridiculous things that they’re doing. They talk Stokes into helping them with a seance to contact the spirit of Carolyn, and after the usual preamble, Julia throws her head back and emits a lunatic little-girl voice that doesn’t sound like Carolyn in any way. Barnabas demands that Carolyn tell them more about the catastrophe that destroyed Collinwood, and Julia just repeats the weird set of six phrases that they’ve decided to call clues.
But everyone is humming with energy and anticipation; there’s no question that this hazardous display of artistic temperament is the most important thing that has ever happened to anyone.
The scene ends in confusion, of course. There’s wind noises, and the candle blows out. Julia cries, “He’s coming! He’ll kill you!” and then she faceplants on the table. Stokes gets up to look out the window, and Gerard is there, and he moves his hand, and Stokes just sits down in a chair and dies. Barnabas announces that Stokes is dead, and then suddenly Julia screams, and he turns, and she’s vanished, and he shouts “Julia!” and runs around the room. It’s mayhem. It’s hard to achieve mayhem with this number of people, but they manage it.
And it all ends in a direct confrontation between Barnabas and Gerard, sort of, with Julia in the middle, holding a dagger and on the verge of administering the last sedative she’ll ever prescribe.
“Put down that knife!” Barnabas shouts, and Julia looks back and forth between the two most important men in her life, and then she drops the dagger, and Barnabas wins.
But then Gerard touches her face, and she drops to the floor, and Barnabas crouches down to look at her, and he instantly shouts, “She’s dying!” which it’s not super clear how he knows that or what it means.
And I don’t know, maybe Gerard is hot after all. I’ve enjoyed looking at him in this episode; they’ve stopped putting lights directly under his chin and they’re allowing him the use of human facial expressions. He really can be cute, when they’re not deliberately sabotaging him.
So everything’s happening at once, the whole superstructure of the mid-1990s is converging on this utterly baffling plot conundrum. The Unabomber and the Rembrandts and the disquieting nipples on Val Kilmer’s Batsuit, Xena and Voyager and the Million Man March, Who Shot Mr. Burns and Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman.
If the glove doesn’t fit, as the saying goes, you must acquit, and it clearly doesn’t. Nothing fits. So Barnabas and Julia are sprung on a technicality, and a mysterious ghost with two names and no screen presence does a magical home carpentry project which installs a door just exactly where they need it the most.
They haven’t learned anything, and they can’t explain anything, but we have evolved beyond the need for explanations. Barnabas and Julia are still alive, and somehow — together — they are going to make this storyline work.
Monday: Back from the Future.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The Sheriff is still strangling a little, when we shift to the next scene.
Barnabas basically looks at the teleprompter for pretty much every line.
Barnabas tells Julia, “I saw six — the silver bullets!”
When Gerard watches Barnabas and Julia exit the Old House, you can see the top of the set.
At the beginning of act 4, Barnabas calls, “Cawolyn!”
Barnabas promises Julia, “Once we are back in our own time, he cannot aff– he cannot get to you!”
When Barnabas sees Carrie and says, “You helped me once. Help us now!” there’s a weird flapping thing on the right side of the screen that I can’t identify.
When Barnabas and Julia leave the playroom and limp up the staircase, Barnabas’ line to Julia is said off-mic.
Barnabas and Julia escape out the back of the playroom, climb up a staircase and go through a door, and they end up in front of the same stained-glass window that’s in front of the playroom door anyway. They’ve gone in a circle!
Monday: Back from the Future.
— Danny Horn