“We are becoming closer and closer to catastrophe.”
Here we are, in a thrilling seven-week countdown to calamity, as the wealthy and powerful move gloomily from room to room, in this enormous and temporary brick-stack called Collinwood. The house is doomed, fated to fall in on itself with a tremendous crash, any time between right now and four and a half months from now. Spoiler: It’s not happening right now. Almost nothing is.
Time-traveling houseguests have appeared in the hall, with prophecies of disaster outlined in a handy list of six bullet points that nobody cares about or understands. Two of them have already come to pass in the last week and a half — an eclipse, and a picnic — and so far nothing has happened, except for a faint prickling of unease. Maybe these aren’t our clues after all; there’s been a mix-up, and we’ve gotten hold of somebody else’s clues. I wonder who they belong to. I hope it’s not somebody who really likes their house; they’ll be terribly cross.
Now, usually, a plot that runs in place isn’t a problem for a daytime soap opera, a genre that can go for months without anything happening in particular. Soap operas don’t need plane crashes and giant spider invasions; they have other people’s houses. The audience gathers to catch a glimpse of life as she is lived, in the mansion down the street. Characters clump up into groups and have conversations, and arguments, and emergency surgery. They hand each other alcohol, and reflect on their predicaments. I know, it doesn’t sound like it would work, but the genre ruled the waves for decades, only going into decline because the country ran out of housewives.
The problem is that Dark Shadows is now an adventure story, populated by characters who are entirely plot-specific. A soap opera is supposed to be a continuing story, where you watch an ensemble of characters grow and evolve. People fall in love, marry, have children, cheat on each other, get addicted to things, and swap their own babies with other people’s babies. Ideally, the stories emerge naturally from the interplay of the characters, with multiple storylines crossing over as the various cast members interact in real time.
But Dark Shadows has become an anthology series, splitting into an entirely separate new chapter every three to five months, like American Horror Story, except it’s not an allegory for anything. It just is what it is, for as long as it lasts. So they’ve stopped caring about human lives and relationships; the characters only have the interests and feelings and characteristics required to move the plot forward.
This style kicked in around a year ago, at the beginning of the Leviathan story, when Carolyn — a character with zero previous interest in retail — was suddenly struck with an all-consuming desire to temp at an antiques shop. The shop was cramped and dark, the owners were erratic and irritable, and she didn’t need the money, but all of a sudden she couldn’t wait to sell people dusty crap, ten to twelve hours a day. Now that the shop’s burned down and the story is over, Carolyn is unemployed, and doesn’t care.
And then there’s Quentin — originally a character with more secrets and relationships and storylines than anyone outside a Dickens novel — now drifting along without a job, a girlfriend, or any particular purpose. He’s just Quentin, the hot immortal guy who lives in Collinwood and talks to people.
When there isn’t enough plot — and it’s painfully thin, right now — then everybody has to get along on their personal charm. That’s fine for Quentin and Julia, who could coast forever. But we’ve also got a couple of annoying kids, and then there are the ghosts, who make me want to kill myself.
The current plot involves a pair of silent specters, Gerard and Daphne, who lurk in the shadows and appear in people’s dreams. They’ve got a past, somewhere in the background, where presumably there’s an explanation for who they are and what they want, but at the moment they’re a mystery, and the writers are taking advantage of it by really skimping on the ghost motivations.
For example: Daphne, the ghost. She’s been seducing Quentin in his dreams, drawing him in with a one-two combination of perfume and prettiness. He doesn’t really know anything about her, except that she’s dead, but Quentin will make out with just about anything; that’s what he’s for.
So Daphne lures Quentin right out of the house, to a silent rendezvous in the cemetery. He reaches out and folds this wisp of unsolid self-awareness in his strong, masculine arms, and reels her in for a kiss. Then she raises a pointy dagger behind his back, triggering a cliffhanger that kicks the can down the road until tomorrow’s episode.
“I know almost nothing about you,” he says, staring into her eyes from a distance of zero inches. “But I feel as if I’ve known you all my life. You can tell me why your spirit cannot rest, and why you can’t be at peace. Perhaps there’s something that I can do for you.”
And this surprises her, somehow and for some reason, and she lowers the knife. She turns away, looking thoughtful, as if she’s touched by his gallant declaration.
Which is fine, except she’s the one who’s incepting him with these feelings in the first place. Why would she hypnotize a guy into loving her, and then be surprised when he tells her that he loves her?
I mean, explain that. Explain any part of that.
There are two impenetrable mysteries of this scene — why Daphne wants to kill Quentin, and why she doesn’t. Neither side of it makes much sense. Is she angry at him, and then thinks better of it? Is she trying to bring him into her world, and then decides not to be selfish? As Freud asked Marie Bonaparte, on discovering her spectral form stabbing a male acquaintance with a screwdriver, “What does a woman want?”
And I know, “mystery”, but there’s a point where it’s not mystery, it’s just being lazy. The writers are making things up as they go along, so it’s okay with me if they haven’t figured out the story arc yet, but if the viewer can’t follow the scene from one moment to the next, then why do it at all?
Daphne hands Quentin notes and journals filled with cryptic and menacing phrases. Then she glad-eyes him out to the graveyard, and wields cutlery. I have no idea what she’s trying to do. Daphne is super annoying.
Meanwhile, the kids, who could hardly be worse. The ghosts have been batting David and Hallie around all week, encouraging them to put on silly clothes, look at toys, and then act like it’s a terrifying secret. The results have been mixed, at best.
So here’s a scene where David comes to Hallie’s room, and finds her swanning around in the same dress that she’s been putting on and taking off for as long as I can remember. It doesn’t do anything. It’s a dress.
Hallie, who used to be frightened by this, is now super excited to wear it, and David, who used to think this stuff was exciting, is now frightened. She tells him to come in quickly and shut the door, so that nobody sees her in the dress.
He’s troubled, and she asks, “Why does my wearing it upset you?”
“I’m not upset, I’m just –”
“Just what?” Hallie demands. “Has something happened that you haven’t told me?” Like what?
But he makes a shocking confession — when he went to his room, he found some old clothes on his bed. She insists that he put them on, but he doesn’t want to.
“You don’t want to make me happy!” she yells. “You don’t want to make her happy!” And then she storms out of the room, into the hallway. I thought she didn’t want anybody to see her. But that was seventy seconds ago, and these kids change their motivations and personalities at least once per scene. It’s exhausting.
Downstairs, Quentin’s doing his own flip-flop. He was just outside, dallying with the dead, and all of a sudden he wants to get rid of the ghosts.
“If there are spirits in this house,” he declares, “we not only owe it to ourselves, but to them, to put them at rest once and for all — by exorcising them from this house!” This is what people talk about on Dark Shadows.
And then the camera pulls in really, really tight, and then even tighter, so all you see are his eyes, his nose, and maybe fifteen percent of his cheek. They’ve been doing this a lot since they came back from 1995; I have no idea why. It looks awful.
There’s even been a couple scenes where they pull in this tight on both people in the scene, and they cut back and forth between them, and all you can see is part of their face. Maybe they’re trying to save money on scenery.
Okay, more drama. David finds Hallie in the playroom as usual, and she’s terribly upset, quelle surprise. Here’s the lowdown.
Hallie: I’m going to be punished!
David: Punished for what? You haven’t done anything wrong.
Hallie: Oh yes, I have! I went to his ship today!
And then they pull in for another intrusive closeup, which isn’t quite as close as Quentin’s but it’s plenty close. My preference is to move further away from Hallie; I don’t know who made this request.
David: Whose ship?
David: Who’s Gerard?
Hallie: I saw him, in one of the cabins, with Daphne! I saw him take her in his arms, and kiss her! I didn’t mean to see them! I was just walking by! They’re both very angry with me!
David: Nothing you’re saying is making any sense!
Yeah, no kidding. If you’re going to incept someone, why incept them with this?
Then Daphne comes in, and boy, is she angry. She stares at Hallie with almost as much contempt as I feel for her, and that’s plenty. Hallie shivers and gulps, and asks Daphne not to punish her. Why would Daphne be angry at something that somebody else did, 130 years ago? I’m really not following this very well.
Back downstairs, Quentin’s gone out and found a big stick to use for the closing number.
Julia asks, “Don’t you think we ought to tell Barnabas!”
“No!” Quentin declares. “We don’t need him. I know what to do.” That means we don’t want to pay him to appear, and it’s a dumb scene anyway.
“The ceremony is quite clear,” he announces. “The reaction to it may be something else, indeed.”
“What do you mean?”
“If the ceremony is a success, there may be a severe disturbance in this house after it’s over.” Okay.
So they go outside with the stick, and Quentin looks off into the distance and starts talking.
To start with, he abjures them, contemptuous and evil spirits, by the judge of the quick and the dead, by the maker of all things, and by him who hath power to put them into hell. Then he asks them to depart in haste from the confines of this house. This is all standard boilerplate.
Furthermore, he tells the restless and unquiet shades — also doing business as the creatures of those nethermost pits where the fire is not quenched — to return to their winding sheets, and set the living free, in the name of the Lord. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Also, he wants the alien spirits, the defilers of innocence, and the persecutors of virtue to cast themselves back into the outer darkness from whence they came. Then there’s some theremin music, and Quentin looks weird, and that’s the whole thing. It doesn’t work.
So the problem is that we’ve seen all of this before — louder, faster and with weirder characters. Once you’ve seen a Trask exorcism, or a Stokes Saturday-night special, you can’t be satisfied with a regular stick party. Plus, we’ve seen spirits who are way more contemptuous and evil than these.
And I wouldn’t call this defiling innocence or persecuting virtue, either. When you get right down to it, it’s basically dress-up; the only surprise is that the kids don’t have a tea set. Quentin can waggle his stick all day, if he wants to. We’re still not getting anywhere.
Tomorrow: What’s In Store.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
I cleaned this up in the post, but when Quentin’s hugging Daphne, he actually says, “I almost know nothing about you.”
When David enters the playroom and approaches Hallie, you can see a studio light reflected in the window glass.
At the beginning of act 4, as Hallie sits up, someone crosses in front of the camera.
Julia is clearly struggling for her lines in act 4. The worst line: “Quentin — (sigh) — those spirits — must have — been aware — when you did the — the exorcism, and they — they committed a minor — accident.” When they cut to Quentin, he’s biting his lip, possibly to keep from laughing.
Behind the Scenes:
Ken McEwen performs the voiceover narration at the beginning of the episode today; he was an associate director who played Larry Chase in five Parallel Time episodes back in May. He performs the narration for three episodes — 1028, 1079 and 1082 — and he doesn’t play a character in any of them.
Hallie falls down in this episode and hurts her arm, and by act 4, she’s got her arm in a sling. Kathy Cody was actually hurt; she was hit by a car outside the Dark Shadows studio.
Tomorrow: What’s In Store.
— Danny Horn