“He’s in his coffin. You’re some creature, like him!”
I get it. The X-Men have already made their last stand, and then it’s five years later, and you want another one. You doused the Wicked Witch with water, you blew up the Planet of the Apes, you solved the energy problem in Monstropolis, and you raided the lost ark, but here you are, broke and hitless. So what do you do?
Sure, making a prequel isn’t the most creative option, but once you’ve killed off Darth Vader, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt, then what’s left to look at, porgs? There’s got to be more to life than that.
The current crisis is that six zombie pirates have destroyed Collinwood somehow; they just walked in the front door and started smashing up the foyer, and before you knew it, the whole mansion was in ruins. I’m not sure how pulling a tapestry off the wall makes the roof fall in, but maybe it was going to fall in anyway and the zombies got lucky.
So our heroes bravely turned their tails and fled, followed by a pack of angry howler monkeys who’d just got their hands on a doomsday bomb. Barnabas tried locking the door, but that didn’t hold them, so Julia hitched a ride on a passing staircase which suddenly appeared where the playroom didn’t used to be, sending her tumbling once more through the timeways.
And here we are in the arrivals lounge of the Cross-Time Express, making landfall at 1840, the penultimate stop on our uncertain and frightening journey through Dark Shadows. This time, the person who makes first contact is Julia, alone and gownless, and the first person that she sees is goddamn Carrie Stokes. Isn’t that always the way? You arrive early at the party, and the only other person there is the very one you were hoping to avoid.
This is the show’s third excursion into the past, or the second if you want to be chronologically pedantic about it, and so far they’ve been a sure-fire success. The 1840 storyline is another chance to use the cast as a repertory company, giving everyone new names and relationships and mustaches. It’s an explicitly theatrical device, which relies on the audience’s extra-diegetic awareness of how the show works; the principal pleasure is watching the actors get all excited about their new costumes and accents.
The other great thing about these time-hops is that they create a whole show’s worth of new characters, each with their own backstory. The Collins family that we left in 1970 has had their internal conflicts pretty much explored and resolved; there were two missing family members when the show began, but we’ve met them and disposed of them by now, and it looks like all the skeletons have been shaken out of the closets. What we need now are some new closets.
So here’s something we’ve needed for a little while: a new Collins family member that we don’t like. This is chairbound second-born son Gabriel Collins, as played by Jeb Hawkes, but with a new mustache and at a different altitude. He’s the first new person that Julia sees when she emerges from the time portal, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be a villain, because he is relentlessly nasty to every person that he sees.
“You’re a guest in this house, Miss Stokes!” he says, within fifteen seconds of appearing on the show. “You do not give orders to a Collins!” This is exciting, because nobody in the present-day family does terrible rich person things anymore, like shouting at servants, or arguing about whether the corporate tax rate should be miniscule or merely inadequate.
“You’ve been petted and spoiled,” says Gabriel, continuing the endless stream-of-consciousness dressing-down that he aims at whoever happens to be in front of him. “Other people see your prettiness. I only see your impudence!” I think what he meant to say was, “Excuse me.” I like Gabriel.
And then there’s Gabriel’s sister-in-law Samantha Collins, who is a nice lady wearing a dress. She asks Carrie to accompany her into the playroom, for the first time since the death of her son Tad. As Julia hides behind a screen that was specifically placed there for hiding purposes, Samantha walks downstage and delivers a monologue.
“Oh, why did I let Quentin take Tad on that boat?” she says, just barely choking back tears. “Why didn’t I say to him, he’ll die if he goes — because I knew that, somewhere inside me. I didn’t say anything… but here I am. Quentin’s dead. Tad’s dead. And here I am, in a room filled with toys.”
And then in the script it says “Samantha breaks down in sobs”, so that’s what she breaks down in. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m being bitchy toward Samantha, who’s perfectly fine; I think it’s that she enters immediately after Gabriel rolls off screen. I like my Collinses loud and outré, and besides, I don’t even know who this dame is. I was expecting an actor from Dark Shadows.
But that is actually part of the point of this moment: to screw with Julia’s expectations, and with ours. Coming into this episode, we knew six characters from 1840 — Gerard, Daphne, Quentin, Tad, Carrie and Leticia — and that’s who we figure we’ll see. But Quentin and Tad are already dead, according to Samantha, and later on in the episode, we’ll find out that the children’s governess is named Hortense, not Daphne.
So here’s Julia, taking refuge in the playroom — the most dangerous room in the house, until today — and getting an earful of continuity errors. It’s true what they say: the past is another country, and if they see you, they’ll be horrified by what you’re wearing, and you’ll probably end up involved in a witch trial.
And here’s the episode’s big surprise: Ben Stokes! Barnabas’ faithful servant from 1795, slathered in old age makeup and tucked up in bed.
It’s a lovely treat, because we didn’t have any particular reason to think that we’d see anybody that we knew from a previous storyline, and Ben was one of the best characters in 1795, complicated and strong-willed and warm-hearted and sad. And now he’s getting bossed around by an obnoxious member of the Collins family, which is just the kind of thing he does best.
Gabriel wants Ben to talk to his father for him — and when Ben refers to Gabriel’s father as “Daniel”, we can understand why there’s a special connection. There were only four people left standing at the end of 1795 — Joshua, Millicent, Daniel and Ben — and now there’s just two, the last survivors of a tsunami that wiped out everything they knew. We remember Daniel — innocent, the last time we saw him, and untouched by the violence that claimed the lives of so many. Remembering that kid, and that special period of the show, adds another layer of meaning to what’s going on today. You have to give it to the Dark Shadows writers — this is a thing that they know how to do. They invented it.
Now, to some degree, they’re reaching back for some familiar tropes. The head of the family is dying, broken under the weight of his secrets, and everyone is squabbing about the will. There are missing family members, and someone’s locked in the tower room, and the meanest man in the room has a mustache.
But it’s hard to resist angry exposition, delivered at high velocity.
Gabriel: Ben, it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t do as Father wished. I could have, you know, if it hadn’t been for — the accident. Father shouldn’t have favored Quentin so much. I couldn’t earn my own way!
Ben: Plenty of men worse off than you have.
Gabriel: You are lucky that I can’t stand up, otherwise I would strangle you for that! And I can, you know! I’m strong enough! Now, you’re going into that room, and you’re going to tell Father, and Father will make out a new will, and I will get everything!
And then he threatens to impoverish Ben’s granddaughter after he dies, and Ben walks out. It’s a great scene, full of fire and real feelings.
But the person we really care about is Julia, of course, and the thing we want most is for her to form an alliance with Ben. He was Barnabas’ best friend too, back in the day, and now we get to see the eighteenth century sidekick and the twentieth century sidekick, meeting in the middle.
Julia: I’m a friend of Barnabas Collins.
Ben: Barnabas Collins is dead!
Julia: Yes, but he lives, you know that!
Ben: He’s in his coffin! You’re some creature, like him!
Julia: No, I’ve come from a different time!
Ben: What are you saying?
Julia: I just left Barnabas, a few hours ago! He’s out of his coffin! We live in a different time, in 1970!
Ben: You’re mad!
Julia: No, please, listen to me, you must!
But she is mad, obviously; we all are. That is an utterly ridiculous conversation, uttered by two ridiculous people, and yet it makes me want to cry, it’s so beautiful. Barnabas is dead, and he lives; he’s in a coffin, and he’s out. We live in a different time. And yes, we’re mad. In fact, we’re furious.
Monday: The Healer.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
They appear to be using electric lights in 1840; the first electric lightbulb was patented in 1875.
In 1840, the playroom is apparently in the same place that it was when people visited it in 1995 and 1970 — but that room was supposed to be a linen closet, which grows into a playroom due to some kind of magic spectral architecture. I don’t think it’s ever explained how the room could be bigger, when the closet is opposite an outside wall.
In act 4, when Julia comes out of hiding to talk to Ben, you can see past the edge of the set on the left, with the blue of a video monitor showing what’s currently on camera — you can see Julia’s arm as she rests her hand on the end of the bed, and moves towards Ben.
When Gabriel puts the wax seal on his note to Gerard, it clearly takes longer than they expected — he struggles a bit with both the candle and the seal.
Behind the Scenes:
Samantha Collins is played by Virginia Vestoff, who has an interesting backstory of her own. Her father was an actor and a ballet instructor who died when Virginia was seven years old; her mother died two years later. She threw herself into performing, and by age 12, she had a professional gig in the Children’s Chorus of the New York City Opera Company. She went to the New York High School for the Performing Arts, but by the time she was 15, she wanted to move out on her own, so she got a job at a department store and switched schools. She dropped out when she was a junior to join a touring dance company. In 1960, she made her Broadway debut in a revue called From A to Z, and then appeared in Irma La Douce, and a Sherlock Holmes musical called Baker Street. She was in the original cast of 1776 as Abigail Adams, a role she played from 1969 to 1972. During the day, she appeared in daytime soap operas — first The Doctors from 1969 to 1970, and then Dark Shadows, from September 1970 to January 1971.
Christopher Pennock described playing Gabriel in the Dark Shadows Almanac: Millennium Edition: “Gabriel Collins, the fabulous, evil, self-pitying, fake cripple in his wheel chair… Gabriel was such a treat. There was so much fun to be had playing in a wheel chair, a great dramatic device. The writers endowed Gabriel with a very witty, sarcastic tongue, so I could insult literally everyone at Collinwood with impunity. Gabriel even had some tender, vulnerable scenes with Louis Edmonds, who portrayed his father. What more could an actor ask for? Unless the muse returns to strike Dan Curtis with an inspiration as daring as Dark Shadows, I am unlikely to have the joy of such characters to play again. It was the time of my life.”
Charles Rush plays the mystery feet and choking hands of Daniel Collins today. This is the third of Rush’s four episodes on the show — he was previously seen as the mystery feet and wristwatch-displaying hand of Quentin when he walked through Collinwood in December 1969, and Thomas Findley, one of Jeb’s zombies, in March 1970. We’ll see him again as a guard in January.
Also, I might as well mention here that after this episode, we don’t see Carrie again for another six weeks, whoopee! So that’s enough of her.
Monday: The Healer.
— Danny Horn