“Read the book, and you will know why the head must be destroyed.”
And meanwhile, from out of nowhere: a good television show.
It’s one of the great mysteries of 1970 Dark Shadows, that it can careen from low point to high point as often as it does. The Parallel Time story rattled to an incoherent close in July, killing the villain a week early and throwing in an unnecessary new love interest at the last minute. Then Barnabas and Julia traveled to 1995 for two fascinating, moody weeks that showed a sharp uptick in writing and production — and then it all fell to pieces over the next few months, as they returned to 1970 and forgot what they were aiming for.
And now here we are in October, in 1840 of all places, and the show is worth watching again, because Dan and Sam and Gordon have simply scrapped all of the previous stories and continuity and started over again, with a brand new soap opera. Barnabas and Julia aren’t on the show today, and nobody talks about them; the only character who we know from longer than two weeks ago is young Daniel, who’s now a dying old man and hardly even counts.
The star of this new show is Gerard Stiles — gun runner, smuggler, best friend and fortune-hunter — who has the same name and hairstyle as a ghost that used to be on the show, but otherwise there’s no resemblance. Gerard doesn’t threaten children or governesses, and he doesn’t do magic tricks with dollhouses. Why would he?
But this is how it works on this show, which has reinvented itself and risen from the ashes for another cycle. Once again, they’ve discovered that the best way to make Dark Shadows is to start from scratch and do something else.
Of course, this leaves me at something of a loose end. I’m always a bit stuck in these periods where lots of things are going right — interesting plot twists, strong character moments, witty script — because I feel like I ought to give them credit for all the things they’re doing well. It’s easy to write a detailed hatchet piece, where I can dig into a mistake and figure out who’s to blame. But with a really good episode like this one, I’m just leading you through the rooms of Collinwood like a tour guide, typing a bunch of long quotes and saying, see? That’s good writing. Which means I’m doing recaps, and that’s not what I was planning to do with my life.
But to be completely honest with you, I can’t think of anything else to do, and it really is a good episode today. So I’ll just start writing nice things, and see if it gets me anywhere.
Yesterday’s episode ended with a clever piece of writing that makes the scene more pleasurable when you watch it again at the beginning of today’s. Gerard comes back from his afternoon in town, and tells Gabriel about the events of the day. Gabriel thinks that Gerard poisoned Samantha, but Gerard actually married her, so there’s a little twinkle in Gerard’s eye when he tells Gabriel that “it happened” at the courthouse in front of witnesses, and then reveals that she’s alive, and he’s rich, and Gabriel is out of luck.
Now, the underlying background hum of these trips into the past is the tension around who carries on the family name and fortune. The show is acting like this is a normal, open-ended soap opera narrative that happens to be based in the nineteenth century, but we know that there’s a goal that we’re shooting for — the Collins family tree, which tells us that Gabriel and Edith are the grandparents of the family we know from 1897 and beyond.
So it’s easy to see that Gerard marrying Samantha is a problem, history-wise. Elder son Quentin Collins is dead, and his heir died with him, but doddering old Daniel loves his widowed daughter-in-law Samantha, and he’s planning to settle the family fortune on her and see what happens. And if Gerard has transformed her into Samantha Stiles, that means that the money and the house will soon be in the hands of alien outsiders, and by the time we hit 1970, everyone will be living on the great estate at Stilewood.
But we know that’s a historical dead end, which means that deep down we’re rooting for Gabriel to win, except that’s impossible, because Gabriel is relentlessly, unbearably awful.
For one thing, he’s played by Chris Pennock, who after ten months on the show has consistently failed to make any of his characters likeable, so they’ve stopped trying and just opened the throttle on hatefulness.
As we all know, the three steps to making the audience like a character is to make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen. Gabriel is dripping with plot points — paying someone to poison someone else is an all-time classic, as far as plot points go — but it’s the other elements where things go awry. Gabriel doesn’t make jokes, except at other people’s expense, and he is absolutely incapable of making friends.
Every sentence that Gabriel utters is a manifesto on the subject of his pathetic, isolated existence. He lives his life trapped in a metal chair, and I don’t think Collinwood has an elevator, so every time we see him upstairs it means that some poor servant just gave him an exhausting and humiliating piggyback ride. He talks incessantly, filling the air with words, but he never asks a question unless it’s a trap, some rhetorical landmine deployed as an area denial weapon to ensure that no one ever gets close enough to feel anything.
The fact that he can’t make friends isn’t a problem, because we’re not supposed to like him. Gabriel is a villain, a serpent, a pest burrowing into the walls of Collinwood that the family is unable to eradicate. Everybody hates him, and every sniff and sneer makes us long for his comeuppance.
Except that he’s the guy who needs to win all the money, if Elizabeth and Roger are ever going to exist. It’s diabolical scriptwriting, pitting us against ourselves and ensuring that we’re never quite comfortable in this time period. I don’t know if that’s a goal that a show that’s struggling in the ratings ought to be occupying itself with, but they’re doing a damn good job with it.
And his father Daniel is another monster, locked away in the tower room. We don’t know exactly what happened to turn a happy little boy into this morose mess of a man, but here he is anyway. Practically all that we know is that he hated his wife, who he felt was always deceiving him, and that he killed her — or at least, he’s convinced himself that he did, because he spends a great deal of time drifting around in his personal autobiography, highlighting favorite passages and scratching out the parts he doesn’t believe in anymore.
In this scene, Gabriel rolls himself up to the tower somehow — there must be a worn-out servant, wheezing in the hallway, and dreading the return trip — and I’m not sure why he’s here, but it’s a perfect example of his self-defeating conversation style. He wants something from his father — money, trust, some scrap of approval — but he can’t bring himself to be kind, even for a single sentence.
Gabriel: I thought it time that I paid you a visit. Are you comfortable here?
Daniel: It’s time for my dinner! Where is Ben Stokes?
Gabriel: Ben won’t be bringing your dinner tonight, father. Not tonight, nor tomorrow night. Ben’s dead, father, killed by his own hand.
Daniel: Dead? I don’t believe it.
Gabriel: Well, he’s dead all the same, father. The funeral’s going to be tomorrow. Think you could attend? You haven’t been to many funerals, for many years. You didn’t even go to mother’s.
And there you have it, that’s Gabriel, the man with so many grievances that they just spill out of his mouth. This is Gabriel when he’s trying to connect with his dad.
Daniel: Get out of here!
Gabriel: I can’t, father. I can’t, because I need you too much.
Daniel: I don’t want you here! I want to grieve for Ben alone.
Gabriel: Why do you hate me so much, father? Why was I never the son you wanted? Is it because I couldn’t run like Quentin, because I couldn’t sail off in ships like Quentin? Stop grieving for Ben, father, I’m alive! He’s dead! I’m the only son you’ve got!
It’s not obvious why Gabriel chooses this moment for a sales pitch on loving the unloveable, although it’s possible that this is just Gabriel’s baseline behavior, and the fact that Daniel is grieving for multiple loved ones is just a coincidence.
Gabriel: Samantha married, again. Oh, yes, Samantha married again this afternoon.
Gabriel: She married Gerard Stiles, so now all the Collins money is completely out of the family. Don’t you understand what I’m saying, father? Samantha married someone…
Daniel: I know! He asked me for her hand.
Daniel: He tried to save Quentin and Tad.
Gabriel: You agreed —
Daniel: While you sat in this house, he risked his life for theirs. I shall adopt him, I think!
Gabriel: You’re mad!
Daniel: I should have a son. A son who can sail the ships!
So the depth of Daniel’s disdain for Gabriel is just remarkable; there’s a whole novel’s worth of emotional backstory here. Just the phrase “while you sat in this house” — you could power a year of psychotherapy appointments from that alone. What does a crippled child have to do, in order to alienate people to that extent?
I know that I’m blaming the guy in the wheelchair for the fact that his father overlooks him, and discounts him as a son and heir. Ordinarily, I’d have more respect for a disabled person. But I think it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that Daniel can be deliberately cruel to a son with a disability, and everyone in the audience still blames Gabriel, without question.
Gabriel: Father, you don’t know him the way I do. I’ve had a complete report, I’ve had him investigated! He’s a smuggler, he’s a fortune-hunter, he’s probably a murderer! Father, I have proof!
Daniel: You’re jealous, Gabriel! You always were, even as a child!
Gabriel: I have a complete dossier on him! I’ll show that to you! Then you’ll believe me!
Daniel: You’re jealous of his happiness!
And then Gabriel rolls out the door, hoping somehow that showing his father some pieces of paper will solve something. Daniel isn’t saying that Gabriel is lying, and demanding to see evidence. Daniel doesn’t care whether these wild accusations have any substance or not. Even a murderer and a smuggler would make a better son than Gabriel does. Daniel just really, really hates this kid, that’s all.
And we love Gerard, which makes this whole situation confounding and fascinating. Gabriel’s right, Gerard really is a smuggler and a fortune-hunter, but Daniel doesn’t care, and neither do we. Gerard is sexy, and sexy has its own rules.
Gerard: My wife is a remarkably loyal woman. I admire loyalty, in women.
Gabriel: Her loyalty is going to be tested.
Gerard: Why don’t you just relax, and accept the fact that it happened?
Gabriel: Because I know you’ve been scheming, and plotting, and talking to my father, and pretending to kill Samantha when you wouldn’t!
And that’s perfect, that Gabriel’s real kick against the criminal who’s insinuated himself into the family is that he didn’t commit the crime that he promised he would.
Gerard leans over, looming just above Gabriel and the chair, in another act of disrespect for the disabled.
Gerard: I only went along with you because I was afraid that you would try to kill her yourself. I saved her life, Gabriel. I saved her life, with very little cost to me.
Gabriel: Well, you just watch what you say.
Gerard: May I give you a word of advice?
Gerard strolls around to the other side of the chair, and Gabriel — not wanting to be outflanked — tries to roll himself out of range. Gerard reaches out, and stops the chair cold.
Gerard: You had better listen to me. Why don’t you just be a good boy, from now on? It’ll prove beneficial to you in the future. Samantha and I may even be a little charitable on your unfortunate situation.
Gabriel: Let go of my chair!
So Gerard smiles and removes his hands, and Gabriel rolls away, mocked and utterly defeated.
You see what I mean about the good episodes? At a certain point, all I want to do is post quotes and enjoy the show. I don’t care. It’s worth it. Forget the vampire and the time travel and the magical severed head. Please, before the show dissolves: give me more of this.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There’s an ugly tape edit in act 1, going from Samantha in the drawing room saying “Hold me” to Gerard — and then the doorknob of the tower room.
Desmond reads the title of the book Ben brought to Rose Cottage: The Artifice of the Anti-Saints. When the book was introduced two episodes ago, Ben called it Relics of the Anti-Saints.
It takes two tries for Desmond to throw Ben’s crumpled note into the fire.
When Gabriel turns around in the drawing room, you can see Gerard’s shadow on the floor of the foyer as he waits for his entrance.
After Gerard says to Gabriel, “May I give you a word of advice?” the camera pokes into the shot on the left side.
Listen carefully when Gabriel rolls away from Gerard, and Desmond opens the front door — just after the door swings open, it sounds to me like you can hear a car horn from outside the studio.
Gerard says to Daniel, “You must have had a good few times, sir?”
Daniel acts like it’s a big deal that Gerard wants to bring him downstairs, but Ben brought Daniel downstairs two episodes ago to meet Barnabas. I don’t know why people can’t remember what happened two episodes ago; they just can’t, that’s all.
— Danny Horn