“You ever notice how time moves so slow, just when you want it to go so fast?”
Yesterday, Catherine Collins drew the fatal slip in the family lottery, which means that she needs to go and spend a night on the other side of an extremely angry door, where something terrible will happen unto her that will either kill her or drive her senseless. It’s all part of some ridiculous centuries-old curse that’s slowly grinding the family into powder, and we’re riding shotgun so I guess we’re part of it too.
Catherine’s devoted husband Morgan tried to convince her that he should go in her place, her sister Daphne pleaded with her not to participate, and her ex-boyfriend Bramwell urged her to run away with him, but Catherine was determined to show them all that there’s nothing to fear in the cursed room, it’s just a metaphor for something, and maybe if we went outside and got some exercise instead of huddling in our dark mansion and subsisting entirely on brandy and hot coffee we’d all feel a lot better. I forget what chapter of Wuthering Heights this is supposed to be; I lost track a while ago.
At the end of the episode, Catherine took the long walk down the dark hall to the mysterious door of doom… but when she tried to open the door, she found that Morgan had changed the lock, and he was already inside, taking her place, and sacrificing himself for her sake.
This was a nice little twist in the tale, a character-based plot point that moves the story forward another step. The 1841 Parallel Time story has been good at that, making sure that each episode adds another piece to the overall storyline. There have been periods in the show when it felt like the story was just stumbling around in circles, trying to figure out what to do next, and the 1840 story that we just experienced was a mess in that regard.
It was pretty obvious in the last half of 1840 that they honestly didn’t know what they were aiming for, with lots of plot threads that stalled and then suddenly sprang up again out of nowhere. Quentin’s trial went in circles, back and forth with no real advancement, Gerard cast a series of love-dream spells on Daphne, which didn’t accomplish anything in particular. They kept forgetting about characters like Gabriel, who disappeared for a while and then suddenly went crazy and tried to murder everyone.
In comparison, this lottery story has been much more disciplined and well thought out, each piece unlocking the next. Last week, the five cliffhangers were:
- Gabriel attacks Kendrick with a knife before running away into the night.
- Daphne announces that she’s going to marry Bramwell.
- Carrie has a vision that Daphne will die if she marries Bramwell.
- Bramwell marries Daphne, and then learns that Catherine is pregnant with his child.
- Catherine picks the losing slip in the lottery.
Each one of those story points was significant, and changed the status quo, steadily moving the plot forward. For the first time on this mad and ridiculous show, it feels like they know what they’re trying to achieve, and they’re executing on a sensible plan.
And I hate it. Oh god, I absolutely fucking hate it.
I mean, if you ever wanted an example of why serialized narrative should be messy and reckless, then this lifeless excuse for a story is it. On paper, it looks like what Dark Shadows was supposed to be all along: a dark family drama set in a big gloomy house, partly inspired by classic fiction, with looming supernatural threats based on secret tragedies from the ancestral past, threatening young lovers who are scrambling to find love in a cold climate. The characterization is consistent, and all the storylines are pointed in the same direction; by the end of the series, I expect that all of the plot threads will be resolved in a big climactic showdown between the forces of love and vengeance.
The problem is that they’ve forgotten to give us anything to care about. I don’t like any of these people, and I couldn’t care less about what happens to them. Here, I’ll give you an example.
“I couldn’t come out now if I wanted to, Catherine!” Morgan calls from the other side of the door, aiming for noble and landing squarely on Dudley DoRight. “Please understand! I had no other choice. I couldn’t let you do this. But I want you to know something. Are you listening?”
Yes, she’s listening. We all are, unfortunately.
“I want you to know” — this is still Morgan, I’m afraid — “that the courage you’ve shown has given me all the strength I need. I thought that if this time ever came for me, I’d be terrified. I’m not, Catherine. I’m not! And I have you to thank!”
And Catherine cries, and runs away to go have a scene with somebody else.
And then Morgan looks around this dumb empty sleepaway cabin that he’s locked himself into for the night, which is supposed to be terrifying but is actually just dimly lit. He’s peering into the shadows, waiting for something to jump out at him, but nothing’s there, because Gordon Russell is pacing himself. He knows what the monster at the end of this book is going to be, but it’s still five weeks away, so he’s skating by on lighting and music cues.
Meanwhile, Quentin is downstairs being noble and stern, his two allotted character traits. Catherine — wild, spirited, passionate Catherine — is grabbing at his elbow, begging him to give her the key to the door, so that she can throw herself up the stairs and drag her husband away from the danger that was supposed to be hers and hers alone, and he stands there and tells her that he and Morgan made an agreement not to allow any of the women in the house to bear the burden of going into the spooky vengeance room. This is a very gallant attitude that happens to be dramatically inert.
I remember when Quentin was a charismatic trickster god, with four simultaneous girlfriends all living in the same house. Now he’s telling Catherine to calm down and be sensible.
“Catherine, listen to me,” he sighs. “Even if you had the key, it’s too late.”
“What do you mean, it’s too late?” She’s still trying to have some energy.
“Morgan is already in the room,” he explains. “For all we know, whatever’s in there may already have an effect on him. We don’t know. You remember, Gabriel was only in that room for half an hour.” He hands her a glass of brown liquid. “Here. Drink this.”
She takes the glass, and visibly deflates. “So what do we do now, just sit, and wait out the night?”
“And hope,” he says, striking a pose.
To demonstrate the impact of Quentin’s role in the scene, this is a picture of Catherine at the beginning of the conversation…
And this is what she looks like at the end, just sagging and defeated. This is not the effect that Quentin Collins should have on women.
Meanwhile, remember the terrifying room that everyone is scared of going into, the huge threat that’s been kept hidden from the family and the audience for all this time? Well, Morgan’s still in it, and exactly nothing is happening to him. I don’t know what killed Tim Braithwaite when he was in here, but as far as we can tell, it looks like it was either boredom or upper respiratory failure from breathing in all the fake cobweb fibers.
They’ve been building this up to be utterly terrifying, and the point of this episode is that Morgan has offered himself up as a sacrifice, but it looks like if he just keeps sitting in that chair he’s going to be totally fine.
In fact, the big tension-sting moment is that Morgan pulls aside a curtain and finds — gasp! another locked door. It looks to me like we’ve called the spooky door’s bluff, and it turns out it’s subcontracted the spookiness out to another door. Odds are there’s nothing behind this door, either. This is what happens when you count on the architecture to do all the dramatic heavy lifting.
And then they do an absolutely fatal “waiting montage” scene, which opens with the sound of a ticking clock, and a fade to Julia doing needlepoint, Quentin pacing and Catherine slumped on the couch, as the afternoon drains away and everyone gets inexorably older.
This is an obvious unforced error for the show. When you’re in the time-wasting industry, as everyone in television is, then the last thing you want to do is remind the audience that time exists, that life is finite and you should probably be studying for tomorrow’s algebra test.
So this, I guess, is why I hate these people as much as I currently do: they’re passive. What’s happening to them has very little to do with them as specific characters; the curse was set up 160 years ago, and it would still be happening regardless of who’s on set today.
These are three of the most thrilling actors in Dark Shadows, the massive kaiju who burst onto the scene and made such an impression that everybody else had to jump out of their way, to keep from getting crushed. And here they are, patiently running out the clock like they’re Dr. Woodard, Sheriff Patterson and Bill Malloy. It’s criminal.
Then it’s back to Morgan, who’s done a survey of the room and selected the least ornamental ornament that he can use to smash the lock open. I don’t know why they never noticed this door before, when they came in the next morning to drag the bodies away. I get that they didn’t want to spend a lot of time in here, but honestly it’s not a very big room, and if people keep getting killed in here then you ought to at least do a simple perimeter check.
Morgan breaks the lock, and then slowly opens the creaky door…
And then he picks up the candle, and walks into the dark space beyond…
Which turns out to be just another dark, empty, cobwebby set. Just as I thought, it’s more architecture.
Then they go and do another scene with Quentin telling Catherine to calm down. She runs up to the room and tries calling to Morgan through the door, and then — commercial break tension-sting! — Quentin finds her there!
And then he tells her to be sensible, that they have to wait until dawn. “Now, come on,” he says, “I’ll take you back downstairs.” So she comes on, and he takes her back downstairs.
But it’s not like things are going any better, back downstairs. Quentin finds Julia pacing around in a different room, and he tells her that he just found Catherine upstairs and brought her downstairs, which we already know because we saw them do it.
Then the clock chimes, and Julia heaves a sigh, and says, “It’s only eleven o’clock!” And then she falls heavily into a chair, sighs again, and closes her eyes.
“You ever notice,” Quentin asks, “how time moves so slow, just when you want it to go so fast?” The answer is yes. We have noticed.
And then there’s more ticking-clock porn, with a whole new waiting montage that includes two separate fades to the clock face…
as we watch the characters pace around, and drink more brandy and coffee, and look discontent.
Finally, we get to the end of this time-eating exercise, and Quentin and Julia go upstairs and crack open the portal, to find Morgan sitting calmly in a chair. Something terrible has indeed happened to him, but it’s happened offscreen, beyond the extra door and down the stairs, and maybe it was terrifying and maybe it wasn’t, but for now we’re just going to have to take it on faith.
They’re expecting us to come back tomorrow, too, and we will, because we are under some kind of ancestral curse that keeps us watching this unfulfilling show. But not for long.
Tomorrow: The Carrie Diaries.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the Act 1 scene with Quentin and Catherine, he’s still saying his last line when the mic goes off and the scene changes.
In act 4, when Melanie brings a tray of coffee into the drawing room, the camera swings a little too wide when it moves to the grandfather clock, showing the left side of the set and some people moving by.
Tomorrow: The Carrie Diaries.
— Danny Horn