Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: March 7


Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 191

Laura and David face off in a burning shack, and she works her magic to induce him to roast alive. The ghost of Josette reveals the location to Victoria, who rushes there. As she pleads for David to pull back, the boy begins to recite the magic legend of the Phoenix, but stops and escapes before completing the ritual. Across town, Liz comes to her senses.

Why does it take twenty minutes for a boy to decide whether he’s going to leave a burning shack or not? Because it’s a soap opera. 191 represents everything in the medium that DARK SHADOWS would quietly rebel from as well as everything that made it ludicrously grand. The Phoenix story can’t end quickly enough and it takes its time not doing so. Still, DS’ FIRST major supernatural supervillain makes her temporary exit, and the road to the mausoleum is now paved for Barnabas to come out of the coffin.

Not that the episode lacks stakes and a sense of payoff. The success of this installment rests on the narrow shoulders of David Henesy. At the end of a big Henesy episode or scene, it’s common to announce that the kid nailed it, and this episode is no exception. His scene partners have it easy. They have straightforward, high stakes objectives to pursue. Either David goes into the fire or he doesn’t. There are only so many ways that people can implore the kid to come to them. On the other hand, Henesy has to stretch out indecision and keep it fresh for twenty minutes… with the help of an “ancient legend” that he recites. Not only does he succeed like a champ, but he concludes one of his better Hagen Days with a tearful catharsis that reads as properly-uncomfortably authentic.

Mythologically, one of DARK SHADOWS’ frequent weaknesses is a strength. As with Petofi and the Leviathans (who also played at my prom), the Phoenix is a mythological figure with no citable root in anything recognizable. It lacks a resonance of cultural memory, and feels somewhat slapdash and arguably “who cares?” Fortunately, this ambiguity also guarantees the writers flexibility and room for surprise. The Phoenix is a warm-up for what would become the show’s bread and butter of very successfully post-modernizing supernatural lore, and in that regard, is an invaluable element to the show’s success.

Characters make important leaps to shatter old grudges in 191. David is in the position of choosing mothers, and his election shows unusual wisdom as he follows Vicki to liberty. Similarly, the warmth shown between Carolyn and Liz in the hospital is one more step toward bringing them together beyond Carolyn’s constructed ennui and Liz’s studied distance. In this sense, the Phoenix is new life… just not as Laura expected.

On this day in 1967, Jimmy Hoffa went to jail while Alice B. Toklas shattered the world of poets and pro-wrestlers alike by dying. 

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