Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 26


Taped on this day in 1966: Episode 72

While Vicki is accused of corporate espionage, a mysterious stranger tests the freshness of Maggie’s roast beef. Agent Johnson: Clarice Blackburn. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Carolyn attacks Victoria over her date with Burke, causing Victoria to contemplate quitting. Meanwhile, Bill Malloy’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson, weasels her way into Carolyn‘s heart, winning a job at Collinwood. Victoria threatens to quit over the suspiciousness at Collinwood, causing Liz to confront her motives. Later, we learn that Mrs. Johnson is a mole for Burke Devlin.

DARK SHADOWS is known for its wildly eccentric characters, and Mrs. Johnson is introduced with such a flourish that she may top even Count Petofi... in a tightly controlled, antiseptic fashion. Kathryn Leigh Scott is always very careful to praise actress Clarice Blackburn, and her characters are so dowdy or unpleasant that this catches me off guard. Actually, that’s a testament to her acting. I instinctively respond to her characters on a very visceral level, forgetting that there is an actress inventing them. If the art is in concealing the art, then this reaction is more telling and authentic and affectionate than a standing ovation. 

Meeting Sarah Johnson is like doing a keg stand where the keg is filled with a strange mixture of Moxie pop and life’s bitterest disappointments. Deliciously so. An eccentric stick in the mud, to say the least, it makes sense that she is Bill Malloy‘s former housekeeper. The implication is that, although they never shared a bed, they might very well have been lovers... or something even more intense. Her reminiscence about Malloy comes in a strange, focused monologue, and it’s a reverberation of just what an influential character Malloy continues to be.

I appreciate the effort of the show to root its action and flavor so firmly in the great state of Maine, with all of its forbidding, down east eclecticism. Malloy had that quality, and he and Mrs. Johnson seem like the only characters we have met who can be imagined putting up with the other in a domestic circumstance. Her idea of a greeting is demanding to know whether Maggie’s roast beef is fresh. With a brazen obstinance somewhere between Large Marge and Frau Bl├╝cher, she manages to make a simple restaurant inquiry sound both strangely filthy and definitely insulting. She then begins grinding away on the subject of old mayonnaise as if she’s discussing the filthy outlaw who shot her kid brother, and it’s clear that Mrs. Johnson is here to stay.

With a vaguely well-adjusted (in a homicidal way) household, planting a spy for Burke Devlin is just the touch of espionage intrigue that Collinwood needs. Finally, someone can actually be the spy that Vicki is suddenly accused of working as. (In the same episode no less, with the irony and subtlety of an anvil landing in your lap.) That kind of duality — especially among the backstairs staff — is a concession to the dramatic thinking that DARK SHADOWS kinda lost over the years. The show gained plot, but it lost those opportunities for characters to reflect one another. As it reached a supernatural frenzy, this earlier, authorial delicacy was a necessary casualty. However, it’s vital to know that a sculpted duality like Mrs. Johnson and Vicki is an instinct buried in the program’s DNA.

Just before we find out that Mrs. Johnson is a spy for Burke, the show treats us to a marvelous confrontation between Victoria and Elizabeth. Tired of the paranoia and old money gatekeeping, Vicky tells Liz that she’s more than happy to quit as opposed to putting up with it further. We rarely think Vicky is having this kind of backbone, but it’s intrinsic to who she is. Little moments like that sustain the dignity of the show in its early days, and the actors take marvelous advantage of the opportunity. No, there may be no cursed hands and body switching, but the red meat drama of those early months are more than a match.

And by the way, I think it’s pretty clear that Bill Malloy is a candidate to be Harry Johnson‘s real father. Watch the episode and get back to me.

This episode was broadcast Oct. 4, 1966.

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