Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: JANUARY 16


Taped on this date in 1968: Episode 411

As Barnabas returns from death, he learns that his resurrection comes at a price he can never repay. Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas awakens to find Angelique hovering over him with a stake. When he discovers that her curse rendered him neither alive nor dead, he kills her. As Barnabas discovers what he has become, Ben Stokes volunteers to help him, and while hiding Angelique’s body, must bluff Barnabas’ curious father. Barnabas returns, having found that his new life demands that he live off the blood of others.

This is it. I mean, IT.

There are those episodes that wind up in top ten lists. Huge turning points. But because of the strange structure of soap operas, the episodes of action sometimes differ from the more interesting moments of actual consequence. So, which do you pick? When looking at the whole reason we go to 1795, which is a front row seat for Barnabas Begins, when is “the moment”? It’s usually pegged as 405, the episode in which Barnabas shoots Angelique, she lays the curse, and he answers the door when the bat knocks. Yes, vital, crucial. All of that is true. However, it comes at the end of the episode, ripping the plate from us just as we’re reaching for the spork. Then we have five whole episodes as he tries to escape his curse and finally dies, distancing itch and scratch to a point that the dramatic impact is muffled. Are they necessary? Yes, for the development of Angelique’s rather Byzantine conscience. Arguably, the time gap heightens tension and creates more and more incentive to keep watching. Any more and they might have lost me, but 411 is so deeply satisfying to arrive at because the non-stop action and development make quintessential viewing. This episode, for me, is 1795 at its very best and one of the reasons that the flashback is so fondly remembered. Fewer things are better than good Dark Shadows, but this is so tight and intense that it ventures into the same realm as “City on the Edge of Forever,” coloring outside the lines of its own show’s standards to become not just an example of the program at its best, but of the medium at its best, as well.

Not to say that an episode has to be something beyond Dark Shadows to do that; it just has to be Dark Shadows at its best -- a core sample of why we care. This is it. And we care because we care about Barnabas, and we care about Barnabas because we care about what Jonathan Frid brings to the writing, and how that alchemizes with the work of Lara Parker. Maggie and Josette create frustration for Barnabas, and we feel for them both. Angelique brings threat, conflict, and desire on metaphysical, moral, mortal, and immortal levels. Maggie and Josette test greatness, but it is the transformation brought on by Angelique that makes him great. In 411, he realizes what he has become. Frid musters his full Shakespearean experience here, finding truth in the moment’s size. Barnabas surges with the panic and awe and woe that come with standing outside of life and outside of death. It’s so appropriate that they avoid the word “vampire” at this point, because the moment of his realization feels bigger than just becoming a folk tale-turned-penny dreadful baddie. By not using the v-word, we and he are focused on the more cosmic status of Barnabas and his alienation from both of the sides of existence. Not alive, not dead, but indifferent to both. Imbued with a passionate indifference to everything sacred in the natural order, he even overcomes -- if only for a moment -- all of Angelique’s powers. She’s not only a witch, she’s Dr. Frankenstein, desperately trying to undo her own creation and the only thing that can undo her. Angelique’s powers stem from nature… even the nature of the dark afterlife. By creating someone who stands outside of both life and what dark destiny lies beyond its gateway, she has an Oppenheimer moment. Barnabas demands to know why she was trying to destroy him before he rose. Yes, good question, and the answers are so myriad that the most powerful dramatic choice resides in not addressing them all. Because how can she?

As Barnabas sinks into the sad and terrified realization that his unwanted and Nietzschean state will require the loss of lives, he experiences the unique sadness of wanting the impossible end to an existence beyond what we can imagine. Fear drove Barnabas in life and fear drives him after. His dance with fear is as intense as his pursuit of love, and leads him into the paradox that drives him and the series. Just as love pushes him to do the hateful, fear will push him to be brave. We see this in his reflector, Ben Stokes, who recognizes his humanity as Barnabas loses his… and who quietly and hopelessly finds an impossible hope. As his master drifts from what it means to be human, Ben instinctively musters newfound will and compassion to help him, and by helping him create essential humanity for both of them. He stands at the opposite pole of Angelique, and somehow also shares a love for him that makes no sense, yet never rings as false. If Barnabas has to have his humanity ripped from him to eventually find it, Ben Stokes is his unwitting guide for that journey as he, himself, goes from murderer to conservator of life. As a final paradox, Ben can only take on the role of guardian of life by allowing the master in his charge to subsist by taking the life of others.
Does Ben do this because of social forces that define proletariat and working class? Put your pants on, Spartacus. He does it because of the Faustian spawn we call friendship. Impossible friendship.

But what friendship worth its grit isn’t?

Lives will be lost. There is no accounting for that. Literally. But the ultimate story of the show is how Barnabas pays a debt he can never afford. That’s a kind of pursuit with which everyone can identify, but might never admit. What is life, why do we love, and how to we justify being here? Through the best and worst of exploring both life and death, Barnabas searches alongside us.

This episode was broadcast Feb. 22, 1968.

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