Monday, March 25, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: March 25


Taped on this date in 1968: Episode 460

1795 concludes as a dead man becomes a reluctant time traveler, and a reluctant time traveler confronts what may be her final moments. Victoria Winters: Alexandra Moltke. (Repeat; 30 min.)

After surviving Forbes’ crossbow bolt, Barnabas kills the sailor, then implores Joshua to destroy him, free Miss Winters, and liberate Ben Stokes. Joshua only succeeds in the latter. Instead, he has Barnabas sealed in his coffin under a silver cross and chains. Victoria’s case is too far gone. She hangs as a witch, but Peter’s vow to find her in time echoes in her ears. 

As we turn our eye to the past with 1795, the camera cannot focus any more tightly than on its last moments. Instead of pulling back out to give us a widescreen view of the world of Dark Shadows, it pushes in on four sets of faces. Four relationships. Four models of our best choices. The order of them flows with an organic necessity in an almost Maslowian ascension.  Barnabas and Forbes; Joshua and Barnabas; Ben and Joshua, and; Peter and Victoria. 

Justice. Compassion. Respect. Optimism.

They are relationships which end on defining choices. Forbes chooses murder and Barnabas chooses to protect himself and others. Then, Barnabas chooses to end his own life while liberating the deserving, and Joshua chooses the cowardly unknown rather than a bravely bleak certainty. Ben chooses fealty to social order and Joshua disrupts that order by meddling with the class structure he so thoroughly represents. Finally, instead of ending on regret, which is hard not to do when the last image is a dropped noose, the episode concludes with a sense of optimistic mission. After the future is protected from bullies like Forbes, we see that it is finally safe for family, friendship, and love. Those choices may have dark trappings, but underneath the darkness is a fierce optimism and resistance to corruption. 

That resistance to decay will drive Collinwood, creating the yin-yang that drives the series. If Gothic literature is “about” the inevitability of decomposition, Dark Shadows is wrongly pidgeonholed in that genre. It is, rather, anti-Gothic. Liz should have committed suicide. Joshua should have staked Barnabas and shot himself. Quentin should be the one dead in the sealed room, consigned by a silver bullet. The Widows should be at rest, for an empty Collinwood is devoid of those to taunt or haunt. None of this is the case. Even if Liz remains a prisoner to punish herself. If she’s punishing herself, it must mean that she matters. It’s one thing to be unworthy of existence. Forbes is unworthy of existence. Liz, however, is worthy of both punishment and recovery. Barnabas is worthy of a similar chance. The love he inspires elicits the salvation of cowardice from Joshua, perhaps the most decisive Collins that the program will present. In a world of justice and consequence, some people simply screw up. Or are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or are victims of passion. But they are not volitionally evil. They are haunted because a haunting is a message, and messages are meant to inspire change among the living. Perhaps that change is to move them into a house free of specters. What is a ghost but a restless memory that baffles with sorrow rather than comforting with joy? 

If any force moves the characters on Dark Shadows, it is the past. The show ends in a haunted room, but what room at Collinwood isn’t? If the past is a puzzle to be solved, it requires embracing the present. Quentin may have been a father so negligent that his children were kept secret from him, but he can guard Jamison, Nora, and even Edward once he discovers this. Just as Barnabas can change, he can credit Angelique with the same capacity, loving who she is rather than hating who she was. Joshua may be too sentimental to end Barnabas’ life, but his refusal comes with the hope and confidence in a future replete with knowledge lacked by his present. Their last moments are a simple gaze that says more than all of the dialogue on the show. Brutus may be tormented by James and Amanda, but he can be freed by the example of those with a love stronger than he, himself, experienced. It is a strange optimism. The show begins and ends with forms of hauntings, and the final and arguably most explored one exists to be solved, and by a solution to heal… not just the tortured soul who cast it, but the descendants who share his vices of envy, greed, and wrath. They, however, have the one thing he lacks -- the capacity to overcome them. His curse exists not to torture the worst, but to reveal the best; that is the definition of confidence. 

For an installment where the heroine is hanged until dead by a corrupt and superstitious society, and where the hero, longing for death, is sentenced to an unlivable life with a torturous curse, under the symbol of a god whose image is excruciating, sealed in the smallest space possible, under chains, within a hidden room, behind a door no one knows is a door, protected by a lock that no one knows is a lock… well, on Dark Shadows, those are good things. 

In Collinsport, those aren’t perils. They’re possibilities.

This episode was broadcast March 29, 1968. 

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