Friday, June 14, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: June 13


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 780

Can Barnabas stop Carl from bringing about the end of Collinwood before Trask brings about the end of Barnabas? Quentin: David Selby. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Carl alerts Trask to the threat of Barnabas.  The vampire, now allied with a Quentin who knows and accepts his secret, removes the evidence of his coffin before going on to kill Carl to save the future. Trask confronts Barnabas, and the two men await the telling dawn.

Sam Hall. Such an ear for dramatic dialogue. Properly theatrical yet always true. His plots are modulated with a pace as organic as the human heartbeat. Characters, distinct. Payoffs, rich. Yet always unpredictable. As much as I admire the exquisite writing of Gordon Russell, Sam Hall is the undisputed Master of Collinwood, and his best scripts expand beyond the needs of writing Dark Shadows and take on a storytelling voice that has the resonance of art. Immediate, yes. Written briskly and under incredible demands to produce, produce, produce. Rather than excuse his work, these facts make it all the more remarkable.  In episode 780, his skill for economy melds seamlessly with the language of the characters, the substance of their climactic exchanges, and the propulsive risk inherent in the story. Put simply, he is a poet who gets out of his own way.

The “star’ of the episode is the brutal and brisk execution of Carl Collins. Carl’s fears and desires are understandable, and considering the threat of learning that a strange relative is a ravenous, undead engine of murder, not necessarily unwarrented. We let Carl’s prior extremity and histrionics too easily overtake the fact that at last, his panic is justified. In killing Carl, Barnabas trades the life of one Collins for many. If Barnabas goes, so do Quentin and David and who knows who else. It’s time. It’s time for this story to step outside the pleasant slow burn of the soap opera model, own up to its own stakes, and make things happen. Quentin accepts Barnabas for who he is, Carl is an understandable casualty of realpolitiks, and Trask faces down Barnabas with a bold fidelity to his faith.

It’s a four-man powerhouse of storytelling. Each character evolves and takes chances that define and redefine themselves. Barnabas reclaims the feral sense of strategy that established him on his release in 1967, but with values in line with something larger than addressing his immediate pain and loss. He even dares Trask to saddle him with Carl’s murder. A rousing gesture, but an irrelevant one because Trask, justified in his hunt, has him dead to rights, despite the paucity of eyewitness evidence. When Barnabas shrinks from his cross, there is no more proof that matters. Those fine points of who-didn’t-see-what are all words, words, words under the reality of the Damoclean sunrise.

Quentin does his part as well, and this episode is a microcosmic portrait of both his overall journey and what makes him the series’ second protagonist -- yet he never loses his essential gift for guile. He goes from melancholic repose with his companion music to smugly condescending to Trask’s self-serving sense of justice. From there, he sets aside fear to see Barnabas for the man within the monster, and even collaborates to cover Carl’s death with a fittingly unsentimental show of theatrical relish, not just enacting the con, but reveling in it.

Jonathan Frid, David Selby, Jerry Lacy, and John Karlen (in his final turn as Carl, his most unusual character) all seem to know that this is an episode of substance and almost rambunctious, driven meaning for the characters. Like the writing that enflames the installment, there is a confidence in their acting. Each man, undistracted, performs with the honest solidity of performers who know their characters and take them to inevitable destinations. That sense of inevitability is not an end, Carl excluded, but a beginning. Each man has a mandate to reveal his ultimate essence, and what results is like a series of Rorschach blots that unfold with the recognizable universality of a tarot deck.

Three years after filming began, 770 was captured on that soundstage. Dark Shadows has gone from a take of ambiguity and anxiety in a darkly domestic expanse to a tight chamber piece where each player defines himself with finality and yet, above all, possibility. Always possibility.

Except for Carl.

This episode hit the airwaves June 20, 1969.

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