Saturday, January 9, 2021

Long Live The Phoenix: The First Monster of Dark Shadows

There are a lot of serious Dark Shadows fans who have never seen the 200 or so episodes of the series prior to Jonathan Frid's introduction. That represents about a year's worth of episodes and at least three overlapping storylines, all of which are essential viewing if you ever want to really understand Dark Shadows.

The first week of the show might be the most important block of episodes in the entire series. I'd put it on the shelf next to the first issue of Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman or the pilot of The Shield, in terms of who thoroughly it establishes themes that would go on to inform the rest of the series. As much as I love the soapy stories that follow that first week of Dark Shadows, the only storyline you must see involves Diana Millay's turn as the show's first monster: Laura Collins, "The Phoenix." And hooboy, she's a doozy.

Serialized storytelling has the habit of blooming during its darkest times. Spider-Man was introduced in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy, because why not? What did they have to lose? The X-Men saw a similar revival during the 1970s during a run of the series when almost nobody cared about the characters. Barnabas Collins has long been seen as a similar Hail Mary pass by Dan Curtis to grab the audience by the short and curlies and demand their attention ... but Laura Collins did it first. And nastier. 

Laura was introduced as a seminal soap opera character: The Ex. She had only been whispered about prior to her return to Collinsport, but everybody knew she was bad news. She had been married to Roger Collins (which doesn't speak well of her character), was the mother of a young sociopath and was involved -- somehow -- in vehicular manslaughter that sent an innocent man to prison. But she was something else, too: a full-fledged demigod with a horrifying goal. She doesn't return to Collinsport to bury any hatchets with Roger or his old friend/nemesis Burke Devlin ... she'd come home to murder her child. It's a compulsion she's barely aware of and is helpless to resist. It's as tragic as it is grotesque.

The storyline also leans heavily into film noir, not only in the superficial elements (cops, shadows, lots of tobacco and lies) but also in the sense that there was no possible way for the plot to resolve itself in a happy ending. Along the way it expands the demon haunted world of Dark Shadows in a way that made the inclusion of a vampire not only make sense, but feel almost like a relief.

If you want to give this storyline a spin, it takes place across episode 123 (found on the Dark Shadows: The Beginning, Vol. 4 Disc 2) to episode 192 (The Beginning, Vol. 6 Disc 2). Go watch it!

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