Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 14

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


When Julia and Willie open what might be the box for Barnabas’ RealDoll, they discover the RealTruth, which may be a RealPain in the neck! Roxanne: Donna Wandrey. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Julia and Willie discover Roxanne’s coffin. Barnabas’ love for her prevents them from killing her. Barnabas traps her in the Old House, pursued by Sebastian, who later opens her coffin and aims a gun inside.  

The show has seven months left. 

A wildly successful storyline in 1897 was followed up by three storylines that command unfavorable comparison. A movie has been released that depicts most of these characters getting killed. They are no longer “just” cultural giants with symbolic weight. They are simply characters. Not icons. No matter how much the public adores them, they are just storytelling pawns for the producers. The show is still successful. It could be argued, though, that it has released just enough grasp on its identity that we can suddenly contemplate the world without it. 

It’s too late in the series for this, and because of that, it’s all the more welcome. Here we are, in the midst of all of this Dark Shadow when... what should break out? Dark Shadows. It was a year ago that the show outgrew its habitat. Like almost any living thing, it had to. After incremental evolutions and explorations, the show found its apotheosis in 1897. And after exploring the wildest potentials of Cold War Gothic storytelling for four years and three different eras, few possibilities seemed left in the genre. 

Besides, they had become their own genre. After four years and a very successful summer of learning to break the rules, they were now in a position to make the rules. So, why not cure Barnabas? Is there anything really left? And if you're going to cure Barnabas, you might as well give Quentin a happy ending also. Even though he's only been around for a bit, it seems like he's earned it. Besides, have we really had a leading man who wasn’t also trying to kill Roger? Or kidnap Maggie? Or constantly avoid Willie's inquiries about why he has yet to make employee of the month when he is, in fact, the only employee?

So, for the prior year (more or less) the show has been basking in its own glow. Yes, let's have some Paul Stoddard. Heck, we can bring Paul Stoddard in and then turn around and kill him. Why not have a snake cult? It gives things a touch of super-spy panache. Heck, let's make a movie and send the rest of the cast into a parallel dimension. Let Thayer have that pencil-thin mustache he's always pining for. 

And it was confident. And it was ambitious. Ans just very vaguely on the launching pad of desperate. And it is now so confident and ambitious that we careen towards the apocalypse by default. Because what's left, really? If the show were a growing person, it has reached the dark and mordant introspection of early middle age. Gerard sits in the center of a postmodern, existential labyrinth, mocking the enlightenment and industrial revolution heroes with rumors of inevitable doom. It refuses to disclose its weapons, much less its terms of surrender. Why should it? It needs no weapons. There are no terms of surrender, because there will be no surrender. Only complete annihilation. 

Gloomy stuff. Compelling, but gloomy. Profound thinking usually goes there with enough self actualization. After all, death and cancellation come for us all, even the undead. The show was drawn from some of the finest works of literature. If literature eventually follows the bleak-but-contemporary highway of modernism, so must Dark Shadows. And we've been trained to accept it over the past year and define Dark Shadows by this woeful Weltanschauung

So there it is. Sulking around Rose Cottage with its Weltanschauung hanging out. And then along comes an all-star tribute to Dark Shadows by Dark Shadows. Almost as if the writers were nostalgic for their salad days, when the biggest concerns revolved around life’s simple pleasures, like a chained coffin containing one of your loved ones. You know, that special someone who may be up for a stake through the heart, or a lifetime of starving imprisonment with the symbol of a dispassionate God burning a hole through their chest, or maybe just a big, warm hug. It's that kind of episode. Beginning in a crypt with stake wielding vampire hunters, it remains faithful to the only sets that may matter — the Old House Drawing Room with Capn’ Matthew Morgan’s Rubbermaid Big Max Love Dungeon behind the bookcase, and another suitably gothic setting where Roxanne’s  coffin has been waiting for this moment,

And of course, being Dark Shadows, that moment ends up being intentionally unintentionally riotous. Roxanne has been a vampire since 1840. So, for 130 years? Which is far longer than Barnabas has been a vampire. Taking into account elapsed time and all, Barnabas has only been a vampire for two or three years. You would think that she would've figured out someplace more secure to sleep it off. Julia and Willie might know one end of a stake from another, but they are not exactly the team that you call in to test an impenetrable security system. I doubt they could cut line at the Stake ’n' Ale salad bar. 

It's hard to tell how many times Roxanne almost dies in this episode. Her coffin is opened constantly. And when it's not opened, there's somebody going in just stand by it and think about opening it. But the same thing happened to Barnabas when Petofi had him as a prisoner. Captors were constantly opening it up, taking the cross off, letting them stretch, putting the cross back on, closing the lid, and then repeating the process all over again. No wonder Barnabas had to sleep in a coffin. He was exhausted. That wasn't dictated by the rules of the supernatural. It was a political statement to his captors. 

If this is full of impossibly active characters who never quite appear. We've already talked about how exhausted Roxanne must be. But the really exhausted and insulted character Has to be Quentin. When Julia comes up with her big scheme to calm Barnabas by confronting him with absolute emotional chaos, she realizes that Willie Loomis isn't up for the job of catering and décor. So, completely off stage, she sends for Quentin to help move the coffin. I'm sure he's thrilled. At this point, Quentin has so little to do that he's reduced to schlepping wildly heavy crates offstage. We assume it’s by hand, because I don't think Quentin is the station wagon type in that moment.

It's a teachable moment; check with Julia before giving Liz the keys to the forklift for some big date.

But amidst all of the nostalgia and silliness and morbid merriment, the old-school nature of the episode also serves an important purpose for the plot to come. Even though this is a new world of gods and monsters, so unlike the one just a year prior, it is still inhabited by the heroes who were shaped by that earlier age. And where does it all eventually go? Barnabas loses Angelique after discovering the unalloyed nature of his love. So, everything from there-back to here is a setup for that moment. In a startling fit of maturity, Barnabas muses that he is truly is beyond Josette. 

Why? Josette was just the most proximate cure to the underlying problem: loneliness. If the show is “about” Barnabas, which, let’s not kid ourselves, it is, then his primary concern is the primary concern of the show. It's the most inconvenient of primary concerns. It's one that no one wants to hear about. Again, loneliness. I think this is what drives Barnabas. It rests balefully under the veneer of the pursuit of Josette. And it's tendrils stretch across the storylines. The show begins with Elizabeth, whose loneliness is self-imposed, sending for an orphan to tutor a motherless child who, for all we know, has been making his own braunschweiger sandwiches for breakfast since he was four. The entire program deals with the lonely hangover of the fellowship party that ended a decade or two before the show even began. 

Stake or seduce, Barnabas? The indecision he faces is emblematic of the entire program. Is Roxanne the ultimate companion, or is she the opportunity for ultimate redemption? Is she the only one who can truly understand the pain of his existence, is she just close enough to seem familiar, or does her ruthlessness demand elimination? Barnabas is paralyzed by these considerations. And it's an important opportunity to just pause for a moment.

It’s only the smallest grand decision of his life. 

This episode was broadcast Sept. 21, 1970.

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