Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: September 24

Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1106


Barnabas Collins decides that the only man who can help him avert the apocalypse is the last man he can trust: himself. Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Gerard thinks he has Julia by the short hairs when he dangles a newfangled earring in front of her as evidence that she comes from another time. Her explanation is credible enough to send Gerard away, leaving her time to conspire with Ben Stokes about recruiting Barnabas for the campaign. Ben finds Barnabas in the Old House, saying goodbye to Josette’s portrait… and dominance over his future. As he reasons with the Vampire, the present day version of Barnabas consults with Ben’s descendant.  Surrounded by an insane Carolyn and a suicidal Quentin, Barnabas is compelled to use the I Ching wands to take the battle to 1840. He immediately encounters the vision of Julia‘s grave. 

Dark Shadows is turning to its most forbidden topic: endings. The job of a soap is to perpetuate misery. It resolves one one source only after it slides in another. But this phase of the show is replete with endings, conclusions and assorted apotheoses. We’ve seen Collinwood destroyed, and that’s how the ending begins! How do you top that? That kind of question surges within 1113 with urgent power. It begins with fatalism and then asks, “Is that all you got?” This is the perverse optimism that you find only at funerals. Because when the universe falls apart, the only certainty is change.  

With Barnabas, we even see double! The show continues its audacious presentation of parallel storylines — two different centuries with overlapping casts and one character appearing in both. The most unique acting challenge for Jonathan Frid is playing two different versions of Barnabas, both of whom have their counterparts in the relative future. And Dark Shadows is the only show where the future is 130 years in both directions. This storyline has a bad rap for being confusing. I suppose if you struggle to do things like drop pennies and straighten unknotted rope, you’ll find this baffling. But if you can manage those arduous tasks, 1840 is a pleasure.

Barnabas Collins may be the long suffering and occasionally non-beating heart of Dark Shadows, but Julia Hoffman is its soul. (Drop me a line if you can really explain the difference. But it sounds good.)  Following her into 1840, it’s clear how far she has come. She began as a conniving, intellectually ruthless, arrogant invader. If Collinwood tortures its beloved sons and daughters, you can imagine when an outsider puts it in a bad mood. Julia pays her dues. Now, she is on the other end of that process.  

Her scene at the beginning of the episode is a well-earned tribute to smug. She deflects Gerard’s smarmy interrogation with a cool efficiency that borders on decadent relish. Julia knows that she could die at any point. She knows that she is far over her abundantly-coiffed head. Not only is she fearless, but she has learned to take pleasure in hoisting her enemies with extra petard. Supernatural bullies specialize in lording for bidden knowledge over the rest of us. As Julia frustrates their efforts, her sense of “take that“ is not only admirable, it’s infectious. Had Victoria Winters remained on the show, this is the main character we might have gotten. Although I doubt it. Julia‘s age, gumption, and guile are impossible to imagine with anyone else. We are seeing Dan Curtis‘s dream, after all. Just by way of the real world.

Meanwhile, Barnabas truly turns a corner as he finally takes down the painting of Josette. After all, she let go of him. And she has given him the permission to move on. That’s on her end; this is a matter of his own choice. It involves the sort of courage that people can only show when they too close a tragedy.  There is a grace period in the time immediately following a tragedy, before its burdens become a part of us. Oddly, decommissioning Josette is a job that could only be accomplished by the 1840 version of Barnabas… and the 1970 version of Barnabas. Anything in between had had just enough time to become obsessed with his loss, but not enough experience to contemplate life without it.

Barnabas is speaking for himself and the writers when he boasts, “the word safe has no meaning for me.“  

It’s an extraordinary point of freedom… everything is possible because nothing is possible. It’s the same kind of desperate bravery shown by the producers as they introduce a backwards echo of Pansy Faye, with the nobler ancestor, Leticia Faye. It’s a character whose existence has no practical sense, but has such a poetic ring of truth that pedantic cavils are undone before they can be spoken. Leticia is there because it’s the most interesting continuing character that Nancy Barrett crafted, and because Nancy Barrett intrinsically belongs at Collinwood as its neurotic and self-punishing ray of light.  And who has the time to wallow in trivia when they have a 50 year old soap opera to write about? One of the story’s primary themes is the decay of our aspirations over time.  The introduction of Leticia manages to accomplish this… backwards. Somehow, Letitia is an ancestor of Pansy. And somehow, and it may just be the semiotic impact of a more natural hair color, Leticia feels a little more humane and relatable. 

And she’s not the only double in the episode. Leticia is confident in her use of the supernatural. But Nancy Barrett also plays the vaguely psychic Carolyn in 1113. Her encounter with the paranormal has driven her quite mad, pitting the two characters against each other. Similarly, we have a scene in 1840 where Ben Stokes reasons with his former master to show courage and trust.  This transitions to a scene over a century later, in the same house, where Elliot Stokes shows a newly dawning sense of hesitation and Barnabas must rally him into action. 

Moments before, the 1970 Barnabas is introduced under a looming portrait of himself from haughtier and happier days. He is attached to his chair, Hamleting himself to the point that a skull may appear in his palm at any moment. 

Barnabas is either on the verge of implosion or explosion. He seethes with Stokes’ report on the funerals for Carrie, Daphne, Elizabeth, and the assassinated future of the Collins family, David. These are unthinkably bold and permanent strokes of storytelling, and they engage Barnabas as they engage us. He has spent his second and third lives doubting his place in the future, and it has suddenly passed him by.

It is in this moment that Barnabas truly appreciates the ability that makes him unique. He alone can use the curse of immortality to travel within his own lifespan in either direction. For the trip to 1897, this discovery was an accident. Now, it’s invocation is a mandate.  

Barnabas rallies to a rare moment of decisive and ferocious action at the thought. He can only be haunted by the past for so long. Within the space of just a few lines this gentlemen of the past again becomes the last best hope for the future. A year ago, this might have been executed with a sense of insouciant elan worthy of Alexander Dumas. Frid avoids letting any twinkle spark his eye. Too many people have died. Too many regrets filled the ledger.  Yes, he is answering the call to adventure, but it is with gravitas and respect.  And yet again, the series reinvents itself.  

Too often, he is written off as villain literally defanged after his first few months.  I will admit, he spends a frustrating amount of time doubting his next move.  But even when Barnabas is at his most mournfully indecisive, he is, to me, the Great Man. It’s in scenes like these, today, that we see why. In fact, those other moments of ethical denial and over-intellectualized paralysis are what make episodes like 1113 such a joy. 

And the universe surrounding him seems to be in agreement. Even Elliot argues with him about the risks of such a journey, Carolyn glides downstairs for a late afternoon cocktail and yet another nervous break down as Quentin tries to hang himself upstairs.  As if to prove Barnabas’ point. Once Barnabas tries a tentative trance, the first thing he sees is Julia Hoffman‘s tombstone from 1840. A call to adventure, indeed.

And you wanted to talk about risk, Professor Stokes? Let’s talk about risk.  Risk may be James T. Kirk‘s business. But for Barnabas Collins, it is his very life.  

And I can say the same for Dan Curtis.

This episode was broadcast Sept. 30, 1970.

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