Friday, January 21, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 18


Taped on this day in 1971: Episode 1197

Guess what happens when the characters do all of the right things and suddenly have the prospect of happiness welcoming them with open arms? Miranda Duval: Lara Parker. (Repeat; Our Entire Lives)

Angelique interrupts the execution of Quentin and Desmond with the severed head of Judah Zachery. When its flesh dissolves with the death of Ivan Miller, even jaywalking tickets are forgiven by the judge. Unable to live with this outbreak of rampant justice and happiness, Lamar Trask shoots Angelique just before she can hear that Barnabas loves her. The End.

“Attention must be paid.”

So said the Widow Loman at the grave for someone prized only for his insignificance.

I have come back to these episodes more times than any other. This year, it feels irresponsible to devote more words to them. And yet, it feels irresponsible not to. A show the size of Dark Shadows is more than a television program; it is a companion. If you spent three hours on a hobby with a friend, twice a month, for six years, you’d develop an understandable bond. That stretch of time is how long it would take you to watch this story. It’s a feast of a tale. Many times, in ways good and bad, it feels endless. The story accrues around the edges, in no more rush than the real lives it punctuates. 1967 is always fresh. 1968 is always a rich and intriguing core sample. 1969 is always better than we deserve. 1970 always pales by comparison, trawling for us to apologize for it. 1971 is always too short… a reminder of what it’s like to still love something when everyone else stops. 

I remain unshaken in my assertion that Dark Shadows is the most realistic show on TV. It just kind of putters around, threatening to do something significant and then just kind of… usually not. Most of the news is bad. We get used to it.

And then someone is shot and killed.

I’m not being glib when I say that. No, not every tragedy is a sudden and fatal  gunshot wound. But I guarantee you that there is someone out there reading this who has lost someone precious, precisely that way. And that’s how this episode ends. 

The most famous quote about television is that “the medium is the message.“ In other words, the means by which we consume art is as significant a statement as the art being exhibited. Dark Shadows is many things that it had no intention of being. (Newsflash: this goes for all art.) 

Like all art, however, it is a teacher above all else. Primarily, it teaches us to look at ourselves from a completely different point of view. But if you watch the entire show, the very storytelling, itself, is the most significant message. Maybe more than one.

The most immediate one is, in the words of Folcroft Sanitarium director, Dr. Harold W. Smith, “Thou shall not get away with it.”

The assassination of Angelique is a convenience. The actors want to move to a fresh storyline. The writers are probably hoping that new characters will give them new ideas. And the ritual of storytelling inevitably veers toward drab moralizing. In this modern world dominated by an antediluvian ethos, we certainly hear a lot about forgiveness. And at the same time, we also live in a culture that absolutely revels in just desserts. 

We love forgiveness because it makes Oprah happy. It’s what we are supposed to do because somehow it will liberate us. It will certainly liberate the people in our lives who are sick of hearing us complain about something. It’s vaguely godlike, so I guess it’s got that going for it. 

But is it just me, or does a lot of the forgiveness we hear about seem to have its fingers crossed behind its back?

Why? We just can’t stand the idea of someone getting away with it. Any of it. And because we can’t make up our minds which of these things — beatific forgiveness or righteous punishment — we will fetishize more, we look to fiction to give us both at the same time. And who has to pay the tab? 


So, of course Trask has to plug her. The fatheaded, arbitrary rules of the ritual that is fiction decree it to be so. There are plenty of Dark Shadows fans who love to sweep in at this point with a list of all of the horrible things Angelique has done, and I guess this… helps? But I hope you have a list of all of the rotten things Barnabas has done, because he’s just as deserving of the naughty step. And he pays, also. He pays an ongoing price too terrible for the show to make us watch.

And culture smiles on us for having it both ways. We applaud their 11th hour moral reversals safe in the “irony“ that they are being punished anyway.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it. The one thing these characters learn is that the past belongs in the past. All we have is the present. All we have are the decisions we are making right now. I spend 90% of my day apologizing for what I say the other 10%, and when someone is really going to town on me, I gently remind them that it won’t build a time staircase to allow me to make different decisions.

The saddest part about episode 1197 is that the present is the one thing these characters are denied. That’s nothing to feel good about. That’s nothing to applaud. And perhaps, it’s nothing to applaud in our art. Perhaps that’s the message we should actually be taking away.

When significance erupts in the mundanity of our everyday lives, it is shockingly sudden. There’s no taking it back. And then, the show ends. There’s no montage. There’s not even a funeral at which Barnabas can insist that attention must be paid.

If you’re going to forgive, mean it. Move on. Do it in the name of the future that Angelique and Barnabas never got. 

This episode hit the airwaves on January 26, 1971.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 16


Taped on this date in 1971: Episode 1196


“Head Alert!” Judah Zachery brings Valentine’s Day a month ahead of schedule when he robs Angelique of her powers just moments before Quentin’s planned execution. Angelique: Lara Parker. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Angelique’s plan to fight fire with voodoo fails when Judah Zachery removes the powers he gave her, 100 years prior. After persuading Charles Dawson to free her by gently beating him to death with a candlestick, she races to the site where Quentin and Desmond are about to go head-to-head in a laundry basket that will probably never be used as such again. 

Today, I may be on Judah Zachery‘s side. And I didn’t realize that until I sat down to write this. I will have to go back and look at what he did that was so terrible, but the 20th and 21st Centuries have made up their minds on the witchcraft issue. Those who don’t believe in it aren’t exactly going to be holding trials. Those who do believe are more than likely participating in it. 

Structurally, this episode falls in an awkward place. The most exciting part of this sequence of action was yesterday when Barnabas explained to Angelique that she’s just not a member of Club Corporeal, and so they can never really have a substantial love life.  As many times as I have watched that moment in 1195 where Barnabas denies her desires because of her occult nature, I have had a hard time understanding it. I have always operated under the assumption that the endowment of her powers has, by its very nature, robbed her of something crucial. I think it’s something that Barnabas senses more than he can fully intellectualize; his objection is not so much about her being “a witch,“ with the moral baggage that comes with it. Instead, it is about the detachment that comes with that much power. 

A relationship is an endeavor primarily driven by emotion. Emotion isn’t always pretty. The more power someone has to act on them, the more damage they can do. Angelique swings back-and-forth between benevolence and rampant awfulosity. The latter nogoodnikism that trails around her in the DS “timeline” is a bloody testament to my point. It’s all good and well to breathe and count to 10, but what does it mean for someone who can reverse time?

Barnabas reacts from the mindset of an abuse survivor, and as sad as that is, it’s about time he moved proactively on that. Because he does measure his response to her love by her capacity to do damage. And, okay. I fess up. (pause) Yes, it’s very convenient for this universe to then remove her powers shortly after this conversation with Barnabas. But let’s look the army medic in the eye; writing fiction means dusting for the fingerprints of coincidence. Dark Shadows simply doesn’t have the time left to disguise that obvious fact with a finesse we’ve all outgrown.  

Writers of fiction are very quick to have characters reject godhood. A little conveniently so. Frankly, I find the person who rejects power without at least browsing the catalog to be a little suspect. Yes, Uncle Stan told us that, “with great power comes great responsibility,“ and far be it for me to question him. But at the same time, there are a lot of corollaries. 

For one thing, maybe it’s not as much responsibility as it seems. Or maybe the exercise of that responsibility isn’t really that difficult. Ultimately, I think most writers are taking the lazy, easy way out when they have characters make these antitheistic pronouncements. This is pertinent to Angelique because she doesn’t voluntarily give up her powers. Judah Zachery giveth. Judah Zachery taketh away. 

And Angelique is no idiot. She’s going to hold onto these abilities because, as a mortal from the 1690s, she knows exactly how miserable life can be. So, where does that leave Barnabas?

By curing him of his vampirism, she has made a more profound sacrifice than we might initially think. Okay, Barnabas might believe it’s a stretch for a mortal to love a witch, but it’s an even greater leap to expect any immortal, nearly-omnipotent being to love a creature who is going to age and wither astonishingly quickly, all things considered. Although the vampire’s curse was meant as a punishment, perhaps subconsciously, she also realized that it was the only way they could be together. How else was he supposed to accompany her through time, given that the power to make or break a witch seems to be unique to Magus Zachery? By the 1790s, she has been like this for 100 years. And even in that time, who knows how often she has ping-ponged throughout the centuries? For her to stifle her abilities and risk everything to travel to the American wilderness for this man is perhaps more admirable than anything done by her rival. Josette agrees to an arranged marriage to a guy she loves, picks up a free mansion Maine, and calls it a day. That’s about as brave as picking out a value meal at Subway. 

Judah Zachery is doing her a favor. Think of the size of Angelique‘s sacrifice when she turns Barnabas back into a human. She is condemning him to die the death of an ordinary man, and she is serving herself the punishment of having to watch it, anticipating nothing but a nearly-eternal life without him once he passes away.  

It’s a perspective the changes things just a tad. And before you stop me from crying too athletically into my Gibson, that degree of love could explain the degree of wrath that she’s shown so many times. One hundred years of immortality might be enough to detach anyone from the experience of being human, and perhaps that’s why Barabas rejects her. Judah Zachery is not exactly Santa Claus, but by turning her back into a mortal, he has (even if accidentally) given Angelique the gift of human relatability. The gift of her powers helped her find Barnabas. Rescinding them is the one thing that could help her keep him. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 25, 1971.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: January 3

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 665 


Everything’s at stake when Barnabas ends his trip to 1795 by saying goodbye to Vicki… and hello to sending Angelique back to Hell in a fiery flambe of just desserts. Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Angelique gloats that Vicki will be revived from torpor only to awaken in a coffin, unable to escape. Barnabas, hearing of this, wryly retorts by having a torch-wielding Ben burn her alive. Barnabas then sees Vicki off to her future with Peter Bradford, at peace, happy that she is simply alive. Unable to will himself back to 1968, Barnabas reasons that he must return to the 20th century the way he reached it the first time, in his coffin. As he starts his descent into suspended animation and ensures his coffinback and tray table are in their full, upright position while his carrion luggage is stowed under the sepulcher in front of him, Nathan Forbes seemingly stakes him.

The challenge with Dark Shadows — on both sides of the screen — was and is monotony. Soap operas fill the most hours possible with the least amount of story that they can. People may only tune in once a week. Certainly, the key demographic, housewives, were taxed with myriad distractions throughout the day. In many ways, it is “anti-storytelling.“ The virtue here is not economy nor even detail, but the believability that comes with intense, regular familiarity. That’s what makes them feel so strangely realistic. But sometimes even soap operas have to abandon that tidal rhythm and begrudgingly let one world end and another world begin. 

Welcome to Terra Nova. Dark Shadows has six milestone moments that define its arc, and this is the third, marking the middle of the series in both its episode run and emotional journey. Of course, they return to 1795 for it. This is, figuratively, where it all began. There is more going on in this 24 minutes of television than in 24 entire episodes of the average show. And that’s because, perhaps, there isn’t. That’s what you get when you finally enjoy the payoff for nearly 450 episodes, giving Barnabas about as much cathartic satisfaction and growth as he’s going to be allowed. 

It’s an invitation to appreciate the five-act structure of the series. If everything before Barnabas is Act One, then this ends Act Two. 665 bookends a story that conceptually begins in 1795 for both Vicky and Barnabas. It ends there, as well. If the two characters are strange mirrors of each other, orphans out of their native eras, the most crucial parts of their lives begin and end in the overlap: 1795. Twice, at least. 

The first act of Dark Shadows introduces Victoria. The second introduces Barnabas and focuses on their interaction, with 1795 as a fulcrum for both of them. For him, the arc actually begins with her first trip to 1795. It also ends in the most appropriate yet unlikely of places: in her second trip to 1795. (During his second journey there, as well.) After Vicky finally departs with Peter Bradford (to no doubt die of dysentery on the western frontier, which was probably New Hampshire), we look at the other unstuck time traveler, Barnabas, perhaps to see what kind of humanizing effect she had on him. He once again has to say goodbye to a woman he ostensibly loves, but this time, it is willingly. That is a Brobdingnagian leap for a man from his era. Few have suffered as much as he has in the pursuit of love, and his newfound sense of easy confidence evidences one of his greatest transformations.

Although fate again thrusts him to 1795, Barnabas begins the conclusion of Act Three in 1897. It’s as if he keeps returning for a reset, like some sort of perverse variation on Groundhog Day. With differences. In 665, he returns to his point of origin to demonstrate emotional mastery. At the end of 1897, he returns to see that he is the master of nothing. Forces far larger than he make a mockery, and perhaps even a Macarena, of his well-earned autonomy. And why does this happen? Why is it important? Is it to ridicule what he has accomplished? Perhaps. But perhaps some of it alleviates him of responsibility. Yes, absolutely, he is captain of his own ship and master of his own maturity. Yeah, yeah we get it. And that’s just ducky. However, too much reliance on that mentality can lead to total devastation… if forces genuinely beyond your control have conflicting plans. That takes us into Act Four, where Barnabas becomes even more of a storm-tossed ship, first as a Lambchop-tic puppet, composed of a sock seemingly worn by the robust actor William Conrad over a week in August. It concludes in Gerard’s Siege of Collinwood in 1970, demonstrating to Barnabas that while he may have control of himself, he has no control beyond. So, 1840’s Act Five is a chance to reconcile self-control while accepting that it has human limits. What’s left? The necessity of trust. He chooses to trust Angelique as much as he trusts Julia and overcoming his most tragic flaw— a resistance to forgive. Primarily, himself. Of course, forgiveness is easy to muster when you and the other person have hundreds of years to evolve after the inciting incident. His reward? Angelique, shot and killed. And, you know, that’s a thing. I think we can all admit it. And she is shot by a Trask, seeking revenge for the death of a father he didn’t even know. This proves that carrying a grudge, at some point, is more of a hobby than a righteous cause. That’s what it was for Barnabas. It’s certainly what it had become for Angelique, and it’s over the course of the 1840 storyline that we see her realize it, and give it up.

And that’s the story of Dark Shadows.

Episode 665 shows Angelique at the opposite end of her own forgiveness spectrum. We can buy a certain amount of infuriated jealousy. But at this point, Josette is dead. So, that’s out-of-the-way. Cross that one off the to-do list. Naomi is dead. Nathan Forbes is finally in a dance belt. You know, everyone is pretty miserable. So, you would think that Angelique’s work is done. But, like Sammy topping music with trick shooting and celebrity impressions at the Coconut Grove, she has to murder Vicki. Twice. Hanging, of course, because, you know, tradition. And then she has to plan on reviving her inside a coffin to die all over again. Why? I guess because Barnabas loves the gal or something. But the fact that Vicki’s running off with Roger Davis should be punishment enough for Barnabas. It’s not like he has a shot. No, here, she is drunk on evil to an extent that would have shamed Herbert Lom in a later Cluseau movie.

Perhaps Angelique has to be that evil, mechanically, because they want to reverse engineer this whole thing to justify the incredible, Fantasy Island moment when Barnabas opens the door so that Ben Stokes, who’s been waiting with a torch for Christ-knows-how-long, can light her up. It’s a great moment. Despite our love for Angelique, there’s nevertheless something satisfying in it. 

Because we know she’ll be back. She’s just gonna go to Hell for a little while and then show up in 1897… with a considerably improved attitude I might add. They all know this by now. I mean, I’m surprised that Barnabas didn’t pack a lunch for her, like Charley’s wife handing him a sandwich on her endless MTA iniquity. It’s not really an execution. It’s just calling the Uber a little early.  

That moment, and the sentimental moments between Barnabas and Ben later on, are necessary reminders about this hero. We met him as a lone agent out-of-time, defined by the friends who can never truly understand him. As unflagging as Julia and Willie are, they are constant reminders that he is not home. Not really. In 665, we are warmed and saddened to learn why. There is something truly grounding about this stranger, normally stranded in a strange land, in the company of his best friend. Someone that no one in the 20th century, save Vicki, knows. It puts his character into context and it puts his heroism into context and it puts his loneliness into context. 

And maybe that’s ultimately why 1795 is such a nexus. Ben Stokes. As life becomes increasingly monstrous, Ben rises to the challenge with ever-greater humanity. He’s both a servant, like Vicki and an occasionally ruthless man-of-action — with a heart the size of Canada — like Barnabas. 

Maybe 1795 isn’t home. Maybe Collinwood and the Old house are not Home. Maybe Ben Stokes is home.

Seen like that, I understand why Barnabas feels so alone without him. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 10, 1969.

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