Saturday, July 9, 2022

The Dark Shadows Daybook: July 9

Taped on this day in 1969: Episode 798


In the wake of Szandor’s death, Magda and Barnabas discover that her curse has destroyed Quentin‘s heretofore-undiscovered child. Meanwhile, Quentin is given reason to suspect that Victor is actually the Count.

It begins as the darkest of dark comedies, and Thayer David looks like he’s broken loose from the set of a mordant Blake Edwards movie. Szandor shows up at the door, eyes bulging and voice as monotonous as Ricky Jay’s. Classic TV hypnosis. Except that Barnabas very quickly realizes that he’s not hypnotized, as does Magda when her long-suffering husband finally falls dead at her feet, knife in the back. And in some ways, it really is a knife in the back from the writers of the show as Szandor and his laborious makeup job are replaced by Count Petofi and HIS laborious makeup job. Either way you slice it, it’s going to be early mornings for Thayer David for the foreseeable future.

With Szandor’s death, Petofi has officially arrived. Not a moment too soon. By “officially arrived," I mean that Quentin did what the Collinses do best, besides lying: he snoops in the garden to see the count in an intimate moment with the show’s favorite, insidious imp, Aristide. A connection!

And then the episode packs Quentin’s bags for a one-way trip to hell; the audience finds out that a gypsy curse has robbed him of a child he never knew existed. The revelation to Quentin is a cold, quiet study in stillness and being. Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall and David Selby sit with the dark luxury of simply being as the weight of one hundred episodes carries itself for once. It’s a remarkable slice of authentic theatre in a sea of breathlessly timed craft. 

It’s also the most authentically sobering moment on the series. Barnabas wisely corrects a grieving Aunt Magda that their former hostilities are no longer relevant. The program’s sinister antics are all fun and games until someone loses an infant. This suddenly becomes a very real-world horror, haunting every parent and older sibling watching the program. Dark Shadows is becoming very good at playing for keeps, Although it didn’t start out that way. Maggie‘s kidnapping flirts with it. So does the pain of 1795. And from 1995 until the end of the series, the show will excel at handcrafted discomfort. And few moments are as cruel as Barnabas experiences with the death of Angelique. But even that pales in comparison to this. I can aspire to glib detachment as much as I want, but the death of a child is a horror universal to humankind. Including me. 

Compound that with the knowledge that Quentin is the loneliest character in all of Dark Shadows, and everyone knows it. We can imagine, just from his interaction with Jamison, what a marvelous father he would have made. Move over Shatner;  I see your Transformed Man and raise you a Quentin Collins: parent. Not only do Barnabas and Magda discover that this was a possibility all along, but they also see a lengthening shadow that will redefine Quentin, and only for the worse. The question now is, what shape will that take?

We are nearly 100 episodes into the 1897 adventure. When we look back on this storyline, I think many of us just remember the color and humor and panache of it all. We forget how it begins to end. The party’s over, but the show refuses to turn on the fluorescents. Quentin emerges as the normative voice of reason as the staid world that was once his cosmic Margaret Dumont becomes an asylum. It is a transformation far more profound than his lycanthropic one. As he is thrust into bereaved sobriety, Quentin will be confronted with reflections again and again to quietly punish him for the sins of who he was. And can become at any point. Want proof?

Of course, the painting. A living testament to his animalistic urges, it will also record a decay divorced from age.  When we see him in the 20th century, Quentin will be one year shy of one hundred. Elderly, but not impossibly so. When he re-discovers the painting, it is not of a 99-year-old man. It is an EC Comics portrayal of the worst of syphilitic dissolution and decay. Yes, Quentin is dolorous and mature by then, but his immortality clearly led to decades of greater risk. Even a reformed sinner can fall off the wagon, and it’s clear that the wagon backed up and ran over him more than once. Even though he is, literally, the picture of handsome, the actual picture depicting the consequences of his actions can never be destroyed. Even more conscience. Yes, Barnabas suffers. But he suffers from comparably cartoonish tragedies. Quentin’s suffering comes from his regret of some very relatable mistakes. It’s a quiet acid that can never completely destroy him. It just burns without release. No one on the show could explore the humanity and range of that journey like David Selby. 

But Quentin has another reflection to confront: the Count.  Both men are mischievous magic users fully content to dissimulate with zest if it gets them what they want. By confronting the Count, and by occasionally inhibiting his body, Quentin will learn the value of choosing a better path. The Count is exactly who Quentin might have become without a tragedy. And any parent will tell you that the prospect of losing a hand merits less than a shrug compared to the thought of losing a child. 

The 60s, but especially the preceding year of 1968, would force the most carefree of Americans to grow up. Dark Shadows was doing the same.

This episode hit the airwaves July 16, 1969.

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