Dark Shadows was never like this. Salem, season 2 episode 6, “Dead Birds,” was pure supernatural soap opera: sex, a little family drama and the promise of more sex. But the sex was through the roof. Literally. It wasn’t quite Emma Thompson bursting through the ceiling in Angels in America, but it was a barnstorm for a sleepy little hollow like Salem. You barely noticed Lucy Lawless wasn’t in it.
I don’t know what John Alden (Shane West) is bitching about. Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) really is promising him the best of both worlds. He can take out the witches and the puritans with one fell schtup. And he can more than picture Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), his true love, while he’s doing it. And picture her in 4D.
Well, maybe not as full a frontal 4D assault as Dr. Wainwright (Stuart Townsend) got in his scientific initiation. When he’s not rolling his eyes at the local clergy, the well-read cutup is getting schooled in the ways of the most ancient of knowledge. And it’s not the kind of education he gets from those dirty books he studied. All magic begins with arousal, classic tantra. Sex not only burns calories and feels great, it’s a portal to enlightenment. That’s the real reason witches were burned throughout history, they were on to something. There is universal power in the black hole. Salem goes to some pains to point out that emancipation is a long way off, to explain Mary Sibley’s matriarchal rule. It all comes down to the power of arousal.
Alden and Wainwright have to supply all the beefcake because, really, they’re probably the only male actors the audience wants to see with their shirts off. Isaac the Fornicator? Iddo Goldberg is a good actor, but he really is a low-rent lothario. It’s like walking away faster from the mummy, and thank you Stephen King for that. A threat may be looming, but it can be sidestepped laughingly.
Baron Sebastian von Marburg (Joe Doyle) has a tendency to step lightly and carry a big feather. He is a very passive aggressive enforcer. All his threats are veiled and he doesn’t quite have the weight to back it up. He may be able to blend into the shadows, but he won’t be satisfied being a fly on the wall when he can get into the ointment. For the son of the mother of all vampires, he is getting a little long in the tooth.
Blood is thicker than ink and Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) has so much of it on tap tonight you’d think she was currying favor from Countess Marburg, the blood countess. Hale slices her familiar’s feet faster than a farmer’s wife blindly cuts mouse-tails. She can also chip pieces of her old man’s dried blood off the walls. I wonder, though, why she automatically sliced her wrists suicide style to get her father’s book of secrets to reveal itself. Surely, she should have attempted a finger prick before going for the major arteries. Impetuous youth. Just a few weeks ago, it took her forever to drown a cat through her tears, now Hale can crack a bird’s neck without breaking stride
So the kid (Oliver Bell) can call birds. That didn’t work so well for Tippi Hedren, who besides being terrorized by Alfred Hitchcock also did horror screen-time on Tales from the Darkside in 1984. Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) is channeling Sarah Jessica Parker in the 1993 film Hocus Pocus. That film was also set in Salem. Lewis is a Pied Piper type who is irresistible to children and especially tantalizing to little devils.
The bedeviled Increase Mather really knows how to cut it close. Stephen Lang uses all his voices tonight, to paraphrase Peter O’Toole, as he redeems himself from the hell to which he condemned himself. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabelas) responds with knee-jerk reaction that he is being haunted for his failures, only to find that he was always being forged for success. Lang has a quality in his voice, in certain phrases, where he seems to be whisper screaming as if the words have to come from some netherworld of torture. It is a very subtle weight he puts on, but very effective. His son and the audience doesn’t know whether to offer him a hug or run away screaming.
But Increase is infuriating to Mary Sibley, waiting until the last sands are passing through the hourglass before giving a final clue without the time to explain it. The scene would have the feel of coitus interruptus if we hadn’t already been sated. I predict tonight’s episode will launch thousands of sexual fantasies.
The Countess Marburg backstory was painful and revealing. Born before the fall of Satan, she was the first person in history to call on the dark entity to do her bidding and she’s had an open invitation out since. The devil so far hasn’t RSVPd, but with the party being thrown by Mary Sibley, he has it penciled in.
“Dead Birds” was written by Joe Menosky and Adam Simon and directed by Alex Kalymnios.