Mission Control: In Praise of Bill Malloy. #dsxp #darkshadows

From the desk of Mission Control

Bill Malloy.  That’s a name with true weight, true substance.  A name that I was unfamiliar with for much of my Dark Shadows fandom, up until I began watching the “Beginning” DVD sets about three years ago. That name has since come to represent for me a core element of successful Dark Shadows story telling.  As we are quickly coming up on his permanent departure from the series in episode 126, I wanted to write up my thoughts on the character.

One of the key elements to any soap opera is decompressed storytelling, stretching a few plot points across a week’s worth of scripts, having characters tell and retell the facts, mull over the implications, slowly disseminating key story elements through 2 person scene after 2 person scene. In a bonus interview in one of the DVD sets a writer (my memory fails me as to which one) discusses how a soap opera is structured in such a way that a viewer should be able to miss two to three days a week and still be able to follow the story when they come back to it.

But as Patrick has been documenting in his commentary through these first 100+ episodes, Dark Shadows wasn’t just decompressing its story telling, it was practically stagnating the story.  A viewer could’ve missed 8 of the first twenty episodes and not skipped a beat. Now much of this was no doubt intentional to allow the show to build a viewer base, but upon counting, it took the show 21 episodes to simply get to the 3rd day in its own story.  It is for this reason that the writers had Bill Malloy.

Bill Malloy doesn’t take “No” for an answer.  Bill Malloy gets things done.  Bill Malloy knows everyone, intuits advanced concepts, advances the story via one-way phone calls, and off screen investigation.  Bill Malloy is the prime catalyst for getting the dragging plots moving; starting with his first appearance and continuing all the way through to his last appearance. Frank Schofield being a top-flight character actor helps all of this immeasurably.  You could drop him into any Stephen King film from 1979 up to about 1997 without blinking.

But let’s look at Bill Malloy’s character in the larger scope of the series, where his influence will be felt right up until the end.  I’ve mentioned that his character is the driving force in moving the earliest plots along, but then why, if he is such a key tool in the writers’ toolbox, would the writers kill him off (granting him the distinction of being the first character to meet such a fate on the show)?  The simple answer is that Bill Malloy in his character so embodied the proper tone, pacing, and quality of the show, that the writers performed a ritual sacrifice, as though he were a sigil.  Using his literal spectral energy (walking around as a ghost until ep 126 helping Vicki), they transferred the fire of the character into the show itself, fueling the next 75 episodes with purpose, tension, and a real sense, for character and viewer alike, that any character might die.

With Bill Malloy dead and then gone after episode 126, what then? I present that there is always a Bill Malloy figure throughout the show, though it takes the writers a few tries to perfect the formula and achieve stability.  The next character in this vein is Dr. Peter Guthrie a parapsychologist who locks horns with Laura Collins.  He organizes the very first séance on the show! Look for his arrival in episode 160, though he too will be sacrificed.  The third such figure is Dr. Dave Woodard who would investigate, oppose, and ultimately lose his life to Barnabas Collins.  There is really only one other character in this chain and that is Eliot Stokes.

I don’t wish to talk too much about Stokes here other than to say that he is the final form of the Bill Malloy line, while at the same time proving to be a major departure.  Malloy, Guthrie, Woodard, and Stokes are all actantially identical figures.  They fulfill the exact same narrative purpose, cycling in and out along with their respective storylines, except for Stokes.  The first three are doomed seekers-after-truth similar to classic Lovecraftian protagonists like Arthur Jermyn, Delapore, or Walter Gilman, but Stokes perseveres; defeating and yet surviving similar to Lovecraft’s protagonists Randolph Carter or Henry Armitage.

Now the narrative justification for Stokes’ longevity is as simple as the writers getting their feet under them and Thayer David being a wonderful actor in the part. Beyond that though I prefer a meta-textual meaning.  In Bill Malloy’s final appearance, his ghost frightens Matthew Morgan (his killer) to death, roughly marking the final appearance for both characters, but NOT both actors. For the actor playing Matthew Morgan at the time was the very same Thayer David who would return as Stokes!  I present this idea: just as the writers had unleashed the ghost of Bill Malloy to enliven the series with a sacrifice, so too did the ghost of Bill Malloy touch the actor playing Matthew Morgan, thus when Stokes arrives, he is able to transcend the doomed role of the Bill Malloy archetype, by meta-fictionally being part Bill Malloy himself, through Thayer David.

God I love Bill Malloy.

Therealmccray’s Commentary —

As I’ve noted, I was as refreshed by Bill as was Mission Control.  I’d seen these episodes many years ago, so my memory was dim.  My theory as to why they killed him is similarly stated and a bit more pedestrian; he simply accomplished too much.  One of the show’s hilarious qualities is that its characters stay blissfully unaware of the many perils — and solutions — surrounding them.  This really struck me during the introduction of Nicholas Blair.  In that storyline, Blair asserts himself as one of the show’s true, active, aware, analytic and catalytic figures.  I was a bit peeved that the Collins family didn’t have someone on their side who was just as potent.  It was only years later that I realized such a hero would have made the storylines last about a week.  That’s a reason why Stokes is so sparingly applied.  When Stokes appears, Things Happen.  A favorite example is in one of the episodes I like best, #508, where Stokes enters the Dream Curse realm and really pulls a James Randi smack-down on Angelique.  Priceless.  But we needed that Dream Curse to go on for a few weeks so we’d have a story.  The Stokes analog was even killed off in short order in the 1991 version.  That not only proves how much Dan Curtis needed to “Harrison Bergeron” his characters, but it also makes me wonder if he had some larger plan for another Stokes analog in season 2.  Does anyone know?