Dracula season 1 finale review: Let There Be Light

Review Laura Akers 28 Jan 2014 - 07:22

Did NBC do Dracula a disservice by skipping the pilot process? Here's Laura's review of the season one finale...

This review contains spoilers.

1.10 Let There Be Light

I’ve been dreading this moment for weeks. After sticking it out through slow and poorly constructed episode after episode, hoping all the time that there would be some payoff at the end, I am ultimately not just disappointed at the ten-week series of Dracula; I’m actually a bit resentful.

I think the largest part of my resentment comes from the knowledge that there are a lot of very good writers, actors, and directors working in television right now - creative minds struggling under the weight of cancellation-happy broadcast and cable networks for a shot to tell their stories. So to spend months regularly viewing a show that was spared the obstacles that most have to overcome, watching it fail to rise above a level of uneven mediocrity has been fairly painful.

That’s not to say it hasn’t had a few good moments or aspects. Looking back over the course of the series, a couple of things have impressed.

Renfield, as imagined by Cole Haddon, has been one of the better twists on Dracula lore. Despite being given fairly pat, often repetitive lines, Nonso Anozie’s Renfield put in a memorable performance. Few would think it easy to hold your own against a vampire being played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, especially when you are so categorically subservient in that role, but Anozie gives Renfield so much presence (not hard for a man of that size) and gravity that, when he is upbraiding the master vampire for his vengeance and romance-based folly, we can’t help but think that things would work out far better for Dracula if he followed his valet’s instructions rather than vice-versa. If Dracula is renewed, the already-weak series will be poorer for Renfield’s absence.

Likewise, as I’ve pointed out in previous reviews, Lucy, played by Katie McGrath, has been a revelation. I started the show hating her over-the-top flirtation and posing. But as the weeks have worn on, McGrath has slowly peeled away layers of Lucy to reveal a complicated pastiche of loneliness, spite, vulnerability and pain. In this week’s episode, Lucy makes her first appearance as a vampire, and the young woman largely outclasses Meyer’s depiction of the depraved undead.

But in a great many ways, it feels like NBC green-lighting this show without the usual pilot process has done it a disservice (compounded, perhaps, by a lack of effort on the part of the creatives working on the series).

My dad used to tell a story about a caterpillar’s cocoon. A young boy finds the cocoon and sees the butterfly inside struggling to work its way out of the small hole it’s managed to open in the webbing that surrounds it. He watches as the butterfly wriggles for a while, but then goes still, obviously exhausted. The boy pulls out a pocketknife and very carefully cuts away the cocoon, freeing the butterfly. But the butterfly never unfolds its wings. It crawls about but never takes to the air, and eventually, it dies, too weak to survive.

The moral, of course, is that the struggle to leave the cocoon is part of the maturation process of the butterfly. That in order for the butterfly to be strong enough to survive, it must develop that strength by fighting its way out of the cocoon.

In the world of television, this is the purpose of the pilot process. It’s a difficult hurdle to overcome, and most shows will only ever get a single chance to do this. As a result, the producers of a potential series put everything they have into their creative vision from the very start.

But Dracula has suffered, from the beginning, from a surprising sort of half-heartedness. It played at the idea of steampunk Victoriana but ended up lacking a coherent visual style. It had a hint of a critique of robber-baron (and contemporary) capitalism, but this never got further than vaguely aligning financial and religious cravenness. It touched on issues around women’s increasing rejection of misogynist circumscription of acceptable female behavior, but largely forgot all about them when they became inconvenient to the storyline.

It is, in a nutshell, a tale and a production adrift. It lacks the focus, vision, and inspiration necessary to make such a series work. Which is why I was not terribly surprised at this week’s finale.

Several plotlines were finished in Let There Be Light, but few of them in a fulfilling way. Two of the most disappointing were Van Helsing’s vengeance on Browning and the death of Lady Jayne. In the first, Van Helsing turns Browning’s children, lures their father to a ransom drop site, and then set the baby vamps on their father before burning the place down. Granted, he is a man so driven by blinding vengeance that he’s raised the greatest vampire of all time to help him, but in the end, we’re left wondering why all this was necessary in the first place. If all he ever intended to do was kill both Browning and his children, he had no need of Dracula, the “geomagnetic” technology or the daywalker science in the first place. I’m not altogether convinced that this sudden realization wasn’t the reason for the poorly executed scream Kretschmann’s Van Helsing lets loose outside the burning building.

But Lady Jayne’s end was definitely the bigger disappointment. The vamp killer comes face-to-face with the man she loves, the man she knows is not just her mortal enemy, but who has played her from day one as she never believed a man could. This was, for me at least, the confrontation most looked forward to (considering it was, far and away, the most interesting relationship on the show). But there are few words exchanged and most of them ring completely hollow. “You’ve always known…” No, she hasn’t. That’s precisely the point. And what mass-produced fortune cookie did you get that line out of in the first place? Smurfit manages to make up a bit of this terrible lack as she lays dying, but it’s simply not enough for what has been one of the roles on this show that’s actually dynamic. She and we deserved better.

In the end, even Meyers became largely unwatchable, and that’s downright shocking. As the weeks have worn on, as his character was supposedly growing inpatient and abandoning his plan in favor of a frontal assault on his enemies, Meyers inversely seems to be losing steam rather than gaining it. The energy of earlier episodes has slowly seeped away, as have his trademark glint and seductive style. As he stands in front of the crowd ready to reveal his technology to the masses (who seem awfully forgetful of the recent “public danger” it posed), there’s little of the showman from the first exhibition in the first episode. He looks tired and resigned.

Meyers admitted last year, in an interview with Radio Times, that he was “slightly horrified” that The Tudors had gone four series. He didn’t enjoy “going into work in the same studio with the same people, uttering your lines in the same costume…” But none of that showed in his depiction of Henry. After only ten weeks, however, he seems far wearier of his latest project. He’s certainly done little to promote it since its initial premiere. But I think that’s understandable, given the circumstances. Complain as he might about The Tudors, he was surrounded by actors giving sharp performances, working from a great script, based on a powerful and involving vision. Not so on Dracula. And he must know it.

Instead, he has been consigned to work on a show with a ridiculous premise, wildly uneven performances, incoherent characters, and a plot that has, for ten weeks, limped along trying to find its way, eventually dying not far from where it was birthed. NBC may have cut this one free of its cocoon, but the network has done neither Dracula nor its audiences any favours. 

Read Laura's review of the previous episode, Four Roses, here.

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