This review contains spoilers.
1.5 The Devil’s Waltz
Just when I thought things were turning around for Dracula, they get off-track again.
The last episode was a vast improvement over what we had been seeing because it picked one primary plotline and really ran with it. This gave the show, which often gets too bogged down in trying to visually overwhelm us, not only some much-needed focus, but real momentum as well. And it set up this week’s episode to do the same: the kidnapping of Renfield (and Dracula’s tracking down and punishment of those who took him) should have provided excitement, intrigue, and lots of action.
Unfortunately, the writers failed to deliver on this. Part of the problem is that this wasn’t even the primary storyline this week. It was only one of several. And those several seriously diluted any impact we might have seen from the Renfield one. Sadly, it was also the most successful plotline, which gives you an idea of the weakness of the others.
Renfield has certainly been the most interesting and fruitful re-imagining of the characters from Stoker’s original story, and this week’s episode only made him more so as we learned exactly how it is that he came to work for Dracula. His turn in saving Grayson (well, attempting to save—it’s hard to believe that Grayson was actually in any danger, but Renfield certainly believed him to be) sets up an interesting symbiotic relationship between the two, rather than the parasitic one we are more used to seeing between the characters. And should set up our expectation that Dracula will let nothing stop him from saving Renfield.So when we see that he is in fact distracted from this both by his experiment with Van Helsing and the engagement party, it not only undermines the nature of the relationship we’re being shown via flashback but it distracts us as well.
The experiment is more than a distraction, however. It’s outright annoying for a couple of reasons. First, it’s badly handled. A long and sustained shock like the one they are giving the vampire-victim is entirely too long to start a heart—it would start it and then stop it again. And then there’s the fact that they give her the serum almost immediately after the shock and then again, immediately expose her to reflected sunlight. Would the highly skilled scientist Van Helsing move through these steps so quickly without allowing time for observation and testing? Second, that reflected sunlight? If reflected sunlight is enough to cause that kind of damage, how is Grayson able to be in rooms where the sunlight is reflected off the floor or the walls or anything else? Well, third, evidently, Dracula doesn’t need any help handling sunlight as we see in a scene with Harker where, after talking to him about Renfield’s disappearance, the vampire walks out of the room through the sunlight streaming through the window. Sloppy.
Then there’s the distraction of the engagement party. The primary reason for this scene is obviously to make it clear to several people that there is something going on between Grayson and Mina. The episode starts with the writers reminding us again of this fact by having Mina dream of him entering her room, warning her of Harker’s unworthiness, and then making love to her. So when the two dance together at the party, this evocative dream is still bubbling about in Mina’s subconscious and is likely why she forgets herself on the dance floor. Unfortunately, so much emphasis is given to the dance that a couple of other more interesting points are ignored.
Dracula is, of course, right about Harker’s basic incompatibility with Mina, and we get to see evidence of this both before the party and during it. He brushes off her concerns about the guest list and makes it clear that she’s somehow at fault for not realizing that the sloughing off of old friends is just part of their/his new position. Then at the party, he calls out that Mina is someone who “follows her own path,” which, after their second discussion of the guest list and Harker’s apology, would seem to be him learning his lesson. But since he then follows this up with granting Grayson the favor of the first dance with Mina (as though she is his to bestow), it appears that Harker will not be able to make the leap into modern marriage. It’s too bad that rather than driving that point home, the director instead focuses on the discomfort of Mina and Dracula as they prepare to dance.
And even more unfortunate that the dance itself is handled so badly. There’s little of the longing or erotic about it—they just look uncomfortable and wooden–and the fake ending where Dracula virtually beheads Harker is ham-handed and disappointing in the extreme. As is the ending montage showing the effect that the dance had on the characters.
Again, all distractions from what should be the more involving storyline about Renfield. But while the flashbacks are some of the best work we’ve seen thus far in the series (and, ironically, have more chemistry than the dance scene), the actual rescue of Renfield is not what it should be.
Dracula has proven himself to be extremely resourceful not only in learning what he wants to know but in using that knowledge exceptionally well (his complicated seduction and disarming of Lady Jayne proved that). So we expect that he will use these same tools in order to find and free Renfield, exacting a little revenge along the way. Instead, he merely sends Harker out to find out what happened to his aide. But when Harker comes back with the knowledge that Renfield was taken from the train station, Dracula does not use his considerable intellectual skills at all.
Instead, he resorts to what, it seems, is becoming a bit of a deus ex machina on the show. The series plays up the scientific, partially recasting the original story: vampirism is not merely mystical but responds to the dictates of chemistry and biology. Except when the writers get a bit lazy. Then the mystical comes roaring back as we saw in the dealings with the seers and see now when the vampire goes to the place where Renfield was last scene and follows some kind of supernatural smelling power to track Renfield and his abductors. One wonders why, if he can do this, he needed Harker at all. Surely it would have been just as easy to track him from the Grayson mansion as the rail station.
Which is—along with the other distractions–likely why, by the time we get to the scene where he rips those abductors apart and takes Renfield home, we’ve lost a lot of our interest in the Renfield storyline altogether, much as Dracula seems to have done when he then shows up at the party (not acting like the caring man we later see bathing Renfield’s brow in the ending montage). His aid has been professionally tortured and obviously needs medical care. But canapes are beckoning…
In the end, however, The Devil’s Waltz does what Dracula did in the previous episode: it sets us up for what should be a good story next week: even if the dance itself was badly done, the fallout from it could be delicious. But after this week, you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath…
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