Dracula episode 2 review: A Whiff Of Sulfur

Dracula continues to talk down to its audience. Here's Laura's frustrated review of episode 2...

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 A Whiff of Sulfur

Usually when you agree to review a television show for an outlet, you’re locked in for the entire series. Which makes taking on a show in its first series a bit of a crap shoot. If it’s great, not only do you get the pleasure of reviewing something good (and trust me, reviewers are not generally looking to hate something), but it means that you’ll likely be asked to cover it next series, should it be renewed. On the other hand, if it’s bad, you have to watch the entire series (trying all the while to find new synonyms for “horrible”), waiting for either the last episode or cancellation.

None of this is to say that I’ve either decided that Dracula is hopeless nor that I am hoping for its cancellation. Quite the opposite. I’m here for the duration either way, so what I really want is for the series to improve. If I’m going to spend every Friday night for a while with this series, I want it to be entertaining, or at least interesting. And now that I’m over the initial shock of the ridiculous premise, I still need, weekly, to address the question of how well the show then executes on that premise.

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Unfortunately, without the problem of the premise to cloud the issue, the more pedestrian writing sins of the episode were much more stark.

Early on in the episode, there’s a scene focusing on a fencing competition. Lucy and her mother, being solid aristocrats, are in attendance, as are Lucy’s friends Mina and Harker. One wonders why an ambitious young man who is scrambling to get ahead with his editor would spend hours in the middle of the day at such an event, until it become obvious that the only reason that he’s there is so he can look uncomfortable when the cheque arrives and Lucy’s mother takes it and pays the tab.

Lucy chooses a champion (awarding her three ribbons to a single fighter rather than to three different ones, as is expected) from among the fencers and whispers the promise of something obviously indelicate in his ear in order to motivate him to win. He loses. We are to conclude several things from this: Lucy’s giving of all the ribbons to a man with whom she has no official affiliation is more shocking to Victorian mores than spreading them about, and making clear that she’s promised him something no respectable girl should screams that Lucy is a scandal waiting to happen. Her lack of discretion, when taken together with her lack of discrimination (choosing someone who loses in his first match) all but sets her up as the perfect victim for Dracula to take and use.

Also there, for no particular reason, are Lady Jane the vamp-killer and Browning who are having what should be a very private tete-a-tete at this very public event. And then there’s the obvious exchange of looks between the actual winner, young Daniel Davenport, and Lord Laurent. Just in case we were too dense to get it, Lord Laurent accosts Davenport in the hall and they promise, with yet another longing look, to meet later that evening.

That’s a lot going on in one scene. Which doesn’t necessarily make it a bad scene and, when done correctly, such a bit of story can be quite excellent. However, in this case, there’s simply no need for most of this to happen at all. The writers already established last week that Harker lacks the finances to move comfortably in these social circles. And at the party in the first episode, we saw that Lucy’s flirtation goes far beyond an acceptable level, something she does nothing to hide.

And there’s simply no reason for the Davenport/Laurent bit at all. In fact, the later scene where Dracula finds them at a secret gay club would have worked just as well, if not better, had we not seen what was going on between the two of them at the fencing match. After all, the whole reason that Dracula’s paying Harker is so he can get information he can use against the people he’s trying to ruin. If Davenport and Laurent are so indiscrete, the vampire doesn’t need an insider to discover any of this. It’s not like he’s under some time pressure to get this all done quickly. He’s immortal. He’s got all the time in the world. So instead showing Davenport and Laurent acting in a completely innocent way in public only to find them making out at the club would have accomplished something altogether better: not only would Harker’s ongoing importance to Dracula be underlined, but it would remind us that in Victorian society, appearances were deceiving in the extreme. Which would make us watch just that more carefully in the future.

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Unfortunately, much of the writing appears to be the result of dramatically underestimating their audience. This is why we have to be reminded after only one episode that Lucy’s trouble and Harker’s broke. It also appears to be why the show is resorting to heavy-handed explication.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is an otherwise useless scene where Renfield asks Dracula why he doesn’t just take Mina. He is, after all, capable of stealing her away by force and turning her. The question does allow Dracula the opportunity to give us a badly written explanation for something so clearly, again, obvious: If he turns Mina against her will, he’s not going to end up with his previously-established-as-adoring wife back. He’ll instead have a pissed off woman with newfound power and a hunger that could wreck all his plans.

What we could instead use an explanation for is why, upon discovering Mina, he doesn’t just off Van Helsing, seduce Mina, and convince her to let him turn her voluntarily? After all, it’s clear that he’d be happy to have Mina solely because of her looks. So why not enjoy that and give up on revenge? But whatever…

After all, there’s still Meyers to enjoy, doing what he enjoys: sex scenes. Unbelievably, the writing even screws that up this time ‘round. The first time I watched the scene where Dracula and Lady Jane are in bed together, it struck me how badly choreographed it was. There was so much of one of them pulling the other up and pushing them away that it looked more like a wrestling match than sex. I had to go back and watch it again to try to understand this choice. I mean, come on, this is where we expect the show to excel! Then the reason became apparent. Meyers has to jerk his partner in and out of frame because they are swapping out Smurfit (Lady Jane) for De Gouw (Mina, or rather, Dracula’s wife Ilona). 

Apparently, it’s imperative that we understand that while Dracula is screwing Lady Jane, he’s actually fantasizing about Mina/Ilona. So really, he’s not actually cheating on her, right?

Is it possible that the writers believe that after The Vampire Chronicles and Buffy and True Blood and all the rest that we are so unsophisticated that we can’t deal with the idea of a vamp wanting (and even having sex with) two different women? Isn’t this precisely why Meyers was the perfect choice for Dracula? Because we’ve turned the vampire into a creature who enjoys sex almost as much as he enjoys the blood that sustains him? Meyers just got done playing one man of such unbelievable power and sexual appetite. Dracula is much the same, only with eternal youth and vigor to match.

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But then this appears, even after only two short episodes, to be the primary problem with the show: we, the audience, are being talked down to. We don’t need things explained repeatedly to us. In fact, often, we don’t need them explained at all. That’s what actors are for. A good actor can create more meaning with a look than a writer can with an entire scene sometimes. But even the best actor can do nothing if the audience feels insulted by the script.

And we are getting dangerously close to that point.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, The Blood is the Life, here.

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