Dracula episode 3 review: Goblin Merchant Men

Jonathan Rhys Meyers continues to outclass his Dracula co-stars. Here's Laura's review of Goblin Merchant Men...

This review contains spoilers.

1.3 Goblin Merchant Men

The primary storyline of Cole Haddon’s Dracula is ostensibly set in Victorian England, 1896. And yet, there is much that does not jive with what we know of the period in the series. I’m not talking about the miraculous technology that Dracula’s alter ego Alexander Grayson has brought to dazzle the people of London. After all, that’s supposed to be anachronistic – we don’t even have that technology today.

No, what I’m talking about has more to do with the sexual and gender politics that seem to be on display and the convoluted message that they send about what was going on in Victorian England. Now, I do not expect the series to be historically accurate. It’s not really the point of the show—it’s not like The Borgias or Downton Abbey where the history is more than a setting; it affects virtually everything about how the characters act because of the choices (or lack thereof) offered to them by the social mores of each period. In fact, that’s what largely makes shows like that interesting: they place human beings in a time and place that are alien, to one degree or another, to the audience but driven (as most people are) by the same types of desires, fears, etc. so that we see how they act. From this, we then extract certain supposed truths about human nature.

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Even then, I don’t expect a show to be entirely accurate historically. But I do expect it to be consistent to itself.

Which is one of the things that’s bugging me about Dracula: from the outset, and again considering that Dracula’s offering a technology that we don’t possess even today, there seems little reason for Haddon to have set the show in the 1890s. Granted, the epistolary novel is set in 1893, but that makes it contemporaneous with its publication date of 1897, which is more of a default than a very meaningful authorial choice (hence why most novels, TV series, etc. are set in the time period in which they are created). Since we’re dealing with a character unbound by most temporal restraints, Dracula could literally have been (and has been) depicted as living any time after the mid-fifteenth century.

So why Victorian England? The snarky answer might be that it’s just one more thing lifted from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But in terms of the storytelling, it appears that the primary function of setting it then is to take advantage of the repressive attitudes toward women’s roles in that era. Much has been made, thus far, over Mina’s position as a medical student. She sits in a corner of the classroom, despite being one of the best students (aside from her surgical technique, that is—evidently she goes all girly when asked to cut flesh, at least until Dracula passes on a single truism which miraculously places her at the top of the class even in this regard). Likewise, when Harker announces to his cohort that he’s going to marry Mina and make her a “proper English wife,” one of his friends jokingly asks how that’s going to gel with her pursuit of a medical degree (but doesn’t seem overly invested in her gender-bending ways). Harker replies that Mina will be dissuaded from her studies once she’s married (which Mina hears and responds negatively to). Dracula, enlightened vamp that he is, calls Harker on his hypocrisy: “I understand that you are a fool.  How can a man who wishes to defy social convention and rise above his station deny the same thing to the woman he loves?”

It’s a nice scene and sets Harker up as a bit less of the devoted lover than we’ve seen him in other depictions.

But this repressive attitude that we’ve seen in some areas appears to be ignored utterly when it’s inconvenient. While it has been established that Lucy’s judgment is highly suspect, Mina’s has been largely circumspect, as makes sense considering her career choice (or choosing to have a career at all). While the first women’s medical school opened in London in 1874, that doesn’t mean that medicine was seen as widely acceptable as a pursuit for women. As a result, a woman studying medicine, like other gender pioneers, needed to be above reproach, even more so if she was at an essentially co-ed institution (all those men about).

So the idea that Mina would accompany Lucy to a bohemian working class den to enjoy absinthe seems largely out of character for her. But in the context of actual Victorian culture where English women had easy access to a host of other drugs (morphine, laudanum, and other opiates), but where absinthe was considered un-English and particularly inappropriate for women, there appears to be no reason for either Lucy—who seems driven to get Mina intoxicated because it might make her more open to Lucy’s sexual interest in her friend (something equally attainable through opiates)—or Mina to venture out to a place so wholly marked out as morally dangerous to women. But the writers ignore this piece of the misogynist period they chose. The man who accosts Mina, for example, seems to have little problem with her being a woman in such a place (which looks largely like an ecstasy-inspired rave) and instead takes umbrage at the class distinction between the women and their environs. So while it is possible (though highly unlikely) that a woman like Lucy, with her unguarded nature, might visit such a place, it’s virtually unthinkable that Mina would, especially given how much more she has to lose. The writers ignore not only their setting but their version of the characters as well.

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Of course, this gives Dracula the chance to save her from her supposed folly and the predations of men (ironic that she needs saving in a text that’s supposedly chiding its own character, Harker, for his sexism).

On the other hand, Goblin Merchant Men is the first episode where I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time in watching. We get to see at least the act of Dracula being made a vampire (although why you punish an enemy by turning him into an immortal of great power escapes me) and Van Helsing’s own origin-story. Hopefully we will get more of this. The deaths of Laurent and Daniel has me wondering if Haddon and company want to warn us that they have no problem killing off what appear to be important supporting characters, and we certainly could use a bit more explanation of why Laurent went so easily to the slaughter. And the entire episode is worth watching for the exchange between Renfield and Harker. This is far and away the most interesting version of Renfield I’ve ever seen.

But the one scene that really resonated was the one where Dracula leaves Lady Jayne’s bed to wander about her home with all its secrets. Perhaps this is because it’s one where Meyers is given the opportunity to simply act with few distractions. Most of the actors on Dracula can only aspire to the lead’s weight class and so it often feels like he’s dialling it back. But his search through the dark recesses of her den, letting us see and understand what he does, his interaction with the caged vampire, his reaction to it all before he climbs back into bed with the vampire killer, this is what we expect and want from such a show.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend…

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, A Whiff Of Sulfur, here.

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