This review contains spoilers.
1.6 Of Monsters And Men
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the difficulty of writing complex stories with interweaving plotlines: it has to be done really well. Otherwise, you tend to end up with either a tangled mess or a disjointed narrative. This has very much been the case with Dracula: it is successful when it sticks to focusing on one part of the story in an episode, making only brief and occasional nods to other plotlines, but largely fails when it attempts anything more complicated. Yet, they keep trying, and this week’s attempt led to a disjointed narrative.
While Dracula‘s writing has played a substantial role in keeping the series from achieving what it could (given its cast and producer-ly pedigree), in Of Monsters and Men, there was also another culprit to blame: the direction.
On the relationship front, one coupling took a huge leap forward while another suffered a painful and possibly permanent setback. After getting drunk on Grayson’s money, Harker and Mina run home through the rain and then make love for the first time (a distinct no-no for someone of Mina’s class and condition). The next day, Lucy, her feelings stirred up by the seductive talk and touch of Jayne, confesses the true nature of her affection to its object, Mina, and is roundly and quite rudely rejected.
Meanwhile, Mina’s curiosity leads her to experiment with the liquid she found hidden in Van Helsing’s labs, and in the process, she not only re-animates dead cells, but brings a rat back to life (vampire rats in Victorian London, now there’s some potential fun!). When Van Helsing discovers her work, he comes quite close to killing her (one can only imagine how his temporary ally might respond to the murder of his dead wife’s doppelganger), but Mina saves herself by distracting the scientist with a sad story.
We also learn that Dracula set up Harker in relation to General Shaw. The information that Harker procured did not come from a bookkeeper but rather an actress playing the part of one. But not only did Dracula himself hire the actress, he subtly manipulated Harker into leaking the information she gives him by leveraging the journalist’s sense of patriotism. Davenport learns of the “source” of Harker’s information and shares it with the young man in a roundabout way, obviously hoping to create suspicion between Dracula and his new aide. Dracula covers his tracks by draining Vera the actress dry.
And Browning, still convinced that Grayson is a vampire, reschedules a make-or-break meeting of Grayson’s new coolant company—in a solarium at noon. This forces the nightwalker and Van Helsing to accelerate their experimentation, with Dracula the next test subject. They succeed, at least for long enough for Grayson to attend the meeting, convince Browning and others that he is not what he is, and thereby all but eliminate the greatest threat to Dracula and thus to Van Helsing’s plan to bring the Order of the Dragon down.
That’s a lot of narrative, with little connective tissue holding the various pieces together.
It’s not just a huge amount of story; it’s story that includes several extremely pivotal moments. Unfortunately, in this episode, it’s hard to tell which moments those are. Because while the writer served up a lot of material to work with in terms of drama, much of it was wasted by the direction which treats all moments as though they have the same emotional power and volume.
There are several ways in which a director creates tension, excitement, and drama onscreen. Through pacing, music, framing, etc. he or she tells us not only what is important in a story but how to feel about it. But in Of Monsters and Men, everything is portrayed in the same low-key way—the pacing static, the music uniform, even when portraying things that are horrific. When Dracula undergoes the experiment, again Van Helsing moves quickly from stage to stage, and so there is no dramatic build-up in what is obviously a painful process—so we lose any real sense of the price the vampire is willing to pay to have his revenge. Likewise, in the scene where Dracula kills Vera Markham, this should be a moment that reminds us that, however much we may be rooting for him, he is still a monster who feeds from the living and has no issue with murdering someone who has actually done his dirty work. Yet, again, there is little suspense or dread and thus what is obviously meant to be a dramatic end to the episode falls flat.
Instead, Of Monsters and Men falls back on fairly ineffective tropes and tricks. A tendency, for example, to focus on hands on the body as an emotive sign might have been useful in a particular scene, but the fact that it’s been used at least three times in this week and last week’s episodes reduces whatever might have been interesting to mere repetition. Not to mention the fact that focusing on the actor’s hands during moments of particularly high emotion robs that actor of a chance to really shine.
Despite this, one actor is given an opportunity to really perform, and honestly, it’s the last character I would have expected to break out of the pack. And yet, Katie McGrath’s Lucy Westenra, who until now has been a fairly throwaway figure in the story, is becoming compelling and perhaps showing signs of having greater depths than her crush Mina. There is a subtlety (when we actually get to see her face rather than Jayne’s hands) in McGrath’s depiction of Lucy’s reaction to being outed and then largely seduced by Jayne. Likewise, her hope of loving Mina and then her pain at her friend’s rejection comes off, particularly in this otherwise bloodless episode, as stark and very real. I have yet to watch Merlin, but based on this, I think I may go check it out, if only to see her play Morgana. She deserves watching.
As to the rest of the show, we are officially three-fifths of the way through this first series, and it’s obvious that Dracula is floundering. Until this week, ratings have been in a steady decline and last month brought news that its star is being kept on a tight leash due to fears over his addiction problems. Saddled with credited writers and directors who often lack the kind of experience one would assume on such a project, the show is uneven at best with a cast that is tremendously under-utilized. This week served as the mid-series finale with the show set to return in early January. It will be interesting to see if this week’s rise in the ratings is enough to save it from the axe. My guess is no.
But I would be happy to be proven wrong. If only to give it the opportunity to improve.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, The Devil’s Waltz, here.
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