This review contains spoilers.
1.7 Servant To Two Masters
Seeing The Desolation of Smaug over the holidays was very eye-opening. Not only was it made clear to me that this film about greed deconstructs itself at great volume, but it suggested to me that, sometimes, the most important decision a director can make is in deciding just how much story he or she really has, and just how much time is needed to tell that story.
But it didn’t truly gel for me until I watched this week’s Dracula.
When I first started reviewing Dracula, its crawling pace was a minor distraction. The show was obviously envisioned as a Scorsese-like visual banquet. We were supposed to take our time and appreciate the vaguely steampunk aesthetic – Jules Verne-esque technology and rich Victorian dress combining in a way that, frankly never quite becomes coherent. But the outlandishness of the premise and heavy-handed explication was far more of an issue.
But by now, in the seventh week of its ten-week run, it’s become more and more of an issue until something happened this week to bring it all into focus for me. Near the end of Servant of Two Masters, the Order of the Dragon has the police poison a milk cart in the neighborhood where Alexander Grayson, Dracula’s alter ego, has built his power plant—the power plant where he is hosting an exhibition of his new technology. When everyone becomes ill, the corrupt Chief Inspector Morrow closes down the plant, claiming it’s causing the mysterious illness. Dracula later falls off his self-imposed (but largely out-of-left-field) wagon and attacks and feeds off Morrow. In the final moments, he visits Van Helsing and lays the blame for his frustration and feeding at the scientist’s feet, vowing to eventually kill the man he says promised him humanity but who failed to deliver.
In other words, when I say something happened, what I mean is that, on a show where even the most atmospheric of scenes can consume an inordinate amount of screen time, this week, something actually happened.
Looking back over all these weeks, it becomes apparent how little has actually happened in this series. And how strange that is given that outlandish premise. Because, whatever else I or others have said of it, there are areas where it did have potential. If the Order of the Dragon is responsible for the deaths of Van Helsing’s family and Dracula’s beloved Ilona, you would expect a sense of urgency in both men’s actions. Likewise, if the powerful order felt it was under attack, it would move quickly, decisively, and ruthlessly in retaliation. This is the driving conflict of the entire show.
And yet, two thirds of the way into the story, essentially nothing has happened in that storyline. Dracula has spent time puttering away in his energy lab, Van Helsing in his biology lab, and the Order has noted but largely ignored Grayson’s activities until now (despite the very real threat they pose to the Order’s plans). Sure there was the minor incident where Browning suspected that Lady Jayne, vamp-killer, was sleeping with an actual vampire–the closest they’ve gotten to moving on Dracula, but that concern was quickly addressed, and they now appear to have completely forgotten the presence of a powerful vampire in London (which was what led them to suspect Grayson in the first place).
And yes, there are some smaller plotlines, like the shared attraction between Dracula and Mina and the unrequited one between Lucy and Mina, but even when there have been moments where a major change or conflict seems just on the horizon, it is turned into a non-event: the Dracula/Mina dance where some saw Mina as a sexual aggressor (I honestly don’t see what they saw there) and where the two were so obviously passionately embracing in public seems to have affected Mina not at all. The dance in this week’s episode—which was far more emotional—didn’t seem like an escalation of the supposed feeling of the first dance; in fact, it was as though the first dance had never happened. This week’s Mina wasn’t moving into the arms of a man she desperately wanted, but rather taking a moment to make clear how grateful she was for his generosity. It’s only at the end of this second dance that we finally see her awareness that something is definitely bubbling under the surface. And while Mina has firmly rejected Lucy, she has not outed her, and would likely, given time, forgive what she felt was a trespass, and the two friends would be reunited—in other words, we’d return to the status quo—nothing would really have happened.
Even the potentially explosive game Dracula was playing in regards to Shaw looks like it might go nowhere really. Yes, Harker realizes that he was played, but he fails to effectively turn against his employer (how is it that the man of principle who felt morally obligated to report Shaw’s activities to the public will not do the same to Dracula?). Even though the Order promises him wealth and power if he turns against Grayson, it’s probably only even money that he takes their offer. He could just as easily see their behavior as verification of Grayson’s claim that the Order is dangerous.
In other words, what we’ve seen over these last few weeks is a lot of potential for real conflict, but none of that potential has been realized. It’s all been build-up, with every avenue for shaking up that status quo inevitably cut off or delayed. Until this week, nothing dramatic has been allowed to happen. Dracula hasn’t seemed even remotely challenged by the Order, nor has he managed to really get much accomplished. In the last five hours of on-screen time the show has had thus far.
Which is why The Desolation of Smaug was such an object lesson. The Hobbit is only 150 pages long. In order to make it into nine-plus hours of cinema, Jackson and Fran Walsh knew that they had to put more action into what is already a fairly action-packed plot. That’s how we got Azog, Radagast, and Legolas in a story that they were, at best, tangential to as well as the creation from whole cloth of Tauriel, the romantic distraction.
Haddon and his writers, on the other hand, seem to have taken a storyline of about the same length, tried to stretch it out over what will eventually be seven hours of screentime, but denied us the kinds of conflicts that has kept the Hobbit films somewhat engaging. If you boiled down everything that’s happened thus far in Dracula to its basic elements, we’d be, maybe, two-thirds of the way through a two-hour movie, not a ten-episode series.
Of course, like almost any analogy, my own fails, for one important reason: the makers of the Hobbit movies are working from an actual text of 150 pages. Once they made the decision to stretch the short story into three three-hour movies, they knew they had to create more narrative. NBC’s Dracula, while based very loosely on the Bram Stoker character, has never pretended to feel any allegiance to that text. So the challenge has never been one of stretching out an existing text. Instead, Haddon was all but given (the series was allowed to skip the pilot process) ten weeks of television to work with, and this is all the narrative that he and his team chose to generate. Even if he and his writers somehow manage to give us a great conflict at the end, we would still, essentially, only have the making of a two-hour movie.
With so many shows with potential out there struggling to avoid the all-too-at-the-ready network axe, the makers of Dracula have largely wasted a golden opportunity to tell an epic story.
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