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Review-“Dracula”-“The Devil’s Waltz”

Well, it seems that NBC’s Dracula might have finally hit its stride.  In tonight’s episode, we not only got to see a lot more of the brutality we expect from Dracula, but also gained a glimpse into his past with Renfield.  Meanwhile, Mina finds herself growing dissatisfied with the changes in Jonathan, and both Lucy and Lady Jayne discover the painful truth that their loves do not return their feelings.

Tonight’s episode picked up right where we left off two week’s ago, with Renfield held captive and tortured in order to gain information about Grayson/Dracula’s potential weaknesses.  In the process, we learn that Dracula once saved him from certain death at the hands of some racist thugs and, as a result, he has maintained steadfastly loyal to his employer through all of their trials and travails together.  Indeed, so powerful is his loyalty that no amount of torture (and some of it is quite graphic and obviously excruciating) can tear the knowledge from him.  Dracula, true to form, rescues his companion and, in one of the episode’s most touching scenes, he even nurses him back to health.  The relationship between these two men is shaping up to, to me at least, to be much more affecting and meaningful than that we between any of the men and women of the series.

However, I would also like to note that the torture scenes with Renfield carried some very troubling racial overtones, especially as the tortures were being carried out by a white woman.  Again, I’m not entirely certain that the series had anything definitive in mind with this representational strategy, but it does conjure up many unfortunate overtones, especially for American audiences, that we would do well to be cognizant, and critical of these issues when they come up in popular culture.  Just because we like to delude ourselves into believing that we magically live in a postracial society does not mean that scenes like this do not carry with them the baggage of centuries of oppressive strategies of representation.

Indeed, the strength of tonight’s episode stems in no small part from the fact that it emphasized the interpersonal relationships rather than the political and social plot lines that, as I have noted before, have never seemed all that compelling or convincing.  Although Lady Jayne’s appearance in tonight’s episode was belated–she only briefly shows up at Mina and Jonathan’s engagement party–it still managed to convey to us the depth of her feeling for Grayson/Dracula.  For all of her formidable appearance and fighting abilities, it would seem that she has allowed herself to develop some dangerous and potentially deadly feelings for this mysterious American.  Nor have these feelings gone unnoticed by the other members of the Order.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether her feelings of love will turn (as they so quickly can) into those of absolute hatred, especially as it has become obvious to everyone that Dracula’s interest in Mina is more than just of a benevolent benefactor.

The one plotline that continues to taunt us, however, is the obvious attraction that Lucy feels for her friend Mina.  Dracula continues to toy with us on this one, constantly showing us just enough of a glance to suggest Lucy’s inner turmoil at the sight of her beloved walking into the arms a man.  At this point, I’m not exactly sure what the series is going for in this particular love triangle, especially as Lucy has not really been given enough of a personality or development as a character to make us all that invested in what happens to her.  The cynical side of me wants to say that it is for the lesbian-love titillation factor that is so downright icky, but perhaps they have something better planned for the three of them.  There’s certainly a lot they could do, but we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they actually get around to doing them.

All in all, tonight was definitely one of, if not the strongest episodes that I have seen so far.  They managed to keep it fairly focused–with a few extraneous bits here and there–proving what can happen when you write a tightly plotted story that focuses on interpersonal relationships rather than broader cultural or social plots (which tend to not make that much sense, anyway).  It looks like we are going to return next week to Dracula’s quest to be able to walk in the sun which, while still a little out there, nevertheless has some interesting potential.  Hopefully, it will hit the same balance of visceral shock–who can ever forget Dracula’s hallucination that he slices Jonathan’s throat during a dance at the engagement party–and powerful and evocative emotion that we saw this week.  If so, we might just get lucky and have a few more episodes than the ten we are guaranteed.


Review: “Dracula”–“From Darkness to Light”

NBC’s horror/drama/science fiction series certainly has a lot of balls in the air after this most recent episode.  Dracula is attempting to find a way to walk in the sunlight with the aid of Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan are continuing with their wedding plans while Lucy is filled with regret, Lady Jayne finds herself becoming more and more infatuated with the exceedingly dangerous Dracula, and Renfield is captured by the duplicitous Lord Thomas Davenport.

The Good

There was a lot to like about this episode, starting with the obvious chemistry between the leads.  Meyers and De Gouw in particular shine as the two lovers separated by death who have somehow managed to find one another again in Victorian London.  The real sparks, however, are between Meyers and Smurfit (who portrays Lady Jayne).  The two practically light up the screen whenever they appear together, and this adds some much-needed electricity to their scenes together.  Indeed, their twisted and convoluted relationship is one of the aspects of the series that works really well, due in large part to the portrayal of their characters.

The true highlight of the series so far, however, is Renfield (Nonson Anozie), who continues to serve as his master’s conscience and voice of reason.  Whereas Dracula has a great deal of political vision and great ambitions, he sometimes fails to see the important things that Renfield can.  This makes his capture by Lord Davenport (undertaken outside the auspices of the Order) something of a blow for Dracula, and it might even lead to his undoing.

The Bad

Although there is a lot to praise in this series—the luscious set designs, the solid performances by most of the cast—it is still plagued by some of the problems that arose at the outset.  While its ability to bring together several different genres is what sets it apart, it also serve as one of its greatest weaknesses.  However, this may be just a matter of execution rather than of the inadvisability of genre mixing.  In one episode we saw not only the introduction and quick death of a new character, but we also saw Dracula’s continuing attempts to create a new source of energy and to be able to walk in the sun, the efforts of the Order to eradicate the vampire threat, the ongoing preparations for Jonathan’s and Mina’s wedding, and the Order’s machinations to control the oil fields currently under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  Any two or three of these would provide enough material for almost an entire season’s worth of good writing.  As it is, the show tries to keep too many balls in the air at one time, and as a result most of the storylines suffer.  For example, we hardly saw anything of Van Helsing this episode, and the angst Lucy feels at Mina’s impending nuptials feels rather trite and tacked on.

It seems to me that Dracula suffers from a similar syndrome to that which afflicts other high-concept series like Once Upon a Time.  Faced with the reality of network programming (in which a series has to prove its value over the course of a season in order to be considered for renewal), Dracula quite simply tries to take on too much at one time, and as a result it doesn’t really do any of them all that well.  Of all of it, Dracula’s attempt to find an alternate source of energy that would undermine the Order’s control of oil tends to fall flat.  The mention of it in this episode was no more convincing than it was in the first.  Let’s hope that they find a way to make this particular thread more compelling.

The Ugly

Despite the fact that this series has some splendid production values (especially for a network series), there were a few moments in tonight’s episode that were visually unappealing.  In particular, the scene in which Dracula takes Lady Jayne to what appears to be a mud wrestling match between two scantily clad women—followed by a steamy sex scene—was both visually and ideologically repulsive.  One might expect something of this sort from HBO (who probably could have pulled it off with a lot more style), but coming from NBC it all seemed rather pointless and not at all entertaining.

All in all, “From Darkness to Light” set up some interesting premises that will hopefully be followed through before the series reaches its conclusion (its current ratings strongly suggest that it will not be renewed).  It looks as though next week, with a captured Renfield being tortured, might be one of the most interesting yet.

Grade:  B