Spoiler alert for Episode Two of Dracula.
Very few adaptations of Dracula include the scenes set on the Demeter. After Count Dracula is done with Jonathan Harker, leaving him to be devoured by the sisters, he boards a Russian ship called the Demeter, along with his many boxes of home-country soil, and heads to England. In the book, this section is recorded via the captain’s log, as he narrates the gradual disappearance of the crew. It’s picture-perfect for adaptation with its one-location survival horror structure but is typically cut for time in most versions of the story.
So, imagine my surprise when episode two of Dracula was set for the most part on the Demeter! Dracula tells sassy nun Agatha Van Helsing all about his journey to England aboard the ship (as much as the character reeks of ‘Moffat Writes Women’, Dolly Wells is immensely charming in the role). This time, however, he’s not skulking around in a coffin in-between mealtimes. He’s happily living among his fellow passengers lording it up in his fabulous cape and ensuring that every conversation he has is at least 30% pun-based. Aboard this ship is a Hammer-ready ensemble of potential meals: An aging German countess, an Indian scientist and his deaf-mute daughter, a betrothed couple and their sullen manservant, and a motley crew of sailors on yet another rocky mission across the sea. One by one, they’re disappearing and nobody knows why, even though the endlessly chatty Romanian count who chats almost exclusively in hints about his murderousness is right there. Ah, genre fiction.
Leaving the familiar faces of Dracula, bar the obvious title character, is a risky step for any adaptation of the novel to take. Stoker’s ensemble is a richly developed slice of Victorian society, from the naivety of young upper-class femininity in Lucy Westenra to the gormlessness and stiff upper lip of Arthur Holmwood. Moffat’s productions have always been top-notch in terms of filling out his cast of side characters with formidable talent, and this episode is no exception. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett gets to shine, even though he’s given very little to do. Really, none of the ship’s crew or its passengers is given much to flesh them out beyond their inevitable endgame as Dracula’s meal. This would be fine if the episode was more focused on scares or maintaining that eerie tone of the Demeter sections in the novel but Dracula’s too busy with his dad jokes for that to happen. It doesn’t help that all the Eastern European characters feel lazily sketched to the point of stereotyping.
Vampirism is frequently a stand-in for the perils of desire. What is more seductive and dangerous than an overwhelming threat of power and domination that appeals to one’s most animalistic urges? Add to that the novel’s themes of xenophobia and threat of infection and it’s no wonder pop culture is overrun with sexy vampires. Hey, you don’t hear me complaining. Dracula has a lot to offer these passengers: The Countess reclaims the heady days of her youth for a brief moment, a blushing bride gets a glimpse of the future she’ll never have, and her devious husband sees business opportunities aplenty — and a hot new possible boyfriend. The sexual allure is at the forefront of Mr. Kiss Kiss Claes Bang (sorry not sorry) and his performance, even if his bloodlust face is a bit too hammy.
It’s all rather fun and intriguing until, of course, Moffat’s gonna Moffat. He loves a big grand conspiracy, one where all the minor plot points and conspiracies tie up to reveal a bigger scheme at play. In this instance, all the passengers of the Demeter are there because Dracula himself has orchestrated it. He needs very specific victims to feed from and his taste is picky, so who better to feast upon than the finest aristocrats and academic minds? Sister Agatha is also now embroiled in Dracula’s thrall, set up as the patsy for the vampire’s bloody crimes. Of course, she’s sassy and a Van Helsing so she won’t give up easily, even as the crew are picked off one by one.
And then… Oh dear f**king lord, that ending. You know, I was almost relieved by this episode for its first 89-minutes, if only because it seemed like Moffat and Gatiss weren’t going to jump the shark with yet another over-the-top idea they couldn’t hope to pay off. I could almost taste freedom, and then, as Dracula dragged himself onto the beach of Whitby, the helicopters turned up and Agatha was right there, no longer a sacrifice for the greater good but a badass cop with an entourage of armed police by her side. Yes, it’s the modern-day. It’s going to go all Dracula 2000 but without Gerard Butler.
Moffat. Gonna. Moffat.
Why did this twist disappoint me so? Because it’s so pathetically predictable a plot decision for Moffat and one that’s, frankly, bloody boring. This moment would work better if the show had anything to say about Dracula or vampirism or their function in this story, but so far, I still have no idea what their overarching aims are with this adaptation. Is this merely a trashy pulp or something with loftier aims? Really, what it feels like the most right now is an attempt to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle sensation of that first wonderful season of Sherlock, but you can’t do that when fans have already gone through that particularly tough emotional cycle and seen how it ended. The end of this episode feels like a clear setup for a longer-running series where Dracula is part of the modern world and facing up against the Talamasca-esque anti-vampire squad headed by Agatha. It’s not a bad concept, but as Moffat is so depressingly prone to, it’s one an arm’s length away from the showrunner’s capabilities and style. The next episode promises the introduction of Lucy Westenra, and frankly, I am terrified to see how Moffat handles her.
Please enjoy this image of Claes Bang naked and covered in blood from the previous episode.
Header Image Source: BBC // Netflix