Early in the second episode of Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing cautions his hot-tempered partner that as much as he may want to rip the Order of the Dragon in half with his bare hands, shows of force like he exhibited in the pilot are ones he can’t repeat on a regular basis: “Every move you make is another card face up on the table.” Somehow, that advice sticks with the vampire, and as a result “A Whiff Of Sulfur” is a less overtly volatile episode than the pilot, Dracula keeping his fangs in except for the episode bookends and spending the majority of the time in his Alexander Grayson persona. As a result, the episode feels scaled back in comparison, the more primal side of the show’s nature tamed in favor of blackmail and gender politics.
That being said, this is still an episode that needed to happen early on in the show’s run. As I said last week, the biggest problem with “The Blood Is The Life” was that the majority of the cast were only recognizable because they were named after Bram Stoker characters, overshadowed by Dracula’s charisma and the period trappings. “A Whiff Of Sulfur” gives some additional exposure to the rest of the cast, drawing them deeper into Dracula’s personal and professional schemes, and even though it’s not terrifically executed it’s necessary as a sort of rebalancing effort to distribute the weight of the show around. It’s a building block episode, one that lets the show move characters like Harker, Mina and Jayne into better positions—even if the process of getting them there isn’t spectacularly interesting.
So for better or worse, most of what happens in this episode falls on the earthly scale, as Dracula opts to keep his fangs sheathed and pursues a quieter trategy for undoing his foes. He approaches Order member Lord Laurent with an offer to purchase his holdings in British Imperial Coolant, and when he finds himself rebuffed he turns to Jonathan Harker, offering the young journalist a cushy position with his firm in exchange for a steady stream of secrets. Harker has his doubts, but suspicions only last so long when you can’t pay rent or treat your girlfriend to dinner, and it doesn’t take him long to accept the offer. It’s a decision that pays dividends for Dracula immediately, as he finds Laurent in the arms of another Order member’s son and grins with the ease of a man/monster who knows exactly what new cards he’s been dealt.
While a large part of this procedure is by-the-numbers—Dracula baits the hook so obviously for Harker the viewer can see the trap long before he does—it’s a necessary evil because it allows us to learn more about both Harker and the Order beyond their archetypes. We learn that while Harker has his scruples and suspicions about his employer’s spotty past, the ambitious streak wins out, and there’s a definite satisfaction in Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s bearing as he gives Dracula the name of the gay club. Similarly, the relationship Laurent and Davenport’s son have goes a long way toward making them not just members of a Board of Shadowy Figures, but human beings and legitimate foes for Dracula to work against. (There’s also higher stakes than scandal, given the laws that would send Oscar Wilde to prison for similar behaviors were alive and well at the time.) These people need to be Dracula’s allies and enemies for reasons that make sense, and these contracts and threats are drawing the battle lines.
In a less tactical move, Dracula also starts courting the attentions of Mina, whose upcoming surgical exams leave her incredibly nervous. There’s still no explanation given as to why she resembles his dead wife Ilona so closely, or any follow-up to Mina’s dream that ended the pilot, but it’s clearly weighing on the vampire’s mind. Again, this development generates a mixed bag of reactions. His discussion with Renfield is one of the episode’s better scenes, a rare moment of humanity from the monster where he confides that he considers the idea of transforming Mina “an abomination.” Unfortunately, his interactions with Mina are clichéd to extremes as Mina talks her motivations in wanting to be a doctor and he offers platitudes about goals: “The only way to fail is to abandon them.” (Also, in what I’m sure is going to become a recurring part of these reviews, the worst instance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ American accent as he pronounces “All my years, all my journeys” in the most nasal tones known to man.)
Miraculously, Dracula’s advice allows Mina to pass with flying colors—and allows Dracula some prime brooding time as he observes from the lecture hall shadows—but it’s a rush of confidence not maintained for long. Jonathan, drinking heavily with his newsroom peers to celebrate his new job, states that once he makes Mina his wife she’ll give up these silly notions of a career, a reveal she happens to walk in on at the exact wrong time and then storms away from angrily. It’s a conflict that doesn’t feel thrown in for the sake of conflict, and as with Laurent and Davenport Junior’s relationship, this allows for potentially more interesting character beats by drawing into focus the clear social strata—the notion of a female surgeon in this time, particularly a married one, is outside any established norm. It could be interesting, the reasons to care fully aren’t there yet.
These new developments may leave Mina more open to run into the arms of Dracula, but at the moment those arms are being comfortably filled by Lady Jayne. The most sensual scenes of the pilot were given over to Rhys Meyers and Victoria Smurfit fondling each other in the opera, and “A Whiff Of Sulfur” is no different, treating us to some hyper-stylized PG-13 gyrations as the two writhe in bed together. (It even technically turns into a threesome, as Dracula keeps shifting Mina/Ilona and Jayne in his mind.) It’s eye candy pure and simple, and for at least a portion of the Dracula audience these sorts of scenes are what they tun in for—NBC certainly made no efforts to advertise it as anything else. If you’re watching for that it’s there, and if you’re watching for other reasons it’s not terribly distracting.
Thankfully, the show has bigger plans for Jayne rather than merely leaving her as one of Dracula’s carnal pursuits. Not only is she a member of the Order of the Dragon, she’s a trained fighter willing and able to step into the recently vacated role of huntsman to track this new vampiric threat—adding yet another strong, capable woman to the ensemble, which is always appreciated on shows like this. And Smurfit plays femme fatale well in several instances: she looks great in a leather coat and brandishing a kukri, she’s capable of rousting a pair of opium-saturated seers to track the vampire, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and decapitate a dead restaurant hostess once Dracula’s made a meal of her. Unfortunately for her, the latter happened to be on the rooftop above at the time, and his grin at identifying her—fangs still dripping from his dinner—is even wider than it was when he had Laurent at his mercy. Mina may be built up as his fated love, but this is the relationship that feels like it’s worth watching.
Again, while much of “A Whiff Of Sulfur” feels like it drags along, it’s hard to judge it too harshly because it’s an episode that’s laying groundwork for the future. There are elements that worked in “The Blood Is The Life” that continue to work here, and there’s a few interesting elements—the introduction of the seers, Van Helsing drawing Dracula’s blood for unknown reasons, and the exact nature of the geomagnetic technology—that have yet to be explored in detail. Hopefully now that Dracula’s got the pieces for his scheme moving, it’ll get there sooner rather than later.
- Dracula avoided an early staking from the network with a respectable opening for Friday night, retaining 100 percent of its Grimm lead-in audience. We’ll have to see how much of the audience comes back tonight, but given NBC is comprised of weak spots it’s cushioned enough that it should have some leeway.
- I didn’t even get to Van Helsing, whose historical role as Dracula’s most competent character carries over here in both the flashback and present-day. Thomas Kretschmann fleshes out Van Helsing as a character who’s been ready to have the upper hand from day one, but also a man of clear emotions: pain at what the Order of the Dragon have done to him, disgust at the creature he has to ally himself with, and more than a whiff of pride that with sanctified blades and needles he’s able to exert control over what he set loose.
- I avoided discussing the opening titles last week because I wanted to see if they’d been altered or finalized since the pilot. The final version is hauntingly good, full of sepulchral reds and greys, Gothic spires, clockwork gears and similar jagged imagery. Titles are supposed to set the mood and these do the trick.
- Some of you in the comments discussed the anachronism of Harker and Mina’s public displays of affection last week, and (refreshingly) the show notices it too, as some onlookers while the two are at lunch together are essentially popping their monocles and sputtering various “By Jove!” exclamations.
- It’s always interesting to see where the difference in budget between a first and second episode comes in, and it’s pretty glaring in a few instances this week: Dracula and Mina having a full conversation in the confines of his carriage, Harker in the newsroom and Sir Clive’s apartment.
- Nice editing choice: Order head Lord Browning says that anyone associating with Grayson will be severely punished, and it cuts to his protege Jayne enjoying a lavish meal with the man.
- I suggested above that we could see more of the seers in future episodes, and I certainly hope so because otherwise, what a waste of an idea. Neither one of them felt even close to characters for the build-up they received from Lord Browning, merely plot devices for Jayne to tear up an opium den and look tough and Dracula to shatter a mirror and make it bleed.
- In a discussion of vampires powerful enough to elude seers, Jayne cites Lucretia Borgia. Here’s a pitch, Showtime: bring back The Borgias and rewrite it as historical fan fiction that transforms the Borgia family into a vampire clan.
- Mina suggests that since Grayson allegedly made his fortune in the American frontier, it accounts for his mysterious past, the Wild West “hardly a bastion for crack recordkeeping.” Pitch #2: Dracula meets Deadwood.
- “Your name. Now that’s something I treasure more than any mere garment.” Creepy.