After watching the pilot of Dracula several weeks ago, my general impression was “Well, that was a lot less crazy than it could have been.” Given the amount of utterly bananas shows that have made it to air in 2013—the ticking conspiracy clocks of Zero Hour, the split personality monkey-eating threats of Do No Harm, the things that just snap right off of Cult, the hunky Nostradamus of Reign—I was expecting a show featuring alternate energy mogul Dracula hunting an ancient order while seeking his resurrected dead wife to slot right alongside those. Instead, the first and second episodes were a fairly dry affair about corporate conspiracy and blackmail, punctuated with the occasional fight scene or sex scene and using supernatural trappings for a more earthly story. It was a little disappointing, but also felt like an idea that still had potential and could grow into a more nuanced story with time.
“Goblin Merchant Men” went a long way towards dispelling those initial conceptions of the show. In the space of one hour the episode has an ancient mystical cult condemning a man to undeath, a champagne and absinthe whirlwind party with lesbian overtones, a man executed with a Roman gladius for selling stock and two psychics beaten to death with a mallet. It is, quite simply, a mess of an episode, cutting short in abrupt fashion character arcs that seemed like they were building to something and leaving everything uncertain and bloody. Indeed, it seems like the episode’s heading next to grief-fueled revenge on the part of the Order, with the door open for an influx of vampires upon London.
And yet, despite my fascination and enjoyment of TV with a lunatic bent, I couldn’t embrace this craziness with the abandon I was hoping for. Part of that is the mental adjustment—Dracula seemed to be one kind of show and now reveals itself to be another—and part of that is because the crazy that happens lacks any sort of structural direction. The changes that are made here feel dizzying rather than entertaining, hallmarks of a show throwing things against the wall and burning through plot devices and developments with reckless abandon. It’s storytelling that earns plenty of “What is going on here?” statements, but it’s not glorious lunacy the way a show like Sleepy Hollow does it—it’s lunacy that evokes continual confusion as to what anyone’s trying to achieve.
The key example of this comes right away in the opening scene. Like “A Whiff Of Sulfur,” it opens with a flashback; however, this one goes all the way back to the days of Vlad Tepes to show us how he first became Dracula. There’s a core character idea here—his vampirism is a curse placed on him by the Order of the Dragon, “condemned to endless night” for reasons unknown—but it’s lost in the absurd pomp and circumstance surrounding it. The Order members feel like extras from Monty Python And The Holy Grail—the priest who pours the blood down Dracula’s throat may as well be saying there are some who call him Tim—and Dracula’s slow-motion beatings and blurry hallucinations of his wife are stylistic flourishes that distract from the impact of what’s going on. The previous flashback added some shading to the uneasy alliance between Dracula and Van Helsing, this one feels silly.
The cut to present-day is a sharp tonal shift, going from Dracula leaping forward with fangs bared to idly tapping piano keys in Carfax, and things don’t get any more grounded from there. The episode dizzingly cuts back and forth between the varying narratives of the episode—Mina taking Lucy on a bender to mend her broken heart, Jonathan split between his ambitions and distractions, Van Helsing and Jayne operating at cross-purposes regarding seers, the Order members closing ranks to fatal consequences. Each scene feels tonally different, a sensual encounter between Dracula and Jaye cutting to agitato piano behind Jonathan’s spying on the Davenports, to montage-speed champagne swilling by Lucy and Mina, and then back to somber as Laurent and Davenport Jr. weigh their options. It’s an aesthetic mess, entertaining in spots but certainly not an episode pretending to hold itself together.
And when it’s not a sensory mess, the episode also is strikingly problematic for the show’s central narrative. Lord Laurent’s decision to avoid a scandal and sell his shares of British Imperial Coolant to Dracula means he’s violated Browning’s edict, and he has to face up to the Order’s consequences—consequences that turn out to be literally cutting him out of the Order with a sword through the chest, a ceremony taking place in an underground chapel surrounded by other Order members in red sashes. (Along with the flashback, it’s getting hard to take these guys seriously.) It’s a move that shatters his lover Davenport Jr., who pulls a Dead Poets Society and blows his brain out, leaving a note blaming Grayson for the scandal. Last week I approved of the show’s depiction of a homosexual relationship in judgmental Victorian England, and now both of those characters are dispatched the episode after they received a degree of characterization. It implies yet again that the show has no interest in the Order beyond ramping up the stakes of Dracula’s conflict, as Davenport’s father is left grief-stricken and vowing revenge on the meddling American.
Similarly dismissed is any conflict between Mina and Jonathan, both left clearly heartbroken after Jonathan’s offhand remarks on making her a housewife. Again, that’s a conflict I was prepared to forgive its narrative suddenness for what it could say about societal roles, but the two are reunited in quick fashion after Dracula steps in to offer a few choice words about how his new associate is being a hypocrite. The two reconcile in the street—in a 360-degree tracking shot that’s entirely unnecessary to the event—leaving Dracula to brood from the shadows staring at them for the third time that episode. It was a conflict introduced solely for the sake of conflict, which is disappointing.
Finally, the matter of the seers is dispatched equally fast, as Jayne seeks a curative for the “psychic trauma” they endured on their last scan of Dracula, going to Mina’s father who in turn goes to Van Helsing. The curative slipped to them turns out to be a paralytic, allowing Van Helsing to stop in on them after their latest viewing, and—in a moment rivaling the WTF quota of Laurent getting skewered by a gladius—he chats with the seers about his dead family as easily as he’d discuss the daily news and proceeds to crack their skulls open with a wooden mallet. There’s no investment in this other than disbelief given that the seers were never characters at any point, they were merely tools introduced for the order and then taken out of the equation almost immediately thereafter. Plus, they’re given an importance in death that was never shared in life, given that according to Jayne and Browning their deaths will apparently send up a signal flare to other vampires that London is open for business.
None of this is to say that it’s time to give up on the show, as there are a few interesting elements added to the story underneath the camp and gloss. We learn that Dracula has a dungeon underneath Carfax, where he’s keeping a fledgling vampire captive for unknown reasons. We learn that the drawing of Dracula’s blood from last week is apparently steps to create a solar vaccine, allowing him to walk in sunlight, and that its inefficacy is driving him to his limits. And we learn that Dracula might not be the only one seeing the connection between Mina and Ilona, as under an absinthe haze the former imagines herself in the courtyard where Dracula became what he is. Not much on their own but together, there’s enough details that indicate a gradual fleshing out of the world.
Despite those details and occasionally entertaining moments of insanity, “Goblin Merchant Men” is a confusing and ultimately disappointing installment of Dracula. The show presented itself as one thing in the first two episodes, and the third indicates that it’s either not interested in being that version of the show or that it’s going to slowly start shedding its ties with reality. There’s certainly nothing wrong with making Dracula a more bananas show—showrunner Daniel Knauf regularly went to otherworldly extremes with great effect on Carnivàle—but it needs more grounding and more commitment before it can do that successfully.
- Renfield remains the only character on this show I’m interested in on more than a surface level, as his Jeeves-like levels of restraint make a welcome difference from the ambitions and passions of others. “Goblin Merchant Men” is a great episode for him, particularly when a British Imperial Coolant executive calls him “a rich man’s novelty I wouldn’t even let into my house.” He pulls rank without flinching and even rips a “sir” out of the man, and then admonishes Harker for daring to think he needed assistance. More of this please.
- The deaths of Laurent and Davenport Jr. might not eliminate all of the homosexual relationships on the show, as Lucy gives the unconscious Mina more than a few loaded glances over the course of the evening and abruptly refuses Grayson’s offer to escort them home. It would certainly be nice as Lucy is by far the most superfluous member of the central cast at this point, to the point that it’s taken three reviews for me to even mention Katie McGrath is on this show.
- Yet another episode where nothing’s said about the geomagnetic technology, this time despite finally taking us back to the laboratory. For being the linchpin of Dracula’s plan, the show is frustratingly vague on any of its specifics.
- This week in clichéd advice made worse by bad American accents: “Sometimes, the people and places we are meant for take us by surprise.”
- Dracula on the day of his conversion: “Ripped out the throat of the priest.” Renfield: “So, not a bad morning, all things considered.” “I’ve had worse.”