When you look closely at the original Bram Stoker Dracula novel, one of the things that strikes you is how much the story is in fact about loyalty and relationships. Aside from the title character, whose motivations remain unknowable beyond his unholy appetites, the leads of the book are motivated as much by their devotion to each other as they are to destroying a monster. Lucy and Mina’s paramours are literally willing to spill their blood for her—offering transfusions to ward off Dracula’s curse—and there’s a sense that everyone’s in this together, even willing to discard social norms and invite a woman into their war councils.
As such, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the gradual improvements of Dracula stem from the way it’s gradually built the connections between its characters. Dracula’s plan to subvert the Order of the Dragon from within has led to a lot of careful interpersonal manipulations, bringing business partners and love interests to him and owing him for a variety of reasons. However, unlike Dracula the book, the relationships in Dracula the television show are largely based on convenience and lies, which makes them far more open to exploitation than the chivalric ties of the novel. “The Devil’s Waltz” is an episode that attempts to rattle all of these relationships, and while none of them fall apart it does expose the cracks in several—and also proves which are the strongest.
The most stable of those relationships? Turns out to be the one between Dracula and his manservant. Following immediately from the events of “From Darkness To Light,” we learn that Lord Davenport has defied Browning’s orders to keep his distance and handed Renfield over to a female torturer, whose smooth voice promises a journey of pain that her prisoner is in full control of. All Renfield has to do for freedom is answer one simple question: “Who does Alexander Grayson love?” It turns out that feudal loyalty seals his lips tightly, and the torturer begins cracking and carving up his body in an attempt to elicit an answer. Torture’s always a dicey thing for shows to tackle, and here it’s handled well: The isolated area where it happens fitting in with the show’s Gothic horror aesthetic, and the torturer has a refined sadism that furthers establishes the Order of the Dragon as a merciless organization as opposed to the merely capitalist one they appeared as early on.
And more importantly, it tells us more about the man being tortured. From the beginning of Dracula, Renfield has been the most interesting character both in terms of performance and re-characterization, Nonso Anozie’s booming voice and supreme confidence worlds apart from the spider chomping madman of the original novel. Here, he’s even more fleshed out, as we learn through a flashback to Dracula’s time building his reputation and fortune in the American frontier—a flashback deployed much better than the expositional openings of prior episodes—Renfield was a St. Louis attorney who wound up in a bad position out west. Dracula saved him from a beating after a business meeting gone wrong, and the other man willingly swore loyalty to the vampire even with an awareness of his otherworldly abilities. It gives some welcome depth to this controlled figure: we see that his loyalty to Dracula is both strong enough that he’ll bear up under intense physical pain, and that more than simple thralldom that keeps him tied to the master vampire.
It’s also a relationship that goes both ways, as his unexpected disappearance has Dracula showing a reaction he hasn’t displayed once: concern. He’s so distracted by the absence that he can’t focus on matters of importance to his alter ego like hosting Lucy and Jonathan’s engagement party, or on matters of importance to his scheme like the latest test of the solar vaccine. There’s been plenty of scenes where his affection for Mina/Ilona has been discussed, but this is the first time that Jonathan Rhys Meyers has seemed genuinely human in the role. Unlike Josef, who was a relic of a past life and a potential stumbling block in his plans, Renfield is something he’s chosen in this new existence, and the thought of losing him bothers the vampire more than he cares to admit.
It’s good to see Dracula adding some more genuine emotion to its central character, and even better that it’s still using those emotions as an excuse for violence. Past Dracula tears the entire train car apart, strolls off with the head of the man he’d come to deal with—making this the second episode in a row where a train ride ends with a decapitation—and offers reassurance to the wounded Renfield. Fast-foward a decade, and once Renfield glimpses the shadowy figure three floors up his moans turn to near-hysterical laughter, because he knows what’s coming next. The episode builds anticipation for the second fight perfectly, making it even more satisfying to watch the vampire tear out throats and limbs, and then stalk toward the torturer without a spark of mercy in his eyes.
It’s probably a good thing that Dracula’s relationship with Renfield remains unbreakable, because so many of the relationships around him are fraying at the seams. Despite the fact that Jonathan and Mina’s engagement is moving ahead at full speed, Mina’s seized with multiple doubts about the future, motivated by some particularly racy dreams about Grayson and Jonathan’s increasingly arrogant tone since his fortunes improved. Lucy’s putting on a brave face about the engagement, but it’s barely holding up—the hopeful look on her face when Mina confides that she’s fantasizing about someone else is heartbreaking to witness. And while Van Helsing has cautioned his erstwhile partner about restraint, the toll of this quest and his failed experiments is clearly starting to wear on him as well, his eyes clouding over with something nasty when he’s left alone for too long.
These tensions are put under control at the engagement party of Jonathan and Mina, staged by Mina and hosted by the ever-charitable Dracula. (Amusingly, the party is held in a far smaller room than the grand exhibition in the pilot, either proving Dracula ran short of funds or that Dracula doesn’t think his assistant’s earned the master ballroom.) Jonathan, wanting to be gracious to his employer, offers him the honor of the first dance with Mina in the center of the dance. Here we get the titular waltz, as the two move through the room in a careful bit of choreography. However, the as of yet unexplained connection Mina shares with Dracula is too much for either to ignore, and they find themselves pulling far closer than social norms should allow, and starting to appear to the other as they were centuries ago.
As with most of the Dracula/Ilona material, the dance is too heavy on the gauzy heightened reality feeling, but it’s saved here by the literally violent jolt back to reality. Given how obvious the closeness between the two is to most everyone in the room, it’s small wonder that Jonathan opts to cut in, and Dracula—or at least the Dracula of the dream world—winds up tearing out the other man’s throat.
Rationally that can’t be what happens—halfway through the season is far too early to off a main character and it would rip the main plot open irrevocably—but for a split second the scene manages to become absorbing enough that it’s not beyond the pale that’s how it could turn out.
At the end, no one seems particularly pleased by the way the evening turned out. Jayne is distracted by Grayson’s closeness with another woman, but not too distracted to cut Browning off when he suggests that there may be a connection between Grayson and Dracula—proof that for now the vampire’s manipulations have done their job. Lucy gets the most genuine reaction she’s had all season, breaking down in tears before she can even get up the stairs to her home. Jonathan, although free of hesitation when considering taking down Dracula’s latest target—filled with righteous indignation over a war profiteer—has no idea how to react to this latest twist to his life.
And Dracula? Dracula sits in a quiet bedroom in Carfax, looking over the wounded Renfield he’s now twice fought so hard to save. Given the way the fire in his gaze doesn’t seem to have let up, it looks as if Lord Davenport—sniffed out by Dracula as the abducting party—may want to hope Jayne identifies him as the culprit before the vampire catches up with him.
- Part of the action this week winds up evoking another classic horror story, as Van Helsing channels the Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist trope by modifying the Grayson laboratory with mirrors and gurneys to test the solar serum. There’s even a bona fide “IT’S ALIVE!” moment when he manages to jumpstart the test vampire’s heart for a few precious seconds, only to be foiled again when the serum runs out. A well-played escalation and deflation of energy.
- I’ll be honest. If the show wanted to focus on more of these particular flashbacks and reboot itself as Dracula in the Wild West, showing Dracula, Renfield and Van Helsing outwitting robber barons and getting into scrapes, I would have zero problems with that reorientation.
- Jonathan is apparently neglecting his old friend at the newspaper, a character who’s now appeared in most of the episodes and whose name I couldn’t tell you at gunpoint. Yawn.
- “Professor, if you ever valued that arm, take it off mine. Immediately.” I wonder if Dracula had his erstwhile partner in mind when he literally disarmed an Order thug later that evening.
- “Then you shall know all my secrets. And your life will never be the same.” “Is that a promise?”
- This will be the last regular review of Dracula at The A.V. Club—its low viewership has translated into similarly low readership, and we’ll be dropping it from the rotation. As always, thank you for your comments and your observations. Hopefully we’ll be able to make our way out of the coffin for one last chat after the finale airs.