Like one of the Count’s brides, the BBC/Netflix mini-series Dracula is charming, fun, and sexy — until it’s drained of all life. The culprit, though, is not the bite of a vampire, but rather showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss biting off more than they were willing to chew in the first three episodes, which like Sherlock, play out like three standalone movies.
[Ed. note: this contains major spoilers for the first season of Dracula]
While the first two episodes loosely follow the plot of Bram Stoker’s novel, Moffat and Gatiss twist the literature by adding a nun: Agatha Van Helsing, who now goes toe to toe with the vampire overlord. The gender reversal (which is revealed about 20 minutes after the audience should have figured it out on their own) doesn’t feel like a stunt in the hands of Doll & Em actress Dolly Wells. There’s a playful liveliness to Wells’ Van Helsing that compliments Claes Bang’s undead Count Dracula, who vacillates between suave and animalistic depending on how hungry he is.
Dracula’s first two episodes are full of scenes that fall squarely in Moffat’s strike zone: dialogue that reads as a verbal chess match between a brilliant hero and an equally brilliant villain. The series is at its best when Wells and Bang talk circles around each other. Near the climax of episode 1, “The Rules of the Beast’’, Sister Agatha opens the convent doors to Dracula, having figured out that he cannot enter a space without an invitation. The tension as the two size each other up for the first time is palpable — it’s not quite sexual, but it’s not not sexual either. (Still, Moffat’s tendency towards self-indulgent cleverness is on display as well. I was rolling my eyes when Dracula and Van Helsing continued their sparring with a literal chess match.)
After serving up two episodes of moody period horror, Moffat and Gatiss insert a major twist at the beginning of the finale: Dracula emerges from his coffin, which fell to the bottom of the ocean with him inside of it at the end of episode 2, “Blood Vessel,” and walks onto a beach. He is immediately surrounded by police helicopters. As it turns out, he’s been underwater for 123 years, and Van Helsing’s great grand niece, Zoe, (also played by Dolly Wells) has been preparing for his arrival as a scientist employed by the mysterious Jonathan Harker Foundation.
The premise itself isn’t necessarily a bad one. In fact, imprisoning Dracula in a modern medical facility specifically designed to trap a vampire is a fun reversal of the Gothic castle in which his victims were imprisoned. As we know from Sherlock, Moffat and Gatiss are fully capable of making a stylish modern interpretation of classic British literature. But with Dracula, the writers completely drop the tone and style that made the previous two episodes so compelling; they instead serve up a meandering slog.
Episode 3, “The Dark Compass” is all over the place in terms of both plot and tone. After being ambushed on the beach, Dracula escapes custody, only to be imprisoned again. Zoe provides an info dump about what the Harker Foundation actually does, then Dracula calls a lawyer (named Renfield, naturally, played by Mark Gatiss) who gets him released on the premise that the foundation has no legal right to hold him against his will. The first half of the episode feels like a police procedural with vampire hunters. Again, that’s not an uninteresting concept, but in the context of the rest of the show it’s wildly out of place.
Then there’s Lucy Westenra, the promiscuous femme fatale who becomes Dracula’s bride. Critics have argued that Lucy’s portrayal in the novel is radical in the face of Victorian sexual oppression, but the Netflix series doesn’t do anything to update the character other than turning her into a self-absorbed party girl. Moffat and Gatiss punish her for that vanity; After Dracula kills her, she’s reanimated halfway through being cremated and emerges covered in burns. She’s only redeemed through the eyes of a boy who says he’s in love with her, despite her clear and firm indication that she wasn’t interested. It’s an awful, tone-deaf portrayal of a young woman’s sexuality, though it’s not surprising given Moffat’s history of writing women.
The series culminates in a final showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula. Zoe has drunk Dracula’s blood, connecting her and allowing her to speak to Sister Agatha. Yes it’s silly, but it’s honestly a relief — Zoe is mostly a watered-down version of Agatha anyway. Zoe-as-Agatha pulls down the curtains to reveal that morning has come. Sunlight pours in and Dracula recoils, but doesn’t explode or dissolve into dust. Agatha then explains her theory, which also doubles as the thesis of the show: Dracula is just a coward who’s afraid to die. His “rules” are nothing more than habit, driven by fear and shame.
This, it appears, is the point Moffat and Gatiss want to make. They’ve flipped the script on one of literature’s scariest villains, positing that his terrifying behavior — preying on mortals in darkness — is not a tactic to disorient his victims, but an obsessive compulsion meant to protect him from the sunlight that will reveal his deepest shame. There’s certainly a nugget of truth here about things that scare us because they’re shrouded in darkness, and a potential argument for shining metaphorical sunlight onto them (and perhaps onto our own deepest shames.) But shoehorned into the last five minutes of the episode, it feels half-baked. The scene ends on a gut punch of an image — Dracula nervously stepping out of the shadows into the warmth and light of the sun — but that moment isn’t earned.
While “The Rules of the Beast” and “Blood Vessel” are campy fun, “The Dark Compass” is completely devoid of theme. Its pacing and tone are impossible to follow and its gender politics are a mess. I’d recommend simply watching the first two episodes and turning off your TV before the third episode starts, were it not for the final image of the series: Agatha and Dracula having sex in the middle of the sun after he drinks Zoe’s cancerous blood, killing both of them. (Zoe has cancer, which is an important plot point that doesn’t matter at all.) It’s a balls-to-the-wall bonkers ending in the best way, the kind of elevated schlock that made the first two episodes so much fun.
This ending wraps up Dracula’s arc with a neat, if ultimately unsatisfying bow, but it appears that a second season hasn’t been ruled out. Even before the series aired, Mark Gatiss told RadioTimes, “It’s very hard to kill a vampire. Do you know what I mean? What they do is resurrect.”
Exactly how a season 2 would work is unclear, especially given that the two main characters die in each others’ arms. Will we get a prequel, showing how Dracula’s obsessions became lore? Will Dracula and Van Helsing meet again in the future, resurrected by the Harker Foundation? Gatiss and Moffat have certainly proved that they’re willing to play around with timelines, but here’s hoping they’ll resurrect the more campy tone if Netflix orders another season.
Dracula is now streaming on Netflix.