Series Premiere Review — Dracula: The Blood is the Life.

After this series premiere of NBC’s new stab at the Draculean legend, I might now as well cast my verdict as to ‘Good Awful or Bad Awful?’. Going by this pilot, I’m afraid we’re heading distinctly towards Bad Awful.

In the pre-season post, I’ve already lost quite a few words on why this is a mangling of the myth, not so much a reimagining. Although I cannot deny my mountainous crush on Thomas Kretschmann and that I’m pleased to see him part of the lead cast in such a venture, seeing Van Helsing cooperate with Dracula in a vendetta against the Order of the Dragon… no. Other reviewers have debated the need for another Dracula adaptation very eloquently already, see Tim Surette’s piece on tv.com, I’ll probably just get intermittently upset about Dracula never having been a peasant, actually…

Then again, that’s not even the worst of it. The worst of it doesn’t actually have anything to do with any sort of canon. It’s got to do with the fact that the producers have managed to claim that they are “re-inventing” Dracula and of course they would also clap themselves on the back and declare that they are “pushing the envelope” in terms of storytelling. Well, no. They’re not. They are casting Alexander Grayson, Dracula’s American persona, as an inventor, a man of progress. Sure, that’s only to undermine the Order of the Dragon, it’s not as if Dracula actually has the interest of the human race at heart, but… See, Jonathan, quite rightly, makes a note of egomania and possible delusion — but it wouldn’t have been egomaniacal or delusional of the writers and producers to introduce some other totally rad concepts: namely the “radical notion that women are people.”

In a context where the future of the human race is said to be at risk and a black man is shown as Renfield (Nonso Anozie), Dracula’s lawyer and right hand man, in Victorian London, women are still the butt of the joke. And that is what infuriates me about this.  I do not understand how the producers can justify breaking some Victorian prejudices while not overcoming others, or at least making a bold statement against them.

Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) seems to be standing on her own two feet quite well, Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) appears to do the same — but then, all they talk about when they have a sleepover at Mina’s house is the men in their lives. Not Mina’s studies, not the state of the world. Also, Lucy is reduced to her modus vivendi as a female predator: she’s rich, apparently, and all she’s after at the party are gorgeous blokes. That’s literally all we see of her at the party — where the show takes great pains to introduce a very large batch of male characters in significant detail. In such detail, actually, that we’re going to have trouble remembering all their names and faces without a dramatis personae at the beginning of every episode…

Alexander Grayson

Mina is the only female medical student in her class, with Abraham Van Helsing who is one of the most respected surgeons at the time, in canon. And yet, she is the only one in that class who is suggested to doubt her abilities. She scores the highest marks in every theoretical exam, and yet, her fingers shake when she cuts open a body? This is so embarrassingly obviously tied to her gender! It completely undermines her agency as a prospective surgeon, and as a female character. She’s the daughter of a prestigious surgeon and director of the hospital where she studies — what’s next, that’s the only reason she got into the programme in the first place? That the producers and writers are incapable of having her see past the part of her Victorian upbringing that undoubtedly taught her that she wasn’t good enough to do this… if she is pursuing this goal, then she shouldn’t be struggling with this. Because, there it is: “the heart never lies.” So, basically, what Van Helsing is saying, that her stupid womanly emotions are exposing her inability to pursue a man’s career. Great, thanks. Look at Carter in ER: male surgeons struggle with this fear, too, that’s reality. And yet, here, Mina is picked out of the bunch as having the problem, and it’s used to mark her as the token girl. Why couldn’t she have been this brazen, badass lady who doesn’t tremble? Sure, it’d be great if she overcame these doubts over the course of the narrative, but to give her these doubts in the first place just because she’s a woman is lazy and, frankly, idiotic, and definitely not pushing any sort of envelope. To do that, Mina would have to have a moment of clarity and yell, “Fuck this shit, it’s only patriarchy telling me I can’t do this, when obviously I can!” But so far, she searches for the reasons of her inadequacy only within herself, and Van Helsing encourages that — the show encourages that. Recovering from internalised misogyny is as important an arc as for a female character as to be shown to have overcome it already — but that’s not what Dracula is doing. Considering that the season preview shows Mina mostly afraid of something and/or leaning against Dracula’s shoulder, and/or being creepily stalked by him, I’m not sure how much agency and, dare I say it, resistance against a foretold fate and reincarnation we can expect from her.

I’m not saying women in fiction can’t have weaknesses. We’re human, of course we do. But the source of this weakness mustn’t be found in our gender, which can only be accomplished through context and framing. To frame Mina like this in the very first episode of a new show is very telling, and it says a lot about the producers’ attitude towards their main female character. The same goes for Lady Jane (Victoria Smurfit), resident vampire slayer and right hand of Browning (Ben Miles), head of the Order in London. In the season preview at the end of the pilot, Browning advises Lady Jane that she wouldn’t be “the first woman to be blinded by desire.” So, basically, what’s going to happen is that she’s going to end up shagging the vampire a lot, without even realising what or who he is; and in the end she’s probably going to feel either very, very betrayed or even cross to his side. Her weakness (and that of pretty much every woman Dracula meets in this episode) is situated right up her fanny, congratulations. And I don’t want to hear anything about, “But it’s Victorian England, that’s what it was like!” Excuse me, but if it’s not fucking impossible to have a vampire suck people’s blood, a supernatural creature stemming from Romanian folklore, then I don’t quite understand why writers can’t pick up their artistic licence and do a little tap-dance with it, right on the head of outdated modern conventions. Gothic fiction, I don’t know if people have realised, isn’t exactly steeped in realism. Actually, it’d be very realistic to have women fighting those conventions left, right, and centre, because that’s what actually happened.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as DraculaRight. Because Dracula — a man — makes his succumbing to his baser instincts, like rage and revenge, into a strength, while for women it automatically becomes a terrible weakness to have feelings. That’s what really gets me. Characters have to have weaknesses, characters of all genders, but they must all be allowed to deal with them in a way that gives them courage. What NBC’s Dracula is doing is assorting their characters’ flaws and then deciding how they deal with them on the basis of their primary reproductive organs. And that, pardon the pun, really, really sucks. Especially because the “sense of entitlement” of the members of the Order of the Dragon that Dracula hates so much is, by the show, based in their heritage and their political power made of money — not in their gender. This show doesn’t push against privilege and patriarchy, because patriarchy isn’t what hurt Dracula. Rape is on his list of terrible offences that they commit to assert their power, but it doesn’t get placed in the context it should be in.

One component of the literary vampire figure is the fear of the foreign: Grayson is treated, by the established aristocracy, as an “interloping colonial.” Gothic Horror deals with the fear of the unknown often through xenophobic prejudice. Thus, for Victorian times, it’s only fitting to throw an up and coming American into the shark tank that is the English Empire; and, oh look, the vampire girl dressed in only a nightgown that Lady Jane is keeping in her training cellar has a trademark Eastern European accent.

In other news, Dracula is gory, pretty camp, ridiculous and relatively entertaining television. It’s also a conversation between men. About women’s fates, and that of the world. Make of that what you will.

Next: A Whiff of Sulfur.

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