Now that’s more like it. After a couple of episodes that oscillated back and forth between dull exposition and schizophrenic tonal shifts, “From Darkness To Light” is an episode that provides a much more satisfying picture of what a Dracula show could be. There was some genuinely satisfying scheming on the part of both Dracula and his rivals, a lot of unsuspecting bystanders getting caught up in the crossfire of his scheming, and stylistic devices that enlivened the episode rather than seeming like they were thrown in because someone thought they’d hook more superficial viewers.
If I had to summarize why this episode works so well while the previous two have left me feeling distant from the show’s intentions, I would say that it has to do with a matter of stakes. (Pun intended.) The first few installments introducing the conflicts between Dracula and the Order of the Dragon didn’t present a compelling reason to care about the objectives being met—a consequence perhaps of being early episodes, but raising concerns that they weren’t doing the necessary legwork for further investment. Here, the episode narrows its focus to interpersonal relationships, setting aside larger questions of coolant and reincarnation to deal with two very important relationships to Dracula. And in fleshing out those relationships, it tells us a lot more about our central character: what’s made him what he is, what he’s willing to give up for his goals, and just how good he is at playing this game.
The players are introduced immediately, as the fourth episode eschews the flashbacks of the last two weeks to throw us into close-quarters combat. Lady Jayne’s warning last week that vampires would start flocking to London in the wake of the seers’ death proves accurate as she’s now fighting off regular incursions into the city, this latest batch in the confines of a train car. It’s an affair wonderfully reminiscent of a horror movie in its staging as the vampires hunt their prey with hook and blade, only for Jayne to throw off her cowl and match them strike for strike. A claustrophobic setting like this is often a sign of budgetary limitations, but they make the most of it in this scene, showing how there’s next to no room for escape and how odds can change fast: Jayne going from being strangled to taking the strangler’s head off with one swing of her sword.
One vampire manages to escape Jayne’s wrath, and while not the central vampire that she’s seeking the escapee turns out to be more important than a simple fledgling as he shows up on Dracula’s doorstep identifying the other as “Master.” Dracula joyfully identifies the arrival as Josef Cervenka (Alec Newman), his chief lieutenant from four centuries ago, answering his sire’s call to continue the fight against the Order. He extends the hospitality of Carfax to Josef with open arms, a move that Renfield greets without enthusiasm—reservations proven correct before too long as Josef starts snacking on the manor staff. And that lack of decorum lends itself to his interactions with his host, as Josef is openly scornful of Dracula’s long game against the Order (“You would pick their pockets like a common thief?!”) and openly draws the comparisons between Mina and Ilona when he sees the former moving through Carfax’s halls in preparation for her engagement party.
It’s fitting that Josef is played by an alum of Angel (Newman portrayed Drogyn the Battlebrand in the show’s fifth season) because the relationship between Dracula and Josef has more than a few parallels to that first season’s episode “Somnambulist.” Both episodes feature an ancient vampire dealing with the return of someone they once saw as a protege, and in both cases the protege is put off by what their former mentor has become. While Dracula’s not showing any of Angel’s repentance, there is a clear implication that he’s become “civilized” over the last decade to get what he wants, and Van Helsing’s lessons of patience have worked better than he’d like to admit. In that sense, his defense of Josef’s loyalty feels less like he’s standing up for a friend, but for the being he used to be.
A large part of his civilization shows up in his continued relationship with Jayne, who’s starting to encroach on Renfield’s territory as the show’s most interesting supporting character. Part of that is due to the relish with which Victoria Smurfit plays the character, and part of it is because she’s an outlier in the universe even once you get past her being an original creation in the Dracula universe. Like Mina, she’s a woman who’s existing in a largely male-dominated field, but unlike Mina she’s already reached the top of her profession and knows it. Her interactions with Browning display an immense pride in her abilities (“If I can’t kill the beast no one can”) and she spars verbally with Dracula with as much fervor as she’d swing her sword at him if his identity came out.
While the old Dracula would have matched her blade for blade, the new one appreciates that he can’t take that approach if he wants the Order taken down, and he tells Renfield he wants a more definitive victory: claiming her trust. Watching him toy with Lady Jayne is marvelous, the sort of manipulation we expect to see from a character as in control as Dracula is supposed to be. He frustrates her expectations constantly, first standing her up at a fancy restaurant and then as a makeup date taking her to the Victorian equivalent of foxy boxing. (The latter also leads to one of the episode’s most successful structural choices, cross-cutting the battle with the two tearing each others’ clothes off in a side room.)
And for further evidence of his masterwork scheming, look no further than the way he resolves both Jayne’s move to end their relationship and Josef’s urges to put the huntress down. He acquiesces to the latter’s desire, only to show up and distract his former protege long enough for Jayne to deliver the killing blow and scatter ashes across the room. In one stroke he’s solved all his problems—Jayne takes him back into her bed as her savior, and takes the ashes to Browning as proof the master vampire has been dealt with. There’s a masterful grin on Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ face as he falls into her embrace, and also a definite regret as he pours one out for Josef’s memory. He’s prepared to fight the Order to the end on this fight, sacrificing both a trusted ally and a part of his nature if that’s what it takes.
The Dracula-Jayne-Josef triangle occupies most of the attention, but “From Darkness To Light” also delivers further development on the part of Dracula’s supporting cast. A newly engaged Mina finds her attentions distracted by Grayson’s keen interest in her relationship, and also by the locked room in Van Helsing’s laboratory that appears to contain blood cells that have been alive for nine years. Van Helsing’s hunt for a solar serum to cure Dracula bears its first results, able to allow his hand to survive almost a minute in direct sunlight before his skin catches fire. And Jonathan is back on the hunt for his master to dig up dirt on another pair of Order nobles, this time the war heroes General Ogilvy and General Shaw, both of whom are tied up in a possible war with the Ottoman Empire.
It’s the last move that provides another of the improvements in “From Darkness To Light,” as we finally get to see the Order seem like a genuine power behind the throne and not just a Board of Shadowy Figures. When General Ogilvy discloses in a secret meeting to Browning that a Persian war is not feasible—a war that would vastly expand the Order’s petroleum reserves—the latter smiles and listens to the excuses before nodding to an attendant behind him. Within one minute, the general is relieved of command and General Shaw gets command, along with a not-so-subtle direction to begin the offensive by August. Finally, the Order feels like they’re playing the same high-stakes game Dracula is, actual movement as opposed to the abstract talk about petroleum and geomagnetic assets.
They also prove themselves to be as impulsive as their still unrecognized antagonist, as Davenport Senior has covered up the circumstances of his son’s death but not his own rage. I felt Laurent and Davenport Junior were sacrificed too quickly last week, but the vengeful attitude it’s instilled in Davenport Senior may be worth it—keeping the true nature of his son’s death secret, he risks Browning’s displeasure to enlist a torture expert to find a weakness in Grayson’s armor. And given that the episode ends with Renfield in the back of Davenport’s carriage, headed for a certainly painful treatment at the hands of the man who just lost his son, Dracula may come to regret his move in sacrificing a violent agent like Josef so quickly.
- Correction from last week: As many of you were quick to point out last week, yes, it was in fact Lady Jayne’s secret dungeon that Dracula entered last week, and not his own. I misinterpreted how easily he found the secret passage and assumed this was a vampire prisoner he was keeping for solar serum tests, when in fact it was an Order prisoner evoking sympathy from him. A regretful error on my part.
- Omission from last week: I neglected to mention that “Goblin Merchant Men” was written by Harley Peyton, an alum of Twin Peaks, which explains some of the attendant tonal weirdness. An even more regretful error given my strong affection for that show.
- We get some more clarification on the rules of vampirism in this universe in this episode. Josef was able to enter Jayne’s home despite not having an invitation (a limitation other interpretations often enforce), and when decapitated his four-centuries-old body crumbled to dust instantly.
- Finally some more evidence of the geomagnetic technology, as Dracula invites Mina to witness one of his tests, only for things to go haywire and force the two into each others’ arms.
- I was disappointed the opening fight scene didn’t make its way on top of the train car, as despite logistics we’ve seen plenty of evidence those frequently make for the best fights.
- One major nitpick: for being a master vampire hunter, Jayne’s remarkably incapable of noticing the man she’s sleeping with doesn’t have a heartbeat.
- “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a knight to capture a queen.”
- Dracula is off next week for a fiftieth anniversary special on the JFK assassination. We’ll be back on November 29 for “The Devil's Waltz.”