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Dracula's nautical second chapter ponders its own monstrous inevitability

Illustration for article titled Dracula's nautical second chapter ponders its own monstrous inevitability

It isn’t just Dracula that Sister Agatha stands against. She must contend with the story of Dracula itself, one that can morph and twist in the retellings but almost always follows three fundamental beats: It starts in Transylvania, ends in England, and in the middle there’s a ship. If the story isn’t complete without Dracula reaching his destination, what chance is there of Van Helsing stopping him mid-voyage? “Blood Vessel”, the middle chapter in the Dracula miniseries, has a lot of fun playing with that narrative inevitability. Like “The Rules Of The Beast”, the first half of the story unfolds in flashback, with the vampire recounting his time aboard the Demeter to a captive Sister Agatha. That portion of the story is Dracula in absolute control of not just the situation but the narrative. He advises Sister Agatha and with her everyone watching at home not to get too attached to the characters he introduces, and he makes good on that promise. For as long as he is telling the story, he truly is what he says he feels in the episode’s climax: indestructible.


Except Dracula isn’t in complete control. As Sister Agatha points out during their game, he cannot restrain his appetites at all while on board the Demeter, killing three people in the first two nights. He fancies himself a connoisseur in a wine cellar, but that’s just one of several lines he advances to prove to his foe that all will be fine for him. One moment, he preaches the importance of selective dining, with this episode further emphasizing the idea that Dracula’s victims imprint their language and even personality on him. Yet he also cockily claims that he knew he could devour just about everyone and make it to England with a skeleton crew—a phrasing we should likely take both seriously and literally. Sister Agatha has it right: He’s an addict. Dracula can readily manipulate everyone on the ship, at least as long as his opponent is safely dying in room nine, but he only is in the position where he has to stage manage the investigation because he is so incapable of holding himself back.

The first half of the story does sit somewhere between horror and murder mystery, either way with the perpetrator as the protagonist. “Blood Vessel” signals its genre ambiguity with its first big twist, as Dracula is revealed not as a waiting terror lurking in one of the crates loaded into the hold, but rather the final member of the passenger list. Dracula remains very much the monster here, but he’s a more human kind of monster than we saw in “The Rules Of The Beast.” Much of what we see here proves most important as setup for all that happens once Sister Agatha revives, with the other characters until then primarily serving to elicit audience sympathy for their preordained fate.

That dread hangs heavy over the first 45 minutes, which is about the upper limit of how long one could possibly sustain a story that is essentially just Dracula triumphant. While the second half is more interesting, this portion has its share of charms. Some of that is the simplicity of it all: A ship sailing into an endless fog and people disappearing, all in the 19th century sets and costumes the BBC has always known how to do well. The other big highlight of the first half is the charisma of Claes Bang’s star turn. His Dracula delights in playing with his food, but it’s never the same way twice. He reconnects with the Grand Duchess decades after their first meeting, inviting her to dance once more. He seduces both Lord Ruthven and his new wife Dorabella, extending something resembling kindness to the latter while taking great pleasure in crushing the former’s fantasies of immortality. He even takes time to prank the deckhand Piotr with the story of Admiral Nelson being preserved in a barrel of rum.

While “The Rules Of The Beast” played things relatively straight in linking up flashback and present—the reveal Dracula killed Jonathan Harker might count as a twist, but the latter’s undead status was heavily telegraphed—“Blood Vessel” is more subversive. The reveal(s) of where Sister Agatha is and who is in room nine is a textbook bit of cleverness from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. It recalls a trick the former played in his Doctor Who episode “Last Christmas”, which used the inherent weirdness of the premise to lull the audience into filling in narrative gaps they shouldn’t. Given how the previous episode ended, it makes no sense for Sister Agatha to be spending an almost intimate evening with the count, matching wits over chess. But, hey, time skips are a thing—oh boy howdy, are they a thing, but we’ll get to the ending later—and Van Helsing has already shown she is able to set aside any fear of the vampire if that’s what it takes to understand and defeat him. Once the episode moves on without explaining what they are doing together in this unfamiliar setting, it’s easy to set aside how strange that is until Sister Agatha herself recognizes something is very, very wrong.

The best scene of “Blood Vessel” comes when the crew and passengers of the Demeter try to hang Sister Agatha, who comes up with the cleverest possible reason for them not to: She’s a vampire. Dracula’s reaction is somewhere between impressed and happily excited, as though his only interest is to see where she goes with this next. Both vampire and hunter appear to grab the upper hand, as it appears Dracula has outwitted her when he answers her demand to know who will kick out the barrel and risk her wrath, but then she reverses this by spitting blood on him and triggering a brief transformation. That’s enough impetus for Dr. Sharma’s daughter Yamini to repel the vampire with a makeshift cross. The vampire is exposed, with Sister Agatha seizes command from the well-intentioned, openly out-of-his-depth Captain Sokolov as she begins what she hopes will be the final battle.


That back and forth sets the terms for the rest of the episode. No longer is Dracula the unquestioned master of the situation, and it’s not only Van Helsing who can stand against him. While it does feel like an inexorable conclusion for Sister Agatha and Dracula to find themselves alone on the exploding Demeter, the story can take some detours on the way to that point. Just as the first episode found the heroism in Jonathan Harker’s doomed efforts to resist the vampire, so too here do we see Dr. Sharma and Yamini defy Dracula and his would-be ally Lord Ruthven. Sacha Dhawan—who is having a busy week—offers some much-needed decency from the passengers as Sharma, especially when contrasted with the feckless villainy of Patrick Walshe McBride’s Lord Ruthven. His scenes also emphasize that Dracula is only the suavest manifestation of this world’s essential horror, the prospect of undeath. Whether the existence of that phenomenon is just part of the backdrop of this miniseries or part of the big mystery to be solved remains an open question.

And that brings us to the episode’s closing shocker, as Dracula makes it at last to Whitby on England’s northeastern coast—with the emphasis very much on the “at last,” as it appears he slept an entire century on the seabed before reemerging. Dracula has indeed reached England, as he always must, but it’s not the England he expected. This is exactly the kind of big, upending twist that Moffat and Gatiss love, and their track record with supplying endings worthy of such shocks is checkered, putting it mildly. But whatever happens next, that instinct to dig deeper into the ideas both present in and merely suggested by the source material and build stories out of their own wild takes has served the pair well for Dracula’s first two thirds.


Stray observations

  • One of the more unnerving details early on is the reveal that the original Piotr needed to be staked in order to assure his death, and apparently this is well-known enough that the clergyman present for his death must instruct the mother to do her duty.
  • Naming the idiot aristocrat Lord Ruthven after the other original vampire is a neat little red herring, leaving open the possibility that Dracula might really enlist him as an ally. Makes it all the more satisfying when his monstrous dreams are dashed, honestly.
  • So, the episode ends with the reveal that Sister Agatha’s identical descendant is running a clandestine organization tasked with preparing for and capturing Count Dracula should he ever reappear? Jekyll-heads, this is our moment.