So this is how Dracula ends – both with a Bang, and a wimple.
Yes, in the final reckoning this was really a story about two clashing characters – a vampire and a nun – coming together, with even death and a distance of 123 years doing nothing to stop Dolly Wells’ Sister Agatha and Claes Bang’s Dracula from reaching their endpoint.
With all three episodes now in the rearview mirror (pretty rapidly over just three nights) it’s easy to see that this central relationship was the beating, bloody heart of Dracula all along, with ancillary characters coming and going while Bang and Wells held court, and it’s a testament to both actors that they continue to make their verbal sparring so watchable.
Though of course, it takes a while before ‘Agatha’ and the Count truly meet again. In an early scene in this final 90-minute episode we’re treated to the sight of Dracula out and about in the 21st Century, fresh with new terminology (he notes that in drinking victims’ blood he’s sort of “downloading” them) and a sharp suit and ready to cut a swathe through England.
Soon, a series of cross-cutting flashbacks reveal just how he ended up in the present day (basically he was in a magic coma until someone accidentally fed him a finger), as well as how the surviving Mina Murray (episode one’s Morfydd Clark) ended up founding an institute dedicated to stopping Dracula, named for her late fiancé.
This leads to a fun few scenes where “Jonathan Harker” is calling a mobile phone, hinting at his undead survival, though really it’s just his name that lives on alongside a fancy oil painting deep beneath Whitby Abbey in a covert base.
Still in the flesh, however, is Sister Agatha – well, sort of. As we predicted it’s revealed that the new modern-day Van Helsing is Agatha’s descendant Zoe, though Agatha herself eventually rises to the surface after Zoe quaffs some magic Dracula blood.
While a little wacky, bringing Agatha back into the fold for some final catharsis is a good move (after finding it odd in episode one, I missed Wells’ Dutch accent) and it’s a testament to her performance that both Zoe and Agatha feel very different despite inhabiting the same body. In the final scenes of the episode Wells also finds some real power opposite Bang, and it’s the careful progression of their relationship over the previous four hours that makes it all mesh together.
Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha (BBC)
However, the series’ close focus on these two characters also brings its downsides. Merrily butchering your supporting cast every episode definitely raises the stakes (sorry), but it also means the newly-introduced characters here feel like slightly thin gruel. In other words, it’s hard to care too much about Dr Seward’s (Matthew Beard) heartache when we’ve had such a comparatively short time to get to know him, and especially when we know we’ll probably never see him again after an hour anyway.
Mark Gatiss, playing his dream role of the Count’s worshipper Renfield, also doesn’t get much to do. This slightly prissy lawyer version of the character isn’t nearly as much fun as the novel’s fly-scoffing, straitjacketed strongman, and disappears from the story as soon as he appears after eating a mere single insect.
But this adaptation’s take on Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), Dracula’s main victim in Bram Stoker’s novel, is bound to be the most divisive. Shallow, self-centred and cruel to her lovers, it’s hard not to feel like it’s a slightly sexist portrayal, and even though Lucy points out the double standard herself the writing’s not quite deft enough to seriously interrogate the themes of slut-shaming and male gaze it rubs up against.
Instead of challenging how we look at Lucy and what she’s doing, we just… look at her and what she’s doing, and her consciously-cremated fate (oddly, a theme co-writer Steven Moffat has played with before in Doctor Who) seems like a righteous punishment for bad behaviour that never feels that well-sketched.
Still, it would always be tricky to bring this long, less popular segment of Stoker’s novel to life – clearly, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat found more to play with in Castle Dracula and on the Demeter – and these are still plenty of flourishes, particularly in Dracula’s one-liners (“Drunk? Well that’s certainly on way of putting it,” he says of one victim) and the fever-dream vistas he’s able to conjure up throughout his ministrations.
I’m not sure whether the final revelation of Dracula’s psychosis quite chimed with me (he needs to be invited into buildings because of low self-esteem?) but pathologizing his mythical weaknesses is an interesting idea well set up by earlier episodes. Sadly, it also seems to spell the end for any hopes of a second series, inspiring Dracula to take his own life in a final erotic clinch with Zoe/Agatha as the drama concludes.
In other words, it seems this is one adaptation of Dracula that may not return to life – and if this is all we get, I can’t help but wish we would have had more time to digest the whole drama week to week, rather than splurge on all three in just three days. Like Dracula suggests, wouldn’t it be better to be a gourmet than a glutton and savour each 90-minute episode over a longer period of time?
But perhaps I’m being picky, and no-one cares when or how quickly they watch a series if they’re watching something enjoyable – and if nothing else, this was definitely an entertaining, campy take that knew how to have fun with the source material and engage audiences.
And if it does take a little longer for this version of Dracula to really bed into the pop culture consciousness, no matter. He’s definitely used to waiting around…
All three episodes of Dracula are streaming on BBC iPlayer now