In a television season arguably book-ended by Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and now HBO's Looking, at least if social media and think pieces are any indication, viewers in search of LGBT characters have had — perhaps to a few studios' frustration — options. While, just a few years ago, simply having an a queer character or plotline might have been (and often was) enough to earn a dedicated following, NBC's Dracula is an unintentional reflection of how the landscape has changed. Featuring not one, but two gay plotlines this season, Dracula managed to capture and keep my attention despite a pilot I turned off halfway through. I'm emphasizing my take on the show here because, well, as Dracula showrunner Daniel Knauf told me yesterday by phone, "Why aren't there more of you?!"
The Bram Stoker adaptation created by Cole Haddon and starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers has shown an impressive appetitive for the dynamics of race, sex, and institutional violence, all while playing in the shadows of Victorian London.
Early in the season, medical student Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) and her soon-to-be fiancé Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) share a relatively chaste kiss in a sidewalk café that makes women at a nearby table audibly gasp. Set against that same repressive backdrop, though, Dracula and Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit) have sex on her private balcony at the opera. "Lady Jayne is biting her lip until it bleeds because she can't moan," Knauf points out. "Trying to deal with vice is like squeezing a balloon. Squeeze it on one end and it just bulges out on the other end." On another date, Dracula and Lady Jayne later have sex at an underground female wrestling match.
But the show spends just as much time in the plush and elaborate manses of London's elite as it does in the city's underworld. "During the research for the show, we learned that underground and private gay clubs were pretty popular and that there was this whole scene of female wrestlers going on," Knauf says. When Dracula, living under the assumed identity of an American businessman named Alexander Grayson discovers that his competitor Lord Laurent (Anthony Howell) is having a closeted gay love affair with Daniel Davenport (Lewis Rainer), a business partner's son, he finds out the location of the private gay club they frequent and shows up to threaten them with blackmail. Before he utters a word, though, Dracula walks up to Daniel and kisses him. "The kiss wasn't scripted. That was a decision Jonathan Rhys Meyers made as an actor." Well, all right.
Without giving away too much, suffice it to say the brazenness of sexuality on Dracula has its limits — and consequences, the burden of which almost always falls on the queer characters exclusively.
The major queer thread throughout the season is the unrequited love Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) has for her best friend Mina. McGrath's performance is both stunning and almost painful to watch because from the moment Lady Jayne notices her stray glance at Mina, it's clear there's no way she can win. "The female actors were never confused about the subtext there," Knauf says. "Sometimes with the male actors, I'd get a phone call like, 'OK, what's going on here?' But never with the women."
"It may be apocryphal," teases Knauf at one point during the call, "but when they passed the law outlawing homosexuality in England, and Queen Victoria signed it, the text was 'males shall not consort with males, and females shall not consort with females.' She actually red-lined the part about females. And when asked why she did that, she said, 'Well, that's impossible, of course.'" He starts to chuckle before adding, "Maybe she was creating an escape pod for herself. We don't know!"
The season finale of NBC's Dracula airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET.