Lizard Chew Review -- Black Sheep

Lizard Chew Review of Black Sheep:

"Thirteen years is a long time to wait."

The teaser to "Double Cross" typifies "Dracula: the Series"'s normal treatment of its villains. Max has a frightening dream that Lucard invades the Helsing home, but then Gustav reassures him by showing him the Cross of the Magyars. "That cross has been in my family for generations," he tells him. "It is why Lucard...can never come in here." Lucard may be a danger to the whole world, but he cannot truly threaten the extended Helsing clan. After all, the show is, under normal circumstances, not only a comedy, but a family comedy. Therefore, it must present the villain as incapable of overcoming the power of the family or of invading its sanctuary, the home. At the end of each half hour, everyone has to be together and at peace, safe back among the carved warthogs and umbrella stands shaped like unicorns. The chief exceptions to these rules are the episodes written by Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde. These episodes tend to be predominantly serious rather than funny, and they almost invariably deal with some sort of subversion of the home ("Double Cross") or family ("Damsel in Distress," "Bad Blood"). This is risky material to undertake. The serious plot in "Double Cross" isn't all that good, and "Damsel in Distress" is quite possibly the worst of all the episodes. It is extremely difficult to deal effectively with serious topics and ambiguous characters on a half-hour show, and there is no obvious way of overcoming this. However, "Black Sheep" is a triumph. In this episode, Bedard and Lalonde give us a plot that seems to question the central assumptions of the show, only finally to reaffirm them, lending an emotional richness to the rest of the series. Although it occasionally threatens to veer into overwrought melodrama, the very "limitations" of the format serve to restrain it from going too far, and the careful craftsmanship saves it from the other perils of a "sentimental" episode. I may generally prefer the whimsical episodes of "Dracula" to the serious ones, because I think it excels most at providing the simpler pleasures in television (which itself is a medium best suited to providing such pleasures), but there is no denying that Bedard and Lalonde accomplish something surprising in "Black Sheep."

The teaser to this episode immediately sets up its unusual emotional atmosphere. The victims of vampire attacks in "Dracula: the Series" almost always exist in a social void. They do not have families or friends who suffer. This is an obvious necessity in a comedy, for the more you concentrate on the lives ruined by vampires, the harder it is to laugh at those vampires' antics. But here we see Paul Yeager on the brink of madness with his grief and guilt over his wife Amelia's death. Klaus's appearance (in a hideous cape) is unsettling; laughing hysterically at Yeager, he seems not only like a genuine villain, but a dangerously unbalanced one. His savagery is distinctive in a "Dracula" vampire; Lucard is without a doubt capable of the most vicious acts, but he is not wantonly cruel, simply utterly amoral. It is very hard to imagine Lucard bothering to come back to the graveyard of one of his victims to mock her grieving husband, unless that husband had mortally offended him in some way. Through his visit to Amelia's grave, Klaus exhibits a "motiveless malignancy" which marks him as out of control. The strange note of elaborate viciousness which "The Vampire Solution" merely hinted at suddenly dominates his character. (I wonder if he doesn't somehow compensating for the silent restraint he must exercise when carrying out Lucard's orders with his wild abandon when he is roaming the countryside, making trouble.) At any rate, this scene immediately makes us think differently of Klaus than we did in "Vampire Solution": he isn't just a fairly spiffy assistant to Lucard anymore, but a real and unpleasant threat who must be stopped.

From this troubling scene of a family shattered follows a peaceful one of Gustav gently trying to help Max make the adjustment to European life. The contrast is obvious. The Helsing family bond is clearly strong and loving. Even Chris's and Sophie's wonderful teasing of Max about the radio is friendly bantering rather than bitter. (The only aspect of this scene that I really don't like is the boys' reaction to Sophie's line about the Metropolitan Opera [which wouldn't be on in the summer, anyway]; they dismiss her as ridiculous and she shrinks under their censure--how quickly she's lost confidence from the days when she would put on the "Festival of Folklore" without even consulting Chris.) This light scene quickly dissolves into a serious one as Paul Yeager comes to visit and ask for help. His unhappiness is painful to see. Naturally, we expect Gustav to undertake the work of restoring order, perhaps by redirecting Yeager's desire for revenge into an attempt to help his wife somehow. It is surprising indeed when he refuses--it challenges all our assumptions about the way this show is supposed to work. If Gustav Helsing won't help stop a vampire, won't help rebuild a family, who will?

The next scene, which I absolutely adore, shows that there is trouble in Lucard's family, too. (Lest it be thought that I am taking this episode too seriously, I should say that this is easily one of the funniest scenes in the whole series, as well as being riveting in what it reveals about the characters.) This is Lucard as we have never seen him before and never will again: first, as gentle as he will ever be with anyone except Margo Burton (which is admittedly not very), then absolutely furious. It is tremendously suggestive that, although he begins with a definite, pointed reprimand to Klaus and refuses to let him evade it, he clearly shows some sympathy for the frustrated vampire (it can't be easy trying to live Lucard's life when one is still "young and enthusiastic"). He doesn't just issue Klaus an order which he expects him to obey blindly, but tries to explain the reason for it. This makes him all the more angry when Klaus continues to defy him. I love the look of surprise on Lucard's face when, instead of backing down when he vamps out (which I suppose is meant to serve as a reminder of Lucard's role as vampire "master"), Klaus actually vamps out, too. Lucard obviously didn't expect that! His ensuing speech reveals just how much he has invested in the success of his latest foray into the world of the living. He obviously cares passionately about the future of his business ventures ("all I've worked for; years of effort..."). In order to carry them out, he has imposed on himself the uncomfortable discipline which he is trying to enforce on Klaus. Klaus's inability to put aside the smaller pleasures for the larger ones fills him with contempt. The disdain of "...a few nights of bloodsucking on some stupid country road!" is palpable. Given that Lucard confesses in a later episode (under hypnosis, so we know it's true) that in the end he prefers blood to money, I think one of the reasons he reacts so strongly to Klaus's misbehavior is that he recognizes the temptation to such behavior in himself. Indeed, as Klaus reminds him bitterly, he used to act just like Klaus, and clearly remembers the time when he did fondly. But as Lucard insists in "I Love Lucard," "I am not the blind victim of my nature. My nature serves me, and I exceed it when I must." It's fascinating how quickly the two of them (not just Lucard, which we would expect) snap back to normal after Klaus's terrified submission (is Lucard straightening Klaus's jacket, which is in perpetual need of it, in that last small jerk he gives him, semi-off-camera, before he walks over to his desk?). These fights must be common. But this time the fight has had real consequences, and everything doesn't actually go right back to normal: Lucard dismisses Klaus in the coldest possible manner, giving him a classic "Is that all?" stare to chase him out of the room, much to Klaus's surprise. Then he immediately puts his errant child out of his mind with a humorously arbitrary throwaway line to his secretary.

As Yeager grows horribly maddened by Gustav's refusal to help and Max is baffled and hurt by the same thing, the viewer is left more and more confused. It only gets worse when, in a stylish little scene, we are set up by the director to expect to see Klaus rendezvousing with the minister's assistant, but actually witness his meeting with Gustav, who warns him about Yeager. Klaus here dresses and acts much as he did in "Vampire Solution," but the undertone is much more menacing. His clear disgust for Gustav is a wonderful touch, making Gustav's behavior even more puzzling. The moral universe of "Dracula" at this point appears to be falling apart. What can Gustav be doing? However, Max has faith in his uncle, and we should, too. Max's patience and obedience (he doesn't go running after Yeager to help him, as one might expect him to) clear the way for Gustav to take the actions that will reveal that he is acting not against the values he has always expressed, but rather with the greatest self-sacrificing devotion to them.

The scene in the Helsing family crypt is fascinating from beginning to end. For the first time in his undead existence, Klaus is forced to admit his tie to the Helsings by returning to the crypt. This gives Gustav his chance (within the symbolic extension of the confines of the Helsing home) to salvage his broken family as best he can. There are so many fine small touches in this scene. Note the way Klaus looks into his coffin, clearly experiencing strong emotion of some kind; note also the grim contempt with which he reacts to Gustav's appearance. Gustav here reaches the height of his greatness on this series. Pouring the holy water (which steams mysteriously), he acts with all his hard-won vampire knowledge ("So! You've been doing your homework!" is Klaus's silly comment) and speaks with the calm determination born of years of secret suffering. Klaus is surprised and afraid, but more interestingly, he is also uncomprehending. Until Gustav explains his motives to him, he simply doesn't understand what Gustav wants, or, later, why his father doesn't just kill him ("Too much of a coward?" might be just a taunt, but even Klaus isn't stupid enough to try to taunt someone into staking him--is he?). This shows how far estranged from normal thinking Klaus actually is. GWD has his finest acting moment on the series in this scene when Gustav tells Klaus that Lucard made him a vampire only because he was Gustav's son. He makes it painfully clear that, just for a moment, Klaus sees through all the illusions of those years with Lucard, sees that his bond with Alexander has been founded only on the vampire's lies, but then pushes the realization away in clumsy agony. Gustav's understated sadness here is also perfect.

It is simply brilliant of Bedard and Lalonde to structure this episode so that Klaus's paternity is a mystery up to the very last possible moment, for this lets them avoid the sort of tiresome angst that would otherwise inevitably have ensued and, over half an hour, would have been intolerable. After the revelation, the plot quickly moves forward again to avoid this, with Yeager's attack (look carefully and you'll see Klaus's strange reaction, almost as if he would save Gustav if he could), Lucard's most impressive intervention, and then the brief discussion among the three main characters. The scene resolves well. I love the way it looks as if the excitement is just too much for Klaus to handle; I love Lucard's chill, analytical rebuff (his line, "Who better to deal with an undisciplined child than his own father?" is a terrible abandonment of Klaus, since he obviously had claimed that role for himself before, and from his expression, Klaus takes it as such); I love Gustav's grim willingness to let even Lucard help him to put an end to Klaus's wild behavior. The conclusion of this scene, with Klaus frantically pleading with Gustav not to shut him up and Gustav slamming the door closed, cutting him off in mid-cry, is genuinely touching. We realize just how awful, if necessary, Gustav's action is, and in bringing us to feel a little sympathy for the abandoned, hurt, bewildered Klaus (who appropriately unvamps at this point) the episode actually makes us feel far more for Gustav than the mere shot of him slumped at the crypt door with grief would ever achieve.

Which brings us to the tag. The subplot to this point seems fairly arbitrary, just an excuse to involve the kids in the story (and to show Lucard in his shirt sleeves, which is itself an adequate justification, in my opinion). But that actually is its point, not merely because it's conventional to bring the kids in, but because the kids are, as Lucard says, Helsing's "surrogate family" (speaking of which, he delivers the line, "Please, tell them it's rude to eavesdrop, won't you?" marvelously). Gustav's little exchange with Max is loaded with extra meanings. "Never mind. Better luck next year," he says, and he might be speaking to himself. Hugging him, saying so lovingly, "Let's go home," he consoles not just Max, but himself. This episode has exposed the family's painful weakness, but here it affirms its strength, both moral and emotional. (Lucard is "go[ing] home, for a night," too, but he is doing it alone, and will return the next day to an empty castle. That he doesn't even seem to regret this provides a subtle, striking contrast to his opponent's feelings, suggesting that the hollowness of the "family" he made out of the Helsings' ruin.) Gustav may not be able to save Klaus yet, but he has done what he could for him, and now he has other children to care for. So, although this scene is sad, it is nonetheless comforting. The wholeness of the Helsing family, so long shattered, is at long last being restored. It is a satisfying if bittersweet ending to a well-done episode.

I'm not going to pretend that "Black Sheep" is great art, or even the greatest work that television is capable of. But it shows a clear awareness of just how much can be accomplished within the constraints of a series like "Dracula." Bedard and Lalonde wisely keep the plot simple and concentrate on good dialogue built on uncomplicated but solid characterization, often relying on suggestion rather than direct presentation to provide depth. There is one problem with this episode. The characterization of Paul Yeager is a mistake; his behavior and intense emotion threaten to distract attention away from the main point of the story. This is more a flaw of the directing than the writing, however, as Allan Eastman again shows his tendency to overdo the gloomy aspect of the show. By filming so many uncomfortable closeups of the distraught Yeager, he invests too much interest in his dilemma, and when his actual irrelevance to the central concerns of the episode is demonstrated at the crypt by the way he's literally shoved out of the plot (a relief to me, at least!), it leaves the definite feeling of a loose end. Otherwise, this is an improbably fine half-hour. "Dracula" may have only limited ambitions, but it fulfills them well. Would that more shows on television were as honest and well-crafted.

Favorite quote: "Klaus, I know what it is to be young and enthusiastic, but we must have discipline."

Worst plot hole: What happens to Yeager and his wife?

Best Lucard image: Coming in his office doors (that suit really flatters him)

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