It was over four years ago when I reviewed the first “season” of Netflix’s Castlevania. I’d not had any good expectations for it, so I was pleased with how it hooked my interest. Over the course of the next three seasons, it became so many different things: an epic of vampires and humans, a tale of competing intrigues, morality tales of madness, betrayal, and revenge, etc. All the while, it stepped ever further into darker, more hellish corners of humanity, the supernatural, and of existence itself, before the several protagonists succeeded at last in emerging into the light of happily ever after.
Mind you, that wasn’t simply my first experience with watching this show. To refresh myself and get my thoughts into coherent order for this review, I had to go back and watch the whole show again, without losing months of random thoughts between the seasons. It was rather illuminating, actually.
The story begins with Dracula and his wife. We see their first meeting, and we see her murder at the hands of Catholic inquisitors. Enraged to the point of insanity, Dracula vows bloody vengeance which soon engulfs the innocent along with the guilty. Humankind has a few unlikely protectors in the form of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, and Adrian Tepes, aka Alucard, Dracula’s own son. Together they move to stop the onslaught of Dracula’s wrath, but that is only the beginning. They find themselves fighting monsters and madmen of ever greater power and nefarious skill, until, at last, they find themselves facing their ultimate enemy: death itself.
The story has a significant tangent as it delves into the villains’ side of things. It particularly follows two human wizards, Hector and Isaac. Each has a grudge against humanity which predisposes them towards serving Dracula, but things do not go as simply as either of them want. One falls into the company of a quartet of vampire women – Lenore is absolutely my favorite – who are skilled at manipulation and destruction, while the other undertakes a great journey which brings about great changes to his character and his goals.
Along all of the plotlines, however, there are strong themes which are shown, rather than told. I recall once hearing that a demon was a creature consumed entirely by its appetites and emotions, with no restraining intellect to hold itself in check. That bears out here as every villain in the story, even those who seem to be quite rational and learned, are subject to their wants, their cravings, their most base, selfish desires. The heroes, by comparison, do feel their emotions, but they are not ruled by them. They think, and pursue knowledge, and they build things, make things, improve the world around them. These are inherently part of living, and without them, one is just eating and hiding, like a vampire feeding on life without adding to it and shunning the sun in desperation to keep existing.
There is a great deal of attention given to detail throughout Castlevania. It’s not perfect by any means, and sometimes they conjure up what people need practically out of thin air, but there is much to be said for it. The fights are all the more thrilling for it, especially when melee conflicts are overlapping, but it goes so much further. The epic feel of the story, the conflict, feels that much more significant when we can clearly see factions from around the world, or even beyond it, represented side by side in the halls of power and on the field of battle. The way people talk, presenting their perspectives, is nuanced and personal. The symbols, rituals, and spells are largely consistent. Even the ways in which characters influence each other can be seen in what they do.
Example: flavoring water with lime juice. Seems like an inconsequential detail, no? Yet the first time we see it, a captain is conversing with Isaac, adding new thoughts, a new perspective, to the wizard’s narrow view, widening it a little. The second time we see it, Isaac is displaying how he has internalized this and other views within his own, having changed, evolved from the person he once was. He once drank pure water, and had simplistic views. Now he drinks flavored water, and has expanded his views. He and his water both have more substance, texture, and flavor in them than they did before.
Now, the flip side to this attention to detail is a certain unspoken expectation of relevance, consistency, and realism.
Of course, one can ask for only so much “realism” in a show with vampires and magic and whatnot. But, for instance, while I absolutely love the fight scenes, I did get a little tired of Trevor’s morning star whip being able to apparently extend indefinitely and form all sorts of geometric shapes in the air. And the scene where Belmont rallies a group of townspeople to fight, and they suddenly have everything they need to do so and just enough time for Trevor to instruct them in how to use it? Yeah, I roll my eyes.
Oh, and how is it that the climactic final fight is set up with Sypha and Alucard cut off from helping Trevor when a portion of a castle collapses into thin air… when these are the two characters who can fly?! They ought to have been all over that! That would be an example of an inconsistency, a plot hole.
Another example is… well, again, I enjoy the fights, but it’s a little ridiculous how some enemies are destroyed quickly and efficiently, while others, generally less powerful, take forever to be pounded into defeat. I mean, what’s the real danger of the vampires to humans if humans are so difficult to kill while red-shirt level vampires are slaughtered wholesale?
My biggest complaint against the show is how irrelevant so much of it feels to itself.
There are dozens of vampires who clearly hail from all around the world, or at least Europe and Asia, and yet we barely touch on any of their stories. Heck, most of them are just as much background red shirts as the actual red shirts who don’t even have faces within their shadowed hoods.
Hector and Isaac’s threads are consistently riveting, but they barely influence things for Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard, and vice versa. Even when they come into close proximity, they don’t actually touch. Heck, everything that happens with Alucard in the third season feels shoehorned in like some desperate bid to keep him in the show and find a way to make him more dark and brooding by the start of the fourth season.
Perhaps this may be a stranger critique, but the Castlevania games were about making one’s way through Dracula’s castle, bit by bit. They designed a truly huge castle for the show, but almost none of it actually came into play. It was… well, irrelevant. Which was a bit disappointing.
Oh, and if the spirit of death wants to become the most powerful creature in the world, then what, exactly, is even more powerful?
So, I thoroughly enjoyed the themes, the fights, the characters, the intrigues – Lenore proves in the third season that diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to Hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip… before she became almost entirely irrelevant in the fourth season – and the many, many details that were so lovingly crafted throughout this show.
On the other hand, it could have been improved in some ways, especially regarding the relevance of certain plot lines and characters to each other and to the show itself, as well as some details of consistency and realism.
And then there’s the explicit nature of what was shown and animated.
Now, I do not balk at the horror, bloodshed, and other darker materials which the series delved into. But, even so, the violence did seem a bit overwhelming, and needless in its graphic depiction of, for instance, monsters eating people’s faces while they were still alive and screaming. Or showing them tearing apart babies and dogs and such.
I also do not get squeamish about scenes of passion, be it loving, romantic intimacy or darker lusts, more seductive, possessive, even toxic and traitorous. Still, we did not need to see it depicted so vividly as to see the nipples. Heck, we saw and heard pretty much everything short of the penis and vagina themselves, and we simply did not need to see that much. Not for the point to get across, at least. It just felt gratuitous.
Now, that will not affect everyone in exactly the same way, but it made me feel uncomfortable and tired of it all.
So, with a complete series now to review – and rumor I have not yet confirmed of further additions to the franchise which will follow the descendants of this show’s characters – how does the whole of Castlevania, as done by Netflix, sit with me?
I have some qualms and critiques, but I think I can still be generous for what it does well.
Rating: 7 stars out of 10.