When the first season of Castlevania swooped into our Netflix queues last year, it defied expectations by turning in a critically-praised thrill ride that did right by its source material. Where most video game adaptations amount to dramatized Wikipedia articles, Castlevania successfully captured the gothic timbre, gore, and feel of the Konami series, while bringing a crackling wit and dark charm all its own. The only (or at least, the loudest) complaint was that it was too short. And lo: our demands were met. The second season of Castlevania, with a doubled total of eight 25-minute episodes, will be available for streaming on Netflix, come October 26th.
Note: what follows is a review of the first six episodes, with light spoilers.
Having incurred the wrath of Vlad Dracula Tepes (Graham McTavish) by burning his human wife Lisa (Emily Swallow) as a witch, the bodies continue to pile up as Eastern Europe is (quite literally) torn apart by supernatural hordes intent on wiping the human race off the map. We pick up where the first season left off, with Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the last surviving member of the infamous monster-slaying Belmont clan, having abandoned his lone wolf ways, joining forces with good-hearted sorceress Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso) and Dracula’s own half-vampire son Alucard (James Callis), to devise a way to save humanity from an increasingly unstable, grief-stricken Dracula.
While Castlevania’s first season was certainly not for want of compelling characters, its focus rested squarely on the shoulders of Trevor and his reluctant discovery that he does still give a shit about other people. With season two, folks looking for a retread of the Trevor Belmont variety hour will come up (mostly) empty-handed. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rather than forefront Trevor’s antics a second go-round, season two uses its newfound elbow room to shift its attention to the larger cast, bringing new recruits into the fold and taking time to explore motivation and backstory. As far as our heroes’ storyline goes, the focus is on their ability to work as a team. Rather than force dramatics and set back narrative progress, the trio takes the hangout movie approach and feel out their oddball alliance with snark and verbal spars as they go through the motions of saving the day. The grade of these scenes is gentle, revolving mostly around lighter character faults than any telenovela reveals or literal fisticuffs. Alucard is well-tempered but vacant. It’s Sypha’s first time away from her nomadic family. And Trevor, while charming, is still an asshole.
It’s a stark contrast to the drama going down at Dracula’s castle, where the majority of the season takes place, as the larger vampire community is fleshed out and we are granted a more intimate look at Vlad himself. In the first season, from the vantage of the terrorized streets of Wallachia, Dracula had the boundless rage of an old testament god with a penchant for heavy metal album covers. Peeking behind the curtain of Dracula’s undead operation, season two does not find an operatic big bad reveling in humanity’s decimation, but a man broken by grief to the point of self-destruction. Humanity’s suffering is incidental — he just wants them gone. Dracula’s instability as a leader and the potential for his “fuck it” war to starve all vampire kind to death is a central plot point, with his apparent softening catching the attention of many, including a very fun Viking vampire played by Peter Stormare (!!!), as well as Carmilla, an opportunistic high femme dynamo and mainstay from the games. Other familiar faces from the Konami series include Hector and Isaac, two human generals in Dracula’s court capable of necromancy who hate mankind for reasons beyond basic bloodlust. Their backstories and dynamic within the court are a season highlight, as well as a refreshing complication to the series’ misanthropic throughline.
Thematically, the first season centered on the conflict between superstition and science, as well as subtler threads of class politics and the failings of monopolized power, be it the church’s stronghold, old families like the Belmonts, or Dracula’s horrid of scientific know-how. The consequences of such isolation, be it of power or of oneself, are at the forefront of season two. Rejecting the world, we’re told, it’s easy to fear difference, and for the wounds caused by malice and grief to corrupt and be exploited.
Without the time crunch, the first six episodes of season two move exponentially slower than season one, particularly the hero storyline, where things tend to drag.
That said, I would caution viewers equating a change of pace with boredom. For my money, to accuse Dracula of narrative stagnancy kind of misses the point of his depression, and Graham McTavish is compelling as sin even when brooding the house down. To boot, with a double runtime, we’re treated to world-building cheques the first season simply didn’t have the time to cash. Insinuating a reach of vampiric activity beyond Wallachia, Dracula’s court is wonderfully diverse, if criminally under-utilized. The exception being Isaac, who, unlike his design established in Curse of Darkness, is of African descent. Without giving anything away, we’re also given a clearer sense of the scale of vampire politics outside Dracula’s court, which plays to Castlevania’s oft-cited Game of Thrones vibes (now compounded by the show’s lack of central protagonist).
Three-quarters of the way in, season two feels like more of a compliment to the first season than a cut and dry continuation. The violence is creative and hard-hitting and the animation is beautiful, but at times it feels like the second act to season one. An expanded world and more thoroughly developed cast is a fine thing, but on the downside, many familiar faces (particularly our heroes) are left treading water while others play catch up.
All told the expanded episode count does the series more favors than faults, and the pieces seem to be aligned by the end of episode six for some much-needed payoff. Whether they it all comes to a head satisfactorily will have to wait until Castlevania season two hits Netflix on October 26th.