[This is a review of the Van Helsing season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
From the very first episode, Van Helsing established itself as a different kind of vampire series — different, at least, from much of the vampire-focused media that has permeated pop culture in recent years. Rather than a romanticized (or sterilized) version of the blood-sucking creatures, Van Helsing leans more toward the classic horror villain that appeared in Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which serves as the inspiration for the character at the center of Syfy’s show.
The series premiere of Van Helsing introduced Vanessa Seward (Kelly Overton), a woman who fell into a coma after being attacked — and thought to be killed — by a vampire; she slept for three years while the vampires led by Dimitri (Paul Johansson) began a reign of terror, if not around the world, then at least in the northwestern United States. However, the pilot saw Vanessa awake to find herself in a fortified hospital, being guarded over by Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), and discovering newfound powers of super strength as well as the ability to turn vampires back into humans.
Now, the season 1 finale of Van Helsing proves how far the show has come since Vanessa awoke in that hospital. In ‘It Begins’ — written by creator and showrunner Neil LaBute and directed by sci-fi veteran Amanda Tapping — Vanessa awakes again, this time as a prisoner of Dimitri’s. While Dimitri attempts to mentally break Vanessa so as to more easily conduct experiments on her blood, fellow vampire elder Rebecca (Laura Mennell) conspires with the human resistance. The finale offers answers to many questions established in season 1 — such as the source of Vanessa’s abilities — and, more excitingly, sets the stage for bigger and badder drama in Van Helsing season 2.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of ‘It Begins’ is the episode’s revelations about Vanessa’s heritage. It’s finally confirmed by Dimitri that she is a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing (the doctor from Stoker’s Dracula who has been reimagined as a vampire hunter) — though, considering the show’s name, this was largely known by the viewer. However, Dimitri additionally teases a larger mythology by referring to Vanessa’s people, possibly indicating there was an entire group possessing the power to fight and defeat vampires. Or, Dimitri is simply referring to the Van Helsing family line from which she has descended.
Still, while the implications of Vanessa’s heritage and the legacy of her ancestors may offer compelling world-building to Van Helsing, it’s largely delivered in rather tedious monologues from Dimitri. With Vanessa lying prostrate on a table, or chained up in the center of the room with little ability to talk or fight back, Dimitri’s monologues are delivered uninterrupted. Though the information dump is instrumental to furthering the plot of Van Helsing, it’s not exactly exciting television — nor even particularly entertaining.
That said, ‘It Begins’ does make a point of showing what exactly it means for Vanessa to be a descendant of the Van Helsing line. One of Dimitri’s experiments entails starving Vanessa until she’ll willingly drink human blood so that the vampires may learn how it affects her. Unfortunately for the vampires, they fail to notice or learn about the effects of that particular experiment. As a result, while Dimitri is planning to try to impregnate Vanessa, and Rebecca is trying to convince him not to, Vanessa attacks — with strength matching Dimitri’s that she gained from the human blood.
Vanessa wounds Dimitri, who retreats to a different part of the Citadel, while Rebecca faces off with the Van Helsing descendant in a climactic battle. All the while, the resistance is storming the Citadel, gaining entry with help from Rebecca. However, while ‘It Begins’ makes a point of focusing on the leader of the resistance being tempted away from his alliance with Rebecca by Dimitri, the battle takes a back seat. Instead, the major action of the episode is the fight between Vanessa and Rebecca — which is evenly matched until Rebecca pulls out her trump card.
All in all, the strength of ‘It Begins’ lies more in its setup for the season to come than in wrapping up storylines established and pursued in season 1. For instance, the penultimate episode of season 1 saw the character of Sam (Christopher Heyerdahl) — a sociopathic murderer posing as Vanessa’s ally who had been turned into an especially sadistic vampire — escape Julius (Aleks Paunovic) and disappear with little idea of where he had gone. While ‘It Begins’ shifted the focus of the series to the Citadel in order to depict Vanessa’s captivity and the resistance’s uprising against the vampires, the episode only achieves this focus at the detriment to other characters and arcs introduced in season 1.
That said, ‘It Begins’ features a number of exciting twists that promise the action, drama, and world that Van Helsing will continue to unfold in promising ways in season 2. One particular arc that does wrap up in the season 1 finale is through Rebecca’s trump card: Vanessa’s daughter Dylan, who has been turned into a vampire. After spending much of season 1 searching for Dylan, Vanessa has located her daughter — but Dylan is neither alive as Vanessa hoped, nor dead as she feared. Rather, as a vampire created by Dimitri, it’s unclear whether Vanessa will be able to turn Dylan human again.
In another exciting twist, the final moments of ‘It Begins’ reveal the continued existence of Axel, who climbs his way out of the underground bunker in which he was trapped by Doc (Rukiya Bernard) — but, he has not escaped unscathed, and emerges as a vampire. With Axel now a vampire, Sam an especially dangerous vampire, Dylan a particularly creepy vampire, and Mohamed (Trezzo Mahoro) having been betrayed by his sister — who wants to live among the vampires — Van Helsing promises a bigger and badder season 2. One that will hopefully utilize the characters and relationships established in season 1 to inform a second season wrought with vampire/human action and drama.
Of course, whether Van Helsing season 2 capitalizes effectively on the cliffhangers established in ‘It Begins’ remains to be seen. But, since Syfy has already renewed the series for a second outing that is expected to premiere next year, Van Helsing will at least have the chance to build upon the compelling foundation laid in season 1.
Van Helsing will return for season 2 in 2017.