So far this season, Da Vinci's Demons has bounced back and forth between providing more episodic adventures for its titular character and attempting to serialize the storyline to such a degree that da Vinci's dealings with the Sons of Mithras, the quest for the Book of Leaves and the questions surrounding the mother whose face Leonardo cannot recall remain an important part of the overall story.
It's is only now, however, in the sixth episode that the series seems intent on diving headlong into the abovementioned mysteries and developing something that might be worth exploring. This is a notable change from the earlier episodes shrouded in attempts at aping genre television like 'The Prisoner' and again with last week's off-the-rails episode 'The Tower.' Generally, those episodes have given hints at the larger storyline during their final moments. As a welcome change of pace, 'The Devil' starts up precisely where it left off: with da Vinci wondering to Al-Rahim how it came to be that, as a child, da Vinci saw that a man bound and hanging upside down in a cave was actually a much older version of himself.
Of course, barely six episodes into what is only an 8-episode season, one might have thought there would be an answer to that question – something that could explain this incredible paradox and perhaps shed some new light on Da Vinci's Demons that might rekindle some interest. Instead, da Vinci – and by extension, the audience – is treated to an inadequate and opaque answer stating that the Sons of Mithras have been entwined in da Vinci's destiny since before he was born. Al-Rahim goes on to explain how "time is a river," and that some men have learned to navigate it upstream and downstream.
And although da Vinci greets that message with a very pointed "that's not an answer," it's potentially intriguing information. Information, which might have had more significance if it hadn't been introduced following an episode in which balls of exploding guano were a highlight. Furthermore, simply creating intrigue isn't enough at this stage of the game (normally, setting up intrigue is the job of the pilot episode). And with only two episodes left to uncover what precisely the gobbledygook that Al-Rahim was peddling meant, the writers apparently decided a distraction was in order.
It may seem strange, but having Da Vinci's Demons – a series that's been held back so far by its inability to let go of reality – finally cut loose and put Leonardo da Vinci face-to-face with Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula) is precisely what this story needs. It's utterly ridiculous, to be sure, but so is nearly everything else the program has demonstrated thus far. The difference here is that 'The Devil' doesn't immediately want to take the characters and snap them back into the reality of their situations. Instead, it lets da Vinci and his faithful companions Nico and Zoroaster stew for a bit, and realize this is their new reality.
Besides, if bringing in Dracula as an adversary for Leonardo da Vinci gets the storyline (somewhat) out of the mire that is Florence's ongoing feud with Rome and the papacy then all sorts of wild match-ups are more than welcome. One of the most peculiar aspects about a program that's been billed as an adventure series is the surprising lack of adventure. 'The Devil,' however, takes da Vinci out of his element and away from the increasingly monotonous dealings of the Medicis. And the result is far livelier episode than has been seen before.
Furthermore, pitting a man who is essentially intended to be a superhero against a foe more frightening than a conniving magistrate or myopic politicians and papal yes-men helps to turn up the wattage, while turning down some of the sermonizing about freedom that's halfheartedly been going on. Sure, the characterization of da Vinci continues to feel off, as the series again mistakes recklessness for genius, but whatever…there's a sense of energy in the proceedings; I'll take it.
While the depiction of Dracula is a bit different, there is a strong suggestion that something supernatural is going on. And although Paul Rhys amusingly plays Dracula like a burned-out rock star – raising his cup to the dark lord, wistfully acknowledging the little people (rats, in this case), failing to succumb to whatever drug enters his bloodstream – the character definitely has a presence beyond his scared face and distant, otherworldly eyes.
Whether or not this depiction of evil is a sign of things to come remains to be seen, but tossing Dracula into the middle of this storyline is the kind of zany curveball Da Vinci's Demons needs to be throwing with a little more regularity.
Da Vinci's Demons continues Friday, May 31 with 'The Hierophant' @9pm on Starz. Check out a preview below: