Friday, March 16, 2018

The Frankenstein Chronicles & the Art of Sean Bean's Tender Torment (SPOILERS, of course)

Here's the thing.

I want to talk about this series on Netflix, but I can't really get into it without giving up one of the greatest & most critical plot points motivating the entire story, which beautifully connects the two seasons together and is one of the core elements driving the second season. Even now I think that may be too much of a hint, so I'll stop there.

But that's how much I was impressed by the majority of this series and the grim story which unfolds over the two seasons. If you're a fan of the gothic genre at all, a fan of period pieces, or a fan of Sean Bean, the Frankenstein Chronicles serves up a tale that services each of those appetites with a smart, horrific, and wholly entertaining entry into the Frankenstein lore.

There's the conflict of religion vs. science, political intrigue between squabbling Royals & their conniving minions, tragic love stories, and even appearances from historical figures of the time - including Mary Shelley herself, who provides an intriguing storyline to fill in a little history and distract us from our true Baddest of Bad Guys for a few episodes of the first season.

Speaking of History, if you ever want to be thankful of the modern times we live in, watch one of these bleak Victorian English dramas! No public toilets, no real hygiene, misguided doctors & pretentious scientists, religious oppression, the guise of civility starkly contrasted by the disparity of social classes - and the frigid weather! When these guys huddle together in a pub to drink, it's so cold you can see their breath! They're supposed to be inside and you can still see their breath!

There's nothing merry or jolly in this framework of Old England. Cobblestone streets & shallow comforts seem to be the best of this world Sean Bean slogs his way through while tracking down who or what may be behind these murders.

Oh, and of course, there is the Monster.

The "Creature", as he is referred to in the novel which inspired this series, was a tragic, tormented patchwork of human parts cobbled together by a young, obsessed scientist - inspiring one to question, despite its abilities and articulate expression, if such a thing were even capable of possessing a soul. Certainly, its fearsome countenance and stitched up scars induced horror in those who looked upon it, and its great size and strength only further invoked the idea that this creation was more beast than man. But it expressed thought and emotion - even had a morality of sorts. The philosophical questions and contradictions inherent in her novel provoke an entertaining debate to this very day - well worth the read.

In this series, the "Creature" has a somewhat different countenance, and we are introduced to it quite late in the first season. I was expecting a much more formulaic style episodic approach, anticipating some grim ghoul around episode 3 or 4. Instead, the investigation provides us deeper insight into the politics & perspectives of the time, presenting some of the concepts which inspired Mary Shelley to write her novel, and then repackaging them into a greater conspiracy. It is as if great care was taken to bring the audience to the point of acceptance when the Monster finally reveals himself, because when he does...

Well, Game of Thrones ain't got nothin' on this plot twist. And that's all I can say about it without totally giving up the magic sauce that holds this whole brew together.

What I will say is, Sean Bean is in full form as the investigator of grisly murders involving dismembered young girls being stitched together into one patchwork girl. Being the first to find the body, the investigation is assigned to him, and he pursues it with that dogged intensity and compassion we all have come to love from Sean Bean.

Playing a character that suffers from syphilis, he once again assumes the role of a man who outwardly appears dishonorable, yet has the most honorable motivations for his actions. His doctor prescribes mercury as treatment, but they both know that it is a dubious solution which induces terrible hallucinations of his lost family & other horrors, without providing any real cure for the disease. He is a doomed man, trying to find justice to the last of his days, whenever they may come.

How that man can portray such desperation & despair, and yet still present the backbone to trade blows no matter the futility of the fight - well, that's Sean Bean for you. He is the classic Hero overwhelmed by circumstances, and this series makes the most of his abilities as an Actor.

All of that said, the second season is a bit jarring as it starts off three years after the events of the first season, with a not quite fully explained or understood shift in players & scenery, and a storyline that seems to meander a bit around the middle episodes. It introduces us to new Monsters, new Horrors, and an even more vengeful and determined Sean Bean, who, despite every opportunity to wail outlandishly, delivers a masterfully understated performance of torment and tenacity.

The one thing season 2 doesn't have is that same shocking, "gotta see the next one" style cliffhanger of the first season. In fact, it ends on a rather disappointing note, where Sean Bean chooses the hard road of "fighting against injustice" despite having wrapped up all the loose ends set up in both of the previous seasons. He doesn't really have any more enemies, but apparently, he's going to go find them.

Especially disappointing as he even turns his back on his love interest - another tragic soul in need of love & acceptance, much like him - telling her he'll catch up to her some time, implicitly obligating her to wait for him to come back who knows when. It is truly a moment of character redemption that he deliberately turns and walks away from, and for what? To help set up a third season...?

Pish-tosh, it makes no sense.

To be wholly honest, the way this ended, I don't even know that I want to see a third season. The further away we get from the plot twist of the first season, the less it is about Frankenstein or the original inspiration for these Chronicles. Much like the modern day BBC Sherlock Holmes series, the more subsequent seasons stretch away from the source material to become their own thing, the less authentic it feels to its namesake.

So, despite the lackluster epilogue to the second season, the overall impact of the series is well worth the viewing for any fans of the genre. Sean Bean is fantastic - after seeing his work, I can't imagine who else could have pulled off this performance with such complexity, tenderness and grace. Call me sentimental, but his character actually lives through to the end of the second season - a rarity for Mr. Bean - which is all the more reason I would have liked to have seen the writers end their show with his character arm in arm with someone he cared about. But, I suppose just having his character live at the end was enough of a change of pace that it was good enough for all of them.

Listen, I know Sean Bean is great at performing trials and tragedy, but you could have given him a happy ending here, and I mean that in every sense of that phrasing.

The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix - it's worth the binge. Enjoy...

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