It’s said that scent is the sense linked most closely to memories, and in the absence of Smell-O-Vision, I choose to believe Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode). In Sundance Now and Shudder’s supernatural romance, A Discovery of Witches, the Oxford scientist and centuries-old vampire—frozen, fortunately for us, at an extravagantly handsome 37—inhales the wine he’s brought to dinner and sighs out a description as one might a drag on a post-coital cigarette: sugared violets, blackberries from hedgerows, cigar smoke, red currants in brandy. And then he does the same to his love interest.
If the moment captures Goode’s foremost asset—from Match Point to The Crown, he’s made sophistication a come-on—it’s an earlier sequence, on much the same subject, that suggests his urbane Jekyll’s insidious Hyde. After his paramour-to-be, reluctant witch Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), encounters an enchanted manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Clairmont stalks her to a boathouse on the River Cherwell, where the scent of sex is laced with threat. (It’s safe to assume the writers’ room hasn’t seen You.) As he holds her track jacket to his face, there’s genuine menace in Goode’s widening eyes, the flare of his nostrils, the strain in his neck, but the gesture itself is almost pornographic, and I mean that as a compliment: Here the series approaches the withholding allure of Deborah Harkness’ novel, a bodice ripper in which no bodices are ripped. It’s the frankness of their desire, rippling beneath the refined surface, that defines both Matthews, Clairmont and Goode. You want these men to sink their teeth into you, even if it means being devoured whole.
Lucky, then, that A Discovery of Witches—an otherwise unremarkable fantasy, a half-baked Harry Potter for horny adults—knows what it has in Goode’s seductive nastiness. His unblinking stare, pale skin, ramrod nose, and delicate frame suggest Twilight’s Robert Pattinson aged up for mature audiences, and the series excels when it commits wholeheartedly to romantic melodrama: as Matthew swans up the stairs at his country manor, sketching the outlines of his background; as he and Diana flee for his family’s estate, set to an almost embarrassingly earnest rendition of “Go Your Own Way”; as he slips out of his jacket, fires up a phonograph, and spins his mother, Ysabeau (the suitably imperious Lindsay Duncan), in front of their castle’s hearth. That A Discovery of Witches manages to sell such immoderation, and not the “horror” of Diana’s insistent, arachnophobic nightmares or the “suspense” of the shadowy cabal chasing her, known as the Congregation, is thanks to its understanding of Goode’s wary charm. Where it rushes its supernatural elements, eyeing home base before it rounds first, the series approaches Matthew himself with near-relinquished caution, anticipating his rages and persuasions as one does a man’s decisive touch. “What spell have you put on me?” he asks Diana at midseason, though it’s Goode’s presence, not Palmer’s, that binds and gags: One of the thrills of submission, after all, is the risk of self-destruction.
If there’s a dominant through line in Goode’s career, in fact, it’s his penchant for roles at the eye of the maelstrom. Tom Hewett befriends the tennis coach-cum-murderer of Match Point and brings him into the family; Charles Ryder traces the Flytes’ decline in Brideshead Revisited; Jim haunts his suicidal widower in A Single Man; Charlie arrives after his brother’s demise in Stoker; and George Wickham is the reason Death Comes to Pemberley. Henry Talbot caps off his Downton Abbey debut by telling Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) that his sport is “cars”—which, as it happens, is what killed her husband—and Finn Polmar’s first case on The Good Wife, in “Dramatics, Your Honor,” is Will Gardner’s (Josh Charles) last. In this sense, Goode is always playing vampires. His men are harbingers of disaster, and there’s no guarantee you’ll survive.
When they’re unwanted, of course, such intrusions are off-putting. Our first sight of Goode’s Philip Durrant, in Ordeal by Innocence, is of sweat beading on his sculpted chest, performing push-ups on a set of parallel bars, but he soon turns out to be a boor/bore, going so far as to piss into a pocket-sized cask at the table while berating his companion for lunch. On the opposite end of the spectrum, against more forceful, prickly partners—Lady Mary, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies)—his subtle slyness, the quaver of mischief in the lines around his mouth, often fails to come through, and he’s left to play the heroine’s handsome sentry. Goode’s sweet spot is period drama, or at least its locales (A Discovery of Witches is a feast of medieval façades), not simply because his brand of rakishness is out of fashion, but because its enchantments are, too. It’s bewitchingly illicit to want the wrong man, and whether middle-class artist, racing enthusiast, vampire, or roué, Goode’s men are almost never the right one.
It’s fitting, in this vein, that the finest application of the actor’s vampiric appeal should come alongside another creature poised on the border between privilege and rebellion: Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret, in the second season of The Crown. In “Beryl,” Peter Morgan’s decades-spanning drama of the Windsors underscores the key feature of Goode’s on-screen persona and uses it, literally, to shine a spotlight on Queen Elizabeth II’s rueful, dissolute sister. The episode’s exhilarating climax features Margaret posing for photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones, whose wiles strip her down to her most vulnerable state before he presses the shutter, but it’s earlier, during their encounter at a society party, that The Crown elucidates Goode’s bristling magnetism. In the way she recoils from his lighter’s flame before leaning into it, in his naughty gossip about the partygoers’ predilections, in his claim to despise convention while seeming to embrace it, Goode’s Armstrong-Jones emerges as an outsider so at ease in the heart of the system he might adapt to it—or blow it up. “There’s a contempt in him,” Margaret reports to Elizabeth over lunch the next day, smiling at the observation. “For me. For us. For everything we represent. I actually think you’d like him. That’s what’s so dangerous about him.”
Goode is beguiling, I suspect, because he’s the wrong man in the right man’s clothing, plausible as a photographer, a wine aficionado, an attorney, a husband, and also as a radical, a turncoat, a subversive, a menace. From Matthew Clairmont to Tony Armstrong-Jones, Goode’s most compelling characters threaten the institutions—the gentry, the patriarchy, the Congregation, the Crown—by which their lovers feel trapped. If self-destruction is a side effect of this desire for freedom, so be it: You have to invite the vampire in before he can consume you.
A Discovery of Witches premieres Thursday, Jan. 17 on Sundance Now and Shudder.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.