Can The Originals be a smart show? Across its first season, it’s tried. It toys with issues of redemption and of unconditional familial love and power and revenge and so on and so on. Tonight’s episode has some strong themes on the subject of mob mentality and lashing out, even if it’s at the wrong people. It’s even dealt with some of those things well, if only for an episode or two. And that’s the core issue.
After all, I like these fast-paced supernatural soap operas. The Vampire Diaries, when it’s on, is about as fun as a TV show can get. The Originals hasn’t quite tapped into that vein as well, but it has, as I mentioned, attempted to be a more mature take on similar issues as its teen-oriented progenitor. But those issues fade away, and quickly. The plot moves forward, the themes stay behind. The question is: does this have to happen? Can a TV show move as quickly as these soaps do and maintain a more intelligent theme behind the constant twists?
I’m beginning to think that the answer is no. It’s not from lack of effort or ability, either. The show uses lines like “But unfortunately, in troubled times, people do not look for the best. But rather, the loudest” and that’s a good, if perhaps unsurprising, post-9/11 theme for American television. As I discussed last week, the idea of a multi-faction battle for New Orleans is one with a great deal of potential.
But here’s the thing: I know that this show, like its predecessor, works according to a certain schedule of three storylines per year. I know that it’s built around the idea that it’s the metaphorical shark that can’t stop moving. So regardless of how fruitful the five-way battle for New Orleans might be, both plot-wise and thematically, I know that it’ll go the way of Cami’s struggles with accepting the supernatural evils, of Celeste’s justified-or-is-it? revenge schemes, and of Klaus’ interminable struggles with redemption.
The point of the fast-paced supernatural soap, in terms of plot, may not be to actually achieve its potential. It’s to constantly tease us with the idea that something potentially great remains just out of reach—a dramatic fight for the city, Elijah irrevocably splitting with Klaus, or Klaus’ unambiguous redemption, for example. This may exist thematically as well—the show may well want to examine demagoguery leading to war, but the full reckoning of such an examination may lead plot developments it’s unwilling to undertake.
Would The Originals really be willing have Klaus turned into an unambiguous good guy if the desired redemptions take hold? Would it really be willing to punish demagogues who fan the flames of war, even if that means killing off Marcel? Or will it be content to keep its characters in roughly the same places, switching alliances of convenience and occasionally romantic partners?
I bring this up because it seems to be the chief dividing line between The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. TVD always seemed willing to put its head in the sand in terms of larger themes and patterns, preferring to ride the roller coaster of whatever plot twists it was chasing. The Originals feels like it wants more. It wants Elijah to make those sweeping political statements, and not to have pure heroes, and that’s fine. I’m just not sure if that attempt at depth is as potentially meaningful as it could be, thanks to the desire to maintain the twisty storytelling of the genre.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe “An Unblinking Death” is indeed a turning point for The Originals. Not necessarily in the war flogging stuff on the surface, but in the fact that Klaus, for perhaps the first time on this show, was unambiguously sympathetic the entire way. He was kind to Cami, repeatedly, and against his own wishes. (“It was your name she called. And if you can grant her comfort…so be it.”) Even his dispute with Elijah was treated as clear-eyed realism versus his brother’s idealism. The show called attention to these things, of course, making it clear that Klaus’ benevolence was a rare thing. And history with this show suggests that it’ll remain a rare thing, probably as early as next week. Again, I could be wrong, but I’ve had enough time with these shows to be skeptical.
With this in mind, I think I’m going to be changing my review structure for The Originals in future weeks. I really want this show to be about strong themes like those presented in this episode. I think this was a legitimately good episode of the show, both building toward a major mythological confrontation as well as doing strong character work for Klaus and Cami.I just can’t make myself assume that it’ll hold any more. Therefore, I think I’m going to employ a more recap-oriented structure, discussing what happened and analyzing it in order. The Originals is structured to be about plot, and that makes writing about it terms of theme and character a consistent struggle against that form.
At any rate: as I mentioned, I liked this episode, both for itself and for the constantly difficult “build-up” nature of these late-season episodes. The Originals is doing a good job of showing the new imbalance in New Orleans, which has been made possible by the Originals’ arrival and their willingness to seek new allies without destroying the old. Thus the witches have been empowered without being destroyed, the werewolves resurrected, and the humans led into the hands of a far more active leader. This status quo exists in part because this form of storytelling thrives on variety, yes, but also because it fits the personalities of Elijah’s the peacemaker as well as Klaus the ally-seeking mercenary.
Still, the stronger half of the episode occurred with the final collapse of Father Kieran’s sanity, with Cami (and Josh!) alongside. Leah Pipes has done a good job of humanizing The Originals throughout, and Todd Stashwick as her uncle joins her in continuing that. What could have been either a melodramatic death scene, or an overly tense one, retains that human element throughout. This gives “An Unblinking Death” a legitimate tension in the end, about whether Kieran can and should survive as a vampire. Could he be like Caroline on The Vampire Diaries, where vampirism is a character benefit? Or turn into a recurring villain, an vampire without factionalism to compromise his evil? It ends up being the end of the character, but even that’s worthwhile—Cami makes the decision to finally end things, and Klaus, well, Klaus asks her what her decision is and abides by it.
That’s a strong moment. I don’t think The Originals will abide by it. But I’m willing to be demonstrated wrong.
- “Champion to the underdog…so to speak.” So many dog puns left on the table for this werewolf-themed episode, but at least we got a couple scraps tossed onto the floor.
- “There’s a special place in hell for your kind.” “Eh, not the first time I’ve heard that one.” Josh!
- The framing of the bombing was also an interesting part of the episode. Not knowing the attacker for so long left the audience in probably more of a state of confusion than the characters, which is rare. Having it be a false flag is a predictable disappointment, but a minor one.
- Marcel gets snarky. “I can’t say that wouldn’t be a positive side effect.”
- “Mayhem has descended upon our home. And if I am to choose a side…to victory, brother.”