Race + Television–The Vampire Diaries 4.20: “The Originals”

Promo shot for The Originals. Via the CW.

Last week The Vampire Diaries (TVD) aired Episode 20, “The Originals,” a “backdoor pilot” for a spin-off series coming this Fall of the same name, which will (finally) remove the Original Family of Klaus, Rebekkah, and Elijah from Mystic Falls, VA, and send them even further south to New Orleans. I know, I know–at this point we need more Southern vampires on television like we need another summer superhero movie. But here’s the surprising thing: If TVD showrunner Julie Plec weren’t also in charge of this show? It could be very, very good.

There hasn’t been much to be excited about this season, so this was a game-changer and it was more than just a change of scenery (TVD has had a lot of that this year). Admittedly, you can’t go wrong in erasing the ridiculous part of the plot where the 1000+-year-old vampires have to pretend to be teenagers, fitting in with small-town Virginia life. The new chosen city for the show isn’t overly inspired; New Orleans is hardly original when it comes to vampire storytelling, but with it comes an instant change to the mood and tone of the show.

“The Originals” steps back from the teenage shenanigans of TVD, and thank goodness for that. This is show about family–the family you’re born into vs. the family you make for yourself. With that, plus the introduced cast members, there’s some serious potential here.

The problem is it is Plec’s show–and a lot of the potential it has won’t ever see the light of day.

If you’re a regular Vampire Diaries watcher you’re likely familiar with the canon: witches with speaking roles are almost always Black. For “The Originals” you’ll want to throw that absolute out the window. Klaus speaks with a black witch when he arrives in the city, but the female lead here is a white witch named Sophie Deveraux (who, yes, is played by a Latina, Daniella Pineda, but this isn’t new– they did that with Michael Trevino’s role, too). I’m guessing, cynically, that given the presumed amount of fan hate Bonnie Bennett receives–and Plec’s seeming dislike of the character–the producers chose to abandon four years of canon once they decided that they’d be casting Charles Michael Davis as Marcel, a vampire sired by Klaus who’s set up as his foil for the coming season. We don’t need two Black leads at once, after all…even if your show does take place in New Orleans.

That said, once Marcel took center stage (literally) I was inclined to forget about witches altogether.

Some of my instant attraction to Marcel’s character was just that– attraction. The Vampire Diaries is, after all, on the CW and, if nothing else, it has always been flush with beautiful people. But I was shocked when Marcel’s introduction actually set the audience up to like him–a courtesy Bonnie has rarely received. I rewatched his introduction a good ten times (again, aesthetics), fell in love with his swag, and then spent the entire episode waiting for his life to turn to crap, because that’s what Julie Plec does. But Marcel is the King of New Orleans, and he lived to see an October premiere date.

The best thing about this pilot: Charles Michael Davis as Marcel.

As Klaus’ protege, Marcel watched him conquer the supernatural community in New Orleans, and he took over the city once his sire left. However, he took it a step further, and the episode shows us that he’s figured out a way to control the magic the witches in the city use and has decreed the penalty for using magic to be death. Taking issue with that, the witches kidnap Klaus’ newly pregnant former squeeze who also happens to be a werewolf (this part is as ridiculous as it sounds, and I’m trying to forget it’s happened) and threaten to kill her unless he helps them take down Marcel. So Season One of “The Originals” will, most likely, center around a power struggle between Klaus and Marcel for the city of New Orleans. Without a doubt, Marcel is so far painted as the villain of the show (though Klaus is no hero himself). That’s typical of Plec’s African-American male characters, and it’s going to be extremely interesting to watch how the show’s writing wants the audience to see Klaus’s violence and questionable decision making vs. Marcel’s. Already I prefer Marcel to Connor Jordan, Season Four’s first Black villain whose level of violence seemed to play on a familiar “angry black man’ trope and left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Marcel, on the other hand, is kind of…fun.

It’s only been one episode but we learned enough about Marcel to establish his roots in US slavery, which Klaus supposedly saved him from. In keeping with TVD canon, the words “slave” and “slavery” weren’t actually used (you may remember that they favor the term “handmaiden” for the female slaves and only say “slave” when they have to). Still, there are questions that I have about Marcel’s character that I’m sure will never be fully realised. Flashbacks I want that we’ll probably never get because they’re not tied exclusively to Klaus: I’d love to know the circumstances under which they met, what about him made Klaus want to change him, if he’ll get to call Klaus out on his whiny white-saviour behaviour, how slavery may have shaped his character, and whether or not he’s spent his entire immortal life in the American South and how has that been?

“The Originals” appears to be a darker show than TVD, so it would seem that there’s room for some exploration into the darker aspects of US history. The problem is that Plec and her writing staff love to consistently dip their toes into that pool, but they never want to go all the way. They want to talk about the Civil War in Virginia, but they don’t want to talk about slavery. They want to create a line of Black witches that descend from someone involved with the Salem Witch Trials, but they never mention Tituba and then abandon the whole thing once they switch shows. I can’t possibly expect them to dedicate time to potential intricacies of how Marcel would choose to navigate a relationship with Klaus during or after the Reconstruction. Despite how much I enjoyed the episode, I am worried, and I can acknowledge that a lot of what I like about this faux pilot was the potential for some great storytelling and character weaving that might finally give me some of the diverse supernatural television I’ve been looking for since I started here at the R.  I have to remember that when it comes down to it, this is a show about three white, British vampires taking place in a city that’s over 60% African American and heavily segregated.

My eyes may be rolling in Julie Plec’s general direction, but my fingers are crossed, my DVR is set, and if all else fails remember this: We’ll always have fan fiction.

  • Queenofmyownage

    If handled correctly this show has the potential to be the Angel to TVD Buffy the Vampire Slayer aka the darker more adult spin-off. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much faith.

    I love that there is a black vampire. I love Marcel who was fun and interesting and actually enjoying being a vampire. He won’t last long because he undermines Klaus’s existence. Klaus is older, stronger, and thought him everything he knows and yet Klaus hasn’t made things happen for himself and Marcel is the king. Django Unchained (despite my mixed feelings about this film) is still fresh on everyone’s mind so this show might decide to confront slavery head on.

    I hate that it took the witches being white for them to be allowed to fight back. Four seasons and Bonnie hasn’t received this courtesy. I wish that Bonnie got to come on this show and lead the witch revolution.

    Speaking of Angel, I HATE mystical pregnancies so that was a weak point for me.

  • Lola

    Julie Plec is interesting hmm…does she really hate Bonnie? No, seriously, does she?

    I think Marcel has been introduced more positively than Bonnie because he’s a male. Yay patriarchy!

    NO. not really.

    Bonnie’s a black chick. Katerina Graham is a beautiful young woman but the US has a bad track record when it comes to how it treats WOC and especially BW. I’m a Black woman, I know these things. It’s going to take a lot more than Obama’s presidency and Beyonce commercials to change centuries of negative stereotypes like the Mammy, Sapphire, etc.
    Of course Black men have to deal with their own stereotypes and the prison industrial complex, but with that being said, Marcel the vampire is still a man. Patriarchy intertwined with racism.

    He WILL die at some point because Julie Plec is the head of the show and she can only see through her White Disney lens but I suspect that Marcel will receive much better treatment than Bonnie Bennett ever has had on TVD. Because patriarchy….

    Putting aside my pessimism with the TVD and the fantasy genre in general. The Originals has the potential to be MUCH better than TVD ever could be. It could be, we’ll see. It’s all up to Julie Plec. *Gulp*

    Since I’m complaining about her, Julie Plec annoys me like Eric Kripke does. Both of them seem to think Black people make great food, bullet proof vests, and cannon fodder. Kripke started Supernatural. Great show! Much, much better than TVD….but it has a black body count.

    BBC = Black Body Count. I sit in front of my tv with prayer beads and ever time Black person dies, I slide a bead down on the string. The Walking Dead has a high BBC. *SMH* and I clutched those beads tightly during this past season.

  • http://twitter.com/DarrenNesbitt Darren Nesbitt

    I get really pissed when these characters witness horrible supernatural events (death, spells, gore mass killings, demon gods..etc) and then in literally the next scene are heart broken about who’s dating who, prom dresses, and student government. I could maybe understand the vamps less than a year old but not the damn originals. I find it so unrealistic for them to be around before the invention of socks and eye glasses yet are still encapsulated by things like prom.

    New Orleans does seem to be the American vampire mecca but if we can get into some adult action (or at least college years) it would be nice. They may even get some of the off season trueblood fans to give it a second chance.