None Of Us Are The Heroes We're Supposed To Be: On "Carmilla" and Character

This post originally appeared on Nick’s Blog Americain. It is reproduced here with Nick’s enthusiastic permission. It has been edited slightly to better fit this format.

I’ve spent the last week binge-watching a show which:

  1. I am not the intended audience for
  2. Revolves around both a subject and a format I’m almost entirely numb to these days
  3. Has virtually no production value, and is therefore often poorly staged

It’s a near-masterpiece. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start off with a general “you should watch this because” review, then get into the spoilery deep-dive stuff a little later.

Carmilla is a semi-adaptation of the original Lesbian Vampire™ novella. The original novella is plodding, homophobic, and mostly only significant for helping to inspire Dracula a few years later- though credit where it’s due, there are a few excellent lines (one of which lives on as the tagline of the web series). 

The web series, meanwhile, is a character-driven opus that by all rights ought to be a steaming trainwreck - they’re limited to a single set and camera angle and can’t actually show much of anything important that happens- and ends up working on more levels than most of Alan Sepinwall’s “Peak TV” pantheon.

The #1-with-a-bullet strength of Carmilla is its two lead characters, but I’m gonna hold off on going into too much detail on them for a minute. Suffice it to say they’re both extremely well-drawn characters with excellent growth and compelling conflicts; they single-handedly keep the show afloat during its not-quite-there-yet early episodes, and most of what makes the show great ultimately comes back down to them.

Beyond that, you’ve got a likeable - if mostly underdeveloped- supporting cast. If you wanted to quibble with the show’s mostly stellar writing, you could pick on the near-total absence of meaningful growth or internal conflict for the supporting cast (with one major exception and another minor one), but given the relatively short run time of the series and the stellar character work on the leads, I’m inclined to let it slide. Perhaps worth noting is that the cast is mostly female and mostly queer; as somebody who’s made a lot of money off of mostly queer female casts* this strikes me as a good thing, but if you’re a disgusting bigot with backwards values, I guess maybe steer clear?

*Cheap plug: In the Mina books particularly, Linda, Lucy, and Matsunaga are gay, Rose is bi-curious, and Callet, SPOILER REDACTED, and Reno are all bisexual. Mina’s sexuality isn’t as easily labeled; in her words it’d be “Whatever the fuck I want,” but suffice it to say sometimes what she wants is girls. /cheap plug

Writing-wise, the show’s got an uphill battle, and the first season especially has to wrestle with the burden of saddling almost all of the exposition into dialogue- it’s, by necessity, all tell and no show. That said, the character work (see how I keep coming back to that?) is strong enough that it’s mostly painless, and the writers figure out more and more ways around their format the longer the show runs. The pace is near-breakneck once they get past their first big reveal- it’s spoiling nothing to tell you that, yes, Carmilla the original lesbian vampire is both a lesbian and a vampire - and the show continues to come up with inventive ways to sneak exposition in without beating you over the head with it.

The wider story is good, if nothing special - it’s the usual post-Buffy fantasy fare where everything exists as soon as the plot needs it to and the bad guys are always up to some sort of vague but not terribly nuanced villainy- but it’s well executed and does its most important job- forcing Laura (the other lead and defacto protagonist) and Carmilla to make hard choices- very well.

The show’s also got an extremely ear-wormy theme song, if that’s your thing.

Before getting into the real meat of what I wanna talk about here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances of the two leading ladies. While Carmilla is excellently written, the lion’s share of the credit for how well it all works belongs to Elise Bauman (Laura) and Natasha Negovanlis (Carmilla).

Laura would be a completely insufferable Pollyanna with a lesser actress, but Bauman’s infectious charisma and seemingly endless library of facial tics turns her into an extremely relatable, likeable, and necessarily-pitiable-as-the-plot-demands protagonist. That she’s also single-handedly shouldering 90% of the exposition makes the job harder, but Bauman carries the load with aplomb. More than that, though, she’s given a character who is near-constantly undergoing major perspective and allegiance shifts, and plays it perfectly; Laura is involved in two separate romances over the course of the series that would have rung completely false without exactly the right touch, but Bauman plays them both with precisely the right bent to inspire two different psychopathically passionate fandoms. I don’t go in much for the whole “shipping” thing myself, but ten minutes on Tumblr and you’ll see that there are thousands of people whose lives seem to revolve mostly around arguing about who Laura’s supposed to be with; inspiring that kinda devotion in people in what basically amounts to five hours or so of content is pretty damn impressive, and you can lay the credit (or blame) for that at the feet of the extremely talented Bauman. 

Negovanlis, for her part, has an even harder job, in that she needs her character to be at least as well-defined as Bauman’s with maybe a tenth the dialogue, and has to pivot between sympathetic and not from scene to scene. In Season 1, nearly every scene features Laura, while Carmilla’s largely limited to a few lines an episode until about the halfway point (and has maybe a third of Laura’s screentime total). Given that much of the season revolves around the various mysteries of who Carmilla is or isn’t, she also can’t play almost anything totally straight without torpedoing the plot. Negovanlis gets around this by nailing subtle little reactions or body language shifts. Keep an eye on her when she’s silent; she does much of her best work while other characters are pointedly ignoring her. I don’t think anyone this side of The Rock has more expressive eyebrows.

Like Bauman, Negovanlis is given a character that’s constantly confronted with major character moments, but unlike Bauman she usually has to play them true to the story without actually giving away her choices to the audience. Finally, she’s initially stuck playing into the now-cliché trope the original novella created—the femme fatale lesbian vampire—but manages to make it feel fresh and inventive. One great little touch: her character never takes the obvious moment to be vulnerable or honest; she’s at her most guarded when the story calls for her to open up, and she instead shows her cards when nobody’s expecting to see them. It’s a refreshing change-up, and it lets her character hang onto her air of mystery long after she’s outed by exposition.

It is at this point tradition that our vampiric antiheroes all brood, so let it be known that Carmilla can brood with the best of them. Moving on.

The chemistry between the two is predictably great, and the show wouldn’t work without it. Bauman and Negovanlis are probably both household names in five years with a good agent, or beloved indy darlings without one. Either way, this is not going to be the last we hear of either of them.

Long story short, “Carmilla” is a winner, and easily the most effective web-original show I’ve ever seen. If you like character-driven storytelling—and if you don’t, fuck right off—it’s worth a look, even if, like me, you’re largely numb to both the vlog aesthetic and romantic vampire tropes. Check out the first episode here.

Ok, now for the writer-nerd portion of the review; from here on in I’m not holding back on spoilers, so if you’re not through the series yet, consider yourself warned.

Let’s start with Laura. She starts off the series as a pretty traditional fantasy heroine: naïve, enthusiastic, lawful good to the bitter end, and totally pure of heart. In any other series she’d slowly have her naivete whittled away, but largely stay the same fundamental person. She’d make the overdone hero’s choice- sacrificing her own well-being for the greater good- over and over, and her fans would pass it off as character development. Carmilla has more interesting ideas.

Laura makes a lot of choices over the course of the series, not all of them heroic, and many of them wrong. In a lesser story, she’d quickly learn an Aesop from her mistakes and revert to form; compare two of her fantasy forebearers that the series directly references: Harry Potter and Buffy Summers. Harry Potter, as near as I can tell, doesn’t make a single interesting personal choice in the course of the entire series (though full disclosure I only read the first four books); he consistently chooses to be the hero, and good for him. He’s substantially the same person 1200 pages after he meets Hagrid, only better at magic. Buffy’s in a similar boat; she consistently decides to put the needs of the many above her own (though she does have a few heavy-handed moments of weakness), and consistently strives to do what’s right no matter the cost. Unlike Harry, she does sometimes make costly mistakes- but they’re usually either fake mistakes (in which the writers gave her no decent alternatives), or they don’t have any long-term impact on her character. At the end of the series she’s a more cynical version of who she was at the beginning, but she hasn’t grown as a person; she’s better at fighting monsters and leading others, but she’s the same quirky, romantically indecisive freedom-fighter she’s always been.

These two characters are beloved and timeless for a lot of reasons, and they absolutely deserve their following. They work fine for the (simple) stories they’re telling, and a case could be made that given what they represent, making them change or grow would actually hurt the story. That all said, they’re much less interesting heroes to me than Laura Hollis.

Unlike Harry and Buffy, Laura has fatal flaws. She is initially incapable of compromise- a strength that soon becomes a damning weakness—she naively imposes her own morality on not only the people around her, but on the very future itself; she panics and stews when the world defies her expectations. She’s a storyteller by nature, but she doesn’t realize that she’s her own unreliable narrator; Carmilla is not who her story wants her to be—and Carmilla flatly tells her as much early on—and neither is she. Season two sees her finally recognize this, and move on from it, but it leaves her a very different person; this is character development, and it’s the sort of major sea-change neither Harry nor Buffy had to deal with.

Though she starts out as one, she doesn’t stay the same paragon of nobility that Buffy and Harry do. She flees the scene at the end of Season 1, and unlike Buffy’s ten-minute retirements, she returns to the adventure entirely against her will. She’s also completely and totally ruthless; she resorts to torture at the drop of a hat—more than once—and expresses no remorse. She almost instantly betrays Carmilla’s confidence when Carmilla hands her the series’ highest caliber Chekhov’s gun, though in this case by the time it goes off she’s started to see the cracks in her own story and is wracked with guilt and contrition… but that guilt has little to nothing to do with the woman she gets killed—she was a “bad guy” after all, and Laura could give a fuck about bad guys—but for betraying Carmilla. She’s generally pretty blasé about bad guys dying, and despite all her murder-shaming of Carmilla, she calls on Carmilla to explicitly kill for her when the chips are down.

But here’s the thing: she becomes self-aware of all of that, and seeks to course correct. By the end of Season 2, she’s not only started doing her own dirty work, she’s contrite about her bad decisions, and she’s no longer idealizing Carmilla, instead accepting Carmilla as who Carmilla insists on being instead of who she wants her to be. There’s a great touch late in Season 0 where she sees something about Carmilla that Carmilla herself doesn’t- how much Carm has actually changed over the years—and it’s an incisive moment because it comes right on the heels of her realizing that Carmilla isn’t interested in changing any further. It's incisive and melancholy and it’s something neither Harry or Buffy would be capable of, because it requires both a self-awareness that they never develop and a willingness to accept other perspectives as valid; Buffy’s even given the same opportunity multiple times, with a variety of characters, but she needs the people around her to ultimately conform to her own morality/expectations; she won’t accept Faith until Faith repents, and she’s not sincerely interested in reformed bad-boy Spike until he’s sufficiently wracked with guilt and begging forgiveness; if they don’t conform, she has nothing but pity and contempt for them. Carmilla, as we’ll get into in a minute, is almost the anti-Spike, and it’s her complete lack of contrition that Laura in that moment has finally accepted; it’s not Carmilla’s job to be the hero of Laura's story, it’s Carmilla’s job to be Carmilla.

In addition to shredding traditional fantasy heroine tropes, Laura’s an inversion of the classic hero’s journey in a lot of fun little ways. She starts the journey at the end point—morally certain and completely indefatigable, able to easily inspire others to her cause, and brave as can be. She picks up doubt and weakness as the story goes, but in her case those are the traits that will ultimately make her into the hero the story needs, instead of the one she thinks she is. She takes the traditional third-act trip to the underworld almost immediately (in this case, the library), and where the traditional hero leaves his home an uncertain wanderer and returns a paragon of bravery, Laura stands her ground for an entire season, flees in terror, and returns only out of necessity.

Laura Hollis is a great heroine because she’s a heroine in spite of heroism. She’s a hypocrite, and occasionally a coward, and though she starts off with the same high-handed morality as Buffy or Harry, it’s more a vice than a virtue on her, and it gets a lot of people killed. She’s at her most heroic in dark moments where she abandons her own naïve conceptions of heroism—when she admits her faults. She is never more a hero than when she’s killing an old man after swearing she wouldn’t, forgiving an unrepentant mass murderer, or apologizing for betraying her dearest friend. Buffy and Harry are heroes because they know the right thing to do, and do it every time. By the end of Season 2, Laura Hollis is a hero because she doesn’t, knows she doesn’t, and tries anyway. For me, that’s infinitely more compelling.

Now, as for Carmilla…

If Laura is great because she’s much more complex than the classic heroine, then Carmilla is great because she’s much more complex than the classic anti-heroine. There are two primary tropes she’s butting up against here, so let’s start with the obvious one.

The “redeemed for love” vampire trope. This one’s been around forever, but the most prominent modern examples are Angel/Spike from Buffy, the Salvatore brothers from The Vampire Diaries, and, I assume, the creep from Twilight. Like these characters, Carmilla’s primary motivator—usually, at least—is love. The distinction, though, is that she has no interest in redemption. She is one-hundred percent comfortable in her own skin, and while she has some guilt—mostly about dead ex Ell—she’s not looking for absolution or vindication. I mentioned above that Buffy has relatively little growth for a hero; the same is not true of her supporting cast. Spike has probably the most growth in the entire show, but it ends up in the same tired cliché place: he found love, so he’s a full-on hero now. Yawn.

Carmilla follows that same basic arc in Season 1, but there’s a massive distinction: she never really becomes a hero, at least not in the sense the others on that list do. If separated long-term from Laura, Carmilla wouldn’t join up against the forces of darkness the way the rest of those losers would (and ultimately do); her growth isn’t in realizing she was wrong, but in realizing that there is at least one thing worth fighting for even though she’s right. Huge distinction.

She never apologizes for her past—all the others do, at great length—and she never grows into the altruistic capeless crusader the rest do. She’s totally willing to fight for what’s right… but she won’t do it just because it’s right. She’ll do it to protect what matters to her; take that away and she’s neutral if not downright evil. She spends a large chunk of the second season gleefully murdering mostly-innocent Zetas and Summers in a quest to avenge her sister. Now, sure, there’s probably a Buffy or Vampire Diaries plot that runs along similar lines but the distinction is this: the show doesn’t condemn Carmilla for doing it.

She’s heroic because she’s true to her nature, she’s heroic because she is wholly remorseless, and she’s heroic because she knows exactly what she’s fighting for and has no delusions of being anything more. She’s an awesome foil for Laura because her greatest strength is Laura’s greatest weakness: self-awareness.

This isn’t to say that Carmilla doesn’t grow or change as the series goes. She does. But it’s all organic, and it never over-reaches to making her something she really shouldn’t be. She goes from a complicit coward to a courageous fighter because she finds something that makes it worth her while, not because it’s the right thing to do, and she reverts to cowardice whenever it doesn’t conflict with her love of Laura. In the end of the second season, she sells out her conviction and her earlier pledge of murder and dismemberment not because she’s decided it was wrong—but because she’s still in love with Laura, she knows it, and she knows that she has to fight for that, even though every time she does it costs her huge. Because, fundamentally, that’s who she is, and pretending it isn’t would be just as much a betrayal of self as begging forgiveness.

 

In fact, her love of Laura leads her consistently to her most villainous on-screen actions of the entire series.  She betrays her sister—who’s nowhere near the villain Laura thinks she is—for Laura, she fights and kills for Laura, and perhaps most importantly she repeatedly sells herself and her convictions out for Laura.

And this is where she defies the other big anti-hero trope. Unlike Tony Soprano, Walter White, and the rest, Carmilla at no point believes for even a second she’s being heroic. She doesn’t need to realize she’s a monster—she’s known all along, and doesn’t especially care. The irony, of course, is that her refusal to see herself as a hero makes her more morally aware than the morality-focused Laura, and ultimately, makes her heroic actions all the more heroic; she’s the opposite of the traditional antihero, the villain that thinks they’re the hero: she’s a hero who thinks she’s a villain, but she sacks up and sacrifices everything for love anyway. It’s easy to be the hero when you know you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons; it’s downright amazing when you’re doing it in spite of knowing for a fact that it isn’t.

That, too, may make Carmilla seem static, but she isn’t. Her motives shift as the series progresses from self-preservation to lust back to self-preservation to love to spite to self-preservation to love to vengeance to love again. Every time she defaults to her “save myself, fuck everyone else” setting, she finds another reason not to, and every time she commits to fighting for love, she finds a good, objective reason not to… then ends up doing it anyway. Fighting for love in the face of both self-preservation and futility is the most explicitly heroic thing anyone in the series does… and the one who does it chafes under the label, because she knows for a fact that there’s no such damn thing.

The fact that she’s wrong about that last point makes her just as much of a hypocrite as Laura, and it gives their romance an excellent symmetry. If Laura’s weakness is a lack of self-awareness, Carmilla’s is an overabundance, too aware of her own flaws to admit her own virtues, and that makes for great television. Both characters are doomed in opposite directions, and that’s why they need each other; they figuratively, literally, and thematically can’t live without each other.

You ask me, that’s pretty damned good character writing for a no-budget web series about college roommates who make out a little. Hell, it’d be pretty damned good character writing for Shakespeare.

Nick Feldman, in addition to occasionally writing reviews of TV shows, is a novelist of some dubious repute. You can find his most recent books—following aforementioned PI Mina Davis—here