When they announced that The Vampire Diaries was getting a spin-off focusing on the mean ancient vampires who tormented Elena and the Salvatores for a few years, I was beyond skeptical. How could Klaus’ endless dickery and Elijah’s stiff upper lip be watchable, week in, week out? But I’m here to tell you I was wrong.
Minor spoilers ahead, if you’re not caught up on this show...
The Originals is firmly established as its own beast nowadays, and it is just glorious. The show, which returns tonight for its midseason premiere, started out as the saga of Klaus Mikaelson trying to regain his throne as the King of New Orleans, but it’s become something much more byzantine and intense. I still enjoy The Vampire Diaries, primarily for Caroline the bubbly control-freak vamp, but I’m actually addicted to The Originals at this point.
The biggest challenge The Originals faced was making me actually care about the Originals. The Mikaelson family were Vikings who came to North America over a thousand years ago—because of course they did—and wound up getting turned into immortal bloodsuckers by their witch mother. They eventually started making others immortal too, and all vampires are descended from them.
The Mikaelsons are nigh-unkillable—way more than most vamps—and so ancient that they regard regular mortals as disposable most of the time. (Think Ashildr/Me on Doctor Who, with less memory problems.) And Klaus, especially, is a self-centered jerk who only cares about his own amour-propre, except when he unexpectedly unveils a tender side. (This show was probably made possible by that scene years ago on TVD where Klaus heals a werewolf-bitten Caroline and tells her about how she’ll go to Paris some day.) The rest of the clan are just sort of comically unaware that other people exist and have feelings, most of the time.
But The Originals has systematically built up Klaus into a more layered and more ambiguous figure—without making the mistake of sanitizing or defanging him. Joseph Morgan manages to declaim his endless rants about power and vengeance, in his Michael-Wisher-as-Davros voice, while still conveying a constant sense of open emotional wounds. Klaus, far from being desensitized, has his heart on his sleeve and is always having it broken. Giving Klaus a baby daughter (whose mother pretty much hates him) helps a lot.
Meanwhile, Klaus’ brother Elijah, whose remit on TVD seemed to be “uptight nobility with occasional forays into pathos,” has gotten some real darkness on The Originals. Thanks to some magic-y therapy sessions at the hands of Elijah’s mom (who came back to life as Sonja Sohn from The Wire—don’t ask) Elijah was forced to confront all of the violent memories and self-loathing that he had repressed over the centuries. In the long term, this seems to have resulted in an angrier, maybe more unstable, Elijah, which is all kinds of good. (In one recent episode, Elijah gets a speech about torturing the family’s enemies, which was actually quite jolly.)
Their sister Rebekah has been mostly absent, but meanwhile they have a previously unknown witch sister, Freya, who is a good blend of long-suffering and self-serving.
But meanwhile, The Originals has also developed a supporting cast who pull their weight. Charles Michael Davis, as Klaus’ vampire “son” Marcel, is pretty debonair and cunning, with a nice twinkle in his eye and a lot of loyalty to his vampire friends, and his current storyline about infiltrating an evil secret society (more on that in a second) is great. Jackson, the leader of the local werewolves, was my least favorite character at first as he moped around after his childhood fiancee (Klaus’ baby mama Haley) but has become a lot more badass lately. Haley, herself, has stepped up and started standing up for the people she cares about—including, weirdly, the Mikaelsons. Camille, the therapist/bartender who has been helping Klaus be less of a jerkwad, has gotten a lot more fun to watch as she’s stood up for herself (assuming she survives the cliffhanger ending of last fall’s midseason finale.) Then there are Davina, the young witch, and her cruddy mentor, Vincent.
But meanwhile, we’re not getting nearly enough of Josh, the awesome vampire whose werewolf boyfriend got killed last year. Where is our Josh??!
But also, The Originals has finally solved one of the biggest problems it struggled with since its pilot. This is a spin-off about the villains of The Vampire Diaries, who are not only kind of evil but also almost unbeatable. Even if you start to care about Klaus and the others, how can this show possibly make them break a sweat?
Season one kind of kept Klaus as the villain—he comes in and disrupts everything in New Orleans, overthrowing Marcel purely in a fit of pique, and then gets tricked by some skanky yuppie werewolves into letting them use his own power against him. Season two was more or less a family dispute among the Mikaelsons, with first Klaus’ mom and then his aunt scheming against him. These storylines were fun—but didn’t leave you worried that Klaus would lose. (The main worry, in both cases, is probably about his poor baby.)
But this year, the Mikaelsons are facing a more credible threat, for a few reasons. They’re up against a witch’s prophecy that the three main Mikaelson siblings will fall (one by friend, one by foe, one by family), and they don’t seem to be able to change their fate. There’s actually a credible weapon that could take them down: an amulet that could imprison them forever. And most of all, they finally have worthy opponents: They’re up against the first people they ever turned into vampires, who are almost as ancient and even more nasty than the Mikaelsons themselves. Plus these ancient vamps are connected to a super-powerful and insidious secret society called the Strix, who have their fingers in everything. This is not a fight that even Klaus and Elijah can win with one hand tied behind their backs, at long last.
The Strix aren’t just clever and ruthless, they’re also really loathsome, and you really want to see the Mikaelsons take them down. If there’s one thing that will make you root for an asshole, it’s pitting him against an even bigger asshole.
The Originals still hasn’t achieved its full potential. From time to time, the show hints at a bigger and more ambitious story about New Orleans—the politics and culture of a city that’s overrun with every kind of supernatural creature. You see glimpses of a more sweeping epic, about the local ecosystem of witches, werewolves and vampires, and just how things get done among them. There are a lot of stories that could be told about crime and punishment, backroom deals, culture and history, if this show ever grows beyond its roots as a magic soap opera.
But at the same time, The Originals has become a thrilling ride, and I’m kind of on the edge of my seat to see where the story goes next. If you dismissed this show as just an offshoot of that other vampire show, or if you hated Klaus on TVD and didn’t want to watch a whole show about him, then now is a great time to give The Originals another try. The show might just get its claws (fangs?) into you.