When The Originals launched, the Vampire Diaries spin-off felt very, very spin-offy. The show seemed to assume we already adored the trinity of former villains: Klaus, Elijah and Rebekah. And it didn't offer us much reason to invest in the new batch of characters. But now at last, The Originals seems to be better than its parent show.
I just got caught up on the recent batch of The Originals, and also last night's Vampire Diaires. And one thing jumped out at me, pretty clearly — The Originals is at least somewhat building its plots based on characters making choices, while TVD is increasingly relying on random plot devices and extensions of its mythos. That's a reflection of the fact that TVD is getting long in the tooth, having exhausted a lot of possibilities, while Originals has a lot of territory still to explore.
So, plot devices. Last night's TVD had the unenviable task of dealing with two very different whammies that had been put on Elena Gilbert, and putting all the toys back in the box by the end of the episode. Elena has been possessed by her dead doppelganger Katherine for the past few weeks, leaving a trail of awkwardness. And when Katherine knew the game was up, she infected Elena with a werewolf-venom-powered, super-turbo-charged-mega dose of the virus that makes vampires kill vampires.
(Random thought: the virus that makes vampires kill other vampires would have been a season-long arc on a lot of other shows, and you can imagine the huge storytelling potential of having dozens of vamps infected with it. But here, it's just there to provide a bit more grist for the love triangle mill, and then we're apparently done. The operative word being "apparently," of course.)
Meanwhile, this show has given us a slew of antagonists lately— including Silas, Silas' ex-girlfriend, Dr. Wes, the Travelers, Enzo... and now, Liv the fake trainee witch and her gay brother. They never seem to last long, and they never quite stick to your ribs.
The "Elena gets cured of turbo-vamp-virus" plot dovetails neatly with the "Elena is pissed that nobody noticed she was actually Katherine for weeks" plot, because the turbo-virus causes her to hallucinate terrible versions of all the stuff she knows happened while she was out of her head. But it still feels kind of random and plot-devicey. Meanwhile, in the episode's "B" plot, Stefan is forced to go to the Travelers for the cure to the turbo-virus, as well as the regular virus afflicting Damon — and in return, Stefan has to help the Travelers locate the last remaining Stefan doppelganger, so they can kill him and have only one person in the world with such ridiculous hair.
Oh, and Damon can't bear to tell Elena that he killed her friend Aaron after he thought she'd dumped him, and that makes her think she killed Aaron when she was possessed by Katherine — which is sort of like this show's version of a Three's Company misunderstanding, I guess.
So there's nothing wrong with plot-devicey storytelling, especially if it illuminates character — which it arguably does here, since the heart of the episode is all aboutElena being pissed and hurt that nobody saw through Katherine, and Elena's fear that she really is that easy to imitate.
But meanwhile, The Originals has been offering a full dose of plot devices too — lately, there was a magic dagger, a magic stake, and a magic ring that might let a bunch ofwerewolves break their lunar transformation curse. But the bulk of the storytelling has been much more based around people making weird decisions and acting unpredictably. Which is something you can do when your world and most of its characters are new.
In The Originals, lately, Klaus succeeded in tightening his hold over New Orleans — but then some dead witches came back to life, seeking revenge. And that revenge, in the end, consisted mainly of forcing Klaus to realize that his sister and his best friend/surrogate son betrayed him 100 years ago by summoning Klaus' psycho stepdad to New Orleans so he would leave them to their romance. Last week's episode was largely about the three Original siblings confronting their damaged relationship, and Klaus forcing Rebekah to admit that part of her actually wanted him dead because of his control-freak ways.
So now, in this week's episode, we see a somewhat more subdued Klaus, who just wants to hide out and paint pictures — which, it must be said, is the last thing you'd expect him to be doing right after getting so pissed off. But Klaus also starts schtupping the witch Genevieve (who ratted Rebekah out) and plotting with the werewolves.
Elijah, meanwhile, decides to step into the power vacuum that Klaus has left behind, and try to unite all of the factions in the city — humans, vampires and witches — only to get static from Haley, who wants the werewolves to have a seat at the table. (Elijah's meeting lasts so long that Haley is able to watch werewolves wrestle half-naked and eat a country dinner out in the Bayou, and still show up halfway through. Elijah does not rush his meetings.) Elijah tries to put her off, but ends up throwing a fancy party instead, at which Haley helps him impress on everybody that they need to kill each other right now, or try to get along. (Why choose?)
Marcel, meanwhile, is working on rebuilding a power base for himself — recruiting his old lieutenant Thierry, convincing Josh to convince Davina to start using magic again so the other teen witches don't just walk all over her, booze-seducing Cami, and apparently doing some kind of hex on Cami with Genevieve's help.
What all this stuff has in common is that it's largely based on characters and decisions, rather than random plot devices — and the show maintains a sense that none of this is easy. The werewolves and vampires have a deep-seated hatred. Haley doesn't know where she belongs. Davina has a lot of guilt and anxiety because she feels like she betrayed the other witches. Josh the gay vampire is having a hard time containing all his awesomeness in the handful of scenes he's given. Elijah can tell Klaus is scheming and planning to undermine him, but can't see where it's going to come from. Etc. etc.
The Originals is coming into its own, in large part because it's gotten past the idea that the titular Originals are the most fascinating part of the show, who have to drive all of the action forward. The early episodes, where Klaus was scheming to overthrow Marcel, were somewhat turgid because Klaus is powerful enough to take what he wants and because we hadn't been given any reason to care about Marcel yet. But now, this show has something its parent show is starting to lack: a certain nimbleness.