“He’s here. This was a mistake. He wants me dead, Rose! I can’t do this! You give her to him, he’ll have mercy on you, but I need to get out of here.” Moments later a knock on the door. The door of the old manor slowly creaks open and a man in an immaculate suit steps in, looking about him imperiously. Rose begs him to spare her and Trevor, Trevor begs for his forgiveness but it’s too late. The deal has been made and with one swift motion Trevor’s head goes cascading to the floor. The 500-year-old Rose prepares to fight him, but knowing she cannot win merely breaks down into tears. When Stefan and Damon show up the vampire shows nothing but disdain and arrogance. Seeming completely impervious to the wooden stake launcher and being only slowed down momentarily by the vervain grenade, he nearly kills Stefan before he is put down by Damon’s surprise attack. We think he is gone until we see a shot of the darkened manor and the man rises again, pulling the stake from his chest as if it were nothing but a slight nuisance. He is alive and we have no idea if anything can stop him.
This is our first introduction to Elijah Mikaelson and the originals. And immediately it ramps up the stakes, making these new villains seem like indestructible, unflappable, brilliant and bloody well-dressed forces of nature. Yet over time he, and the other originals, seem to have lost their edge. Gone from bloodied cleavers to a set of Hello Kitty butterknives. The air of power and mystery they had to them, poofed right the hell off. Why is this? What caused their descent from aristocratic vampires to blood-sucking plebians? What in the name of Analyze happened to these people?! Throughout this article I hope to compare the previous scene to several others and, hopefully, use my inquisitive eye to uncover the various underlying reasons why the originals became so trivial.
Author’s Note: This article primarily focuses on the originals as portrayed in The Vampire Diaries and their function as villains, not as protagonists on The Originals.
To start off let’s take a look at this scene from season 4 in comparison to the first one:
“What the hell are you doing here?” asks Jeremy, rudely, as a casually dressed Klaus walks up to him and Damon. He’s told them they aught to be working on getting Jeremy’s mark bigger but they’re diddling about too much for his liking. Klaus asks how many vampires Jeremy has killed, Damon responds as Damon is wont to do, by talking back, saying that Jeremy isn’t ready for it. Klaus presses the issue and, as he is wont to do, threatens Damon. When Damon admits Jeremy has killed none Klaus asks how he can help. “Now that you mention it…” says Damon, telling Jeremy to watch before he shoots several wooden bullets into Klaus. “That’s for Carol Lockwood.” he finishes defiantly. Klaus glares at him angrily but impotently does nothing.
Ask yourself, does Klaus come across well in this scene? Like an indestructible and unflappable force of nature? Does he come across as an unstoppable hurricane? Or more like an impotent little drizzle? Does it create tension? If you knew nothing else about the originals than this scene, would you fear them? Or would you instead think “original” is a rather obscure synonym for “giant pussy?” I’m thinking the final option.
Monkey See, Monkey Feel
The first and most obvious reason for this perception can be found in how people react to the originals. Humans being the sheeplike beings that we are often, at least partially, base how we feel about something on the reactions of others. It is, for example, the case that in a televised debate, if someone gets applause for a point or their joke is laughed at, people will evaluate that moment, that joke and/or that candidate, more positively than if the exact same comment or joke was shown to them without the audience reactions. Science, bitches! This is something that politicians and news agencies delight in using on their lovely victims, but it is also something that probably plays into why the first scene works and the other does not.
In the first scene Trevor’s reaction, and Rose’s, is absolute drop dead, shit-your-pants and move-to-Paris fear. This can be seen first and foremost in their actions (namely Trevor runs around like a chicken without a head and almost decides to get the fuck out of there altogether) and also in their body language. While Elijah stands there casually appreciating Trevor’s luxurious hair Rose stands in the back, nailed to the ground. Trevor himself too stands motionless, barely daring to meet Elijah’s eyes, his head slightly bent like a puppy that just got scolded.
Elijah is another story entirely. After he walks into the manor he simply throws the door shut, taking a ol’ big step towards the next room like a rooster strutting his stuff (Rose crucially follows where he leads) and he sits down, casually leaning back as if he’s sitting on a throne. One leg slung over the other. When he’s confronting Trevor he walks around him as if Trevor is an amusing exhibit, his back straight, musing loudly about Trevor’s guilt and his lack of loyalty. Before he brutally kills him, he smiles. The palpable fear of the first two, especially since they are also 500-year-old vampires, tells us as the audience that this guy is to be feared and Elijah’s own casual body-language shows us that he himself has nothing to fear from anybody.
A similar scenario plays out when we see Klaus for the first time. Katherine’s beautiful face is unmistakably marked by fear. Greta is on her knees and Maddox bows before his lord. Klaus himself strides out confidently and smiles, making a quip. Their deference and his confidence are front and center.
This is… rather a bit different in the second scene. Klaus himself seems pretty casual, that’s true enough, though not nearly so in control. There’s no leaning back on a chair as if it were a throne. No straightened back and walking around the target like a wolf hounding a deer.
Damon and Jeremy show not a hint of fear. Their facial expressions, Damon’s especially, show more annoyance and defiance than anything else. And this is not some grand final stand they’re taking in defiance of the great and powerful villain in the eleventh hour, this is just Tuesday. And so all things considered Klaus comes across more like that annoying kid brother they have to deal with sometimes than an ancient uber-vampire.
Delectable Domination in Dialogue
Their stances in dialogue also shifted. In the first scene, between Elijah, Rose and Trevor, Elijah is constantly the one giving commands. First telling Rose to “Continue”, then to “Show her to me” when she mentions the doppelganger. Saying that there is “One final piece of business before we’re done” before he leaves. He’s also the one doing the interrogating for most of it, making it quite clear that Rose has no choice but to tell him everything. He states what he knows to be fact and seems to intuit almost everything Rose is about to say to him. Saying that when she called him into “…this armpit of civilization…” he already surmised it had everything to do with Katherine. He also simply states Trevor’s guilt as if he is the arbiter of justice. Acts as though Trevor’s forgiveness is in his grasp. A boon only he can bestow. He even refers to Trevor as “…your little pet…” claiming not to remember his name, something which is obviously very denigrating (and almost a fourth wall break at this point cuz who the hell remembers Trevor?). All of this shows that he considers them beneath him and that he has absolute control. He speaks constantly as if he is in charge. As if he’s the one who’s going to be making all the decisions, and so he does. He talks as though he is in charge, and so he is in charge. Yet it’s important to say he does not feel the need to explicitely refer to this fact (except when he casually admits he has the authority to pardon Trevor, making no big deal out of it).
Rose and Trevor on the other hand are constantly apologizing, pre-occupied with what Elijah wants, asking him for forgiveness, cleaning up their own puddles of urine, etc. They are clearly taking a subordinate position to him in dialogue almost constantly. They assume he has the power and as the audience we can feel this.
This is… let’s just say “different” in the Klaus-Damon scene. Yes, Klaus attempts to interrogate them, but it doesn’t go very well. Only with significant resistance and back-talk from resident smart-arse Damon does he get an answer to his question. Worst of all, he doesn’t put him in his place. He’s also clearly the one who knows less during this exchange, not knowing how many vampires Jeremy has killed or what they will do to fix that. This makes him seem dependent on them, makes it seem like he’s not in control. He also feels the need to talk about the hybrids he killed, that he was going to kill Stefan, etc. Explicitely trying to evoke fear. Telling rather than letting everything else do the showing for him. As a result it feels more a desperate ploy from a petty little narcissist than something real. He even asks Damon what he can do to help. He might as well be holding a tray and asking “master” if he can get him another glass of bourbon. Admittedly it was, at least somewhat, tongue-in-cheek but it’s still a good example of Klaus putting himself in a sub-ordinate role. In this scene everything in the dialogue suggests that it is Damon who gets to decide what happens next.
Damon and Jeremy’s reactions are the second piece to this puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. Jeremy’s greeting “What the hell are you doing here?” is something you’d more likely hear a hall monitor say to a student who wandered into the hallways during class. And when Klaus initially asks about the vampires Damon confidently proclaims that “If we throw Jeremy out into the world right now he’s chum.” At the end his “That’s for Carol Lockwood.” is a confident and defiant rebuke of Klaus and his actions.
True, Damon has insulted Klaus before. He did so even in season 2. Defiantly telling him he freed his werewolf and vampire and killed his witch. However, crucially, this exchange still ends up with the original wolfman right up on top. He knew all along that Damon would do something like this and he simply has back-ups for each. Klaus then goes on to school Damon on the nature of evil plans: “First rule, Always have a back-up.” There’s no doubting, in the end, who’s in charge there. Who’s in control. For the record, it’s Klaus.
Perhaps the best example of this sort of switcheroo comes from a season 2 scene between Klaus and Stefan. Klaus has been forcing poor Steffie to drink approximately 50 litres of blood in exchange for the werewolf bite cure Klaus has to offer. After blood bag 43 Stefan starts thinking that maybe he should actually be getting something for this. As a result he tells Klaus “No more.” Klaus’ face instantly grows dark. This response from Stefan was clear defiance. A clear attempt for him to assert his will and his dominance. And being the narcissistic little bastard that he is, he can’t let Stefan take control of the conversation, now can he? So what does Klaus answer? “Not until we make a deal.” He then proceeds to outline his terms and Stefan does exactly what he wants. The moment Stefan tries to assert his independence, Klaus immediately takes back control over the conversation. Just the slightest bit different from the Klaus in the Jeremy-Damon scene.
All of these things may seem minor, but together they create a pattern that’s very different between the two scenes. In one Elijah is in control ordering around the help, while in the other it is Damon who appears dominant in the scene ordering around… the help. And this is a pattern that repeats throughout seasons 3 and 4. With even Elena, a mere human, telling Klaus that he can let himself out after she shows him Rebekah. And this pattern reflects on them as characters on the whole, making them seem a lot less powerful. Telling the super-powerful villain to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out once is badass, telling it to him constantly and his reaction being to break out in tears is just sad.
Sometimes the Clothes Do Make the Man
Now I’m no fashionista, despite my impeccable suit perhaps giving you that impression, but wardrobe is another way the originals slowly went down the proverbial tube and splattered on the floor like a proverbial carton of proverbial rotten eggs.
In the first scene Elijah, our introduction to the originals, is wearing a suit. Similarly, when Klaus is first introduced in season 2, he too is usually wearing a suit (though more casually, foregoing the tie). This makes perfect sense for the atmosphere they tried to create around the originals. For better or worse, suits are a symbol of wealth and power in our society. They are associated with being cultured and sophisticated. They are worn by politicians, bankers, etc. in other words the modern day aristocracy.
The originals are supposed to be the vampire aristocracy. As a result it makes perfect sense that they would wear the prestige outfit of the time they’re in. Since it adds to their sense of wealth and power. It’s about the second best thing to literally turning their blood blue. But by season 4 the only original to continue wearing suits is Elijah.
Now it’s understandable in some sense. It seems very likely that the writers wanted those suits to be something iconic to the character of Elijah. To signify his personal sophistication and business-man-like mentality. How put-together he is, at least on the surface. And in fact his habit of wearing suits is commonly commented on by people in both The Vampire Diaries and The Originals and later used in connection to his characterization with the red door plot. But in developing this idea to enhance one character, they likely damaged the image of the originals as a whole.
Which is a pity because they could’ve accomplished something similar in a very similar way without running into this little cul-de-sac. As mentioned before, even when Klaus wore a suit he did so without a tie. The second time the shirt he wore underneath was also red rather than the traditional white. This instantly marked him as more casual, more spontaneous and colour-outside-the-lines than his brother. And though not as striking a contrast, it does get the point across and it does so without losing the sense of aristocracy.
Gotta Love a Man of Action
Consequence also plays a vital role here. During Elijah’s introduction there is a neck-shaped hole that makes the very, very clear statement that there are consequences to crossing an original. Elijah makes little fanfare of it, he never announces what he will do, and yet there’s never a break in tension. He simply states his case and then carries out the sentence brutally without another word. He is a man of action and we feel that instantly.
When Damon threatens Elijah a few episodes later, trying to get information out of him about the way he plans to kill Klaus, Elijah doesn’t say a word before he grabs his neck. When Damon continues to talk Elijah simply commands “Silence” and stabs him with a pencil. Afterwards telling the little runt to show some respect. And though the second is not nearly so consequential, all of this does contribute to a larger sense of consequence. We experience again and again that if an original is crossed heads will roll… sometimes literally. Sorry, I had to. I’m contractually obligated.
This is completely different throughout much of seasons 3 and 4, including the scene between Damon and Klaus. Klaus often raves and rants about who he will kill. About how furious he is with people. But those are just words. He rarely takes action afterwards, and when he does he’s usually thwarted with no consequences for anyone. And when we see again and again that these words are not necessarily followed by action or consequences, we begin to internalize it. We start to learn the opposite lesson of what the writers want us to think. It is conditioned in us that the threats are empty and crossing Klaus brings no threat with it because there is no action and there are no consequences.
In other words it is a pattern of swift action and consequence that gives weight to one, and a pattern of empty words that handicaps the other. And this handicap, this knowledge that there will be no negative consequence, completely saps away any and all tension. Tension, after all, comes from the anticipation of something happening, and when you’ve taught them nothing will happen then you can’t expect your audience to believe it will. As a result the originals become less and less threatening with every rant.
Fight, Fight, Fight! No Wait, Don’t.
This problem of tension goes even further, however. Fight scenes themselves, or lack thereof, can either contribute or sap away tension. Guess which of those two applies here?
Before Elijah does anything we don’t really know what the full extent of his abilities is. All we know is that vampires get stronger with age, something we have seen demonstrated to our great satisfaction (see Lexi and Damon’s first encounter), and that this vampire is as old as they get. And, of course, that the 500-year-old Rose and Trevor (both on par with Katherine, the most powerful vampire we’ve seen so far) are terrified of the man despite their conspicuous numerical advantage. This is then further emphasized when Elijah kills Trevor quickly and without much effort. We still don’t see Elijah fight, we only see him kill. Mostly his power is implied. It’s left to the viewer’s imagination, and it is this implication that gives it power in our minds. Yes, in a scene afterwards Elijah fights Damon and Stefan and loses, but before you start screaming about how much of an incompetent con-artist I am (thank you, mom) there are some reasons why despite this he does not lose his threat factor.
Firstly, because during the fight we see him display abilities far beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. We’ve seen over and over again that a single wooden stake can be extremely painful for a vampire. In fact up until this point every single time we’ve seen stake and vampire meet, it’s been a date from hell. When Stefan launches half a dozen stakes at Elijah however, he simply continues walking forward, only being slowed down slightly because of the kick. When he is hit with a vervain grenade, something we know will basically disable a regular vampire, he screams in pain for just a moment before healing in mere instants. And when Stefan knocks him to the ground he’s up and prepared to fight again while Stefan is still struggling to get back to his feetsies. Since all of this is so new to us, and such a big contrast with what we’ve seen before, it’s very effective at communicating the magnitude of this threat.
Secondly, because it’s clear he’s barely trying. Everything from what he says (“You cannot beat me.”) to the smug tone of voice in which he says it to his almost bored facial expression communicates this. So when he loses, to his surprise, we know we’ve only seen a fraction of what he can actually do. His actual powers, what he can accomplish if he gets serious, remain shrouded in mystery.
And in fact this is the case for the rest of season 2. There are no Elijah or Klaus fight scenes. We either see people who don’t even bother to fight them (like Rose after Trevor dies or Stefan when Klaus takes Elena) because they know they cannot win, or people who try and get slaughtered for their trouble. Elijah doesn’t fight the werewolves, he annihilates them each in turn with every time a single swift motion.
This is quite a contrast with later seasons where we often see fight scenes. The one between Kol and Damon being particularly bad. But even in The Originals, while they certainly come off as much more powerful than in The Vampire Diaries, this is a problem. As we constantly see the originals having to try their best. Exerting themselves and sometimes we even see them pushed to their breaking point, stabbed and cut and hurt. Seeing them bleeding and wince in pain does not exactly promote the myth of their invincibility.
The fact that we see them take down armies is spectacular, but still surprisingly less effective than what came before. Because people’s imaginations are no longer left to go haywire. And letting people’s imaginations run wild is often much more effective than actually showing something on screen. To see the invincible originals in their platonic perfection in your mind is powerful. But seeing it for real, especially seeing it so often, in itself trivializes and normalizes it. It makes it less effective. When you buy a new appartment and you go back there for the first time you might be blown away by the view. But some day in the future you will simply sit down in your couch and watch TV instead, because you’ve long since gotten desensitized to the view. That’s right, let that depressing reality sink in and shed a tear for that wasted money. Bet you didn’t expect that in an article about a vampire TV-show.
Mysterious Enigmas of Inscrutible Evil
Implication was used wonderfully in other ways as well. For much of season 2 we know shockingly little about the originals. We know they’re the first vampires, they’re old and they’re powerful. We find out that there’s quite a number of them. That they came from Eastern Europe and that they have a long and storied history with the werewolves. Most of this is vaguely defined however and that’s exactly why it works.
It was in part their mysterious origins in the far depths of time which made them so intriguing. But by revealing what these were all of that mystery died. This is doubly true because the backstory they chose to go with is one that emphasizes how normal their lives were. How they were essentially pretty regular people (for their day and age) before they were turned. Effective conceptually as a contrast, arguably effective on a character level but deadly to the image of them as powerful, mysterious vampires. Especially because there is a great degree of continuity for their characterization with the present. How can a being seem inscrutible when we’re told in detail what they are, who they are and in such a way that we’re meant to relate to them as nothing but fellow human beings?
H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters (shout out to my main man Cthulu) were effective for similar reasons. Their inhumanity and inscrutibility, how they were shrouded in the mystery of deep time, made them evocative and memorable. Putting a little pink hat on Cthulu and giving him a backstory where he was just a poor man in Oregon before he was dumped into a vat of radiation by his jealous wife might’ve made him just a tad less terrifying, especially if it was simultaneously revealed that all he really wanted was his mommy back.
Now, despite what I said, I’m not arguing that this was necessarily a bad idea, and indeed considering they wanted a show for them later on it was kind of necessary to give us at least some of that, only that doing it did have a downside. And maybe somewhat bemoaning that they had to explain quite so much and go quite so far, rather than leaning more on implication and leaving some things mysterious.
Poor Wittle Mass Murderer Syndrome
It is also in their backstories that their motives take root. And their motives too sometimes trivialize them. Rebekah’s character suffers from this especially.
When she’s first introduced she seems just the slightest bit insane. Bouncing from one lover to another, taking no half steps in life. Oh yes, and the killing without remorse. Plus, how inhuman do you have to be to not even be the slightest bit affected by Damon’s charms? All of this means that she seems bigger than life, inhuman and distant. Above the temptations of mere humans. All qualities that we associate with these powerful vampires. But then they jumped off the boat with her… with cement tied to their legs.
Suddenly she was just a poow wittle teen girl bemoaning being a vampire. Oh, she just wanted to be human. Just wanted to be loved! Just wanted to attend the school dance like all the other girls. This despite the fact that there were no high school dances in Viking culture, so it makes little sense she’d put so much stock into it. Matty Blue-Eyes shows her the slightest bit of attention and she swoons and swoons like a 14-year-old. Perhaps worst of all, when Matty rejects her Damon hits on her and she dives into bed with him immediately! She even gets taken advantage of by Damon and Sage because she’s such an insecure little girl! All of this makes her decidedly more human and all of these desires and reactions are decidedly mundane.
Klaus and Elijah suffer from this as well. Especially when, in season 3, it’s revealed Klaus just doesn’t want to be alone and then falls desperately in love with Caroline (at least seemingly). Though fortunately with them, especially Klaus, they build on this in “The Originals.” With Klaus’ issues towards his father and his stance towards women become something decidedly more pathological and grand (something we’re more likely to read about in a court transcript than a 14-year-old’s journal). Nevertheless within the confines of The Vampire Diaries this was still a questionable choice as executed there.
These desires are all very understandable. They are desires we see every day in those around us and some are even desires we might see in ourselves. That makes it easy for us as the audience to empathise with these characters, even to sympathise with them. To connect with them, care about them. To let our hearts go out to them and just want to give them a big, adorable hug. And that’s the whole fucking problem!
It loses track of what the originals were supposed to be on The Vampire Diaries. It’s the same mistake they made choosing to make the suit thing all about Elijah as a person. The originals weren’t supposed to be Byronic heroes or poor wittle wictims on that show. They weren’t the protagonists. They were villains! Antagonists! Obstacles for our actual protagonists to overcome, something the writers forgot more and more as season 3 went on. And for that purpose this was a problem. Since because those desires are so very common, they can also come across as trivial when merely copy-pasted from real life (as they were). When what is far more important in a villain is that they challenge your protagonists, ramp up tension and keep the action going. Something the invincible originals proved completely incapable of doing in the end.
- What Character Arc? – Why Damon’s Transformation into a Human Was a Betrayal
- Daggers & Doppelgangers – How Klaus Knew Elena Existed
- Come At Me Bro – Why I Hate Lyanna Mormont
Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The Vampire Diaries belongs to the CW and Alloy Entertainment.