We needed to wash the bad taste of Hemlock Grove out of our mouths, so we went back to an old favorite.
We powered through the first season and loved that about as much as we ever did, then watched the Christmas Special, and started up season the second. It was about halfway through the second that something occurred to us; we went back to our initial review of Carmilla to double check something.
Sure enough, it was there: “There’s a lot of telling of events, followed by a showing of the emotional impact and consequences of those events. It’s a clever device that allows the illusion of a much larger budget than the show actually possesses, which is nice.” We looked at the line, long and hard, because there’s a simple thing we came to understand.
We were wrong.
Carmilla works because it lacks any shown bit of action, or picking and choosing what action it does show. The plot is largely incidental – this is a webseries that prides itself on strong characters and character development, and the actions that happen around them are secondary to the aftermath those actions have.
For those of you that missed it (and you can start fixing that lack by clicking here), Carmilla is a modernization of a novel written by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, which is essentially Dracula, only before and lesbian. There’s a school in Styria called Silas University and there are girls going missing there. A young girl named Laura starts looking into it after her roommate vanishes, and she’s assigned a roommate named Carmilla who happens to be a vampire.
Stuff happens. It’s awesome and adorable and heartwarming. We loved the hell out of it, and it’s something that gets frequent play around our offices when we’re formatting or waiting for things to render. We really like us some character-driven narrative, and Carmilla is very much that.
Naturally, a character-driven narrative is going to live or die depending upon the performances of those involved. Elise Bauman and Natasha Negovanlis return as Laura and Carmilla, respectively, and absolutely become these characters. The snippets we see of their lives and how badly everything falls apart around is a tragedy made all the worse by the fact that both of them are very human, their actions and traumas entirely understandable.
Laura is still naive and very, very young – she has a very set idea of right and wrong, is very much the old tree that breaks in the storm because it does not bend. She has an unwavering and unexplored moral center that drives everything that happens in both seasons, but her short-sighted passion to do right does not look at the larger consequences of the resulting actions, and she ends up destroying everything she was trying to save, including herself.
Carmilla, on the other hand, is so desperate to be loved for herself that it’s terrifying. Her trauma is tied to being a non-entity, of having her agency constantly taken from her despite her apparent strength. As a noble woman she was murdered. As a vampire she was locked in a coffin and left to rot. She’s embraced nihilism as a guiding philosophy as a defense mechanism, and her relationship with Laura and Laura’s view of her becomes the crux of this season’s conflict.
There’s a host of other characters. LaFontaine and Perry continue to work their magic in the background, and have a strong presence throughout the season. The character of JP takes a surprising turn. Danny and Kirsch return, both of them in love with people they can never have, and both of them have their moment to understand and move past that. Kirsch, puppy that he is, handles it a lot better than Danny does, but both actors are able to convey the very fragile emotions that drive both of these characters.
Both of them bring along other new cast members to flesh out the organization that they represent: the Zetas, a fraternity that Kirsch claims are his brothers, gets Theo, and the Summer Society, an organization of warrior women, gets Mel. Both are introduced early, and both of them provide moments of change for everyone else without changing too much themselves. In a narrative as nuanced as this one, they are steady voices that represent larger human forces.
Which bring us to one of the simple truths of Carmilla: very few of the major forces are human.
The Dean was an unstoppable undead monster, the mother of Carmilla, and the big bad of the first season. Even in death she casts a large shadow over everything else, and the deity she worshiped still has a massive part to play in the overall narrative. We see the Silas Board of Directors, monstrous beings that exist only in shadow, their voices giving power to aura’s mistakes.
And Laura makes mistakes this season. She did last season, too, but she mostly got away with it; she gets away with nothing here. Her actions directly lead to the murder of Mattie, another wonderful addition to the cast and Carmilla’s sister. Her death is a sacrifice made in another’s game, the shadow player that manipulates everyone until they are nothing more than puppets on her strings.
The largest of her victims is Baron Vordenberg, a doddering old man and descendant of the family that took Carmilla in when she was first made a vampire, and whose bloodline Carmilla subsequently destroyed. He becomes the head of the Silas Board through Laura’s machinations, and immediately sets about changing the school in ways that horrify Laura.
And well they should. Vordenberg institutes a literal martial law, using magic to empower the Zetas and the Summer Society, making them his private supernatural army. He turns the ambient horror that lurks about Silas into a literal abattoir, seeking to justify the atrocities he commits and the lies he tells about his own life through bloodshed and murder.
Which leads to one of the most powerful moments the series has to offer. Spoilers lie ahead. You has been warned.
That’s Carmilla, as played by Natasha Negovanlis, towards the end of the second season. She had her heart broken earlier in the season, when Laura loved an ideal of her instead of who she was. Carmilla broke it off and two of them were bitter, then strained – two people still very much in love with one another, but Laura’s binary morality would never allow her to see Carmilla as she was, and Carmilla was too broken to accept that Laura could love her.
We learn a lot about both of them over this season. Both of them are still willing to help one another, and Carmilla even shares a secret with Laura to keep her safe – a secret that Laura shares, resulting in the death of Carmilla’s oldest and dearest friend, resulting in the total destruction of their tie.
Still, when Laura is desperately trying to fix her mistakes, she calls on Carmilla for help. Carmilla comes and is captured, resulting in one of the most heartwrenching scenes in a season that was rife with them: Danny dies. Danny dies protecting Laura, protecting Laura’s dream, fighting to be what Carmilla can’t be so that she can win Laura’s heart. She’s betrayed, literally stabbed in the back, and she dies in Laura’s arms.
Laura is so broken by this that when Vordenberg shows up with a captive Carmilla in tow, threatening to kill her, Laura can’t respond – and that lack of response breaks something in her. In that single moment, without any word being spoken, we can see that this character is ready to die.
Over the course of these two seasons and before she has lost everything: her mother, her sister, her lover. And as much as she plays with nihilism, it’s because of her horrible life – her agency has been stripped from her so many times, from her time as Mircalla, to her whole life with the Dean, to being shoved into a coffin and left to rot, that believing in nothing is the only way she can think of to keep herself sane.
She’s lost and broken and keeping herself that way because it’s the only thing she knows anymore. When Vordenberg threatens to decapitate her, he quips “I bet you wish you’d married my ancestor now!”, and Carmilla smiles and bows her head and says “I’d rather be dead.”
And she would. She’s so impossibly tired. There’s nothing in her life worth living for, not at this point. She’s beaten down and shattered, and the problem is she’s tasted love now; loneliness and nihilism can never be the haven for her that they once were, but the person upon which that love is based has given up on her.
Which brings us to Laura. Flawed and brilliant as she is, Laura offends Carmilla on a basic philosophical level. It’s why there’s so much difficulty between them at the start of season one, and the reason for their problems throughout season two. Here, Laura sacrifices her innocence to save someone who they both know is utterly, utterly broken.
This is a direct assault on everything Carmilla believes about the world, and it’s got to be as shattering for her as it is for Laura.
Look at the last four gifs in this sequence and watch the shock in her face, the emotion of this sequence. Carmilla literally cannot understand what just happened. It makes no sense to her, and it changes everything about her relationship with Laura and Laura itself. This single moment gives Carmilla the chance she needs to actually heal, and for Laura to mature. All of this happens in silence. All of this happens in seconds.
This is exactly how you build a character-driven narrative, building emotion and history and choice and pushing it right to the breaking point. It’s a beautiful moment, about as close to perfection as you’ll get anywhere.
I love this show. I love this show completely, and I urge you to watch it.
The Good: The acting, characters, dialogue, sound design, mythology… pretty much everything.
The Bad: Pacing is sometimes a little off.
The Ugly: The soul of Danny’s murderer. What happens to Kirsch. The emotional trauma and heartbreak. Waiting for the next season.
The Verdict: Go watch this. Go watch this right now.