Spoilers for The Originals are likely to follow. Warning done.
In general, I’ve tended to find The Vampire Diaries spin-off show The Originals more interesting than its parent. I think the pull of the latter comes in part with the way the writers seem to play with moral ambiguity in more interesting ways. A fair amount of that is the fact the titular original vampires are often and repeatedly painted as Not Good People. And unlike in TVD, they generally aren’t seeking redemption. The Mikaelson clan are callow and selfish and back-stabby. That last quite literally, though they’re often as happy to stab you in the front if it’s more convenient.
The original vampires are, then, protagonists rather than heroes. The nature of series television, of course, means that casting them in that central position required some level of softening from the soulless lot they first appeared as in TVD. Largely, this takes place in the extended familial interactions: sibling rivalry and the burdens of unplanned parenthood and long lost relatives with which they have … unpleasant pasts.
A significant frustration is that, though set in New Orleans, the show’s first season wasn’t what I’d call especially diverse. The Mikaelsons are all white. Most of the added supporting cast, as well. The first arc’s adversary (Charles Michael Davis’s Marcel) was one of the few POC in the cast. I can’t say he reformed, because I’m not sure anyone does that on The Originals, but he has moved his way onto the protagonist side of the equation, insofar as anyone can really be certain of an allegiance in a show built around betrayal by those you most trust.
Another adversary was a body jumping witch, who was — both in her first life and in the body she inhabited in the 21st century — a woman of color. There’s an argument to be made that it’s also problematic the percentage of POC characters who fall on the antagonist side of the equation. I go back and forth about it, because the show makes it pretty clear that most of the people who want to hurt the Mikaelsons have entirely valid reasons for doing so. The originals are horrible people who’ve earned a fair share of the ire directed toward tehm. Which is likely to happen when you’re centuries-old bloodsucking murderers.
And given how often the Mikaelsons are plotting against each other, it’s often difficult to decide who the hell’s in the right. Usually no one. I mean, the number of times the siblings have imprisoned, tortured, or tried to murder one another, and then justified it with speeches about loyalty and betrayal that don’t really makes sense but obviously feel right to them … yeah.
Still, even if they’re all Not Good People, season one had a woeful dearth of color given the setting.
The second season has made a little progress to fixing that, though the storyline behind that is as murky in how it makes me feel as the title characters themselves. You see, while there are more black actors working on the show, they’re almost all playing white characters.
Bear with me. I’ll explain
This season, Esther Mikaelson, the mother of the original vampires, returns from the dead, and brings back deceased Mikaelson siblings Kol and Finn with her. The returned Esther’s originally played by white Natalie Dreyfuss, Finn by black actor Yusuf Gatewood. After a few episodes, Esther’s spirit slips into that of a different witch, and she’s thereafter played by black actress Sonja Sohn.
Esther, it seems, has a plan to remove the taint of vampirism from her children. She wants them to stop being the murderous animals they have been, to move all of their souls into new, human bodies and thus grant them a chance to live honest, human lives. She even takes steps to try to give them recognizable vessels, preparing human ally Cami (Leah Pipes) to receive the soul of daughter Rebekah.
It’s at this point that the narrative finally pauses long enough to point out what’s been obvious for some time: Esther’s magic hasn’t fashioned new bodily shells for herself and her children; they’re possessing bodies which belong to living souls. Though she doesn’t wind up in Cami, Rebakah does — through the twisting nature of plots and traps and double-crosses the show so enjoys — wind up in a new body. That of black actress Maisie Richardson-Sellers.
Surely by now you’re sensing the pattern.
I find the potential of this pattern incredibly intriguing. I mean, for all that Esther keeps saying she’s trying to save her family, for all that she denounces the evil of her children’s monstrous existence, she’s effectively trying to rescue them from being predators by making them into parasites. She’s giving them a second chance by taking away several others’ first one.
And nearly all the folks whose lives are being stolen by these white Europeans are black.
It’s just downright fraught with prickly, twisty dynamics. Especially when you consider that Marcel explicitly comes from a background as a slave. He lived his early life possessed by a person, though not in the mystical sense. Even after he was ostensibly freed by Klaus (Joseph Morgan), he wound up a recurring pawn, fought over by the vampire family, each of whom has variously wanted him for him or herself, as a sibling or child or lover or whatever, but almost never as an equal. Marcel has been bandied about as “belonging” to one or more Mikaelson for a significant portion of his life and later undeath.
There is, too, the choice to have Yusuf Gatewood continue to play Finn when, in a recent episode, the minds / souls of the Mikaelsons are all gathered in a magical holding area outside of their bodies. That Kol is played in that sequence by Daniel Sharman (the current “host body” for Kol and not the character’s original actor) suggests this is probably only a logistical expedient, but I couldn’t help myself wondering if it might suggest that long-term possession impacts the sense of self, and then wondering in what ways.
The frustration of it all is, however, that other than that brief period wherein white Cami is at risk, no one seems to be commenting on what all this possession means to the possessed. Indeed, in the most recent episode, the only person anyone’s morning as one of the possessing Mikaelsons dies is that of the possessing soul, and not the young man whose life was co-opted by him. Even more noteworthy: though there’s been much hand-wringing about how to get Rebekah back into her original body, the same scenes of a dying brother lead to Rebekah’s promise to stay in her (black) witch body until she can manage the magic to bring Kol back.
As I said in the beginning, this isn’t an especially new turn of events for these characters. They’ve perpetually only cared about their own well being, and marginally the well-being of those mortals with whom they happen to be fond at the moment. That the Mikaelsons don’t think twice about what their choices mean to the humans they force themselves on is a pretty consistent narrative of the show.
But it’s not just them. No one is commenting. Not Davina (Danielle Campbell), who still wants Klaus dead for his callus treatment of her loved ones. Not Marcel, whose previously-mentioned background might suggest he notice this kind of thing. Not even Cami, who is not only known for pointing out just how completely messed up all these supernatural characters’ moral compasses are, but who was actually in danger of being possessed. If anyone might sympathize with the suppressed person in these bodies, it should be her.
I suppose I can take this as indication that the Mikaelsons’ philosophy is seeping into all those with whom they associate. It wouldn’t be the first time. Stay around these people long enough, and you seem to develop a taste for blood whether you’re a vampire or not. I have a hard time believing that’s not the intention, though. And it’s just frustrating to see what feels like such an intriguing subplot languish un-commented on.