Saturday, February 13, 2016

Taking Chances: Buffy, Carmilla, and Narrative Bravery [Contributor: Melanie]

It was a Galentine’s Day miracle!

A third and final season of Carmilla was confirmed via a speed-dating cast video on February 13, and I, for one, am not displeased. And in this jubilation (and to help the few months of wait ahead of the Creampuffs) I decided to go back and address the highs and lows of season two, what those elements mean for the series as a whole, and how they're shaping the trilogy the show is becoming.

Webseries are a tricky medium: operating on a microbudget, Carmilla manages to clock in total screentime that is comparable to a full-length movie in the span of four days of filming. That includes costume, make-up, and lighting changes along with minor special effects, sound equipment, and a fluid set. Working through all that while expanding the mythology of your Nightvale world and getting characters to not only shout and cry at each other but fans riled up enough to voice their displeasure at a character via transmedia? That is some tightly wrapped and well-controlled chaos in the form of six-minute episodes.

And looking back, I think Carmilla nailed it.

In a lot of ways, I find myself comparing seasons one and two of Carmilla to the fifth and sixth seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (bear with me). It’s impossible to ignore the Whedon influence on the show, nor is writer Jordan Hall ever trying to hide it. In fact, that’s part of what makes season one so sharp; it actively acknowledges its own creative debt. The first season was built heavily on genre tropes and action-based plot. A lot of the pieces are moving around the characters when we meet them, and it’s the struggle to keep up that creates the story’s friction. In season two, the characters are given more control in their stories (both narratively and within the story itself), creating the trajectory for a domino effect. How, then, does this relate back to Buffy? Well, it’s boiled down to a difference of outer and inner worlds calling the shots between these two seasons.

(Note: Below are major spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Season five of Buffy is widely considered not only the best season of the show, but among one of the best seasons of television ever. Exactly how it achieved that status is still debated and studied in film classes but the element here I want to call attention to is the focus on Buffy’s lack of control over her own world. In season five, she’s thrust into adulthood very abruptly after her mother dies, and the responsibility of her sister falls to her (and her sister herself is a responsibility created for Buffy by someone else). Buffy drops out of school, she gets a job, she has tense conversations with social workers, all while continuing her duties as the Slayer. It’s the season where life showed up and kicked Buffy to the ground. And the use of environment and circumstance itself as a villain is present in the first season of Carmilla as well.

Not only is it Laura’s first year at college and first time away from home, but she’s also forced to do battle with a conspiracy at her school. Things happen to Laura during the first season, much as they happened to Buffy. Her roommate vanishes, she’s got a far less enjoyable one thrust upon her, she’s got midterms to deal with, she’s marked for death by a vampire cult, she’s possessed by the Dean, and on it goes. Much of the season is built on her reacting, much like Buffy being forced to constantly play catch up with a changing playing field. And the comparison on the front of popularity isn’t all that far off either, with season one of Carmilla getting not only positive reviews from critics, but building itself a fanbase that would eventually number over 100,000 subscribers.

Enter: the attempt to keep that lightning in its bottle.

The key to talking about season two critically is understanding its purpose from a narrative sense, something a lot of people forget in entertainment media. Though art is created for the sake of consumption and arguments could be made that an audience shouldn’t have to think too deeply about what they’re watching or reading, a writer’s eye on a finished product can create layers. Example? Compare Best Picture winners to Best Screenplay winners and you’ll find some interesting discrepancies.

As season five of Buffy ended on a sacrificial note — as Buffy finally took a proactive approach to protecting her sister and willingly died in her place — the framework of season six was all about the inner world. Buffy battles depression after being ripped out of heaven, Willow battles addiction through relationship troubles, and for the first time, we have a non-supernatural Big Bad whose faults are rooted in misogyny and hatred, not supernatural stereotypes. Basically humans, and all that entails, were the monsters this time. And that’s not far off from what happened in this most recent season of Carmilla.

The fascinating thing is a story and character structure like this only works if you believe that your audience will trust you. Season one expertly used genre motifs to fill in any blanks and let the plot do the talking. This time around there was more faith in the meat of the characters to pull the story along. And it’s Laura’s inner workings that demonize the world around her. The theme here is bad choices. It is not, however, wrong choices. That’s the cornerstone of the issue throughout the season: it was a bad choice, but was it the wrong choice? 

And dissecting good and evil and the morality of choices means getting your characters a little bit dirty. And boy, did Laura end up looking a mess. Her transmedia accounts were peppered with angry messages and tweets as writer Ellen Simpson sent Laura into a prolonged pity party through broken relationships and dying friends. It was actively infuriating and good dramatic entertainment. It also takes a lot of courage for a writer to willingly dismantle a character who began the season nearly flawless, from a writing standpoint. To circle back, that’s exactly what Buffy’s sixth season did: Buffy’s depression-fueled choices weren’t clearly morally defined, Willow’s position as a tormented Big Bad was both aggravating and heartbreaking. And it was a lot heftier without vampires or demi-gods to punch.

The frustration around some aspects of Carmilla's season two arose from an inability to grasp the real villain here. You can’t make bad decisions bleed. And while Vordenberg was ruining lives, Laura hadn’t won a single thing, even after his disposal. That’s pretty neat.

The Buffy comparisons here are only an analogue and not the point of discussion. The fact that you can garner so much from a few minutes of a webseries says a lot about the unique creation Carmilla is. Seasons, as a whole, mimic screenplay formats. The setting is a supernatural sandbox, and the characters are sometimes classical in level: Laura’s struggle was compared to that of Antigone’s by writer Jordan Hall, and Hamlet’s containment in the crosshairs of love and loyalty are thematically not far off from Carmilla’s.

So where do we stand as we enter the final chapter in this story? Well, you can probably bet Laura won’t make the same mistakes twice. After an entire season of massive screw-ups and the associated consequences, she’ll likely have learned something (right?). Interestingly enough, the title character, by comparison, is still feeling a little bit static — less of an evolution across episodes and more of an unwrapping as new facets are uncovered. The tension between a need to evolve as a character and person and centuries of apathetic stasis is interesting. In fact, it may be Carmilla’s ability to grow that truly makes her still human.

Beyond that we might be able to employ some Scream meta rules here. It’s the conclusion of a trilogy, which means any and all characters are fair game for death blows — even your main character. Virtually everyone will lose any plot armor they’ve had thus far. It also means we’re bound to learn new information: something relevant from the beginning that the audience and characters did not know. Something with the Dean? Carmilla? Laura’s weirdly shady personal background?

Ultimately, a season three would be lovely to end this awful cliffhanger, but I’m very interested in how far this series will go with the tools its been refining. There’s a real care for character here, in spite of the often-limiting YouTube format. And while The Lizzie Bennet Diaries changed the face of webseries and redefined the genre, Carmilla’s complex framework is something of its own to emulate.

Look for Carmilla’s final return this summer!


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