Review: “Carmilla” (Season One)
Welcome back guest writer Ruth with a great review on the show “Carmilla.”
I’ve wanted to write about “Carmilla” for a while now. Considering that I tend to mostly write for gaming websites, I had slight difficulty getting round to it as “Carmilla” is a web series. Now, “Carmilla’s” streamed two seasons with a third one—a prequel—releasing later this month. We have quite a bit of ground to cover.
To summarize the series as a whole, “Carmilla” is very loosely based off the 19th century novella of the same name by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The novella in question features a vampire who may be a lesbian or may just have a romantic sort of blood lust. Whilst the series keeps up that ambiguity (for a while) and maintains some of its poeticism, it takes more of its cues from elsewhere. Stylistically, it’s shot in much the same manner as “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” although the vlogging aspect becomes less and less relevant as the piece unfolds. The vlogs start as a way of reporting events, but by season two, they more or less leave the webcam running incidentally. In terms of the kind of story it attempts to tell, “Carmilla” is similar to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in a way. Some of the dialogue sounds similar, and the writer seems to have a like propensity for tragedy. More simplistically, it’s about an ordinary college girl who has to deal with school-work and supernatural weirdness.
Now let’s get into the first season.
This season centres on our protagonist, Laura, a 19-year old fresher starting out at Silas University in Austria. She’s an incredibly earnest, hard-working, caring young woman—pretty much the embodiment of Hufflepuff House. At a glance, she shares similarities with the Laura from the book, as they both have a certain innocence and, arguably, naiveté. However, the web series version comes across a lot more intelligent and proactive than her counterpart.
Laura sets out on a quest to find her missing roommate, whilst dealing with her replacement roommate: Carmilla. Carmilla is under the impression that all Laura’s efforts are in vain, and yet she seems to be falling for Laura as a result of Laura’s efforts to find her friend. The differences between Laura and Carmilla is a focal point of the series. In their relationship, you see the conflict between idealism and realism, between optimism and cynicism, between experience and the lack thereof. They also have more banal differences, related to just how tidy they like their dorm, for example, and what they like to eat.
If you are dead set against the trend (or status quo, at this point) of romanticizing vampires, then there’s a chance that “Carmilla” may not be for you. However, the vampires in this are not so idealized that they can’t be evil or morally ambiguous. I also feel that the down side of romanticizing them is explored better in season two.
As for the vampiric physiology, those in “Carmilla” do need blood to live, albeit not necessarily from a live source. They don’t appear to have completely lost their conscience or soul, as vampires by and large have in “Buffy.” They don’t burn up in sunlight, but they don’t love the stuff, either. They have the freedom to be good, contributing members of society; yet, they have the tendency towards shady cabals and hierarchies, toward separation, toward viewing humans as less than because of their mortality.
Vampires in this series have the potential to be more interesting than they are in other works of fiction. Mostly because they appear to be free and feeling not so markedly bound by blood lust or devoid of compassion, which, in my mind, makes their decisions more significant.
Laura is joined in her quest to find her missing roommate by the Amazonian Danny, who represents The Summer Society. Danny is lovely but seems to have a binary view of morality. Laura’s also joined by LaFontaine, an enthusiastic biology student, who’s very brave, curious, and perhaps overly encouraging of Laura’s investigative endeavors. LaF’s best friend, Perry, is constantly at odds with the weirdness surrounding the campus in general.
You see, this isn’t the sort of urban fantasy that attempts realism. It’s not like everything is normal apart from the vampires. It’s more along the lines of there’s been a localized rain of spiders—and vampires might be a thing too. If you don’t like this level of absurdity, you may find yourself turned off—especially because most of the humor is derived from the characters narrating these strange occurrences directly to the camera.
In fact, most of the action scenes take place off-set. Personally, I think this works well given that the narration is uncommonly good. Jordan Hall, the series’ writer, has written extensively for theater, so this perhaps should not be surprising. She doesn’t have the characters summarize an event and the outcome; she has them describe them in detail and outline how they felt in the event.
“Carmilla” is also filmed like a play, in that many of the several minute episodes are filmed in one take. As a result, sometimes actors will make tiny mistakes, with their lines or with the removal of a door-knob. Unshockingly, it’s not as well edited as TV shows tend to be. This is less of a problem for immersion than you might think.
There are quite a lot of queer women in this, and their sexuality seems like such a non-issue. Critics of the series always mention how little is made of it; I haven’t decided whether I think this is ironic or not.
There’s also a non-binary character, and their non-binary state is treated as rather more of an issue and strains their relationship with their best friend. Whilst there’s little direct conflict over their identity, their best friend seems confused and to be questioning how well she’s ever really known her friend as a result of it.
Unfortunately, season one is predominantly full of white folk. There are some union-related reasons for this, and season two does feature more people of colour.
The first season of “Carmilla” in an effective build-up to what is a vastly more interesting season two. However, the groundwork seems necessary. Afterall, what would “The Lord of the Rings” be had it not started in the Shire?
Season one of “Carmilla” can be watched now on YouTube at Vervegirl TV. The whole season amounts to about two hours or so.