This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Just as Dungeons & Dragons was the driving force behind the original tabletop RPG fad, Vampire: the Masquerade was the trendsetter within the hobby for the 1990s. From the release of Vampire in 1991 until 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons came out in 2000, more or less every significant RPG release was in some respect informed by Vampire – either as an attempt to ride its bandwagon, or as a reaction to (or against) the style of gaming it presented. It shared with Dungeons & Dragons the distinction of being one of those RPGs which became really central to the hobby; you could love it, you could hate it, but everyone with more than a casual involvement in the RPG scene had an opinion of it.
It is the nature of such things that they will generate tie-ins. You had Vampire novels (at least one of which formed the basis of a lawsuit against the makers of Underworld), you had a collectable card game, you had videogames and in 1996 you had an honest to goodness TV series based on the game, with Vampire creator Mark Rein·Hagen co-producing with John Leekley. (In fact, it would be amongst Rein·Hagen’s last significant contributions to Vampire, since soon after the show happened he left White Wolf due to a falling-out between him and his business partners, the Wieck brothers.) Coyly, it describes itself as being “based on the book” rather than “based on the roleplaying game”, presumably because if you say your show is an adaptation of a book people assume “novel” instead of “RPG rulebook” and that gets you more culture points.
The show takes place in a variant version of the Vampire setting; like Vampire, it’s based on a world that looks much like the real one, except vampires (or “Kindred”) lurk in the shadows of human society. The Masquerade mentioned in the game’s title is the ongoing effort by the vampires to keep their existence from becoming common public knowledge; the Embrace of the show’s title is the process of becoming a vampire (which involves being drained of your blood by a vampire and then fed some of that vampire’s blood in a very swoony and sexualised process). Between them, the Masquerade and the Embrace provide most of the themes for the show. The major divergence from the game is in the number of vampire clans involved, with the core clans being reduced to a mere five, less than appeared in any edition of the game, though at least one additional clan made a one-off appearance during the show’s run.
The feature length pilot episode that introduces us to all this is The Original Saga. The main human protagonist, Frank Kohanek (C. Thomas Howell), is the Mel Gibson knock-off in a Lethal Weapon pastiche buddy cop duo. You know the deal: he’s the white guy who is highly motivated, very impulsive, and has a haunted past involving a dead wife, whilst his partner – Sonny Toussaint, played by Erik King – is the Danny Glover of the team, a black guy who tends to be the voice of reason (or at least the voice of self-preservation) but whose advice Frank habitually ignores (and is narratively supported in doing so). It’s such a blatant Lethal Weapon ripoff that it risks derailing the show from the start by setting up expectations of buddy cop action cliches that the series never intends to deliver on.
Let’s persist, though, because this would be a poor review if it gave up in the first sixty seconds. So, Frank has been seeing a mysterious lady called Alexandra Serris (Kate Vernon), and based on bits and pieces of information she’s been feeding him he has taken to investigating Julian Luna (Mark Frankel) against Sonny’s better judgement. Frank believes that Julian Luna is an organised crime kingpin, based on the fact that he seems to have a stake in a range of businesses, is evidently very rich, but has such a mysterious past that he doesn’t even seem to have a birth certificate. Frank’s suspicions are only heightened when Julian’s bodyguard, Stevie Ray (Basil Hoffman) is murdered by a duo of assassins.
As a matter of fact, the truth about Julian is even wilder than Frank thinks – for Julian is the Prince of San Francisco, the chief vampire in the city (and main vampire protagonist in the series). When the vampire leaders discover that Alexandra (who, as well as being a vampire herself, is Julian’s ex) has been attempting to breach the Masquerade via Frank’s investigations, Julian is forced to act – leading to Alexandra’s apparent destruction (if she did survive, the series didn’t last long enough to show us) and bringing Julian into direct conflict with Frank.
The Original Saga has a fairly tricky task ahead of it in the sense that it needs to help new viewers become conversant with the show’s mythology (including those who are conversant with Vampire who might be thrown by the manner in which it differs, though this may be a sufficiently small section of the TV audience for the show to safely ignore) as well as telling a coherent story during the process. It’s more or less successful, with the various unique features of the show’s take on vampirism being clearly signposted and later on explained – for instance, sunlight is sometimes established as hurting vampires and sometimes not, and by the end of the episode you learn that vampires in this cosmology can survive in sunlight for a time provided that they have fed – which of course means that whenever you see a vampire walking in the sun later on you can infer from that they have fed and are healthy. Gentle introductions to concepts like the Prince’s job, the clans, the Masquerade and the Embrace follow, and the pilot actually has a surprising number of plotlines and manages to make them all easy to follow for the most part.
The show is a little rough around the edges – it’s very much towards the lower end of the budget range for American network TV, it’s an Aaron Spelling production whose special effects budget seems to be a bit fancier than the one for Sunset Beach but other aspects do have a mild soap opera tackiness ot them, and the dialogue is bland and unremarkable. To my eyes the roughest part of the pilot actually seems to be the editing, which is occasionally rather abrupt – for instance, the scene where Alexandra catches fire and falls into the sea from a great height cuts to the next scene very suddenly without giving the moment room to breathe. That said, there’s some occasional touches here and there which hint at something a bit more characterful and interesting lurking under the facade of being a very straightforward and by-the-numbers mid-1990s supernatural TV show of the Beauty and the Beast/Forever Knight variety (remember, this was before Buffy injected a little fire into the veins of this TV genre).
For instance, there’s the amazingly fun character of Daedalus (Jeff Kober), the Primogen (clan leader) of Clan Nosferatu who lives in Julian’s boiler room and does troubleshooting for him (including, in this episode, demonstrating this brilliantly melodramatic way of infiltrating the local morgue); there’s Julian visiting his wife’s grave and supernaturally merging into the soil that holds her in order to be with her for a brief moment, there’s Julian taking a moment to attend his aged human grandson’s funeral (who enjoys the fantastic name of Augustus Octavio), there’s Daedalus giving Alexandra a chance to save herself by dumping her near the sea – presumably with the idea that if she jumps to the bottom of the ocean she can avoid the sunlight and might slumber down there until strange aeons swing around and people forget about the blood hunt against her – only for the ironic twist in which Frank showing up delays her jumping into the ocean and she ends up catching fire from the Sun.
Other aspects of the pilot come across as being trite, irritating, or not quite having the impact the writers intended. Sasha (Brigid Brannagh), Julian’s human double-great granddaughter, turns up at Augustus’ funeral and is all like “Hi guys, I’m dressed in the costume department’s best approximation of a goth (which isn’t very gothy) and I’m all rebellious, so I’m showing up to this funeral with my tits and my midriff and my pentagram necklace emphasised and I’m going to drink some wine from the bottle and talk all crude”, and this doesn’t quite add up to her coming across as the interesting troublemaker the writers probably want us to see her as. Likewise, some of the romantic dialogue between Frank and Alexandra could do with a little work: Frank yelling “You gave me your heart – I’m keeping it!” when Alexandra is trying to convince him to let her run off on her own (he doesn’t know she’s being hunted down by her own kind, or that she’s a vampire) doesn’t come across as a guy insisting on standing by his woman through thick or thin – it just sounds sleazy and abusive. There’s a somewhat nice subversion of the buddy cop formula towards the end of the episode where it’s revealed that Sonny is in fact a traitor working for Eddie Fiori (Brian Thompson), the Primogen of Clan Brujah and Julian’s main rival for Princedom, though it does have the sole significant black character go from “white guy’s sidekick” to “white guy’s weaselly traitor sidekick”.
As well as having these moments of failure, the pilot also has a major structural issue which would come to affect much of the rest of the series. Here’s the problem: over the course of the pilot Julian receives vastly more character development than basically any other character in the series, in the sense that his character is actually explored and seems to have at least some depth. This is particularly apparent when you compare him to Frank, who is little more than a Lethal Weapon cliche when we meet him and doesn’t gain much depth over the course of the pilot. This is a problem when Julian and Frank are supposedly presented as co-leads here, and it only continues for the rest of the series. I guess Frank demonstrates some grit by the end of the episode when he shoots Julian in the chest (ineffectually) and declares that to him Julian is nothing but a monster to be exterminated, but as later episodes show the writers don’t really follow through on this.
In fact, for the rest of the series Kindred would basically be The Julian Luna Show, with Luna being the main protagonist by any measure you want to apply and Frank shunted into the status of supporting character, and in some episodes playing barely any role in the action whatsoever. except he’s still got top billing in the intro sequence. This is obviously great if you really dug Julian’s character, and frankly given the vampire-centric nature of the RPG I would bet money that this is what the producers wanted to do all along (only including Frank’s character in order to help sell the show to the networks and give a relatable human character for the pilot), but it does mean that if you were at all invested in Frank’s story – which, for better or worse, is a big deal in the pilot – you’re going to be massively disappointed, because with each episode after this one Frank gets less and less and less important.
Another problem the show sets up for itself is that it spends a lot of energy putting together a rather nice analogy between the vampiric culture it presents and organised crime, with Julian as the mob boss to whom all the other vampires give respect and tribute and who effectively administers his own parallel system of law which has at best only a coincidental connection to the laws of society and is based mainly around settling disputes over access to resources (blood and money) and maintaining the pecking order. Then the rather nice Mafia analogy is ruined by having the show’s take on Clan Brujah basically being the Mafia clan, right down to all the Brujah vampires dressing and talking like refugees from The Godfather. If you want to handle your slightly more subtle Mafia analogue at all effectively, you can’t have your much more blatant Mafia analogue come in and be the ones who are trying to shake shit up, because then you have the supposed revolutionaries and iconoclasts actually embodying the essential structure and theme of your vampire society more directly than the rest of the vampires are; whilst that might work if the Brujah were presented as simply being better at being vampires and more accepting of their monstrous nature than the other Clans, that isn’t really the case in the rest of the series.
The gulf between the pilot and the rest of the series can best be examined by taking a good hard look at the next episode, Prince of the City, because a whole bunch of stuff changes here which more or less remains true for the rest of the series. Let’s see, what’s different?
Well, Frank’s had a haircut, and his hair is never again as long and floppy as it was in the pilot. He and Sonny now have a captain they have to deal with, Lt. Kwan (Yuji Okumoto), who (along with Internal Affairs officers who are worried about Frank’s vampire delusions) shoulders most of the burden of acting like a character out of a cliched buddy cop film so Frank and Sonny can get down to the business of being characterless ciphers and pawns of Julian Luna. Frank, for instance, is less weepy and emotional and troubled by his past (and what happens to Alexandra) than he was in the pilot, which in practice means he has even less personality.
Meanwhile, the writers realise that they didn’t really give Sasha much of a storyline (and therefore no real reason to be present in the show) during the pilot so they decide to have her move in with Julian, still unaware he’s a vampire, and strike up a dangerous flirtation with Cash (Channon Roe), the Gangrel Primogen and Julian’s new bodyguard. Julian himself gets his own romantic subplot when, fresh from reluctantly exterminating his ex-lover Alexandra for the crime of consorting with a human and letting slip vampire secrets and whilst apparently continuing his long-time relationship with Toreador Primogen Lillie Langtry (Stacy Hauduk), starts falling in love with a certain Caitlyn Byrne (Kelly Rutherford) – an investigative reporter working on an article on him. So infatuated does he become that he buys her newspaper, makes her the editor (subtly derailing her article in the process), and does the whole creepy breaking-in-to-watch-you-sleep deal a whole decade before it was popular. To be fair to the writers, though, at this stage the watching-you-sleep bit seems to be presented as being at least partly weird and creepy and controlling, and whilst later in the series the romance is presented as being generally something to root for there’s some stuff we’ll address in the last episode which suggests that in the long run they may have intended it to end up taking a darker and less unambiguously adorable direction.
Another thing the writers do quite well at here is clarifying and fleshing out the position of Sonny, who here it transpires is actually a loyal troubleshooter for Julian Luna who has been manipulating both Frank and Eddie Fiori, using his position in their confidences to gather intelligence for Julian. Placing him in Clan Ventrue, the aristocratic grouping of vampires, as well as clarifying that he is indeed a vampire puts everything he’s done so far in a whole other context (in particular, since he seems to never have any problem going about in sunlight, he’s clearly an actively feeding vampire, which stands in stark contrast to the duties he carries and the values he’s supposed to embody as a police officer). He also gets to have a nice conversation with Julian where they both wonder what’s going to end up happening if Frank snaps and becomes an active vampire hunter instead of a police officer who is merely investigating what the vampires are up to.
The main thrust of the episode, though, is turning the situation with Frank around. See, for one reason or another the writers seem to have decided that Frank being the nemesis and arch-enemy of Julian was, for one reason or another, not the right plotline to carry the series, and wanted to flip things around so that Frank would end up going after the dangerous bad-guy vampires at Julian’s behest. To give them their due, they do come up with a neat way to do it by having the very same bad guys (led, naturally, by Eddie Fiori) directly tampering with Frank; at the start of the episode he finds himself under scrutiny from Internal Affairs when someone stakes a mole he was running in a case against Eddie, making it look like Frank snapped and staked the guy thinking he was a vampire (though I’d have thought the constant vampire talk would have shunted him off active duty much faster), which forces him to rely on Julian’s influence despite his best judgement in order to clear his name and settle the situation. On top of that, Frank is actually able to suss out a clever way to get useful evidence to Julian to put Eddie in an awkward position; even though the clans don’t vote to exterminate Eddie, a clear majority of them are set firmly against him and Julian’s position is duly reinforced.
However, whilst ending up working with Julian just about makes sense from a purely logical perspective, it feels like an awfully sudden emotional shift here from “You are a monster and my absolute nemesis” to “I don’t like you but we can work together against a greater evil”, as though we’re skipping over a bunch of steps in between. As it stands, it just makes Frank seem inconsistent, and not in a believable “I am deeply confused and don’t know how I feel about this bizarre underworld I’ve stumbled across and I’m struggling to work out who the good guys and bad guys are” sort of way so much as a “I’m going to swear a lifelong grudge against Julian in one episode and then forget about it in order to make things convenient for the writers in the next episode” sort of way.
In addition, the outcome of the episode should in principle make Frank a more important character; he’s a human agent of a vampire, and unlike in Vampire: the Masquerade (which has Ghouls – humans addicted to vampire blood – as the vampires’ servants and slaves) the vampires of Kindred do not have human servants full stop, so this puts Frank in an absolutely unique position and one which is controversial to those in vampire society who are aware of it. This simply doesn’t elevate his profile in the show nearly to the extent that it really should have done; indeed, after a few episodes the writers would almost completely ignore Frank’s status as Julian’s reluctant troubleshooter.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves though. The writers are still making a stab at keeping Frank relevant in the next episode, Night Stalker, which was originally not broadcast when the show first aired (perhaps because some then-current tragedy in the news would have made the story feel tasteless). This episode focuses on a certain Starkweather (Nicky Katt), a deeply troubled mental hospital patient who is Embraced shortly before the episode starts – by whom, we never find out. The experience and the onset of vampirism yanks him over the edge, prompting him to go on a murder spree. This is a nice example of a simple plot which becomes complex when it interacts with the premises of the series: Starkweather must be stopped, but Julian can’t allow Frank to simply arrest him because that would blow the Masquerade, and the question of who Embraced him was presumably intended to be an ongoing mystery.
The brutality of the Night Stalker murders is a dramatic way to force Frank and Julian into closer collaboration, but some of the specifics of the investigation just don’t fly. In particular, the identity of the Night Stalker probably shouldn’t be a mystery to the police and press, and definitely shouldn’t be a mystery to Frank. His first killing takes place when he escapes the mental hospital and follows the same modus operandi as his subsequent killings, right down to writing BLOOD BROTHER on the wall in blood. Seeing how he’d apparently been institutionalised for a while before his Embrace, the police would know his name and identity and probably have a photograph of him (from the hospital records or his family if nothing else), and whilst Julian can stop Caitlyn’s paper from writing about that he can’t actually stop the other papers from noting that police are after Starkweather (and the police and hospital have no good reason to keep his escape quiet).
It makes little sense, then, for a member of the public who gets an unexpected look at Daedalus to say they saw the Night Stalker, give a description that does not resemble Starkweather in the slightest, and be taken at all seriously. It’s even sillier for Frank, who should know damn well what Starkweather looks like, to waste time chatting to Starkweather (who is disguised as a cop when they meet) when a) Frank clearly knows who Starkweather is and b) Frank has a big chunky vampire-blasting gun. Perhaps Frank just wanted to pad his scene out, since this episode’s premise screams out for him and Sonny to take the lead but actually they’re barely in it. When you’re a buddy cop duo and you can’t get a decent amount of screen time in an episode about a manhunt for a serial killer, you know something is seriously screwy.
On that Daedalus point: the main subplot for this episode has Daedalus getting into this Phantom of the Opera-style creepy-sad stalker thing going on with Elaine Robb (Kimberley Kates), a nightclub singer from the Haven (Lillie’s nightclub which acts as a social hub for the vampires) who he realises is dealing with a deep dark sadness. At first played as if this is sad from his perspective and creepy from her perspective, which is quite nice, but then she starts talking like she actually understands him on some deep level and is actually into this which is slightly ew. (Then again it’s a convention of the whole Phantom story, and the emotional switch happens after Daedalus uses his vampiric mind control powers on her in order to stop her calling the police – so it’s ambiguous as to whether she actually does warm to him or whether this was a mere unintended consequence of him tampering with her thoughts.)
Here is the problem with this plotline. Daedalus is afraid to simply approach her like a normal human being because he is a Nosferatu, and part of the deal with Clan Nosferatu is that they are monstrously ugly (in a manner reminiscent of Count Orlock in Nosferatu, in case you hadn’t guessed). Or at least, that is the theory. In practice, Daedalus talks like this is the case, and every Nosferatu we meet who isn’t Daedalus is pretty startling, but Daedalus himself doesn’t look that bad once you account for him being bald (some people dig that) and having very droopy ears (most people could get over that). And yet he acts like he is a repulsive monster anyway, and everyone reacts to him like he is mirror-shatteringly hideous.
This episode contains the most ridiculous incident relating to this, in which Daedalus comes to visit and consummate his romance with Elaine wearing a hilariously unconvincing wig which emphasises just how pretty he actually is aside from the bald head and melted-wax ears, and Elaine only freaks out once she sees him without the wig. I dunno about you guys, but if I’ve already had sex with someone, typically I’m willing to take minor ear deformities and hair loss in stride. (Also, the mental image of Daedalus trying to keep this cheap, crappy wig in place during sex is absolutely hilarious.)
Whereas this was Daedalus’ only substantial romance in the series, other characters get to enjoy more substantial and long-term relationships, which are botched by the writers in a more substantial and long-term way. Romeo & Juliet is an episode dedicated to setting up a major complication in the nascent Sasha/Cash relationship. Here, Julian is persuaded (with some effort) to give his permission for Cash to Embrace Sasha, since Julian realises that for better or worse Sasha’s going to get sucked into the vampire underground so it may as well be by one of his allies. However, at least in part because of Julian’s prevarication, Eddie Fiori succeeds in having his Brujah thugs forcefully Embrace Sasha instead, with the intent of provoking Julian into declaring a clan war Eddie believes the Brujah can win.
Here is a plot point which might confuse those who know the RPG, because in Vampire there’s no reason why a Brujah and a Gangrel can’t be lovers, but here there’s an overpowering blood-grudge which (supposedly) will eventually entirely override what feelings Sasha formerly had for Cash. Actually, in practice the series is much more inconsistent on this point; at the end of the episode Julian effectively says that the feud is just bullshit and cultural conditioning, but in later episodes Sasha varies between ignoring and slowly succumbing to the grudge.
Actually, for the rest of the series this plot point becomes a real mess. For some reason, despite siding with Julian and against both Eddie and the entire Brujah clan in this episode, and therefore sharing direct responsibility for Eddie’s downfall and massively screwing over the clan, in subsequent episodes she is still a perfectly loyal member of the Brujah hanging out with her cool new Brujah buddies doing gangster shit. Eddie never takes reprisals against her, even when he rebels against Julian yet again a couple of episodes later. Moreover, not a single Brujah ever mentions her stand against Eddie, and Cash’s Gangrel buddies hate her even though she sided with them against Eddie. I know that part of this is supposed to indicate that Clan loyalty is a big deal but here it’s taken to a ludicrous extent where apparently Sasha can’t go independent and the Brujah can’t kick her out, she makes friendly with them despite having every rational and emotional reason to despise them and equally they are nice to her when by any measure they should despise her, and nobody gives any weight or credit to the stuff that Sasha has actually done. It’s almost as though everyone (including Sasha herself) conveniently forgets her role at the end of this episode.
That isn’t a mystical Clan connection demonstrating that blood is thicker than water. That’s vampires behaving like badly programmed robots who let the Clan loyalty factor – which we see repeated examples of vampires overriding – overrule free will, their own emotions, and anything resembling logic. I get that vampires are going to have drives and passions and needs alien to us human beings in principle, but in terms of storytelling characters still need to act according to recognisable motivations and relatable emotions and understandable logic even if those arise from alien premises, otherwise they don’t feel like real entities acting according to their will, they seem like puppets jerked about by the whims of the writers.
Another aspect of this episode which stands out and becomes a running theme in the series is how incompetent Julian actually is at being a Prince, to the extent that he’d be in serious trouble if an actual Machiavellian came within a hundred miles of his domain. For instance, there’s a subplot in this episode where Daedalus, dispatched to execute a Kindred doctor who’s been feeding on kids at a children’s hospital, encounters Abel (Emile Hirsch), a terminally ill orphan who acts like the Spooky Child in a cliched horror film. Abel is not only utterly unafraid of Daedalus and unphased by his killing of the doctor, but also has an uncanny ability to sense the true nature of the Kindred. Daedalus is both heartbroken by Abel’s disease and also realises that his special gift makes him no ordinary child, and as such wants to Embrace him – or rather, wants Julian to Embrace him so Abel can be spared the dire curse of the Nosferatu. Julian refuses to do this because he squicks at Embracing kids – even when it would save their life, even if he met an adult with that ability and with that level of friendliness towards the vampires he’d kind of have to Embrace them or kill them to preserve the Masquerade.
Now, here’s the thing: when Daedalus is trying to convince Julian of this and Julian refuses, Julian is trying to get Daedalus to openly align the Nosferatu clan with him against the Brujah – but just as Julian has a taboo against Embracing kids, Daedalus has a clan taboo against becoming overtly involved in clan wars. And yet, there isn’t even a moment where Julian weighs up the pros and cons of saying “OK, I will Embrace this child for you on the condition that you break the Nosferatu tradition of non-interference.” A taboo-breaking for a taboo-breaking is a fair deal, even if it isn’t an ethical one. Arguably, Julian would not be a good friend to Daedalus if he put him in that position, and he seems to genuinely regard Daedalus as a friend rather than a vassal, but the gambit is so obvious that it feels strange that Julian never even considers it, even if it’s only to reject it.
An even greater blunder comes at the end. Having united literally every other clan against Eddie, and with the Brujah deciding to abandon Eddie to his fate, Julian has a man who has been repeatedly undermining him and angling for his job utterly in his power. Eddie has been the primary factor driving the possibility of a clan war, an event which Julian has been absolutely dedicated to stopping. More or less all the vampires in San Francisco expect Julian to execute Eddie; nobody outside the Brujah feels sad about this, and the Brujah aren’t likely to warm to Julian if he shows mercy at this point (because Eddie won’t let them) – plus Eddie’s execution would clear the path for someone else to become Brujah Primogen, who’d have a reason to be glad that Julian created the opportunity. (I actually thought they were going to pressure the Brujah into naming Sasha their Primogen – sure, she might not be secure in the position, but if every other clan helped her keep order it’d put the Brujah in their place sooner rather than later.)
Julian handles the situation in the worst possible way. Despite being more than willing to reluctantly pass death sentences on vampires he likes much more for far more minor defiance of vampire law, he wusses out of executing Eddie. Moreover, he wusses out in the middle of the execution (which takes the form of dumping him out of a car in the sunshine somewhere; after a bit, Julian drives up and hauls Eddie into his boot and drives off again). Showing a level of lenience to Eddie that is never extended to any more law-abiding and loyal vampires is ridiculous, looks weak, and is kind of a huge “fuck you” to everyone who jumped in on the “let’s put Eddie away once and for all” bandwagon. Moreover, it guarantees that Sasha will be in an awkward position because as long as Eddie is her Primogen then he’s going to have influence over and an interest in her business (particularly since she seems to have no real alternative to joining the Brujah despite hating all the Brujah), whereas if Eddie is gone there’s at least a chance that a friendlier (or at least less overtly hostile) Brujah will become Primogen.
On top of that, commencing the process of executing someone only to wuss out right at the last moment is the worst possible way to show clemency. You lose any benefit you might have gained from appearing kind and merciful because you already put someone through cruel and unusual punishment, plus you destroy any hope you may have had of appearing tough which you could have gained by going through with the execution. As a Prince you need to either declare clemency as soon as your opponent surrenders or see the matter through to the grisly end; prevaricating openly just guarantees that everyone is frustrated and loses confidence in you, even those who are glad you showed mercy in the end. (It’s like that bit at the start of Richard II where he ostentatiously sets up this big duel and then equally ostentatiously cancels it right as it’s about to get started and enforces a compromise which pleases nobody, though perhaps regarding Kindred in the light of Shakespeare is lending it slightly too much dignity. Though it does make me want to sit on the carpet and play sad RPGs about the death of Princes.)
Of course, “shit at being a Prince” might be a character trait the writers deliberately want to apply to Julian – and they certainly do a good job there, but at the same time his behaviour feels so contradictory that it’s almost impossible to believe that the writers are doing this on purpose. If Julian is a reluctant Prince who feels bad about enforcing the law but does it out of a sense of duty, you’d think that when he did choose to make an exception, he wouldn’t do it for his worst enemy in one of the most prominent incidents in Kindred politics in the city for years. Eddie thought Julian was weak and didn’t have the stomach to do what needed to be done to rule the city, and is proven right here, and yet the writers don’t seem to expect us to sympathise with his position no matter how much justification they inadvertently create for it.
Episode to episode continuity isn’t one of the writers’ strong suits either. Consider the mess which is the transition from Romeo & Juliet to the next episode, Live Hard, Die Young, and Leave a Good Looking Corpse. At the end of the previous episode, Sasha was 100% reconciled with Julian; at the start of this episode, they are estranged again. At the end of the previous episode she was determined to make it right with Cash; at the start of this episode then she doesn’t seem to care much for him and gets into a passionate affair with the episode’s guest star (of whom more later). At the end of the previous episode she was personally responsible for the (apparent) destruction of the Brujah primogen and the ruination of their plans for domination, but now she’s not only running with a crew of young Brujah hoods, she’s accepted by them – sure, there’s a little patronising because she’s the newbie, but to reiterate what I said earlier, they show no hard feelings about her siding against their Primogen and fucking over the entire clan. At the end of the previous episode she hated the Brujah and wanted nothing to do with them or their ways; at the start of this episode, she’s just another Brujah footsoldier. This makes no sense in terms of logic, the narrative, her emotional priorities or her character development, such as it is. It’s almost like there were a bunch of episodes between these two they forgot to write which were meant to explain how Sasha turned heel or something, because as it stands it’s just silly and confusing.
The episode itself is yet another “person gets Embraced, they don’t adjust well and end up using their new vampiric status irresponsibly” story, like Night Stalker – hm, perhaps that episode was pulled because it was too similar to this one? This one’s a bit more nuanced because instead of a cartoon psycho we have rockstar Zane (Ivan Sergei), who’s all floppy haired and romantic and ends up Embracing random women without Princely permission in a way which nicely illustrates why the Kindred have that “you can’t make new vampires without the Prince’s say-so” rule in the first place. That said, the episode soon takes a kind of ridiculous course; for someone who’s meant to be a super tough and streetwise sort, Sasha is incredibly naive as soon as Zane flops his floppy hair in her direction, and is not only happy to believe Zane when he says “oh no, I didn’t do all these terrible crimes against vampirekind” but joins a totally random train-based suicide pact with him purely on the basis of bonking him a couple of times. Then Julian talks her out of it and tears tears tears drama and they reconcile again and she and Cash reconcile again and little do we viewers know it, but this is just the start of a recurring pattern where Sasha’s Brujahness makes her mad at Julian and/or Cash but then they reconcile by the end of the episode and it’s already very, very tedious.
It’s almost as though nobody ever sat down with the episode scripts and compared them to the previous episodes with an eye to sorting out continuity and making sure particular plot points didn’t get overmilked. In particular, whilst the reliance on Embrace-themed plots seems to be a good way to work in guest stars into the small world of the local vampire population – not to mention tying in with the title of the series and its purported themes – equally there’s only so many “someone gets turned into a vampire stories” you can really pack into a season before it starts to look like you’re repeating yourself and Kindred hit it last episode.
Meanwhile, Frank and Sonny fade away into almost total irrelevance, though Frank gets to crack off a nice line when Lillie accuses him of being a bigot against vampires by comparing him to the people who laughed at the Elephant Man, and Frank comes back with a zinger about how if the Elephant Man murdered someone, he’d have a responsibility to put him away just like any other criminal. Frank never going full-blown vampire hunter is really one of the major tragedies of the series being truncated.
Speaking of tragic aspects of the series, remember how Eddie Fiori is still about despite giving Julian every reason to execute him and every single clan more or less reconciling themselves to the fact that Julian would probably have to execute him and Julian being right in the middle of executing him before he changes his mind? It takes only two episodes for this to blow up in Julian’s face. In The Rise and Fall of Eddie Fiori we have yet another attempted coup, only with added soap opera twists. So, this time around Eddie decides he needs a little extra help to take over, so he calls in Cyrus – the vampire who Embraced him, and the Brujah Prince of Los Angeles. Cyrus, as a Prince, is entitled to call on the services of the Assamite Marissa (Blair Volk), the Assamites being a secret Clan of polymorphing assassin vampires. Marissais a gratifying (but sadly rare) example of a lady assassin in a mid-1990s genre show who wears sensible clothes for an assassination – no leather, no latex, just black turtlenecks and brutal efficiency – and although she does fail at her mission, she fails because of unforeseen circumstances and bad luck instead of any incompetence on her part.
What complicates matters is that coinciding with the first assassination attempt is Lillie hiring a private investigator (Jack Conley) to get evidence of Julian and Caitlyn’s affair, and the PI gettng photographs of the assassination attempt on Julian in the bargain. Despite Lillie offing the PI for Masquerade-preserving reasons, what she didn’t count on was the PI being a friend of Frank’s and leaving the photos with Frank for safekeeping. (To be fair, this is basically the only time in the second half of the series Frank does anything of significance.) Frank duly uses the photographs to force Caitlyn to face up to the fact that there is a dark and violent side to Julian’s world, which threatens to drive a wedge between her and Julian.
Whilst it is nice to see one of the clan Primogens beginning to turn on Julian, who’s had it far too easy for too long with four of the five clans of the city being solidly behind him, it’s irritating that it has to be in the context of a “women are jealous” plotline, especially when Lillie is glad to see people on the side herself and so far as I can tell her relationship with Julian is written as being basically open in the episodes prior to this. (There’s that continuity checker sleeping on the job again.) On the other hand, it’s slightly irritating that in what should be a major episode causing significant political fluctuation, the only major character who dies is Eddie – who should have died a couple of episodes ago. Not only are the clan politics basically unchanged as the result of this (in the long run Lillie remains loyal to Julian beyond plotting next episode to get Caitlyn put in mortal peril), except that the Brujah need a new boss, and there really isn’t any reason all this couldn’t have happened two episodes ago. When Eddie points out, fairly legitimately, that Julian is “soft on humans and hard on us”, it really highlights how boring it is that the Brujah are literally the only clan who seriously oppose Julian; Eddie’s statement is only incorrect when it comes to Julian’s treatment of Eddie, which has been so insanely soft that in principle Eddie should be Julian’s best buddy and every other Primogen should hate Julian for being so indulgent of the Brujah.
Of course, with the Eddie Fiori plotline terminated the last two episodes finds the series thrashing about in search of a point. In Bad Moon Rising, single mother Ruth Doyle (Maureen Flannigan) has her baby snatched in a park by Goth (Skipp Sudduth) – no, I’m not kidding, his name really is Goth – a renegade Nosferatu who was run out of the city years ago and has now returned. Along with his consort Camilla (Patricia Charbonneau), Goth has been dabbling in blood magic to tap into the savage, bestial side of the Nosferatu, and through a blood magic ritual involving the sacrifice of Ruth’s baby he intends to gain unstoppable power, take over the city, bring the Nosferatu to the surface, shatter the Masquerade and take over the world.
This is a fun, high-stakes plot which allows the writers to tease out some of the show’s own homebrewed mythology which distinguishes it more clearly from the source material. Apparently, in the Kindred continuity the Nosferatu were the original vampires; they went underground to avoid the Inquisition back in the day and created the Ventrue to act as their proxies on the surface, and presumably the other clans evolved from there. (It’s also interesting that in Kindred the Nosferatu seem to have absorbed the blood magic schtick of the Tremere, one of the tabletop Clans who don’t get represented here.)
However, the episode also contains one of the most ludicrous sequences in the entire series. So, thanks to Lillie’s manipulation and a bit of overt mind control, Caitlyn ends up finding her way to Goth and Camilla’s lair and discovers the terrible truth about vampires and how Julian is one of them. Then Camilla wipes Caitlyn’s memories of the meeting because apparently the writers intended to keep Caitlyn in the dark about Julian’s vampirism for the long haul, but before this happens some strange things occur. Caitlyn doesn’t seem at all shocked or even surprised to discover the existence of vampires, but does feel inclined to blurt out how she is sad because she got pregnant and gave away the baby when she was 17 because the father ditched her, which is why she feels so strongly for this single mother and also why she doesn’t feel able to trust Julian (uh, what about the fact that he’s clearly involved in organised crime and assassinations, Caitlyn?).
Camilla is nice enough to use her mind powers to sooth Caitlyn’s hurt feelings about her baby, which if subsequent scenes are anything to go by is a really good and effective method of relationship counselling, and decides to help Julian stop Goth because apparently the power of babies is enough to make her remember the woman she used to be and come back from the brink of this inhuman blood magic she’s embroiled herself in for centuries. Makes sense, right? After all, she’s a woman, and being a woman means you’re all about babies babies babies all the time everywhere coming out of the walls babiiies. Sigh.
So, gang, what’s more frustrating than Caitlyn discovering that Julian is a vampire and then forgetting about it? Having it happen twice in consecutive episodes. Your series finale, ladies and gentlemen: Cabin In the Woods, in which at Caitlyn’s insistence Julian accompanies her to a cabin near the old town of Manzanita Springs, where once upon a time Julian was responsible for a pogrom of the town’s Brujah at the behest of Archon Raine (Patrick Bauchau), his sire and the former Prince of San Francisco who stepped down to serve as Ventrue Primogen and Julian’s consigliere when he felt that Julian was ready to take up the burden of rulership. A few of the survivors of Julian’s old Brujah extermination exploits attack him and mortally wound him, forcing him to reveal his true nature to Caitlyn, who indicates her acceptance by feeding him blood in order to revive him. Julian decides that this means they can’t be together any more even though the central dilemma of their relationship has been resolved because
Well, that’s really a tricky point isn’t it? It seems very apparent that Caitlyn 100% accepts Julian’s vampire status. He tells her that he’s going to have to wipe her memory of it and does so, despite her pleading otherwise, in a scene which shatters most sympathy I have for him (and to be fair I think it is meant to be understood as Julian doing a very, very bad thing which is going to haunt him). The alternatives to wiping her memory are apparently either killing her or Embracing her; this despite the fact that she seems like she’d actually be up for the Embrace, and he’s already extending an exception of that rule to Frank, a person who shot him in the chest and didn’t get around to saving his life until well after Julian had extended this courtesy to him. Refusing to contemplate offering a similar deal to Caitlyn, who has saved his life and who loves him, feels churlish, and wiping her memory without even asking her whether she’d be willing to be Embraced is downright abusive.
There’s actually a nice cliffhanger in this episode, where at the end Caitlyn says some stuff in a way which implies that she might just be feigning losing her memory or might not be, so it’s quite possible that the writers were going to play with this more. It would actually be reasonably interesting to have Julian’s downfall or the destruction of his relationship with Caitlyn come aboiut because of his high-handed and patriarchal insistence that he knows what’s best for them. Sadly, of course, the series ends at this point so we’re just left with the frustration of Caitlyn yo-yoing between knowing about vampires and not knowing about them from episode to episode. (And according to some word from the writers about how the series would have continued had it gone on, it sounds like the long term plot arc for Caitlyn was to have her bit by bit learn more about the vampires until she must be either killed or Embraced, so this seems like another instance of the writers presenting an incident which should really be the end of a plotline only to suddenly undo it so that it can happen all over again in a later episode, like the death of Eddie Fiori.)
Another nice cliffhanger happens at the end of the episode where Frank spots Sonny with the other vampires as they’re attending a funeral for Archon, which presumably had the series continued would have precipitated Frank working out that Sonny was a vampire, an incident which might have made the characters relevant again. But it’s too little too late, and Kindred dies not with a bang but a whimper.
Kindred: the Legacy
If you are desperate for closure, the most recent boxed set of the series includes a whole DVD crammed with extras, including a newly-filmed 13 minute coda to the series. This is Daedalus: The Last Will and Testament, where they essentially took Jeff Kober, put him back in his Daedalus makeup, plonked him down in a set somewhat resembling his lair from the series, and have him give a dramatic monologue in the form of a final video message to the new Prince of the city summing up the events which might have unfolded had the series continued.
Interestingly, the series came extremely close to being saved; although the network did cancel it after only 8 episodes, it did actually pull some decent ratings (season 1 Buffy actually had worse ratings by comparison) and the creators were in talks to shift over to cable for a second season. However, Mark Frankel died in a tragic accident just as these negotiations were ongoing, and since he really was the protagonist of the show (C. Thomas Howell’s prominence in the opening credits being an enormous sham) there really wasn’t much prospect of it continuing without him. If more Kindred ever emerges, I imagine it will be as a remake rather than as a direct continuation, and to be honest I’d put money on them calling any new show simply Vampire: the Masquerade to make it more obvious what the show is about.
To be honest, a remake would have probably been a better idea than a continuation even with Frankel available. Kindred suffered from severe structural issues which a continuation of the series would have struggled to deal with but which a remake could banish from the word go. The stale and mostly static politics of the city, in which Julian can essentially rely on everyone to side with him against the Brujah more or less consistently, sabotage the clan politics which should have been a major driver of the series. Whilst most of the clans’ schticks are fine, the Brujah theme of “Mafia clan” clashes with the overall “vampire politics as internal mob politics” theme of the series; personally, I’d be inclined to swap out the Brujah for one of the other clans from the tabletop (or a new one invented for the show).
Having a human character to be a sympathetic co-protagonist discovering the secrets of the vampire world as the viewer does isn’t a terrible idea, but the series would really need to decide whether it wants Frank or Caitlyn to be that co-protagonist – and then elevate them to a co-protagonist level instead of shoving them way into the background all the time. And you’d need a crew of writers who’d actually commit to stuff and not undermine or retcon away major developments (sometimes within the same episode). The writers would need to have some sort of intellectual discipline – they can’t have Eddie Fiori come to the verge of taking over, get knocked down, and then spare him from execution arbitrarily and then do the same thing all over again only this time actually killing him two episodes later. If Frank is declaring his undying hatred for Julian, that hatred can’t turn into grudging co-operation in the space of just a single episode. (For that matter, the writers really need to decide whether Frank is a budding vampire hunter waiting for his opportunity to start staking bloodsuckers or a guy who’s co-operating with Julian as the least bad of a range of bad alternatives.)
Most of all, the series needs to choose a consistent tone. Dark Mafia drama? Light, romantic dark fantasy? A storytelling show of personal horror? A distinctive theme would be especially necessary for any revival now, considering that “it’s like the present day only there are vampires” is now a common enough premise that you really want to bring something distinctive to the table if you’re going to justify your show’s existence – or get anyone to give you the time of day. As it is, Kindred was tonally inconsistent pablum designed to be inoffensive to a broad range of viewers, a show that most people could tolerate if it happened to be on but which few would actively like, let alone love. It’s not really worth the effort to licence a media property, even if the TV show rights are going cheap, when the final product could just as happily be 100% generic, and as it stands there’s no compelling reason to watch the show unless you’re specifically interested in the Vampire connection or literally cannot get enough of vampire-themed TV shows.