There was a moment during The Originals season four premiere when I yelled “make out with each other” at two women on screen. This is not in itself unusual.
What is unusual is that now, seven episodes into the season, the two women in question actually did.
Woah. Did we… Did we just make out on network tv?
When I first started guilty-watching The Vampire Diaries (RIP), I didn’t know enough about myself to understand how much my interest in the show had to do with Nina Dobrev’s face. But after four seasons, I’d acknowledged both my crush on Dobrev’s character (the frequently mis-written but always compellingly acted Elena), and my addiction to the supernatural, soap-operatic, plot-machine itself. At the height of its powers, each episode of The Vampire Diaries contained multiple murders, sneak attacks, kidnappings, surprise hook-ups, hearts being literally ripped from chests, and at least one tear-jerker of a funeral set to an emotionally manipulative indie track. So when the show spun-off into The Originals, there was never a question of whether or not I would watch it. I was in.
The Originals is like TVD but broodier, more morally ambiguous, and, tragically, manlier. (For some reason this seems to be the formula for spin-offs of teen vampire tv shows — Angel, anyone?) Set in New Orleans and following the oldest living family of vampires as they attempt to put aside their centuries of blood-soaked baggage and raise a baby in a non-traditional family structure (just go with it), the show is a series of betrayals, long-winded speeches about loyalty delivered in dilapidated mansions, extravagant parties, and ridiculous flashback wigs. Also it stars Phoebe Tonkin, which is fine by me. At the end of the day The Originals is soapy good fun, though I’m pretty sure that I’m one of probably ten people actually watching it.
It’s also the last show on earth that I expected to offer up a sapphic plot line. Even as it was unfolding in front of me, I didn’t believe my eyes.
The relationship between main character Freya Mikaelson, an ancient Viking witch, and newly-introduced Keelin, a lady werewolf ER doctor (again, go with it), has been steadily growing since the beginning of the season: evolving from antagonistic—Keelin was technically kidnapped by the Mikaelson family in the premier, which is actually not the creepiest meet cute this show has ever done—to mutually beneficial, to actually kinda codependent, and culminating in last episode’s well-earned makeout sesh. Their budding ‘ship has been a subtle, warm subplot, a light in the darkness of a season that has otherwise been the most committed to the vampire genre’s horror roots of the show’s run.
Yet, though I paused the show countless times during scenes shared by Freya and Keelin to murmur “this is so gay” to myself in the episodes leading up to s4e7 “High Water and the Devil’s Daughter,” I didn’t dare let myself hope that on this darker, dude-ier sibling of The Vampire Diaries — a show which blew up it’s one (evil) lesbian couple with a car bomb shortly after they were introduced — two compatible ladies could actually find love.
Just gals bein’ pals.
Even before their contribution to the fictional lesbian apocalypse of 2016, The Vampire Diaries’ universe was always cagey about queerness. From the weirdly-handled plot line in which an (extremely straight) boy tells his mother he’s a werewolf as a metaphor for coming out, to the actively harmful plot line in which the one explicitly gay character on the show at that point tries to get his daughter to stop being a vampire using literal conversion therapy, it was all pretty bad.
The Originals has been slightly better: introducing a genuinely sweet romance (on a show that usually gives “sweet” a very wide berth) between werewolf Aiden and vampire Josh…. Before killing Aiden senselessly and violently on the eve of their ostensible happy ever after. So. Emphasis on slightly.
Notably, all of these nods toward queerness have been thoroughly masculine.
Historically, vampires have been used as metaphors for both the threat of rape and the threat of female sexual awareness/corruption/liberation. Of course it’s fucked up that the two have been conflated, but that’s a separate essay. Dracula’s Lucy gets fun and hot and powerful after she becomes a vampire. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, one of the very first vampire texts, is, like, so gay all around, as anyone who’s watched the web series adaptation well knows. “Doppelgangland”’s Vamp!Willow is the first acknowledgement we get that the Buffy character is “kinda gay.” But the main women of the TVD universe have always been weirdly puritanical about sex, even as they have a lot of it. It seems that in the transition from monsters to love interests, the vampire story has moved away from “how the vampire will corrupt the woman” to “how the woman will tame the vampire.” Again: separate essay. The point is that the women of TVD have all been staunchly (and, at least in my and countless fanfic writers’ opinions, bizarrely) heterosexual, even “no homo”-ing each other on at least one occasion.
That is until now.
Every great love story begins with two people sitting just a little too close to each other.
The Originals has always trafficked in the slowest of slow burns — the show’s main couple, #Haylijah, has taken four entire seasons to reach any semblance of serious togetherness. Usually, slow burns are what I live for. I’m that girl who re-watched Mulder and Scully’s barest of interactions, squealing because they were, what, making eye contact? Standing next to each other? I’m a sucker for lingering shots of hands brushing and extended significant eye contact. Give me mutual pining and transparently romantic speeches about being “there for each other” delivered under the guise of friendship. Give. It. To. Me.
And with Freya and Keelin I got all that. And in just seven episodes!
But I couldn’t enjoy the build the way I would have if I’d been certain all along that they would end up together. The Originals has gone three seasons without any indication that queer women exist in the world, and even less that Freya herself might be interested in women. (I’d like to think that this was something she already knew about herself, after 1,000 years of living, and she just hadn’t gotten around to sharing it with the audience or her brothers yet.)
We live in a world where a few episodes of Supergirl ago, Lena Luthor filled Kara Danvers’ office with flowers and that was supposedly a friends thing. It sucks that in content that hasn’t explicitly declared itself to be for queer women, I’ve been so conditioned to see sapphic subtext go unacknowledged or laughed off, that I couldn’t fully appreciate my favorite romantic tropes — enemies to friends to lovers, slow burn — when they were right in front of me, for fear that nothing would ever actually come of them.
With Mulder and Scully, Jim and Pam, Ross and Rachel, or any of the other famous hetero slow burn pairings, including The Originals own Hayley and Elijah, there was never any real doubt. Part of what makes a will-they-won’t-they fun is the certainty that eventually they will. And unfortunately, the majority of television writers seem to think that both of them are women is a bigger obstacle to a happy ending then both of them are weirdly emotionally stunted and married to their job, or one of them is engaged, or one of them is an insufferable, mansplaining asshole who kinda cheated that one time.
Now that Freya and Keelin have landed on they will, I think I’ll have to go back and re-watch their scenes in the season’s earlier episodes with the knowledge that their relationship is heading somewhere. Now I’ll be capable of revelling in it.
I don’t think there’s doubt in anyone’s mind that this is the Golden Age of The CW, with shows like Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, and even Riverdale to a certain extent, enjoying critical darling status. Representation-wise, however, the network is still hit or miss. On the one hand, you’ve got my one true love Alex Danvers, and this full on musical number from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend which saved my bisexual soul. But on the other, you’ve got the ongoing aroace erasure on Riverdale and the still raw wound of Lexa’s death.
So I’m cautiously optimistic for Freya and Keelin’s romance. I’m not so crazy as to expect that they’ll actually address their sexuality in explicit terms in the coming episodes, or even to have faith that they’ll make it through the season — Keelin is a black, bisexual (according to the casting announcement) woman, and as such may well be marked for death — but I also didn’t believe they’d ever get together in the first place.
So, show, don’t let me down.
Phoebe Cramer is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn, New York. She likes bad tv and good pizza. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in NonBinary Review, Slink Chunk Press, and Bard Papers. She can (occasionally) be found on twitter @PhoebeLCramer