The Vampire Diaries built its reputation and fanbase on a foundation of fast-moving plots. For a year and a half or so, it was as good at balancing speed of plotting with effective characterization as a show built on crazy can be. But that balance requires having characters who can anchor the show. Elena and Stefan were able to be both fundamentally decent and interesting at the same time, especially alongside Damon's slow conversion into halfway-good person.
The Originals doesn't have that characterization now, especially with Elijah sidelined. But after just three episodes, it's delighted to get on the tracks and ride the runaway train of plotting tonight. “Tangled Up In Blue” is about Klaus' plan to gain Marcel's trust, and bring Elijah back for Rebekah. Without having a moral center, and with early season jitters, the episode ends up clumsy. One scene in the middle exemplifies that awkwardness: Klaus narrates his plan for framing Marcel's lieutenant Thierry as we see the footage of the plan in effect. This is a difficult move to pull off, and while it's not terribly done here on The Originals, it's certainly not a high point.
But what follows that is a highlight: Marcel throws a fancy party, attended by Rebekah, Klaus, and Camille. It's a costume ball—Cami shows up in an adorable angel guise—and it looks the part. The set, the music, and especially the added performers (an acrobat and a snake handler) instantly give the show feeling of existing in a specific time and place. This is something that TVD's Mystic Falls, attempting to be Anytown USA (except very occasionally with a Confederate past), never accomplished. Having that feeling of specificity in setting gives The Originals an aesthetic anchor, or perhaps crutch, that it can rely on to make its episodes interesting even if they are just a bunch of stuff happening.
There are two interconnected aspects of The Originals building an aesthetic foundation. The first is its setting. Being placed in New Orleans means that it takes place in arguably the most culturally specific city in America. It's also one steeped in vampire pop culture, thanks to Anne Rice in particular. This gives the show immediate symbolic visuals, like the outdoor above-ground cemetery the witches haunt, or the occasional second line they've shown. Even scenes that should be totally ridiculous, like Marcel showing Klaus that Thierry plays the trumpet well enough to be called “the musicman” are rendered slightly less ridiculous by the musical culture of the city. Likewise, the snake handlers and acrobats at the party? Those are for city parties, particularly a city known for its entertainment.
Second, The Originals is also far more stylized in its directorial choices than The Vampire Diaries. Off-kilter shot selection in pilots isn't uncommon, but here in the third episode, it's still happening. In the very first scene, with Klaus, Rebekah, then Hayley talking at the entrance to the Mikaelsson house, every character is framed differently. It's difficult to tell who's in whose field of vision, or who's in a mirror. The lack of balance in how the scene is shot adds to the feeling of shifting alliances, with Rebekah making peace with Klaus long enough to get Elijah and Davina.
By adding this sense of style and setting, The Originals makes up for its lack of a moral center. We don't need a moral center of a character to engage with, because the show's style is engaging on its own. Now, this may have diminishing returns in the future, but it's a useful tool for the show to have—to know that it has—even during relatively weak episodes as it finds its feet.
“Tangled Up In Blue” does work to flesh out a few characters who may be able to serve as the moral center. At the end of the episode Davina expresses her first non-Marcel personality—prior to this she had seemed like a compelled extension of his will. That division seems like it'll likely be the driver of next week's plot, though, so I don't have much to say about it here.
More interesting was the increased development of the witch Sophie Deveraux. She's roped into Klaus' scheme, and allows her fellow witch Katy to be used and sacrificed as a pawn. Katy was an informant, sleeping with the enemy, and so the decision to let her die made a certain level of sense. But Klaus still used Sophie in order to play his own game. He corrupts everything he touches, and Sophie realizes this as well as realizing that she'd tied herself to him. There's a lot of potential for this character, which if met, could strengthen the series immeasurably.
- “What's plan B?” “War.” I should have known Klaus was too direct here. But I liked the directness.
- Marcel's smile is the new Damon's eyebrows.
- “I'm beginning to think your sister's a bit of a bitch.” Well, if Cami says it first…
- “What is it about my brother that inspires such instant admiration?” It's the hair, Klaus. It's the hair.
- Interesting racial dynamics with Sophie attempting to lead the mostly African-American witches. This was one of TVD's weirdest (and occasionally ugliest) quirks.
- Flashback hair grade: Incomplete. AND I WAS SO EXCITED WHEN HAYLEY READ “1357."
- Speaking of Hayley, uh, honey, shouldn't you start at Latin in your translator? I guess they don't teach “Which language sounds creepy?” in werewolf school.