In Season Five, ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Opens A New Vein of Vampire Lore
In its original incarnation as a feature film, What We Do in the Shadows pays little attention to the plight of human familiars. The local werewolves with whom the lead vampire characters are feuding get a lot more play than Jackie (Jackie van Beek), the servant hoping her master Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) will eventually reward her loyalty with eternal life as a vampire. For the series sequel, however, creator Jemaine Clement slightly tweaked the format: While the idea of vampire housemates remaining essentially unchanged for centuries is fine for a movie, a series adaptation is going to need someone who’s going to learn and grow and want things he can’t have. In short, it’s going to need a human.
In the show, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), familiar to Nandor The Relentless (Kayvan Novak), has done all those human things. He’s learned that he’s uncannily good at killing vampires because he’s a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing. He’s grown by coming out as queer and dating. And he’s wanted the same thing all human familiars do: for his master to make him a vampire. In the Season Four finale, Guillermo got sick of waiting for Nandor, so he hit up his vampire friend Derek (Chris Sandiford) to do it. In Season Five, though, we find out Guillermo’s still got more yearning to do.
What happened when Derek agreed to turn Guillermo takes up most of the season’s first episode. At home, Guillermo tries to warn the vampires that they need to be more careful revealing themselves in public because he may not always be around to protect them. When he’s vague about where he might go and why he seems to be in such a mood, Nandor decides it must be that they forgot his birthday, and they invite him out to the steak house where energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) now works as a server, finding ample opportunities to drain his patrons.
It’s here that the vampires tell Guillermo why he shouldn’t waste time thinking about finding someone other than Nandor to sire him: It would be so humiliating to Nandor for his familiar to do such a thing that he would be forced to kill Guillermo, then himself. So Guillermo can add this secret to his list of problems; the other one that’s consuming him is that something went wrong when Derek sired him, such that Guillermo still hasn’t turned all the way. Not only hasn’t he grown fangs or developed the ability to turn into a bat at will, but, he tells us, he doesn’t even feel any sexier!
While adding a fully human character to the cast opened up storytelling possibilities for the show, it also presented a challenge: Writers couldn’t keep kicking the can on Guillermo’s vampiric ambitions forever, but if there were no longer any incentive, Guillermo might not continue living with housemates who routinely abuse him. Changing Guillermo into a human with some vampire attributes is an ingenious way of progressing his plot. Sure, after needing glasses all his life, he suddenly has better than 20/20 vision (though he continues wearing a pair with non-prescription lenses, to maintain his cover), but that’s not enough to let him ditch his vampire social group while his transformation is still in progress. For one thing, any other housemates might be alarmed by the volume of raw meat he now feels compelled to consume.
That it’s Laszlo (Matt Berry) who can’t shake the feeling that Guillermo is hiding something, and who volunteers to help him, is perfectly in-character. Laszlo’s talent for nurturance goes all the way back to the Season Two episode “On The Run,” when we saw the effort he took to support the high school girls’ volleyball team in Railton, PA, after fleeing Staten Island ahead of a debt collector. (Did this effort lead to multiple fiery conflagrations? Sure, but that’s beside the point.) Laszlo went on, in Season Three, to help Colin try to figure out what he is and where he came from; and then, in Season Four, to step in as a de facto father to a reborn Colin as he took a speed-run through every stage of human growth and development. Laszlo may not respect Guillermo or even have a firm handle on his name, but as both a man of science and an experienced sort-of parent, he knows he’s Guillermo’s only hope. Maybe some vampires can grow too!
But definitely not all. Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) admits that she got hooked on liquor blood while she was running the vampire nightclub in Season Four — another diversion that ended in literal flames — and that, while intoxicated, she destroyed the lower half of the lookalike doll inhabited by the spirit of Nadja’s human soul. Instead of taking responsibility, however, she decides that she’s been hexed. The Guide (Kristen Schaal, now a full cast member, even included in the opening credits) tries to nudge Nadja into undoing the hex with acts of kindness — toward The Guide herself, ideally — to no avail.
I’m not going to miss the nightclub, which siloed Nadja away from her housemates too much for my taste, but a likely larger role for The Guide doesn’t thrill me either. Though she was initially introduced as a persnickety Vampiric Council bureaucrat, The Guide seems to have evolved into a sad sack fruitlessly trying to penetrate Nadja’s circle of friends, and this show already has one of those: Guillermo. If anyone should have gotten the credits-cast promotion, it’s Anthony Atamanuik, whose next-door neighbor Sean is endlessly fascinating. You aren’t prepared to learn what has driven him to enter the Staten Island comptroller’s race, nor what forces him to leave it.
Nandor’s self-involvement, despite its tortuous aspects for Guillermo, also remains a solid source of comedy. His trip to outer space is more compelling than any billionaire’s, his new friendship with fellow gym member Alexander (Robert Smigel) goes places I did not expect and his over-reliance on hypnotism to get out of sticky situations — which, we’ve been told, can cause brain damage in its subjects — does explain a lot about the current state of Staten Island discourse. The show’s special effects team also gets to stretch into all-new illusions, though, as always, the true work of selling them falls on the versatile and apparently fearless cast.
When FX renewed the series for its fifth and sixth seasons last year, I wondered, with some concern, whether the premise could be sustained for that long. After its tremendous fourth season, and these first four Season Five episodes that were provided to critics, I am prepared for this show to make like its characters, going on for decades, well past my own death, and into eternity.