‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Killed Season 5 — With Kindness
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Tv ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Killed Season 5 — With Kindness

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Killed Season 5 — With Kindness

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Killed Season 5 — With Kindness

(Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “What We Do in the Shadows” Season 5, including the finale.)

Initiations are a delicate dance. If the welcome party is too genial, too forthcoming, or too needy, they can come across desperate, phony, or otherwise off-putting. But if greeters go the other way, it can feel like draconian hazing (at best) or outright hostility (at worst). The Guide, Kristen Schaal’s part-time vampiric player promoted to series fang-ular in Season 5, faces the latter version when she moves into a dilapidated Staten Island mansion occupied by four long-term roommates. Excluded, forgotten, and derided, The Guide takes her licking week after week, until Episode 9, “A Weekend at Morrigan Manor,” when she tricks her housemates into an impromptu vacation, then locks Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) in silver-lined cages and forces them to answer for their abominable behavior.

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“They use the documentary style in a really smart way in this episode,” Schaal said to IndieWire, during an interview conducted on the “What We Do in the Shadows’” set last fall. Laszlo asks the documentarians to show The Guide one of their recordings, and “there’s some footage of them saying nice things about The Guide, and she’s like, ‘What?! Why didn’t you ever say this to me?’ And he says, ‘Well, vampires are kind of… We’re dicks, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love you.”

“It’s not a great message — not great! — but it’s enough for The Guide,” Schaal said. “So she’s back in the pack.”

Of course, that’s not exactly what Laszlo says, nor does The Guide get the full story. Laszlo laces his explanation with insults, calling The Guide “my squeaky-voiced, fucking berserk, nut-job, idiot friend,” and he doesn’t commit so fully to the L-word. (“Our hearts are full of love” is how he puts it.) Then there’s the episode’s mid-credits scene, where it’s revealed the quartet’s sweet sentiments for The Guide were only part of a ploy to get Colin Robinson to date her, fall in love, and move out. Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo just talked her up in the hopes of excising two annoying roommates in one fell swoop.

This has long been the way for “What We Do in the Shadows.” Earnest affections are undercut by jokes. Sweet gestures are walked back as soon as they feel real. Benevolence should be met with caution, since the caring gesture is more likely an accident or part of on a con. But Season 5 breaks the pattern. At the time, Laszlo & Co. may not have meant their kind words for The Guide, but she’s included from that point forward — she’s “back in the pack,” just like Schaal said. But beyond her arc, everyone is nicer in Season 5. For 10 episodes built around Guillermo (Harvey Guillién) worrying Nandor will kill him, “What We Do in the Shadows” comes out the other side as one of TV’s kindest comedies.

“This season especially, he views his roommates as friends,” Mark Proksch said of Colin Robinson. “When they talk about leaving, they talk about it as a group. That’s very different from Season 1, when Jemaine (Clement) came in with the idea that my character was always going to be a foil for them and just drain (their energy). We learned early on, that has a shelf life. I went to Paul and said, ‘I feel like I will actually become annoying if that’s all I do.’ He knew it ahead of me; that’s why in Season 2, you start to see the shift. At this point (in Season 5,) it’s really just ‘Friends’ with fangs. It’s a roommate comedy.”

That wasn’t always the case. Back in Season 1, when I first visited “Shadows” mid-production, such loving storylines would’ve been laughed off the set. The early focus was on making a comedy, not a dramedy (which were even trendier five years ago) and fleshing out the world for these particular vampires (which differed greatly from the sexy nightwalkers audiences savored in “Twilight” and “True Blood”). During those first 10 episodes, Laszlo tortures a neighbor, Phil, rather than befriending his closest chum, like he soon does with Sean (Anthony Atamanuik). They kill The Baron (Doug Jones) — a vampire who’s charred remains are now one of their closest friends. Insults are harsh, selfishness pervasive, and the edges of each character rough enough to cut, grate, or otherwise push people away.

“The characters, at their heart, are pretty selfish and evil — including Guillermo,” Natasha Demetriou said. “He sniffs out virgins and brings them to us because he wants to be a vampire. That’s pretty rank behavior. But I feel like there has to be this tightrope walk between completely disgusting (behavior) and that they actually care about each other a bit. Otherwise, we’re just watching a bunch of nihilists, and that’s not very escapist.”

“What We Do in the Shadows” worked from the jump because it was funny, strange, and held immense potential. But it’s no wonder fans latched on fastest to Harvey Guillén’s Guillermo, since his humanity was the most accessible. Time together — both the audience with the characters, and the characters with each other — has a bonding effect. Even though the vampires have been alive for hundreds of years (and together for a majority of it), viewers still need to feel like what they’re watching carries weight; that it matters to these immortal beings.

“They forgot what it’s like to be human,” Guillén said of the vampires. “Being around other humans who are still living, who are still mortal, reminds them. ‘Oh, that’s right. I remember when I had those feelings. I remember when I had a heart.’ What makes us human is having empathy for one another; to want one another to succeed. They forget that because vampires are all about themselves.”

Paul Simms, the showrunner, writer, and executive producer, said it’s never been “difficult” to make room for heartfelt moments, “but I do think it started getting easier around Season 2. If we had tried to jam stuff like that into Season 1, it would’ve felt manipulative and phony. It’s hard to ask people to care about something (tied to) characters you hardly know yet. But now I feel that people know them all well enough, so those little moments can be fun without making you squirm.”

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” Season 5 — Pictured (L-R): Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo
Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou in “What We Do in the Shadows”Courtesy of Russ Martin / FX

One of the earliest examples of genuine emotion is found between Laszlo and Nadja, a married couple whose occasional spats in Season 1 were soundly overwhelmed by their blazing, undying passion for one another.

“That’s one of the reasons why I love doing the show,” Matt Berry said. “Because it’s showing the love of a couple in a very positive way. In comedy, it’s very easy to have people bickering and not be into each other. It’s refreshing to see people who are completely into each other so much so that they forget everything else that’s going on around them. I think it’s rare and I think it’s rare in comedy. To keep exploring that, for me, has been one of the high points of the last five years.”

In recent years, another love story has moved to the forefront; one that’s remained platonic, despite pockets of fans ‘shipping for more.

“There is such a strong relationship between Nandor and Guillermo,” Simms said. “When you think about it, these are good friends.”

“I like to play Guillermo like he’s on a tight rope,” Guillén said. “It could go either way: Is he in love with (Nandor)? What kind of love that is? Is it physical? Is it just emotional attachment? We’ve yet to find out, but there’s definitely love between these two characters. If they end up together, who knows?”

“I think Harvey’s been looking at too much fan art — it depicts one thing and one thing only,” Novak said about a romance between Nandor and Guillermo. “I’m not saying there isn’t room for that in the show, but maybe it’s (saved for) the grand finale. Our relationship is unrequited love. Once it’s requited, where do you go from there?”

“I also want to normalize having a relationship with someone, two males, and being really OK with not making it physical,” Guillén said. “Being in love with someone and loving someone for who they are, it’s OK to have two men do that, two women do that, to normalize it. As much as the fans would love it, I’m OK with them not necessarily crossing that line. At the end of the day, I would love for them both to just be happy.”

Wherever it leads, no pair better illustrates the warmth driving “What We Do in the Shadows.” Master and Familiar have long been at odds, since Nandor refuses to fulfill his promise to turn Guillermo into a vampire. But that also shifts in Season 5. Guillermo, sick of how “nothing every changes around here,” pays Derek (Chris Sandiford) to fill in for Nandor. Things… do not go according to plan. Only after he’s been bitten does Guillermo find out being turned by a vampire that isn’t your master is an offense punishable by death. Nandor may kill Guillermo for betraying him, and he may kill himself out of shame.

“A lot of this season is about what Guillermo always thought he wanted, but be careful what you wish for,” Simms said.

Slowly, steadily, each member of the household finds out what Guillermo’s done, but none of them react the way he expects. Laszlo straps on his lab goggles and gets to work helping the transition. (“It starts more as an intellectual challenge for Laszlo, but over the course of the season,” Simms said, “it grows into more — you see a softer side of Laszlo.”) Nadja saves him not only by keeping his secret, but helping him escape a sadistic Urgent Care for familiars. Colin, well, he just moves on without causing any trouble, but The Guide also does what she can to protect her one considerate roomy. By the time Nandor finds out, it’s no surprise when Laszlo leaps in between master and familiar to give Gizmo a “head start,” or, when they think he’s about to die, each vampire seeks out Guillermo to say their individual goodbyes. Despite feigning indifference, they’re friends. They care about one another. And emotions only heighten from there.

Season 5’s climax sees Nandor forgiving Guillermo — and even helping him become human again — but long before the besties are officially buds again, the series has its heart on its sleeve. No joke can undercut these gestures. There’s too many, they’re too thoughtful, and they mean too much to each character. “What We Do in the Shadows” is officially, certifiably, unexpectedly, nice.

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” Season 5 set visit
Paul Jones, the prosthetic designer, in his workshop near the set of “What We Do in the Shadows” Courtesy of Russ Martin / FX

You can feel it on the set, too. Everyone’s joking, everyone’s at ease. The crew is excited to talk about their work, and the cast conveys a meaningful connection to their characters. “Literally every facet of my job, I’ve done on the show, from a fake nose to a dinosaur,” prosthetics designer Paul Jones said. “I’ve been doing this for 34 years now, and this is without doubt my favorite project.” While remembering her first scene in the show and how it led to her becoming a series regular, Schaal tears up. “With Jermaine and Taika, who was directing, I just was deeply nervous to impress them because I love them so much. I just wanted to do a good job more than any other job that I’ve ever done. And I guess I did.”

Just as she’s finishing her story, Guillén opens the door and asks to join. Episode director and Emmy-nominated editor Yana Gorskaya does the same during Simms’ interview. By way of introduction, Simms said, “She’s directing five of the 10 episodes this season, including one today, so I don’t know exactly what she’s doing here” — implying she shouldn’t have time to chat. But she wants to, and that’s reason enough. Later, while recording a scene in the vampires’ living room, the cast laughs off line flubs and volleys dialogue with ease. There’s a looseness to the shoot that wasn’t there five years ago, when everyone was still trying to find their groove.

“Paul lets us explore a lot of areas with our characters without having to (have) a discussion,” Proksch said. “You know, Matt’s line readings have gotten far more florid as the seasons have gone on, and that wasn’t him going to Paul and saying, ‘I want to go over the top with these.’ It just worked for the character and the progression of the show.”

“With Matt,” Simms said, “I feel like when I’m writing him, it’s almost like I’m trying to write it so baroque and complicated that he won’t be able to figure out how to do it. Sometimes I do go too far, and he’ll ask, ‘Can we shorten this?’”

“It’s the first thing that I think of, it’s the first thing that I do is to keep it interesting for me, and it’s what I find funny,” Berry said about Laszlo’s eccentric pronunciations. “If anyone else does, that’s a pure bonus. They don’t put them in for me, they just let me do them wherever I want. And I don’t when they’re going to come. It could happen just to make someone pay attention. If you’re speaking to a character, and he kind of looks away, it brings them back.”

“The goal of the show has always been to be purely funny and silly,” Simms said. “I never had any doubts about whether it was funny. I just had doubts about whether people would embrace it.”

Embrace it they have, now more than ever. “What We Do in the Shadows” remains a comedy first. Finding the joke is always the top priority. But seeing it evolve into a sweeter version of its core self has only made the series stronger. Thankfully, our initiation was much easier than The Guide’s.

“Their moral code is their family at this point,” Schaal said.

A family with fangs.

“What We Do in the Shadows” Seasons 1-5 are available on Hulu. Season 6 has been renewed at FX.

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