what we do in the shadows
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Credit: FX

What We Do in the Shadows is a bloodsucking allegory for capitalism

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Aug 25, 2020, 12:57 PM EDT (Updated)

What We Do in the Shadows is, besides being a charismatic slice-of-life mockumentary about Staten Island vampires, a show about struggle. Over the course of the series, we get to watch Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja try to move up in the New York vampire hierarchy and please their Master by expanding their modest domain. Energy vampire Colin Robinson experiences a rare moment of struggle when faced with one of his own kind, which jeopardizes his feeding grounds. The group must also deal with werewolves who show up to pee on the vampires’ territory, as well as a coven of witches who covet vampire semen. It seems that things aren’t always easy, even when you’re an apex predator.

But Shadows’ greatest struggle belongs to Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo — a soft-spoken mortal who lives off the aspirational fumes of his own familiarhood. As an indentured servant, Guillermo is tasked to fetch virgins, dispose of bodies, do housework, run menial errands, and complete literally any and every task that the vampires want. Eventually, he believes that Nandor will turn him into a vampire, even though he’s been in this thankless position for 10 years without any sign of this promised reward. Guillermo is the very relatable core of why What We Do in the Shadows is a perfect allegory for the empty ambition of the American Dream.

A capitalist reading of Shadows almost seems too obvious, yet many of us are ready to accept the skewed dynamic between old, powerful institutions and young, vulnerable individuals; this is probably because it’s a dynamic that dominates our day-to-day lives. Some people are happy to prop up a socioeconomic system that places profit above all because they believe capitalism creates innovation and choice — it also sustains the myth of being able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It’s a system that favors the already-wealthy — in the vampires’ case, Nandor started out as a warlord, and Laszlo a nobleman. Nadja’s origins are a little murkier, but it’s clear that she’s accumulated wealth and power over centuries. 

Guillermo, however, is a just workaday human from Queens whose ultimate goal is inspired by Interview with a Vampire. Nandor supposedly found him working at Panera Bread. Beyond the moments of charm that color Nandor and Guillermo’s master-familiar relationship, Guillermo is expendable. All familiars are replaceable — a fact emphasized by the revolving door of familiar deaths that plague Laszlo and Nadya, who often end up using Guillermo. When the vampires head to a Manhattan club, Guillermo searches for the bathroom, ending up in the “familiar’s room” with buckets on the floor for relief. “They gave these to use when they thought we were going to unionize,” quips Colby, another familiar. “Do you not read the newsletter?"

For many millennials and Gen Z folks, Guillermo’s experiences are hilariously true to life — there’s much to identify with as a young idealist at the beck and call of established entities. The unpaid internship, the dangled promise of a sponsored work visa, or the hope of a life-changing promotion are all too familiar (pun somewhat intended) parts of the capitalist job landscape that plays on worker aspirations. All the familiars in the show accept their place in this existential limbo — a combination of complacency and mental gymnastics best seen in Nandor’s ex-familiar Benjy (now an old man who still believes that Nandor will fulfill his promise after 40 years). Nandor found Benjy’s constant desire to become a vampire “so irritating” that he glamoured him and left him at a rest stop. Even after all that time, Benjy arrives back in Staten Island believing that Nandor was simply testing his devotion. 

In “Collaboration,” Guillermo learns that Celeste, a familiar, has finally been turned by her master. The others fawn over her — “she’s paid her dues,” Guillermo says of his fellow comrade-in-suffering as she sucks on a blood vape. Celeste lures familiars into her service with the promise that everyone will get turned within 8 months, to achieve her dream of building a “vampire community.” It’s the recognizable siren song that start-ups and businesses use to present themselves as a “family,” a noxious tactic to avoid confronting real problems and create unhealthy emotional loyalties to the employer. “I treated Guillermo like a son!” Nandor shouts when Guillermo announces that he’s leaving. 

At Celeste’s luxurious, modern digs, Guillermo finds a new family. Celeste dishes out acknowledgment and praise, and allows the familiars to have one day off per week. She speaks of the familiars as a “blessing and a privilege,” and throws out the formal title of “master.” On the surface, familiarhood with Celeste seems like a progressive leap. “You know what it’s like for us,” Guillermo says, as she’s eventually called out for failing to keep to her promises. “Sort of like... a timeline would mean a lot,” adds another familiar. 

But like the performative girlbosses she emulates, Celeste is a sham — she’s not really a vampire, but wanted a taste of the power while her master was out of town. Celeste is essentially a class traitor, betraying her fellow familiars, manipulating their trust, and shattering their fragile sense of solidarity. “She was never gonna make me a f***ing vampire, okay?” Celeste frantically tells Guillermo as her master unexpectedly returns. “I just had to know what it felt like.” She readily offers up the familiars — her comrades who once helped her dispose of bodies — to the vampires as a peace offering.

Credit: FX

The show’s slyest triumph, though, is how swiftly it aligns us with the plight of the vampires from the start. The Shadows vampires are not the most glamorous bunch — given the choice to be a vampire, most people would probably pick someone more personable, like Blade or Selene from Underworld. Even Alucard from Castlevania would be a step up. But the Shadows gang’s petty drudgery is so charming and relatable that we can’t help but romanticize their mediocre lives — any whiff of the supernatural would be an improvement, really. Guillermo’s journey toward vampirehood is treated as a pipe dream, a sad joke that only takes on new meaning and scrutiny when we discover his Van Helsing ancestry.

At the end of the second season, Guillermo finally comes face-to-face with his heritage as he risks his own life to save the Shadows crew. There’s something truly heartwrenching about his devotion to Nandor even when it’s clear that Guillermo is powerful beyond his own understanding — he has the means to become a new entity that transcends the vampire ruling class. Perhaps it’s a mix of guilt, misplaced loyalty, and sunk-cost fallacy — he’s already blown 11 years working on his vampiric dream — but Guillermo remains unable to free himself from the emotional attachment to his dream. Nandor, like any self-aware member of the ruling class, is perfectly aware of his minion’s situation but dismisses it as inconsequential. “We’ll talk about it later” is the clarion call of managers everywhere who simply don’t want to hear about worker problems. What We Do in the Shadows isn’t just a cute double entendre about nocturnal shenanigans, but a classist look at the myth of the vampire and its intoxicating effect on familiars who simply want a better life (that just so happens to be entertaining as hell).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.

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