In ‘First Kill,’ hunter and prey fall in love
By Valeriya Safronova
When Victoria Schwab sat down to write a short story for an anthology about vampires in 2019, she already knew that she would adapt whatever she wrote for television. So one of the first questions the author, better known by her pen name, V.E. Schwab, asked herself was: What kind of vampire show did she want to watch?
“I would want the ‘Buffy’ that I didn’t have, that makes space for queer characters,” Schwab said in a video call from Los Angeles last week, referring to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Not at the edges, but in the center of the story.”
Schwab had traveled to Los Angeles from Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lives, for the premiere of “First Kill,” the Netflix series based on her short story of the same name. Schwab is a prolific fantasy author who writes books, stories and graphic novels for adults and teens, including the 2020 bestseller “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.” She has developed several television and film adaptations of her works, but this is the first one to reach the screen.
“‘Buffy,’ ‘Supernatural,’ ‘Charmed’ — they didn’t let me down, but they were of their time,” Schwab said. As she wrote the short story and the pilot based on it, she sought to “capture that campy, angsty fun, but for a new generation.”
“First Kill” follows two high school girls who are in love but have a big problem standing in the way of their romance: They’re supposed to destroy each other.
Calliope Burns, a monster hunter played by Imani Lewis, wants to prove herself to her family by making her first kill. At the same time, Juliette Fairmont, a vampire played by Sarah Catherine Hook, needs to drain a human’s blood in order to enter adulthood. When the two girls kiss for the first time inside a pantry during a house party, their commitment to their duties starts to crumble.
The show follows the structure of a classic teenage drama, interspersed with fantastical plot twists. Meaningful glances full of longing and awkward social interactions in school hallways live side by side with scenes of ghouls raging in graveyards, vampires erasing their victims’ memories and monster hunters sparring in the garden. Since its premiere, “First Kill” has been among the top 10 most popular shows in the United States on Netflix.
Calliope and Juliette join a burgeoning crop of TV heroes who are following in Buffy’s footstep. Recent series such as “Warrior Nun,” “Teenage Bounty Hunters,” “Legacies,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Motherland: Fort Salem” endow their young, sometimes awkward and confused female leads with powers such as witchcraft, super-strength or an uncanny ability to track down people. One difference between these shows and their spiritual predecessors is that they cater to audiences who crave more representation.
Felicia Henderson, showrunner, head writer and executive producer of “First Kill,” is an industry veteran who worked on shows such as “Family Matters,” “Moesha” and the original “Gossip Girl.” In a recent call, she described “First Kill” as an offspring of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But, she added, “your children are never just like you — they go off to do their own thing.”
“First Kill” is a show, Henderson said, “where we normalize queer love, where we normalize a Black family being in the genre space, where we get to further normalize kick-ass young women. We get an opportunity, as artists, to make the world like it should be.”
Although she grew up watching and loving “Buffy,” Schwab said, “as an out gay woman, ‘Buffy’ doesn’t always serve you very well.” Schwab, 34, came out in her late 20s, and she believes that the show “probably contributed to how long it took me to realize I was gay, because I didn’t identify with Willow,” a gay witch character who was Buffy’s best friend.
“She was so nurturing and so sweet and so kind,” Schwab said. Because Schwab lacked other examples of queer characters on screen or in books, she said, she assumed if she was not like Willow (or her girlfriend, Tara, who is even sweeter and kinder), she must not be gay.
It took years for Schwab to find a series that offered queer female characters that she was excited about. “I loved ‘Killing Eve,’ specifically Season 1,” she said. The British series, which debuted in 2018 and wrapped up this spring, follows a globe-trotting psychopath assassin who favors Vogue-worthy outfits and the brilliant, single-minded MI6 investigator who becomes obsessed with her.
“It’s very rare that we get to see female antiheroes, especially ones that are operating from a place of ambition and self-involvement,” Schwab said. “Men get to be self-driven, get to be self-obsessed, and women are told they have to be sacrificial.”
One of the big points Schwab took away from “Killing Eve” when writing the pilot of “First Kill” was that the two leads should be on equal footing while competing against each other.
“This is not a show about a victim and an aggressor,” she said. “The vampire is not the predator, and the hunter is not the prey or vice versa. It’s almost a constant vying for strength.”
What appealed to Henderson about Schwab’s “First Kill” pilot was its potential for rich portrayals of Black girls and other traditionally underrepresented groups. She compared Laura Winslow, one of the main characters on “Family Matters,” a sitcom Henderson worked on in the 1990s, to Calliope Burns.
“Most of her stories were about finding a boyfriend of her own, or dealing with Urkel’s obsession with her or being the good daughter,” Henderson said of Laura. “Then you get all the way to Calliope Burns, and, yes, she’s in high school, yes, she’s in love with the wrong one, but she’s also completely in control of her destiny.”
She added: “We’re seeing a young Black girl go from running from her obsessive next-door neighbor to a young Black girl who fights vampires in the middle of the night to keep the world safe.”
For Henderson, making the show was personal. “I have young women in my life who needed this,” she said. She talked about her goddaughter, who struggled deeply with coming out when she was 16. The show, Henderson said, is for girls like her, wherever they are.