John Mitchell Is the Tortured Vampire Edward Cullen Wishes He Was
*Contains spoilers for all five seasons of Being Human (UK)*
*“Edward Cullen” is an umbrella term, encompassing not only the character himself, but others like him in popular culture — that is to say that it is not meant as a specific and concentrated criticism on Mr. Cullen only, but a broad conversation of characters he has inspired, or who have been inspired by him. Having said that, I name him because it seems that he has become the problematic standard to which we compare all vampires, which ultimately dilutes their fascinating potential.*
We writers like to gorge on complicated characters.
Not those who, in an off-the cuff manner, claim to be complicated, emulate the corresponding attributes, and entrust that you will believe that about them. We writers like to gorge on those souls who are hard to pin down, whose underbellies shriek with subtleties and mercurial truths, regardless of whether or not their personas want us to support those ideas. It matters little whether we initially like them: by the time we are done analyzing them, we more than likely already do, despite ourselves.
Complicated characters are infuriating, troubling, and have the ability to upend what morals and opinions we thought we had; perhaps for this reason, at least, — I will omit the shallower ones I harbor, for the moment — they have been a constant source of inspiration for artists and writers.
Fortunately for us, the bevy of well-written and fleshed out characters are becoming a staple — nay, a standard in this new Golden Age of television — one needn’t look further than the plethora of excellent British thrillers, dramas, and comedies that have populated television in the last few decades.
And that is exactly what I did. More so than usual, this topic has been tumbling around in my head, so to speak, as I wrestle with the horde of problematic characters I’m writing for one of my projects; as such, I’ve been paying extra attention to the Frank Gallaghers of the literary and cinematic world, resisting my throttling impulses in order to scratch their surface. In my forays into decades of gripping, life-altering, soul-punching shows, one that stood out consistently, of late, was Toby Whithouse’s Being Human.
Although wildly successful on its own, the BBC Three show’s five season run was undoubtedly fostered by the way it handled common tropes and familiar characterization. I, for one, fell in love with the cast of strange characters and the sometimes heartbreaking adventures that befell them. But I realized how much the show had gotten under my skin only long after I had finished it.
I should not have liked Being Human. Like the phenomenal Misfits that premiered just a year later, in 2009, the premise offered us nothing we hadn’t seen before: I expected unoriginality (at best: at worse, something abysmal). In the latter case, a group of teenagers accidentally inherits superpowers; in the former, three supernaturals become roommates. Not just any supernaturals, either: a vampire, a ghost and a werewolf. I almost gave up right then and there, anticipating either a sloppy situational buddy comedy, or a melodrama relying on love triangles and heavy-handed conversations about souls and damnation, and all that “I am the darkness” nonsense.
In the wake of the Twilight craze and the ensuing stories focusing on the fantastical, these would not have been outlandish expectations. This thematic became more than a phenomenon: it became a trope, and the apparent triteness in the way it was handled was depressing. It was evident that cashing in on an audience was more important than developing meaningful stories, and while those did exist, they felt fewer and farther in between. Insultingly, however, the vampire-werewolf thing was hashed and rehashed under that very guise of furthering the creation of “deep” characters. What we ended up with, instead, was pseudo existential crises and would-be philosophical themes that did nothing but further outdated ideas (women’s lives revolving around their men, love triangles as supposed ideals of love, etc.).
I won’t go into the larger societal impacts of these trends here; that is another topic for another day. Rather, it is on a smaller scale, the literary and artistic one, that Being Human has fascinated me: namely, the way it expertly handles its storyline, in full awareness of the temper of the times in which it premiered.
The show centers on vampire John Mitchell and werewolf George Sands, two friends who move into a flat together, only to discover that it is occupied by a ghost named Annie Sawyer. Instead of rejecting the clichés I expected the storylines to tilt into (aforementioned sloppy buddy comedy or heavy-handed melodrama), Whithouse, instead, demonstrated admirable narrative deft. The show walked a tightrope between the hilarious, slice-of-life situations that happen to roommates and friends (shitty neighbors, housemate meetings, finding a job, guests who overstay their welcome…), and the anguishing moral dilemmas that could only plague those who stand outside humanity (yearning for a life unfinished, toeing the line between helping and harming, balancing intimacy with the necessary secrets entailed by double lives…). I found myself locked in a cycle of crying with laughter, which quickly transitioned into genuine tears. Some of the episodes veered into the sort of raucousness demonstrated in Misfits, while others handled questions about immortality with a delicateness seen in the best Doctor Who episodes.
Being Human, in short, while not being grounded in reality, was grounded, nonetheless, by the authenticity it displayed. By framing the show around the protagonists’ struggle to get by one day at a time, by making it about how they wanted to fit it and be regular people, the fact that they inherently were not was that much more heartbreaking, and consequently, affecting. In so many cases, characters are Special, they are “Chosen Ones”, they are executors of a complicated and long-lost prohpecy; in Being Human, Mitchell, George and Annie were much more content with staying home, making tea and/or discussing Casablanca.
The show, in short, was about characters who truly struggled and want to live a normal life. Not an extravagant one, not a glamorous one, but a stable, low-key one where they made rent each month, had friends who loved them, and if they were lucky, romantic lives that were not a mess. I found myself resonating with that, however simple a premise, as I grew out of teenage-hood and entered young adulthood.
As such, I think I speak for many viewers when I say that because they were almost human, we ended up caring much more for their relatable problems than we did some otherworldly, messiah-like protagonists. I cared, seeing George and Nina struggle with the idea of bringing a child into the world along with the terrifying possibility of passing their supernatural affliction onto them, much more than I did seeing Edward and Bella do the same. And maybe this is because, as with the rest of Meyer’s story, the characters never payed a price, never had things happen to them that were truly hard and irreversible.
And herein lies the heart of this essay. As an extension of this issue, when it came to caring about the protagonists themselves, not just what they went through, as well as their growth, I found them to be much more interesting than those self-proclaimed complicated characters we are expected to like. Annie and George, subvert the expectations of what a ghost and a werewolf are supposed to be, by flipping some of those said expectations on their heads. Annie is much more interested in playing house and helping other lost souls cross over than she is scaring people and haunting elements of her old life in order to relive them (not that she doesn’t deal with this: a particularly touching and well-written episode in Season 2, “In The Morning”, addresses Annie’s mother’s grief). George, on the other hand, is not a stereotype of the testosterone-fueled Alpha male. He is sweet, compassionate, and rather awkward, a perfect foil to Mitchell. His transformations are tinged with anguish and shame, and a deep reluctance towards what he must become each month. If Mitchell and Annie are the body and soul, respectively, of the trio, George is definitely the heart. Annie and George, in their own way, are deeply flawed, and very intricate people, their sometimes lesser selves hidden and slathered in between layers and layers of complexities.
But none are more so than John Mitchell, the vampire. Charming, charismatic, easy on the eyes (that impish grin), he is, on the get-go, the most alluring of the Being Human trio. The pinnacle of cool if ever there was one. But John Mitchell is as easy to dislike as he is to like. He appears, at first, like a walking stereotype: clad in leather jackets, smoking, drinking and womanizing as easily as one would breathe, he exudes the effortless superiority that have made vampires so fashionable in recent popular culture. If that was not enough, there is the unmistakable “tortured soul” dilemma, the idea that John Mitchell is dangerous, and by association, you guessed it: complicated. I fell in love with the character very early on, but with the full cognizance that he might end up being another lukewarm composite of Edward Cullen/Angel/Lestat/Louis/Blade/the Salvatore Brothers/Spike and so on.
This is where Toby Whithouse’s mastery of characterization became apparent. Many authors and creators attempt to soften their dangerous characters by showing that despite what they may say, they have hearts of gold. This is done either because they are unwilling to put them in ugly, painful situations when it comes to it, or either in an effort to make the dual natures of these protagonists/antagonists more salient, via contrast (I am not going to call them anti-heroes).
This last method, arguably, does work in many cases: the Doctor is shown to have a very sensitive side (more apparent in some incarnations than in others), and it is done skillfully enough that we can picture how his mercurial nature could very well spiral into darkness (and more than once, it has). He is layered, without tilting his portrayal too much into one or another territory (this is arguable, and I’ve debated this point with fellow Whovians many times).
But when it comes to characters who are supposed to be seen as inherently threatening, this careful way of portraying them can backfire. Batman has been one of my favorites since I was a little girl, but I never truly truly thought him to be dangerous. He is rough around the edges, and he has, indeed, been through some terrible things, but at the end of the day, you know whose side he is on. I got the feeling that this was simply a veneer which was hilariously spoofed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller in The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. Batman’s trademark angsty brooding was parodied, in the same way that Edward Cullen’s was, and for the same reasons: it’s all smoke and no fire when “complicated” characters spend more time telling us, rather than simply showing, that they are twisted.
Similarly, the romanticization of vampires at large has made it that we are more likely to see and focus on the softer aspects of their personalities. When we are told, endlessly, that they are hunters, and animals, it is not believable. Of course, there is the obligatory “relapse”, where the vampire drinks or is tempted to drink from the blood of an innocent person. There is the strained romance, because said vampire claims that they are monsters, and cannot be close to anyone without hurting them. But we all implicitly know that their arc is meant to point towards redemption at the end, because they are not as vicious as they would like us to believe.
This has always frustrated me: these characters are only playing a part, that of complicated people, but in truth, they are easily categorizable. I watched Being Human, thus, with the same expectations for Mitchell and was very quickly shocked by how willing Whithouse was to go there. Unlike George and Annie who nuance the expectations of their respective kind, Mitchell subverts his by fully embracing them. Mitchell does not say how dangerous he is: by the time he has finished showing it, viewers have absolutely no doubt about it.
Throughout his three seasons, he kills, betrays, lies, steals, cheats, and generally acts the way a “good” protagonist never would. He doesn’t toe the line: he skips over it, and keeps going. His friends are endlessly baffled and disappointed by him, and when he apologizes, they are right not to believe him. He is, after all, the most unreliable, most infuriating, most bewildering of the trio. Like Edward and many popular culture staples, he is a “reformed” vampire, off centuries of terrible cruelty and bloodletting (spoiler alert: this doesn’t last). But more so than that, Mitchell is an exercise in character building, on a purely literary standpoint, an amazing character study for villainy and protagonism redefined.
I found it interesting that unlike many characters who masochistically argue that they are unlovable, damaged, to be avoided at all cost, Mitchell does the opposite: he is a wolf, readily disguising himself as a sheep, while he abuses of the love and blind forgiveness George and Annie are too willing to accord him. I’ll admit it: I felt equal parts heartache and contempt for him as the series progressed. I desperately cared, desperately. I was frustrated, angry, dejected every time he gave into his lesser impulses and did unforgivable things.
Case in point: in Series One, Mitchell has to deal with the fallout of his relationship with Lauren, a volatile young woman he turned and abandoned, and who has now reappeared in his life; another young boy that he turns against his better judgment, Bernie, forces him to confront age-old questions of ethics and the terrifying power to grant immortality; in Series Two, Mitchell oscillates between rebuffing his power, and embracing it with alarming enthusiasm, as his relationship with the other vampires (namely Ivan) strengthens; he lies and deceives his new love interest, Lucy (but nuances, nuances, of course…); alongside Daisy, an out of control vampire, Mitchell murders, attacks, slaughters people, innocent and immoral alike; in Series Three, Mitchell uses increasingly deceitful methods to hide, from Annie and George, the fact that he is a wanted murderer: this includes, but is certainly not limited to outright, blatant misleading, threatening witnesses or downright murdering them, gaslighting Annie and George, attacking any and all who would stand in his way.
But perhaps most revealing of all is what William Herrick (hands down, one of the most thought-provoking villains in modern British television, and my personal favorite of the series) brings out in John Mitchell. The relationship between the two vampires mutates and transforms throughout their centuries together: they are friends one moment, mortal enemies the next; they share an almost bone-deep enmity at one point, a fraternal closeness the next. One thing is certain: they are bonded.
The eye-rolling “we’re not so different, you and I” speech is felt, rather than expressed in Being Human; one does not sense that Mitchell is tortured by his connection to Herrick — rather, he seems tortured by Herrick’s absence in his life, even though they bring out the worse in each other. It is a painful thing to behold. Although at the beginning of Series One, Mitchell considers him his enemy, through flashbacks we get the horrifying scope of their mutual dysfunction. Mitchell and Herrick have torn though the decades, mindlessly assaulting, murdering, torturing, kidnapping, holding hostage (you name it) — and enjoying it. One of the most poignant moments in his backstory is when, during the 60s he holds a young woman named Josie against her will in her apartment, as he hides from the police: he and Herrick have just rampaged a few girls the previous night, a few floors above hers, and they need to leave before the cops arrest them. Mitchell roughandles the girl at first, and is more than willing to kill in order to silence her… only to eventually fall for her, and find himself struggling to resist his impulses.
At this point, because we have seen what he is capable of, one fully expects him not to, and the surprise is that he does. That, if anything, reveals much about what we have come to expect from the awful, formidable nature of John Mitchell.
I seesawed throughout, watching him self-destruct over the course of his run on the series: on the one hand, my heart broke for him. I felt silly, I felt like a naive little girl, but I wanted to save him, or at least wanted someone else to do it: I had long stopped expecting he would save himself. On the other hand, he scared the living lights out of me: like a virus, like the absolute menace to society that I knew he was, I wanted — nay, needed him out. I wanted him kept away from the innocence of Annie, from the tenderness of George. As much as I loved him, I needed to be honest with myself: Mitchell was lethal, despite his increasingly sloppy attempts to convince us otherwise. He wasn’t the same as Herrick, he was in many ways worse: at least the latter didn’t try to feign any nonexistent sentiments.
Above all, as Series Three loomed to a close, I died a little inside as I accepted that there would be no redemption for Mitchell after all. He would not benefit from the same leniency as his fellow fanged, and much-adored peers in popular culture. I just knew it. He was too far gone, he did not want to be redeemed. There had always been something punitive about the arc of John Mitchell, after all.
And just as I formulated that thought, I sighed a breath of relief. The thought was pulled out of me as if fished out with a hook, and as inappropriate and confusing as it was at the moment, it was also so, so refreshing: now this is how you write a complicated character.
John Mitchell joins the ranks of those, like John Luther, Marcella Backland or Lana Winters, who at times bewilder and enrage, and from whom I could not look away if I tried. They wave the flags of heroism, but read more like antiheroes, in truth. Their spinning moral compasses often waver, leading them to make terrible decisions that seemingly stem less from their turmoil than an inherent darkness of the soul.
Beyond the obvious reasoning behind our attraction for villains (they are pretty cool), we have to wonder why these people are so irresistible. I have covered the fact that unlike others who play the part of tortured characters, those like John Mitchell are allowed to actually wear that cloak, espousing the standards and characteristics, and taking them so far that these qualities find themselves inverted in them.
By leaning into this, instead of trying to convince us that they are inherently good people, truly complicated character continue to surprise us, and make us second-guess our feelings for them. Herein lies the subtlety at the heart of our infatuation for them: characters like Edward Cullen are explicit about their internal struggle. We are merely passive observers to it, letting our feelings and the chips fall where the author/screenwriter/playwright/etc. lays them. In other words: I don’t break a sweat watching Angel grapple with his duality. Whedon makes it rather obvious that he is innately righteous, and that this is the bottom line, for him. Angel is the one who needs to figure that out; all we have to do is sit back and watch it unfold (again, I recognize that this opinion might not be shared by all).
But with Mitchell (and later in the show, with the delicious vampire newcomer Harry “Hal” Yorke), one is not so sure. He’s the one happily flitting from doing terrible things, to being an absolute sweetheart, and we feel like we are chasing him, trying to figure out where he is going next. This interactivity, this interplay between us and them is what is so powerful: we are engaged into a genuine, actual relationship, and it stirs things in us that linger long after we are done with them.
I began to question my own integrity: what did it say about me if I was still willing to forgive John Mitchell, after I had seen him slaughter an entire train-full of innocent passengers? If I trembled as the authorities investigated his crimes, hoping and praying he would not be caught? I don’t remember asking myself these questions when dealing with other vampires, and this alone proved that Mitchell would remain stamped at the back of my heart forever.
The characterization of Mitchell works for another, much simpler reason. The analogy between vampirism and addiction is as old as time, and for obvious reasons. Both conditions have in common the fact that its sufferers are helplessly attracted to something potentially fatal (for themselves or others), and in its shamefulness, it requires them to hide and isolate themselves from others. Both addiction and vampirism are coiled around the theme of self-control and/or lack thereof, and the periods of abstinence and sobriety are as brutal as the benders.
But again, most vampires in popular culture present these struggles in a tepid, lukewarm way. When Edward calls Bella his “own brand of heroin”, you either groan or you chuckle. He never truly cracks, never truly relapses, for lack of a better word. It’s simply not credible. But when Mitchell, and later Hal Yorke, go through these dreadful episodes, you want to cry: and this is because Toby Whithouse handles the analogy of addiction and sobriety in masterful, and always sensitive ways. Mitchell and Hal’s arcs are framed in the narratives of dependency and addiction and the shittiness that stems from the disease, not from their personalties. You feel them struggling with things they have no control over, things they are unable to help, although they sometimes wish they could. Hence, as a viewer, you feel awful about hating them, even when it seems easy, because aren’t you supposed to be lenient and understanding?
Additionally, as with the aforementioned handling of villainous character traits, the show is thorough, unflinching: there is no glamorization of the aspects of vampirism other shows and films shy away from. It is portrayed as a ruinous, tiring, life-altering condition, a life no one would want for themselves. It works for the same reasons that some stories about mental illness and substance abuse do: the power of these narratives are dependent on the ability and willingness of the creators to strip their characters bare, and lay their uglinesses for us to see, alongside their charm and beauty.
Toby Whithouse makes us hate, truly hate Mitchell and Hal; he makes them go through the wringer, and us with them; it is downright exhausting. He makes us want to slap some sense into them, makes us want to flee them, never see them again, reject them with every thread of our beings… and before we know it, we feel like we have walked the world with them. We love them the way we love friends and family who have put us through hell, while also unveiling their souls to us. Loved ones we could not abandon if we tried.
And this, I believe, is what Whithouse truly intended to show: characters, alive, infuriating, maddening, trying to get by, and above all, being human.