During the first season of The Legend of Vox Machina, longtime Critical Role fans have watched their favorite heroes from the actual play series fall into the familiar patterns of the Briarwood arc; new fans and fans of later campaigns have now spent at least nine episodes with Vox Machina, watching them build up relationships, fight epic battles, and, in some cases, fall in love. But they’ve also witnessed something else: redemption for Keyleth, one of Critical Role’s most powerful and, at times, controversial characters.
Oddly enough, that transformation has everything to do with a stolen kiss. Stolen, that is, from the original version of the story.
[Warning: What follows contains spoilers for season 1 of The Legend of Vox Machina]
In the first season, viewers have had front row seats to the lingering looks between Marisha Ray’s Keyleth and Vax’ildan, played by Liam O’Brien. And after several episodes of soft smiles, some close contact during fight sequences, and one very sweet moment with a finger trap in a magic shop, Vax makes the declaration fans of the original campaign have been waiting for in episode 9.
“You know I’m in love with you, right?” he blurts out.
To which Keyleth responds: “Wait, what? Now?!”
It’s a surprising moment for viewers, and perhaps a confusing one for longtime fans of Critical Role since things played out a little differently the first time around. In the original moment, during episode 33 of Critical Role’s first season, Vax turns to Keyleth and offers his declaration of love — and then lands a kiss. It’s a now-iconic turning point in the campaign, opening up the floor for inter-party romance, and a noticeable omission from the animated show’s otherwise pretty faithful depiction of events.
The characterization of Keyleth in the animated series is entirely consistent with how Ray played her in the show, refined and honed for this new format. According to an interview that Ray gave in 2018, Keyleth’s social awkwardness and uncertainty stemmed at least in part from Ray’s own nerves at joining a table full of established voice actors. But she took ownership of that early role-play decision and made it a core part of Keyleth’s character. Her play style allowed Keyleth to experience doubt in key moments, sometimes resulting in an in-game fumble or a moment of conflict. In an early episode, Ray began to weep in character, as Keyleth attempted to convey her inner turmoil at Vox Machina’s cavalier approach to murder. Her very first moments in the animated series are also spent questioning the group, as she wonders why they stay together.
Keyleth’s anxieties and self-doubt stem, at least in part, from her concerns about her ability to take on the role she is destined for later in life, as leader of the Air Ashari druids. Her fear of failure manifests itself in ways that often have direct negative consequences for the party. In an early battle in the show, Keyleth freezes up in panic when faced with a dragon, and Vex is forced to shake her into action. Later on, she struggles to tap into her powers when asked to help do something as simple as illuminating a dark corridor.
It’s a surprising choice when you consider that Keyleth, as a druid, has vast quantities of elemental power at her disposal. As a player, it can be tempting to play that kind of highly adept magical character (and at times slightly overpowered class) with confidence and bravado, using the most powerful spell at your disposal to have your way. Ray’s choices instead shape Keyleth as someone wrestling with the enormity of her powers, constantly grappling with her own insecurities and self-doubt, and based on the understanding that these kinds of anxieties can have a toll on how people react under pressure. Her time as Keyleth was steeped in the knowledge that it would take her time to overcome those fears, to grow more resilient in order to become the leader her people needed down the line.
Some viewers of the actual play firmly disagreed with many of Keyleth’s choices. That criticism, due to the nature of the live performance of the show, happened in real time, sometimes filling the Twitch chat with vitriol. Some even attacked Ray personally in the process. The harassment was persistent, and occasionally hung over the live games like a dark cloud. It also followed Ray onto social media, to the point that Matthew Mercer and other members of the cast frequently chose to call out her harassers.
What’s fascinating about the situation is that Ray is both a cast member on Critical Role, and simultaneously the company’s creative director. Ray has been instrumental in making Critical Role into the sprawling multimedia company that it is today, contributing as the creative lead for shows like All Work No Play, Exandria Unlimited, and more. In interviews and media appearances, the persona she presents behind the scenes is distinctly different from Keyleth’s brand of awkward deference. Ray appears to command the room, regularly making difficult decisions that impact the entire organization. And yet a core group of toxic fans continue to hold a grudge against her portrayal of Keyleth.
Ray has discussed the toxic nature of both her and her character’s treatment in several interviews. According to her, the crux of the dislike of Keyleth stems from a lack of interest in seeing a flawed, anxious character come into her own.
“Any kind of questioning or self doubt, people are like, ‘can’t lead’,” Ray offers in an interview last year. She smiles ruefully before she offers a ringing: “Nah. Keyleth is gonna lead. She’s gonna show that you can, that people like Keyleth can rise to the occasion.”
As Ray noted in her recent appearance on Critical Role’s Twitch channel (in a subscribers-only video clip), growth was a goal with Keyleth from the start, all the way down to her character design. In the animated series, viewers are given the opportunity not only to see Keyleth overcome small moments of uncertainty, but are also treated to the visualization of her power — power she wields first as small blooms of flowers or vines, that blossoms into blazing orbs of pure sunlight and towering walls of ice. Members of her own party are forced to acknowledge her prowess: Percy comments on his pride in her, and even Vex, who has no reservations about vocalizing her doubt of Keyleth’s abilities, slowly begins to come around.
The budding relationship between Keyleth and Vax also charts Keyleth’s growing confidence. Their romance doesn’t have the space of 33 episodes this time around, but we get flashes that are, in many ways, even more illustrative of that transformation.
Things start slow, with glimmers of awareness that there is something brewing between the druid and the rogue. Keyleth is the first to arrive when Vax throws himself from the palace window, and she literally goes feral when he’s wounded in episode 5. Her feelings are clear in moments of need, when there isn’t time for uncertainty — when Vax is hurt, or threatened. Otherwise, Keyleth’s naivete prevents her from experiencing Vax’s lingering looks as the viewer does: as a clear expression of interest.
When Vax announces his love, it’s earned — Vax’s yearning has been obvious from the get-go. Keyleth’s awareness of his interest is less certain, as is the viewers’ understanding of her stance on a potential romance. And so her surprise and vocal dismay at Vax’s announcement felt earned, too, even if it pushed the kiss actual play fans might have anticipated to the wayside. It’s a deft move on the part of the writers and animators, because it allows Keyleth the thing that she has always needed — time to process her feelings and understand before she responds. When and if Vax’s declaration evolves into something more, Keyleth will have had time to meet him there, as an equal.
At the end of episode 6, as the group’s cleric Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson) splits off from the party, she turns to Keyleth and offers the pointed line: “You’re their light now.” As contradictory as it may seem, the abbreviated timeline of the animated series actually gives Keyleth the time she needs to rise to the occasion — the heightened stakes allow the audience to witness her confidence and powers develop as the series progresses, without hundreds of hours of delay. Keyleth is sweet, kind, and well-meaning, and while she often fumbles, her anxiety and uncertainty do not make her less powerful, even when she falters. She is entirely herself, and entirely relatable. And when it counts, she delivers.
Simply put, she shines.