So this is Part One of my “Better Late Than Never” trilogy of recaps. This episode, 3×20, was the initial cause of my derailment—I hated the idea of Alaric becoming a vampire so much that I couldn’t find perspective on the episode as a whole. With a month’s removal and the final two episodes under my belt, this re-watch was my most rewarding to date, bringing “Do Not Go Gentle” from the doghouse into my Top 10. In my teaser for “Heart of Darkness” I asked “Who will rage against the dying of the light?” The answer is all of the characters, in their own unique ways—everyone is struggling to stave off the increasingly inevitable.
There is a flurry of mythology at the start of the episode in the form of body-switching and multiple personalities and various deceptions that really only amounts to one thing: nothing will be what it seems. This was supposed to be the third in the annual tradition of “dance” episodes, but we only really spend ten minutes there – and its “Twenties” theme, an interruption of time’s march after the Fifties and Sixties, highlights that something is off. For these characters it was a decade of loss—Rebecca lost a lover, Klaus a brother, and Stefan another piece of his soul—and this dance will prove no different, in spite of the players’ best efforts.
Esther’s objective is, as always, a more black-and-white version of The Gang’s: to rid the world of those that would destroy the living. Her mission is not deterred by the grey realities family, morality, and logic illustrate; she will send evil back to hell, even if that evil is her children, even if it means stealing her daughter’s body, even if it means repeating Original mistakes. Her rage is pure, and unbending, and ultimately defeated (for now) by its own self-righteousness—for how could Alaric, her solution, be her undoing?
Klaus’ rage is similarly unchanged: his desire to be free to survive, in spite of the abomination that is his existence, manifests once again in his continued pursuit of Caroline. The fact that she isn’t interested in him, that he stole her boyfriend’s free will, that his thriving rides on destroying all she holds dear? Irrelevant. This night, she is the Daisy to his Gatsby, that which cannot be possessed by the man who has everything. His supposedly unlimited power will not let this stand, and so he reaches for the light across the bay, sowing doubt that the life she has is the one that will satisfy the demands of eternal life. The title of this recap is his modus operandi. We’ll see if it serves.
Caroline and Tyler find themselves at odds again, but at once more intimately and more tragically than before. While his return saw a contribution to a never-ending string of missed signals and disagreements, the Twenties dance lays bare their overall worldview going into the final arc of the season. Caroline remains, at the heart of all their misfortune, hopeful, cheering for a reunion between her friends Stefan and Elena, cautioning Matt to protect his heart, and reassuring Tyler of her lasting fidelity. Tyler, on the other hand, ends the night resigned—why not just kill Klaus while everyone’s trapped here and be done with it, bloodline consequences be damned? His inability to claim Caroline as his own at school, a place of comfort and control, leaves him despairing of anything but tragedy for the two of them. In this moment, he’s done raging.
Damon, no stranger to the struggle against exterior and interior natures, continues as he usually does in these scenarios—playing the “adult” who puts it all together while the “kids” worry about dances and dates. He initially refuses to let Alaric fall off the grid, but upon discovering how far he’s fallen (you have to take the herbs for them to work) is the one to make the decision, as he did with Abby, that the only way to save the dead is to add to their ranks. In the end Alaric’s actual death is out of his hands, as the vampire hunter kills his killer before deciding it is best to die now, as himself, than let his rage consume his possible eternity. And so Damon’s forceful nature must yield to the wishes of his best (and only) friend, lighting torches for a silent farewell (I think they were his idea), saying goodbye to Meredith, and keeping it light as they sit side by side for one final drink—“is this the part where you give me a dream?” ‘Ric teases, proving that Damon always had more confidantes than just Elena— before letting go of the brother he chose.
Jeremy is finding it increasingly harder to contain his emotions. After months of loopholes, escape clauses, and Hail Mary passes, he refuses to believe that their luck in defending one another has run out—of course they can save Alaric, and anyone who says otherwise is simply giving up too easily. He will rage, and rage, and rage until the last, rejecting Alaric’s passage of the torch because he has already accepted the end of his childhood and beginning of life as a Gilbert man. His final drink with Matt says as much—all the fathers are dead. It’s up to them to represent the regular men of Mystic Falls.
Elena and Stefan push back by literally going back in time—to the style of the Twenties and the start of their relationship. True time travel is of course impossible, and their acceptance of history as an integral part of their present was a deft way to slide Stefan into his old persona without too much narrative dissonance. This is the Stefan we remember—witty, thoughtful, apologetic, and bound to make Delena fans gag. My only response is Caroline’s—after the previous episode’s epic roadtrip, it’s his turn. Whether you believe the “epic love” stuff is up to you, but that scene in the gym where he brought their relationship this season full circle came dangerously close. While I’m of the mind that Damon never quite got his fair shake this year, there is no small amount of emotion left between his brother and Elena because their love was interrupted, not ended, and that might make all the difference in the end. Now that Elena has no chance of returning to the child she was—“I don’t have anyone anymore”—the choice of who will face adulthood with her just became much more fraught, and such uncertainty can thrust us towards the familiar, especially if it is unfinished. Damon is losing his window, should he have the emotional energy to be concerned about it.
Bonnie’s rage is . . . muddled in this episode. It definitely has not disappeared—her coldness towards both Klaus, who is willing to repeat his earlier emotional torture to find his doppleganger, and the Salvatores, who are not begging her to make any major sacrifices for once, is proof of this—but the audience gets the sense that she is attempting to sublimate it in a way that isn’t entirely healthy. I understand the exhaustion and wistfulness evident in the responses “apparently that’s what I do” (to the question of her constantly saving everyone) and “sometimes I think that I’d settle for just ordinary” (to her not-brother’s compliment that she is in fact extraordinary). I fully appreciate her need to have someone that is just hers, and not the brother or ex-boyfriend of someone else. But I can’t see her confiding in Jaime as anything but evidence of the extent of her isolation, always slightly self-imposed but lately reinforced by both circumstance and her friends’ overreliance on her abilities to undo someone else’s mistakes. Bonnie is adrift, with no particular anchor within a unit that considers her an intrinsic part. Such loneliness turns her vital strength into a weakness, leaving her vulnerable to outside influence in a way the others, with their multiple confidantes prepared to drag them from the edge, would never understand. When the witches task her with completing Esther’s desperate task, her desires are pushed aside to serve the fury of the natural order. Her rage is once again lost in the cosmic shuffle.
Alaric’s funeral song tells us “Be still/And know that I am with you”, and this installment reached for stillness—there is no peace in Mystic Falls, but the muted states of regret, despair, and quiet hope were enough to suffice. It is perhaps the best possible tribute to Alaric Saltzman, the man in constant upheaval who befriended the men he should’ve hunted, mourned women that never wholly belonged to him, and parented children that were never biologically his. His journey is finished, but his rage remains—undying, armed, and anything but gentle. This will not end quietly.
Next: Part 2 of “Better Late Than Never”, a look back at “Before Sunset”(3×21).