Season Four’s premiere title, “Growing Pains” is an insufficient term for what The Vampire Diaries and its cast are experiencing this season. The show’s use of “transition”, i.e. “the painful reality of life in spite of death”, better communicates how irrevocably the finale changed things. “Transition” encompasses the falling away of old realities as new abilities and urges come to the surface, and this premiere did its best to contain all those conflicting stages – but as Elena learned, all change is not forward, and we found ourselves back in some unfortunately familiar states at the start of this new year (For us, anyway. For the students of Mystic Falls, senior year evidently can last forever).
The most obvious change brings us to right where we left off, with Elena opening her eyes to her worst nightmare. The whole “Elena becomes a vampire” choice is rife with problems both in-and-outside the TVD universe, but let’s focus on the positive first:
1. The opening scene with the Salvatores was PERFECTION. Have Damon and Stefan ever been in her bedroom at the same time? I’m gonna say no, and this instance perfectly illustrated why – these two have never been on the same page when it comes to how to relate to their objects of desire. Seeing Stefan’s desperate denial chafe against Damon’s cynical, disgusted realism in those first horrible moments when Elena’s fate was rapidly crystallizing? Delectable (seriously, you could taste the tension) because the show is admitting that this conflict is completely untenable, and not just because it’s the same disagreement the brothers have been having since the day they were (re)born.
2. TVD usually sticks to a pretty specific aesthetic – dark and darker, with the threat of intrusion lurking at the edge of every frame (Think about it: how many characters not named Damon have scenes to themselves? These writers have character-separation anxiety). This go-round the cinematographers followed Elena out of her comfort zone, into bright lights, overbearing noises, and sight-lines crammed with information. The random flares, buzzes, and Council goons popping into frame granted us unprecedented access to Elena’s perspective, an intelligent choice that deeply involves us in her death in a way we never were in while she lived. (The manic giggles were another plus – people almost never actually laugh out loud on teen dramas).
3. I am wary of the wider ramifications of Elena’s transformation, but will keep an open mind for the sake of the single moment when Damon’s dual compulsions unravelled, revealing the depth of his feelings for her. That was a scene almost two seasons in the making, and very nearly lived up to the potency of its set-up. The super-imposition of the memory on Elena’s current reality highlighted its relevance as the symbol of all the parts of her she unwittingly keeps buried for fear of the consequences. I’m excited to see what other aspects of her largely-opaque personality will finally rise to the surface.
Now for those unfortunate negatives – and there are many – that I fear might plague the story going forward:
1. Teasing the possibility of returning the narrative to its original dimensions holds more weight when there’s an actual chance of its success, but Stefan’s vow to use this last day of Elena’s life to save her was obviously more about him than her from the get-go, rendering the whole futile exercise emotionally irrelevant. We were there with him when she said she didn’t want to be a vampire, which is why we couldn’t believe he didn’t pull her from the water a second time in last year’s finale. If we’re to accept that he’s now inadvertently given her a third (!) chance at life, I want to see him own that and move on. Begging Bonnie to once again do the impossible on command wasn’t fair to her or Elena; not only had Bonnie just pulled off some major mojo that had preserved the lives of most everyone they hold dear, but dangling the idea of revival in front of Elena was unnecessarily cruel. Two seasons ago when Caroline found herself in this predicament, nobody pleaded to retrieve her soul; Stefan was the perfect mentor because he understood her confusion and set about the business of helping her adapt. Dopplegangers aren’t in any way exempt from the effects of dying with vampire blood in their system (otherwise we would’ve never met Katherine, and Klaus would have a lot more hybrids) so while Bonnie’s run-in with her grandmother on the other side was a fun freak-out for the audience, it ultimately proved no greater point than Damon being the more brutally realistic brother, which we established in the first scene, so why do this again.
2. The B plot, that brilliant body-snatching switcheroo that shocked everyone last May? Yeah, that’s over, with way too little fanfare for something that required that much magical exertion. It just seemed cruel that Bonnie performing her scheduled soul restoration was what pushed the Other Side to punish her (those dead witches apparently have no patience for mission creep). Plus it was a waste of perfectly decent dramatic tension re: this whole Forwood-Klaroline fustercluck that Plec and Co. have decided should be a thing. I was just as happy to see Joseph Morgan’s face again as anybody else, but storytelling-wise this was “Stefan gets trapped in The Tomb” all over again. It was fun to see Michael Trevino play Klaus playing Tyler – the scene where the Hybrid was too high on actually getting one over on Caroline to care about outing himself displayed the humor and hubris that reside in equal measure within the character. (That it happened in the midst of a forest hookup only added to the disturbing hilarity. This kind of ridiculousness is just par the course for Tyler and Caroline at this point). I just wonder where Klaus goes from here, besides his delightfully executed fraternal split from Rebecca. The writers gave us a million little cracks in their bond ( in this episode alone there was his not telling her he was alive until leaving her in the midst of a vampire-hunter car wreck after she’d run Elena and Matt off a bridge to avenge him) that built up to a satisfying explosion of emotions and blood-bags that felt less like a bratty rebellion and more like self-immolating defeat. All they do anymore is take from one another, and she can’t survive on any less than the little scrap of soul she has left. That leaves us with no Original siblings left to play with Klaus, who himself is down a doppleganger…so what does he do now?
3. The deal with the minister taking over the Council was the second-fastest burned-through plotline of the evening, where once again concept triumphed over execution. I’ve been waiting for an injection of Jesus into these proceedings for a while now, and this was the perfect moment – Avenging Angel Alaric revealed to the devout residents of Mystic Falls that there were demons in their midst, and not everyone is as quick to consider coexistence as the Founding Families have been over the past year. Of course some religious leader would rise up to restore order, as the good reverend did dragging Stefan, Caroline, Rebecca, and unwittingly Elena to his backwoods farm where no one could see them burn. My issue with this scenario was the resolution – after the gang was freed (and Elena had her first postmortem snack on one of their guards), this man of God decides to give up the fight and go out in a blaze of glory with his most dedicated compatriots at his side (Well, trapped there anyway. That explosion was a rather unexpected surprise) .
My question is “To what end?” If they got free, catch them again; if you want to garner sympathy for your cause, at least make it look like a series of animal attacks/ grisly Ripper murders, not a bomb. This isn’t Lost or Breaking Bad – here our characters disintegrate slowly and dramatically, or disappear altogether. We don’t really do earth-shattering booms or blinding light, especially when it serves no narrative purpose but to once again kill off a potential villian before he has a chance to really flex.
4. Stefan and Elena on the roof at the end made me want to die, and I’m one of the few people left who can stomach them as a couple with some level of maturity. A) Bonnie had no time to make a daywalker ring, she was pulling Freaky-Fridays all day; B) the whole retcon where Damon met her first was stupid and cheap, but it happened, and needs to be acknowledged, along with the First Confession of Love, which was neither stupid nor contrived, and definitely bore repeating. When Stefan comes to himself and starts teaching her to be a vampire for real, he will tell her that in this afterlife taking the easy way is tantamount to losing your soul (if you still believe you have one) and she is certainly taking the path of least resistance right now. Her choosing Stefan in the finale is immaterial; she died in the interim. That gives you leeway (and certainly time, considering her condition) to weigh your options. I don’t care if she reaches the exact same conclusion, I just want a re-evaluation. I was under the impression this episode began with her finally opening her eyes.
Next: 4×02, a town-wide “Memorial”, where I’ll make up with Jeremy and Matt for leaving them out of this recap 9so many boys, so little time)