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The Vampire Diaries, S01E02: The Night of the Comet; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired September 17, 2009
Written by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec
Directed by Marcos Siega

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating: ★★ stars

More about the world and the characters of The Vampire Diaries is revealed as the show struggles to find its groove.

The second episode of The Vampire Diaries comes off like an extension of the first. We’re still learning about the world of the show and the rules that govern that world. Yes, there’s a new special occasion, a party to celebrate the return of a comet after 145 years, but this party looks and seems like the party in the pilot. The comet must have some significance, right? Bonnie relates that her grandmother told her it was a harbinger of evil. The episode, however, doesn’t reveal what that significance is.

“The Night of the Comet” begins with another random couple being attacked in the middle of nowhere, followed by another Elena/Stefan voice-over duet. Apparently, they are both really happy they’re in each other’s lives. Sweet. High fructose corn syrup sweet. Stefan should probably be more concerned about the increasing number of “animal attacks” around Mystic Falls, but he’s too busy making goo-goo eyes at Elena in history class.

Much of episode deals with the shaky start to their relationship. After receiving some encouragement from her girlfriends, Elena seeks out Stefan after school. The viewers see the Salvatore house for the first time. (The house used in the pilot has been replaced by the permanent set.) The set decorators and location managers have done a good job. The house is a monument to neo-Gothic excess. In other words, while its appearance would give the townsfolk no reason to question it, it still could pass as a vampire’s lair, or the lair of vampires, as Damon has now taken up residence as well. (Considering the mansion the Salvatore brothers reside in, I would think that Damon could afford a comb. Apparently, not.)

And it’s Damon that Elena runs into at the mansion, marking the first meeting between these characters. This encounter is crucial to the trajectory of the series. So far, the viewers have seen Damon only as a murderous monster. Damon must have other facets in order to make him a viable competitor for Elena’s affections. The scene is not without its flaws. The dialogue, although not awkwardly candid like much of the dialogue in the episode, lacks subtlety, as does the way Ian Somerhalder delivers it. What does work in the scene is the intense chemistry between Nina Dobrev and Somerhalder. Elena’s interactions with Stefan are marked by a natural rapport, the chemistry between Dobrev and Paul Wesley being one of a relaxed companionability. Dobrev and Somerhalder have a very different type of chemistry. The dynamic between Elena and Damon is characterized by intensity and uneasiness. Stefan puts Elena at ease; Damon challenges her.

In the scene, Damon strongly hints that Stefan is not over his last love, Katherine. This is the first time Elena has heard of Katherine and the first time the viewers learn that Stefan and Katherine were romantically involved, though it was an easy guess (I assume. I had already read the novels when I watched the show). The whole encounter puts Elena off-balance, and Stefan’s cool reception at finding her talking to Damon makes her want to back off their budding relationship. As she states to Aunt Jenna about Stefan, “He’s on the rebound and has raging family issues.” Aunt Jenna poo-poos Elena’s objections, saying, “Wait ‘til you meet a guy who has mommy issues, or cheating issues, or amphetamine issues.”

Aunt Jenna’s abilities as an authority figure are called into question in this episode. Jeremy has racked up an impressive amount of truancy, given that it’s the first week of school, and his history teacher dresses Jenna down for her lack of parenting skills, especially for not noticing that Jeremy is on drugs. Jenna confesses to Elena her feelings of inadequacy to the role she was thrust into. The show doesn’t continue the storyline of Jenna’s struggles to be the guardian to two teenagers. (In fact, the folks behind the scenes clearly decided not to give the Gilbert siblings any adult guidance at all. Aunt Jenna remains their guardian, but she acts as more of a place-filler. There needs to be an adult there because one would legally be required in the real world, but the writers don’t seem to want to put any authoritative limit on the teens’ behavior. As the episodes go on, Jenna kind of shrugs and frowns but doesn’t do much when the teens in her care total the car, have opposite-sex sleepovers, disappear for days at a time, find severely injured family members in the kitchen, attempt suicide…Okay, Jenna never learns about that last one, but it’s probably something that she should be aware of.) Enjoy Jenna’s attempts to be a good guardian here in episode 2 because this is the last time you’ll see them.

Stefan’s behavior seems out-of-character. Stefan has been so Elena-focused that the viewer would expect him to smooth things over with Elena before calling his brother on the carpet for spooking her. But if he did that, the episode would be over. I find conflicts and complications that depend on characters acting out-of-character frustrating. The conflict between Elena and Stefan in this episode, though interesting for what it reveals about Elena’s character, is easily resolved because it largely depends on Elena not getting immediate reassurance from Stefan that he’s interested in her, which he soon provides.

What we learn about Elena is that she fears happiness surrounded by any uncertainty, that she fears that happiness will soon be taken away. These fears are natural after the sudden death of her parents the previous spring. But Elena musters her courage, and she and Stefan talk over the anxiety Damon has caused. Elena’s carpe diem moment, when she puts her fears aside, also seems to come too easily. Her apprehension about connecting with someone so soon after such a major life tragedy doesn’t seem like something that could be resolved in a single episode. If there’s one major flaw about the series, it’s the show’s uneven treatment of major tragedies. Sometimes, these tragedies haunt the characters; other times, the characters act like nothing awful has befallen them. The impact of tragedy on the characters’ lives often depends on what’s convenient for the writers at the moment.

The show lays down some rules governing vampires in this episode. We learn that vampires have super-hearing. More importantly, we find out that vampires have the power of compulsion. They can alter the behavior of people. They can also alter people’s memories. However, because Stefan refuses to drink human blood, his powers are weakened. He cannot stop Damon from killing people by using mere strength. He fails to alter permanently the memory of a survivor of one of Damon’s attacks, which he must do to prevent her from revealing that she was the victim of a vampire attack. (Not all vampire attacks are fatal, but the cautious vampire must either kill his or her victim or compel the victims in some way to prevent them from revealing who or what attacked them.)

The episode’s central scene comes after Damon realizes that one of his victims is walking around with a memory of his attacking her. He grabs her and lures Stefan to them for a showdown. He uses his much stronger power of compulsion to alter the girl’s memory. He makes her believe that she was attacked by Stefan, a vampire, and then tells Stefan that, in order to prevent her from running down the street screaming “vampire” and pointing at Stefan, Stefan will have to feed on her blood to have enough power to compel her and change that memory. Stefan refuses and calls Damon’s bluff. Damon revises her memory so that she believes she was attacked by an animal. In this scene, the viewer learns that Stefan will not feed on human blood even to save himself. Also, Damon’s actions show that he is more concerned with getting his brother back on a human diet than with ruining Stefan’s life or forcing him to leave town. Stefan, like the viewer, doesn’t know what to make of this behavior; he can’t figure out what his brother is doing in Mystic Falls.

In the episode’s shocking final scene, what Damon is doing at the moment is engaging in an act of (implied—this is broadcast television) oral intimacy with one of Elena’s friends. He lifts his head up from south of the border and his fangs come out. As the young lady screams, the screen goes black. It’s an effective way to end an episode. The viewer doesn’t know yet if the show is going to let one of its main vampires kill a character who, so far, has gotten significant screen time. Certainly, we’re not in the “Twilight zone.” Here, the vampires kill people and have sex…possibly at the same time.

Stuff that Bothers Only Me:

Early in the episode, Stefan shows Elena his first edition of Wuthering Heights to prove to her that Emily Brontë wrote the novel under a pseudonym. He offers the book to her. She refuses the gift but, then, mentions that she would like to read the book again and decides that she’ll just borrow it. And he lets her.

No one reads a historic first edition! That’s what cheap paperbacks are for. Stefan and Elena shouldn’t be passing it around during school. It should be kept in a safe place and touched only with archival gloves.

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