Originally aired September 24, 2009
Written by Barbie Klingman and Brian M. Holdman
Directed by John Dahl
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Just minutes into the first quarter, Damon Salvatore grabs the ball and runs with it.
The episode opens with hapless Caroline waking up with a nasty bite wound on her neck. Vampire bites on The Vampire Diaries aren’t sanitized, little fang pricks as on True Blood but messy, ragged tears. TVD doesn’t sexualize the drinking of blood the way the HBO show does. The blood drinking on TVD is depicted as violent, awful, and often painful. Also, unlike True Blood, TVD must adhere to broadcast standards, so Caroline spent the night with Damon, got bitten, didn’t realize it (apparently), had the wherewithal to put on a nightie, and then woke up to discover she was in bed with a vampire. Caroline’s magically appearing nightie is so minor (and necessary if The CW wanted to avoid an FCC investigation) that I really should get over it, but sometimes these little things just nag at me. I also have to wonder who washes Caroline’s bedding. Wouldn’t that bloody pillowcase make her mother suspicious?
Or maybe it’s just me.
As the title of the episode suggests, this episode revolves around the high school football team. Tyler Lockwood, town douchebag, decides to boost his bromance with Matt. In Tyler’s conception of friendship, it’s okay to use his friend’s messed up sister for sex, but Tyler can’t allow a new guy, Stefan, to move in on his friend’s ex-girlfriend, Elena. So he decides to show up Stefan with a display of alpha male assholiness. Stefan, however, displays astonishingly adept reflexes, a display which leads to Stefan earning a place on the school football team. Later, Tyler gets so frustrated with Stefan swooping in one afternoon and becoming the team’s star player that he deliberately injures Stefan on the field. When Stefan sets his own broken finger and it immediately returns to normal, the viewers see that vampires have miraculous healing powers.
The physical appearance of actors sometimes doesn’t matter. In the show, Elena is dark, not blonde as in the books. Bonnie is African-American, not a green-eyed redhead of Irish descent. Fine. But everything about the way the character of Tyler Lockwood is written both in the books and the show suggests that he should be a physically imposing thug. However, Michael Trevino, though muscular, is a tiny guy. The scenes of his threatening freshman Jeremy don’t really work with Steven R. McQueen looming above him. His somewhat rapey behavior toward Vicki doesn’t play well when Kayla Ewell towers over him.
Although the series hasn’t hit its stride yet, this episode represents an improvement over the first two, largely as a result of the development of the character of Damon Salvatore. The character emerges as one of the most charmingly complex on television in two nicely juxtaposed scenes at Elena’s dinner party. Elena has arranged for Bonnie and Stefan to have some quality bonding time over Italian take-out with the hope that Bonnie will get over her aversion to Stefan—the budding witch got the heebie-jeebies when she touched him and felt “death.” Elena’s plan goes smoothly until Damon uses his compulsion over Caroline to finagle an invitation into Elena’s house. (According to the rules of the series, vampires must be invited into a personal residence.)
During the dinner party, Damon engineers some alone time with Elena washing dishes, leaving the others in the living room. The scene with Elena and Damon shows that Elena, despite not knowing the full story of the brothers Salvatore, is not completely clueless and helpless. Moments earlier, Damon awkwardly and obviously worked Katherine in to the conversation at large. Once alone with him, Elena cuts through his bullshit and reveals to him that he’s unwittingly exposed that he loved Katherine himself. It’s the first time we learn of Damon’s feelings for Katherine and the first time Damon has an honest moment in the series. He tells Elena of Katherine’s death in a fire, and she expresses sympathy for his loss. Damon’s reaction is well done by Somerhalder, a brief crinkling of the forehead discloses how much Damon is affected. While Damon is trying to hide everything personal about himself, he can’t help but be moved when Elena becomes the first person to acknowledge his feelings for Katherine. Damon also offers Elena some much needed honesty when he advises her to quit cheerleading. He implicitly tells her that it’s okay for her to have different priorities and to be different after the death of her parents.
The Damon and Elena moment is interrupted when Bonnie enters to help with the clean-up, and the sequence cuts to Stefan and Caroline alone in the living room. Caroline, under Damon’s compulsion, prattles on about Elena’s past relationship with Matt. Stefan, however, understands the situation and cuts her off by commenting on her scarf. When he asks her to remove it, Caroline (in a nice moment by Candice Accola) displays her cognitive confusion. She knows she can’t remove it, but she doesn’t know why. Caroline’s vulnerability reminds the viewer that, as sympathetic as Damon is in the previous scene, he’s still a monster manipulating a young woman for his own mysterious ends. When Damon returns and compels Caroline to leave the room, Stefan calls him on it. “They are people, Damon. She’s not a puppet. She doesn’t exist for your amusement, for you to feed on whenever you want to.” Damon replies, “Sure she does. They all do. They’re whatever I want them to be. They’re mine for the taking.” According to Damon, this statement reflects his conception of what is normal. The contrast between the two brothers seems apparent here. Stephan views the world from a human and a humane perspective while Damon’s viewpoint is vampiric and sociopathic.
After the dinner party, the viewers see Elena and Stefan talking over the evening and moving quickly to heavy petting. Too quickly. It’s pretty early in the relationship (and the series) for them to be moving to the shirt-removal stage. However, when Stefan removes his shirt, he’s no longer the one Elena is straddling. It’s Damon. The scene cuts to Elena gasping awake in her darkened bedroom alone. Her make-out session with the Salvatore brothers was all a dream. A crow perches on her window sill to show that Damon manipulated Elena’s dream. (This is one of the last times that we’ll see Damon’s crow in the series. The writers decided to drop the Damon/crow connection from the books.)
Although Stefan does not know of the offending dream, his observation of Damon’s compulsion of Caroline leads him to protect Elena by giving her a necklace filled with vervain, an herb which can block vampires’ attempts at coercion. In addition to the Salvatore brothers’ daylight rings, we now have a vervain-filled necklace—magic jewelry will play a large role in the series.
The special occasion for this episode is a school pep rally. There, a fight breaks out between Tyler and Jeremy. Stefan breaks it up, but Jeremy accidentally slashes Stefan across the hand with a bottle. When Elena goes to help him, he tries to hide his hand, but she forces him to open it, revealing blood but no cut. Elena gets her first hint that Stefan is not what he appears to be, but an encounter with Damon where he attempts to compel her without success (she wears the magic necklace and ends up smacking him) drives Stefan’s hand from her mind.
Damon confronts Stefan about the vervain and threatens Elena. Stefan suggests that Damon has a core of humanity that feels sympathy for Elena, that he is not the monster he pretends to be. Stefan claims that the fact that Damon hasn’t killed him despite every opportunity over the last 145 years proves that Damon still has human feelings. Damon’s response is to kill without remorse and with impunity the first person who comes along, the history teacher-football coach. To prove that he can.
In the books, Damon kills Mr. Tanner in self-defense. That is not the case here, and I wondered if the show runners were writing themselves into a corner by making Damon a cold-blooded killer. But I had to dismiss the notion almost as soon as it came to mind. Damon is anything but cold-blooded. The confrontation between Stefan and Damon shows Stefan digging into his brother’s giant exposed nerve, his love for Katherine. When Stefan says, “Katherine is dead. And you hate me because you loved her. And you torture me because you still do. And that, my brother, that is your humanity,” Damon can’t even look at his brother. Damon reacts like the unstable, seething mass of emotion he is, by trying to show that he has no emotions. Only when Damon’s denial settles in can he turn back to Stefan. Mr. Tanner’s death is a result of Damon’s need to prove his lack of humanity—to his brother and to himself.
In Stefan’s final voice over, the viewers learn that Damon has succeeded where his brother is concerned. Stefan states that he believes Damon really is a heartless monster. Not all voice-over narration is bad. Bad voice over usually entails pointless thematic pondering or exposition that should have been revealed through action or dialogue. Most of the voice-over narration in the early episodes of TVD is bad, but this voice over is an example of a good use of the technique because it displays dramatic irony. While Stefan denies his brother’s humanity, the viewers see it displayed as Damon watches over Elena as she sleeps, tenderly brushing the hair off her face. When Elena wakes up to turn off the light—she had fallen asleep writing in her diary—Damon has vanished. Of course, the viewer doesn’t know what Damon is thinking in this last scene, or, more precisely, who he is thinking of—Elena or her doppelganger, Katherine.
The character work done on Damon elevates this episode above its predecessors, and that character and all his charisma and contradictions will carry the series through the next few episodes. However, the viewers get some hints here that the characters of Elena and Stefan will not be completely overwhelmed. Both show a surprising parity in their interactions with him. Even though they are not as immediately compelling, the writers have shown that Elena and Stefan are capable of developing to help carry the weight of the series.