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The Vampire Diaries, S01E04: Family Ties; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired October 1, 2009
Written by Andrew Kreisberg and Brian Young
Directed by Guy Ferland

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars

Episode tries to do too much, but developing relationship between the Salvatore brothers shows promise.

This episode is one of strong moments that never quite come together into a satisfying whole. One such moment is Damon’s critique of Twilight. “What’s so special about this Bella girl? Edward’s so whipped.” (The statement becomes ironic when considered in light of the fact that Damon becomes so Elena-whipped over the first three seasons that he all but gives her his balls to wear as earrings.)

The best part of episode four is the developing relationship between brothers Stefan and Damon. They have two playful but snippy scenes at the beginning of the episode. In the first one, Stefan stabs Damon with a letter opener for invading his dream with mind control and for offending him with his morbid humor. While Damon concedes that he deserved to be stabbed, he stabs Stefan back for ruining his designer shirt. Stefan lifts his own shirt to examine his rapidly healing wound, exposing his rippling abs. (Paul Wesley’s torso should be bronzed and put on display in the Smithsonian as the most beautiful thing ever to come out of New Jersey.)

The second interaction between the Salvatore brothers is laced with underlying conflict. Stefan attempts to stop his brother’s killing spree by slipping vervain into his favorite scotch (vervain can weaken vampires in addition to blocking their power of compulsion) while feigning friendliness over a shared drink. Damon easily sees through Stefan’s ruse and scoffs, “You can’t roofie me like some drunk sorority girl.” In addition to forwarding the plot of the episode, the scene hints at the different experience the brothers have had being vampires. While Damon, who became a vampire sometime in his 20s, crows (BAD REVIEWER PUN ALERT) about being an “eternal stud” (BAD DIALOGUE ALERT—really? Who refers to himself as a “stud”?), Stefan, who was turned at 17, snarls, “Yes, being 150-year-old teenager has been the height of my happiness.” (Unfortunately, TVD suffers from the problem that all vampire shows do—actors age while their characters do not. Wesley, who is now in his 30s, strains all credulity as someone who is supposed to look 17.)

This interplay between the brothers works because of the chemistry it shows between Wesley and Somerhalder. One of the reasons the series has been successful creatively is that all three relationships in the core triangle between Elena and Damon and Stefan have strong chemistry. In too many television love triangles, it’s apparent early on which pair belongs together and who’s the odd man (or woman) out. However, with TVD, both Stelena and Delena (the portmanteau words given by shippers to the two romantic permutations of the triangle) have chemistry; both relationships work on their own. Furthermore, the love-hate relationship between the brothers themselves is at least equally, if not more, intriguing than either romantic relationship.

The special occasion in this episode is a party at the Lockwood mansion to celebrate the town’s founders. Early in the episode we meet Mayor Lockwood and his wife, Carol, and from their snobbish, condescending behavior, we the viewers begin to understand why their son, Tyler, turned out to be such a douchebag. Providing security for the party is Sheriff Liz Forbes (Marguerite MacIntyre), Caroline’s mother. Sheriff Forbes expresses her disapproval of Damon as Caroline’s date, and Caroline taunts her mother with the fact that Caroline’s father left her for another man. Even though we feel bad for Caroline that Damon is taking advantage of her, we are constantly reminded that she’s a nasty piece of work. (I’m frustrated that later on in the series, after Damon and Liz become friends, in what is surprisingly not the oddest friendship that Damon develops, no acknowledgement is ever made between the two of them about this first meeting or the fact that Damon dated Liz’s daughter and treated her horribly.)

At the party, Elena notices the register from the original founders’ party 150 years earlier. Gilberts and Forbeses and Lockwoods all signed the register, as did Stefan and Damon Salvatore. The Salvatore brothers cover their tracks by claiming their ancestors were also named Stefan and Damon, two feuding brothers who were shot and killed while trying to save the woman they loved from the burning church, and, thus, a bit more exposition about the Salvatore brothers’ history is presented.

Imparting the exposition in dribs and drabs creates hermeneutic momentum (a narrative force that keeps the viewer interested through unanswered questions). However, this approach proves detrimental to the viewers’ early understanding of the character of Stefan. This character becomes much richer than he seems at first. In these early episodes, Damon is the witty, charismatic one, and Stefan is the repressed, dependable one. Stefan’s outwitting of Damon in this episode is the first hint we get of Stefan’s hidden badassness. Badassosity? Either way, it’s fun to see Badass Stefan come out to play.

Also in this episode, a new threat, the Founders’ Council, is introduced. It includes most of the adult characters on the show: the Lockwoods, Sheriff Forbes, and TV newscaster Logan Fell (Chris Johnson). These descendents of the town’s founding families know about the vampires in the town and seek a pocket watch belonging to the Gilberts, which will somehow help the Council members defeat these vampires. One of the strengths of the series is its thematic complexity, an example of which is the fact that, as the Council becomes more corrupt and less ideologically pure, it, conversely, becomes more humane.

Two more pieces of magical jewelry are revealed in this episode; in addition to the Salvatore brothers’ daylight rings and Elena’s vervain-filled necklace, we now have a mysterious pocket watch and an ugly crystal pendant. These pieces aren’t merely MacGuffins; it’s less important what characters will do to get these items than the powers these items have. And these won’t be the last shiny trinkets introduced in the series by far. The amount of jewelry in the series makes me wonder if the writers hold their meetings in Rogers & Hollands. Magic jewelry joins shirtless actors and special occasions as an element of the series that’s so abundant it verges into the ridiculous if a viewer were to stop and consider it. Better to accept it and move on.

The biggest problem with the episode is the vast amount of material crammed into it. In addition to developments in the main triangle, Stefan’s triumph over his brother, the breakdown of Damon and Caroline’s relationship, a Salvatore history lesson, and the introduction of adult characters and the Founders’ council, we also get Aunt Jenna’s romantic history with cheating Logan Fell, Vicki’s rejection of Tyler in favor of Jeremy, Bonnie’s ability to light candles with her mind, and the single most awkward line of the entire series, when Elena tells Stefen, “You’re the mystery guy, and I like that, but with mystery comes secrets.” Ugh. Putting all of this into a single hour results in a lack of coherency and the inability of the viewer to appreciate fully anything that happens, with the exception of Stefan’s ultimate triumph, which is simply too nifty to spoil how he manages it.

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