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The Vampire Diaries, S01E09: History Repeating; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired 12 November 2009
Written by Bryan M. Holdman and Brian Young
Directed by Marcos Siega

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Masterful scenes between the Salvatore brothers and a huge revelation lift up an uneven, plot-packed episode.

This episode is jammed packed with important plot developments. I wish all of them could have been presented in an equally compelling way. Unfortunately, the episode is uneven.

First off, Matt Davis joins the cast as the new history teacher, Alaric Saltzman. (Alaric, as a teacher, won me over when he described students’ typical research efforts as “Wikipedia regurgita.”) Davis has an appealing good-guy earnestness that hinders the show’s clumsy attempts to make him seem mysterious and potentially nefarious when he’s first introduced. Oh, look! He has a ring just like the Salvatore brothers’ daylight rings! Does that mean Alaric’s a vampire?! No. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s a piece of magical jewelry with an entirely different function than any of the other magic trinkets we’ve seen so far, but we won’t find out what it does for another six episodes or so.

Speaking of magical trinkets, we’re now into the sixth episode that features the saga of the ugly crystal. Poor Bonnie believes she’s being haunted by the spirit of her ancestor, the witch Emily Bennett (Bianca Lawson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the original owner of the crystal. Bonnie tosses the crystal away, but it magically returns to her. So, what do the girls decide to do? Hold a séance, of course, because that’s what the writers need the characters to do, not because it makes sense as something they would actually do. At least, the scene is written with some humor, having Caroline mock Bonnie’s less than enthusiastic invocation of Emily’s spirit, “Uh, Emily, you there?”

This episode reveals the purpose of the crystal (and the comet from back in episode 2), and it’s a doozy, all tied up with Damon’s reason for returning to Mystic Falls and the goal that he’s been working toward since he arrived. The revelation of Damon’s plan is handled masterfully. It’s so well done that I resent the clunkier parts of the episode. The Stefan/Damon interactions that lead up to the great revelation display humor and emotional intensity. They show the subtler aspects of the brothers’ relationship that so far have been only hinted at.

The day begins—the episode’s action takes place in a single day—with the brothers’ mimicking each other—showing a humorous self-awareness on the writers’ part and also showing the brothers behaving like, well, brothers, teasing each other. Stefan, who, despite being the “good brother,” is more adept at emotional manipulation, and he tries bonding with Damon to get him to reveal his “diabolical master plan.” Damon sees through Stefan’s ploy—darts, alcohol, football, reminiscing about the good old days—and calls him on it. However, the scene is written so well and performed so flawlessy by Ian Somerhalder that the viewers see that Damon is the brother more driven by emotions than Stefan, and they come to understand that, as much as Damon has vowed to give his brother an eternity of misery, he truly longs for the communion they once shared before Katherine came between them.

Stefan changes strategies and, instead of buddying up to Damon, he tries a combination of being honest and pushing Damon’s emotional buttons in a scene that’s one of the best in the series so far.

Stefan communicates his understanding of what happened with Katherine, “It wasn’t real, Damon—our love for Katherine. She compelled us; we didn’t have a choice. It took me years to sort that out, to truly understand what she did to us.”

Damon laughs it off and starts to walk away. “Oh, no, Stefan, we are not taking that on tonight.”

Stefan tries the direct approach. “What do you want with Katherine’s crystal?”

Damon thinks about what Stefan has said and realizes that Stefan knows more about the crystal than he should. “How do you know it was Katherine’s? Emily gave it to her on her last night. I was with her, and you…weren’t.” He flashes his crooked grin.

“I was the last one to see her, Damon,” Stefan says with an implication that Damon can’t miss. And doesn’t that just wipe the smirk off of Damon’s face. Stefan continues more forcefully, “Now, what do you want with Katherine’s crystal?”

“She didn’t tell you?” Damon asks, trying to hold his emotions together.

Stefan decides to poke the bear by saying, “We had other things on our mind.”

Damon unleashes his aggression. “I could rip your heart out and not think twice about it.”

“Yeah, I heard that before,” Stefan responds, and, if Wesley overplays the line a bit, it’s just a quibble on my part and doesn’t detract from the scene.

In a moment, the viewers see Damon run the gamut of emotions from fratricidal anger to smugness when he realizes how to get the upper hand in an interaction where, so far, he’s been outmaneuvered by his younger brother.

He reveals “I have a bigger surprise, Stefan. I’m going to bring her back.” He gives a saucy eyebrow wiggle and walks away from Stefan, who’s left standing dumb with shock.

It turns out that Katherine, though long believed to have perished in the church fire that wiped out Mystic Falls’ vampire population in 1864, is alive and trapped in a tomb beneath the church. The tomb couldn’t be opened until the comet returned, and the crystal is some kind of mystical key. Damon’s goal this whole time has been to open the tomb and set Katherine free.

Stefan is too shocked when he learns Katherine is alive to know how to react before the plotlines of the episode come together in the climax. In 1864, knowing the townspeople of Mystic Falls were coming after the vampires, Damon made a deal with Emily Bennett—protect Katherine in exchange for Damon’s protection of Emily’s children. Emily agreed because she knew the townspeople would come after the witches after they disposed of the vampires. Unfortunately, in order to protect Katherine, Emily had to save all the vampires in the church by sealing them in the tomb. So, if Damon releases Katherine, he will also release 26 other starving, vengeance-hungry vampires into Mystic Falls.

Emily’s spirit can’t let that happen. She reneges on the deal by possessing Bonnie and destroying the crystal, ensuring that the tomb remains sealed. Damon responds in typical rash, unthinking Damon fashion by ripping out Bonnie’s throat.

Stefan saves Bonnie with healing vampire blood and goes to confront Damon, who, now that his initial anger is spent, has sunk into a devastated misery. He looks smaller, like someone’s let all the air out of him. Before Stefan can speak, Damon divulges something that Stefan probably should have understood on a more conscious level. Damon says, “Katherine never compelled me. I knew everything every step of the way. It was real for me.” Finally, in a voice of utter defeat, he says, “I’ll leave now.” Gone is the cocksure swagger, the charismatic charm, the silky menace, all the “Damonness.” The scene is filmed with the camera panning through trees in the foreground, and trees block the actors at intervals. It’s a directing technique that goes back to William Wellman (Wings, A Star Is Born [1937]), who would block actors’ faces during the most emotional moments, as if shielding either the characters or the audience (or both) from the raw emotion. Here the camera seems to be hiding from the stark openness of Damon’s face.

Stefan displays no surprise at Damon’s disclosure of his feelings because, of course, he always knew on some level. Some of Stefan’s statements in earlier episodes, statements that seemed contradictory—that Damon loved Katherine (“Friday Night Lights”), that Stefan hurt Damon by dating Katherine (“Lost Girls”), that Katherine compelled them both (“Lost Girls” and earlier this episode)—reflect an internal conflict in Stefan. He feels guilt for destroying his relationship with his brother over someone he didn’t really love; denying Damon’s feelings has been a form of self-delusion to protect himself from that guilt. That Stefan is more emotionally constipated than his brother doesn’t allow the writers to convey Stefan’s feelings directly. His emotions and his internal struggles often have come out in subtext or by other characters’ acknowledgement of them. It presents a writing challenge that the writers are able to meet.

Casual viewers of the series don’t often appreciate such subtleties and don’t credit the series with being sophisticated enough for subtext or complex, multi-dimensional characters. This is unfortunate because no show that I’ve seen does characters or their relationships better.

Finally—as I said, the episode is packed—in the midst of all the vampire-witch-crystal drama, there’s a nice scene forwarding the Matt/Caroline relationship. Matt tries to smooth over some awkwardness he displayed toward Caroline earlier in the episode by taking his foot-in-mouth disease to a whole new level of awkwardness.

Matt begins by explaining to Caroline, “We cuddled, and it creeped me out.”

She doesn’t think much of this explanation. “It creeped you out? Did you just come over here to insult me, or what? Because it’s been a really long night.”

His next attempt at explanation doesn’t go any better. “No…it’s just, it’s just that I don’t like you. I never have, but…it was nice.”

Caroline can’t make sense of this. “What?”

It’s a wonder Matt can still speak with his foot so far in his mouth that he can lick his Achilles tendon. “Being in bed with you. It felt nice. And so I was thinking about it, and I thought I should tell you that I stayed the night because you were all sad and alone, and I felt bad for you.”

Eventually, he conveys that he understands what it’s like to be sad and alone and that he likes that he found a kindred spirit. The scene is a nice break from all the high drama going on across town. “Teen angst” is often used pejoratively, but show-runner Kevin Williamson practically invented it with Dawson’s Creek. He can often overdo it, but he does it better than anyone else.

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