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The Vampire Diaries, S01E12: Unpleasantville; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired 28 January 2010
Written by Barbie Kligman and Brian Young
Directed by Liz Friedlander

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating:  ★★ 1/2 stars

A solid, yet unremarkable episode.

After their heart-to-heart in the previous episode, Elena and Stefan are back on course as a couple. Damon has joined them in their effort to protect Elena from a mysterious vampire who has been stalking her. The conflict with the mysterious vampire (whose name is Noah, but it’s not really important because he’s dispatched by the end of the episode and never heard from again) culminates at the high school’s 1950s Decade Dance.

One problem that always seems to arise in these shows about a hidden supernatural world is that the characters in the know never reveal the existence of the supernatural elements to their families and friends. Thus, these oblivious humans blindly stumble into danger. If I found out that vampires were real, living in my hometown, and terrorizing me and those around me, I would warn my loved ones so they wouldn’t do something stupid like invite a vampire disguised as a pizza delivery guy into the house, as Jeremy does in this episode. If Elena had said to Jeremy, “Don’t invite anyone into the house, he or she might be a murderous vampire,” this danger could have been avoided.

Once Jeremy extends the invitation, the main troika meets to discuss how to handle the situation. Stefan intones ominously, “He’s been invited in” while giving Damon a significant look, clearly meaning that Noah must die and soon. The three agree to attend the school’s Decade Dance, using Elena as bait to draw Noah out. Damon may have a different agenda from his brother—he’s less concerned about protecting Elena than in finding out about the other vampires in town and what they know about getting into the tomb where Katherine is trapped—but he agrees to help Stefan and Elena bring down Noah.

Elena doesn’t come off as concerned enough when she’s offered up as bait. She says blithely to the brothers, “I’ll be with the two of you. I’ll be safe.” That Elena thinks everything will be hunky-dory, not just when she’s surrounded by two vampires, but because she is, suggests that she may need to have her head examined. I was glad that, in a later episode, another character acknowledges that Elena is not exactly safe (“doomed” is the word the character uses) as long as she’s flanked by the Salvatore brothers. The issue of the Salvatores aside, Elena’s lack of concern about being used as vampire bait at the dance doesn’t seem natural or genuine. However, Elena’s being overly worried or showing too much emotional response wouldn’t fit the tone of the episode and would be an inconvenient digression for the writers, who, throughout the series, seem too willing to ignore the natural reactions or emotions of the characters (particularly Elena) when those responses would be inconvenient.

As it turns out, Elena was right not to be overly concerned. Although Noah managed to get her alone, she holds her own in a fight against him before the Salvatore brothers can get to her. The show faces a conundrum when presenting an ordinary female heroine confronted with a supernatural being. On the one hand, it’s trendy to present women as all kick-ass and empowered; it would be passé to show a woman waiting helplessly for a male to rescue her. On the other hand, an ordinary human female wouldn’t fare well against a being with supernatural strength. TVD follows a middle ground in Elena’s confrontation with Noah. She fights him as well as she can for as long as she can until Stefan and Damon can take over. I’m a little bit incredulous that Elena would have the strength to stab anyone through the hand with a Number 2 pencil, but overall, I thought the scene found a balanced solution to the aforementioned conundrum.

One surprising element of the episode’s climax is the role Stefan adopts. He takes the lead in the interrogation of Noah, torturing him and eventually staking him. The expectation of most viewers, I would think, is that Damon, being the older, more murderous brother, would do the dirty work. This scene provides an early glimpse at another facet of Stefan’s character, a suppressed inner badass that occasionally surfaces.

Ultimately, we see the relationship between Elena and the brothers grow. For good or ill, they’re learning to trust each other and work together. However, the episode does drop one revelation that may cause a wee bit of trouble for the threesome. Aunt Jenna tells Elena that her birth mother was a teenage runaway named Isobel. Later, Alaric tells Jenna that his murdered wife’s name was Isobel. (As we know, but Alaric doesn’t share with Jenna, Damon was responsible for Isobel’s death). Now, there are nearly 1,600 people in the U.S. with the first name Isobel, but it doesn’t seem likely that the show would make a big deal about the name if the birth mother and dead wife weren’t the same Isobel. The odds, then, are that Damon killed Elena’s mother.

As Alaric, Matt Davis does a great job in this episode of showing both Alaric’s resolve and his tentativeness when confronting Damon for the first time and later expressing both wonder and relief when he successfully uses vervain to thwart Damon’s compulsion.

Finally, the later scenes in the episode look particularly dark. The low-key lighting doesn’t fit the emotional mood of the episode and suggests director Liz Friedlander showing off. However, the shot of the brothers in silhouette framed in a doorway is beautifully filmed—Stefan standing in a brooding posture reminiscent of James Dean, Damon reassuring him that Noah “had to die—he was invited in,” echoing Stefan’s statement at the beginning of the episode.

Overall, “Unpleasantville” isn’t a stand-out episode. The series has found its groove now, and “Unpleasantville” presents an example of an average episode, typified by solid story development and character interaction.

Stuff that Bothers Only Me:

The characters are going to a 1950s Decade Dance. However, among the songs played at the dance are “This Magic Moment,” originally released in 1960; “Runaway,” originally released in 1961; and “My Boyfriend’s Back,” originally released in 1963. Furthermore, the episode uses inferior recent remakes instead of the glorious originals for all the songs. No one could possibly make “Great Balls of Fire” more appealing than Jerry Lee Lewis, and the hideousness of the version of “This Magic Moment” makes me yearn for the sublimity of Ben E. King’s lead vocals on The Drifters’ classic recording and the dulcet strains of its string-heavy arrangement.

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