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The Vampire Diaries, S01E18: Under Control; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired 15 April 2010
Written by Barbie Kligman and Andrew Chambliss
Directed by David Von Ancken

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating:  ★★★ 1/2 stars

Strong storytelling characterizes this episode as the first season plot threads begin to come together in anticipation of the season finale.

Paul Wesley looks like he’s having a field day with the new dimension brought to Stefan. He also looks mighty delicious. The previous episode prominently featured his sublime torso, and this episode opens with Stefan exorcising his human blood cravings by exercising in a wifebeater so tight it seems painted on. His pulchritude is almost distracting enough that I can overlook the continuity issues in the first scene. Almost.

Damon confronts Stefan about his recent blood binge and urges moderation rather than a cold turkey detox. (When Damon Salvatore is the voice of moderation, you know something is really wrong.) Later episodes that feature more of the backstory reveal that Damon knows more about Stefan’s problem with human blood than he seems to in this scene, as if the writers changed Damon’s level of understanding as they fleshed out the characters’ history. Tweaking the backstory as a series develops is normal. Here, the differences in the backstory aren’t too jarring when looking back on the first season episodes.

The scene ends with a good bit of brotherly teasing. Stefan says, “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you? Just watching me, uh, struggle.”  Damon smirks, “Very much so.” Stefan insists, “I hate to break it to you, Damon, but, actually, I have it under complete control.” Damon responds sarcastically, “You do? Huh, well, then you should just carry on making the rest of us vampires look bad. Have a great day, Stefan.” Damon swaggers out of the room, leaving his tumbler full of human blood on the end table. Stefan agonizes in temptation for a few moments. Then Damon jogs back into the room. “Oh, hey, almost forgot something. Oops.” Damon drinks, swishes the blood around, and taunts Stefan with yummy noises.

That Stefan, despite what he says, is spiraling out of control becomes clear in a scene cribbed from Twilight. Losing control of his blood craving while making out with Elena, Stefan flies backwards across the room and slams into the bedroom wall to put some distance between himself and the girl he loves. In Twilight, however, Edward Cullen’s extreme desire for human blood occurs only with Bella Swan. Here, Stefan’s a raging blood junkie who’s just fallen off the wagon. (In the second season, the series will add a term for vampires like Stefan who go into a frenzy over human blood. But, in this season, the show presents the problem as unique to Stefan–as a side effect of his fully animal blood diet, he never learned to moderate his craving for human blood.)

Stefan’s not the only one having trouble keeping things under control. Kelly Donovan hits rock bottom at the party and ends up making out with Tyler Lockwood, not only her son’s best friend but her dead daughter’s boyfriend. Tyler, on his part, loses control completely (a running theme in this episode) when Matt drags him away from his mother. Tyler turns on his best friend, beats him, and strangles him. Luckily, Alaric pulls him off of Matt before any permanent damage can be done. For those of us who’ve read the books, all this waiting and hinting for the big Tyler reveal gets a little old. However, at this late point in the season, starting a new major arc would be a mistake. The aborted Kelly Donovan arc is wrapped up this episode with Matt sending his drunken, slutty embarrassment of a mother away, never to be heard from again.

The rest of the season will wrap up the story of the tomb vampires. To that end, David Anders joins the cast as the recurring character of vampire hunter Uncle John Gilbert, the brother of the late Grayson Gilbert, Jeremy’s biological and Elena’s adoptive father. Uncle John comes off as a complete douchebag. Nevertheless, the fact that Aunt Jenna doesn’t like him kind of endears him to me. Aunt Jenna returns in this episode after missing the last one, reminding viewers just how irritating a character she is. She’s not acutely painful like fingernails on a chalkboard, but she does create a kind of low hum of annoyance.

Uncle John appears before the Founders’ Council, apparently a big muckety-muck in the group, and his awareness of the growing vampire problem puts him in Damon’s sights. Damon certainly doesn’t want the Founders’ Council being more vigilant about vampires. Damon’s attempt to solve the John Gilbert problem is about as rational and well thought out as most of Damon’s plans–he breaks John’s neck and dumps him off the balcony of Founders’ Hall during the Founders’ Day kick-off party, this episode’s special event. When I first watched “Under Control,” I should have realized that Anders was too big of a guest star to last only half of an episode. However, I was just as shocked as Damon to see Uncle John saunter back into the party, head on straight and none the worse for wear.

Like Alaric, Uncle John has a magical ring that protects him from death by supernatural force (here Damon). We learn that the rings are actually Gilbert family heirlooms and, like magical objects in many fantasy narratives, have their own complex backstory. This history is partially related by John late in the episode and reveals that he has connections to both Isobel and Katherine. Without being obvious about it, the show is laying the groundwork to bring together the disparate story threads–the tomb vampires, Elena’s biological heritage, and the Salvatore brothers’ history with Katherine Pierce. A lot happens in this episode without the episode seeming rushed or overstuffed. The pacing of the storytelling is spot on, pacing being something that even the best shows struggle with.

This episode and the series as a whole have a lot of story to tell. The narrative(s) aren’t simple. However, the series so far has become confident enough and good enough not to get entirely bogged down in plot.  The small moments of the episode reveal its quality–Tyler and Jeremy’s bonding over the death of Vicki; Damon’s making himself at home in Elena’s room, rooting through her underwear drawer, and generally making her uncomfortable as they discuss Stefan’s loss of control; Damon’s complimenting of Sheriff Gilbert that, far from coming off as flirty or sleazy, actually seems genuine. These small moments indicate a series that is concerned with more than just churning plot in the most expedient way possible.

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