Originally aired 22 April 2010
Written by Bryan Oh and Caroline Dries
Directed by Marcos Siega
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Quality execution lifts up an inauspicious premise, making this episode a winner, with good direction providing the crowning touch.
The premise of the episode—Elena and Caroline competing with a few other girls in a local pageant—doesn’t seem that promising. However, the execution of the episode along with the development of the serialized stories—Stefan’s spiral toward rock bottom, Damon’s growing attraction to Elena—make it top-notch.
The pageant itself creates little suspense. Most viewers should be able to tell from an early interview montage that Caroline will win the pageant, and the writers have set it up that that outcome is not a disappointment. Caroline really wants to win, and Elena couldn’t care less and is only going through the motions of the pageant because it was important to her late mother. Like most episodes of the series, “Miss Mystic Falls” contains small moments that do little to advance the story but show the richness of the characters. In expressing how much she wants to win the pageant, Caroline tells Elena that every woman in her family has won it except her mother, who was, in Caroline’s somewhat contemptuous words “born without the gene.” The tossed-off comment demonstrates both the difficult relationship Caroline and her mother have and the knowledge that the writers have that Sheriff Forbes is not the pageant type. Later, even Aunt Jenna (my least favorite character) has a nice moment as she helps Elena get ready. Jenna apologizes to Elena for not being her mother, revealing Jenna’s sense of inadequacy and her understanding of why Elena is participating in the pageant at all.
While the episode is structured around the pageant, the main story arc is Stefan’s further descent into becoming a desperate, dangerous, blood-intoxicated degenerate and the resulting role-reversal with Damon, who becomes the responsible, reliable brother. Stefan, who goes to the pageant as Elena’s escort, abandons her and absconds with another contestant in order to drink her blood, leaving Damon to take Stefan’s place as Elena’s escort.
I have to admire Paul Wesley’s restraint. He could have easily sunk Stefan’s fangs into the scenery and started chewing mercilessly, but, instead, he holds back as much as anyone playing a blood-crazed vampire should. For example, when Stefan breaks away from feeding on his hapless victim and tries to convince himself not to kill her, he says “I don’t hurt people. I don’t do that. I’m the good brother,” almost tonelessly, like a mantra, rather than whining, pleading, or caterwauling, all of which could have fit the scene but wouldn’t have had the impact as the quiet attempt at reminding himself of his self-conception does.
A lot of the credit has to go to the director. Marcos Siega directed some of the strongest early season episodes. In addition to his direction of the acting, he shows a deft hand at creating visual ways to convey story elements and the inner life of the characters. In a key scene during the pageant, Elena is introduced and is supposed to meet her escort after descending a long flight of stairs. However, she finds that Stefan is missing. A high-angle point-of-view shot toward the bottom of the stairs reveals Stefan’s absence. It shows Elena’s anxiety at finding her escort missing and potentially being embarrassed in front of the whole town with just a slight shake of the camera. The camera cuts away to Elena to show her anxiety explicitly and then cuts to Damon, who is beginning to realize the situation. The camera returns to Elena’s point of view as Damon slides into position, and the camera steadies when Elena discovers she won’t find herself alone at the bottom of the stairs.
The quality direction and quality in general of The Vampire Diaries is often overlooked because of what the series is about. I suppose “serious” television viewers can’t imagine that show about teens and vampires (especially one on the CW) could possibly be any good. However, any creative effort’s quality derives less from what it is about than how it executes that subject. Bad storytelling about a serious subject on a prestige network can make for bad television. And, even though The Vampire Diaries is not immune from some of the CW’s oft-criticized quirks (such as an unusually attractive cast or a surfeit of shirtlessness), the execution of its stories is often much better than that of more highly praised series.
The two connected scenes about the cotillion-style dance element of the Miss Mystic Falls pageant demonstrate how The Vampire Diaries can bring all elements together—writing, acting, direction, lighting, music—to create excellent storytelling.
The first scene, played for humor, shows the Miss Mystic Falls competitors and their escorts rehearsing. The dance seems ridiculously old-fashioned, and the choice of the “Blue Danube Waltz” for background music only increases the dance’s absurdity. Both Elena and Stefan have a hard time containing their laughter and make exaggerated “we’re really taking this seriously” faces. That such mirth is uncharacteristic of Stefan is not character inconsistency but, rather, the effect that human blood has on him. On the surface, the scene seems to be about the changes wrought on Stefan’s personality by human blood. However, it’s laying the groundwork for a later scene of the dance being performed during the pageant.
Directing the rehearsal, Carol Lockwood (Susan Walters), Tyler’s mother, takes the dance seriously. Walters adroitly avoids being too stern, which would be cartoonish and unoriginal. Instead, she calls out directions like “Flirt with your eyes” with a sense of openness, like the dance makes sense to her and she has no idea that the young people might not get it, the young people and the not-so-young Stefan—Elena even jokes that he was around when the dance was invented. When Elena and Stefan start laughing and break into a jitterbug, she doesn’t get angry. She just explains, “There’s no touching during this part. It’s about the simple intimacy of the near touch,” like this explanation will suffice to make the dance less ludicrous in the eyes of the contestants and their companions.
One reason the dance seems so ridiculous for Stefan and Elena is that their relationship is far beyond the flirting and near-touch intimacy stage; the dance creates false boundaries in an established relationship like theirs and, thus, is “ridiculous,” as Elena says.
The scene of the dance performance during the pageant, however, is played seriously. All of Mrs. Lockwood’s instructions, the “flirting with the eyes” and the “intimacy of the near touch” make sense when the dancers are not Elena and Stefan but Elena and Damon. Dobrev and Somerhalder have so much chemistry they have only to look at each other and it seems like they’re copulating on some kind of psychic plane. The little blocking elements convey the narrative of the scene without being overly emphasized. For example, on the final “near touch” turn, Damon’s hands creep closer to Elena’s like they’re being drawn by magnets, and, when he pulls them back, her hands follow them into his dance space like she too is under some magnetic attraction. Then, he finally takes her into his arms for the later portion of the dance. She breaks eye contact, as if merely getting into a traditional dance pose is too intense, before turning her eyes back to his and lifting her chin defiantly. The rigid choreography of the dance that follows acts as a counterpoint to the almost wild abandon of the undercurrent between the two characters. It’s the first time in the series that Elena and Damon’s connection moves past the empathetic to something that’s obviously, if not overtly, sexual.
The minor elements of the dance scene also sharply contrast with the rehearsal. While the rehearsal was shot low-key in the dingy school cafeteria, the actual dance takes place on the lanai of an elegant, white-columned, Georgian mansion on, apparently, the sunniest day of the year. Instead of the “Blue Danube Waltz,” the song is “All I Need,” by Within Temptation, a somewhat overwrought contemporary ballad that, nevertheless, works well in the context of the scene.
Despite how well done the episode is overall, I still have one quibble. I know that the series saves money by having one or more regulars absent in each episode, but the absence of Matt and Tyler seems particularly conspicuous here. As Caroline’s boyfriend, Matt should escort her to the pageant. The explanation for his absence that Caroline gives Elena—that Matt had to work—makes sense; Matt has to support himself, after all. What doesn’t make sense is how accepting Caroline is of that fact. From everything we’ve seen of Caroline, she would not accept that her boyfriend would have to work. She would fight with him about it, and, if that didn’t work, she would approach his boss herself and demand that Matt get the day off. Yet, the makers of the show need Matt to be absent, so he is, with no muss or fuss. Tyler’s absence is also unnatural. His mother is in the episode, and everything we’ve seen about Mayor Lockwood and his wife convinces me that they would drag Tyler, no matter how unwilling he was, to such a major town event. Again, the exigencies of production outweigh character and storytelling consistency.
That quibble aside, “Miss Mystic Falls” begins the series of four-star episodes that end the first season.