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The Vampire Diaries, S01E21: Isobel; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vampire-diaries-s1

Originally aired 6 May 2010
Written by Caroline Dries and Brian Young
Directed by J. Miller Tobin

Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder

My rating:  ★★★★ stars

Mia Kirshner takes center stage as Elena finally meets her birth mother, a woman so complicated that Elena would probably have needed years of therapy had Isobel not given her up for adoption as a baby.

Mia Kirshner’s task was not an easy one in this episode. First of all, she had to swoop in with an overwhelming dramatic presence. She’s the focus of this episode, and she captures it. But she also has to play the character on two narrative levels. On the one hand, she has to project the murderous, inhuman vampire that Isobel wants people to believe she is. And she is that person, at least to some extent. The murderous, inhuman vampire guise isn’t completely a pretense. She is willing to do anything to get what she wants, which is the “Gilbert Device.” The true reason why she wants it, however, isn’t revealed until the end of the episode, a revelation which casts all of Isobel’s behavior throughout the episode in a different light.

The “Gilbert Device,” a mysterious object first discussed several episodes previously, acts as a MacGuffin in this episode. Why people want it and what they will do to get it are what is important, not what it is. We don’t even know what exactly it is. All we know is that it’s some kind of invention of Elena and Jeremy’s Civil War-era ancestor, Jonathan Gilbert, which supposedly is a weapon against vampires.

Pearl had the device. Uncle John staked her in the previous episode but couldn’t recover the device because she had already given it to Damon. Now that Uncle John has failed to recover the device, Isobel has come in to get it from Damon. She is working with Uncle John, vampire hunter/hater extraordinaire, and this odd twosome seem to be in league with Katherine, who has not put in an appearance in Mystic Falls since the Civil War.

Uncle John is a not the type of villain “you love to hate.” He’s not an intelligent, charming bad guy like Klaus, the villain in subsequent seasons. Uncle John is priggish and self-righteous and so unapologetically “douchey” that it’s hard to remember that he’s not wrong. Vampires are monsters. Even Uncle John’s motives are pure and good—he wants to protect Mystic Falls and Elena in particular. Yet, when he killed Pearl, I wished she had gone all Lady Deathstrike on him instead of just falling dead at his feet. When Isobel bitch-slaps him, I gave a little cheer.

Isobel and Uncle John don’t always see eye-to-eye as partners. He doesn’t approve of her lifestyle and the way she uses people like toys. Uncle John is not pleased after learning she has used her compulsion to force some humans to be her naughty minions. She mentions that she picked one of them up at a gay rodeo. “He’s gay?” Uncle John asks. “Not right now,” Isobel replies practically licking her lips. The song in this scene, “All the Same to Me,” by Anya Marina, underscores Isobel’s apparent lack of human feeling.

Even though they have the same objective, Uncle John does not approve of Isobel’s methods, particularly when she kidnaps and threatens to kill Jeremy to induce Elena to get the device for her. Uncle John points out that Jeremy is his nephew, but Isobel doesn’t care. She also doesn’t seem to care much for the husband she abandoned. When she first sees Alaric, who’s been looking for her for two years, she doesn’t have much to say to him; she just asks him to deliver a message to Elena.

Alaric is stunned by her apparent lack of feeling. He tells his new BFF, Damon, “I looked for the woman I married, but she wasn’t there. Whoever that is, she’s cold and detached.” Damon tells Alaric that Isobel has “given up her humanity,” to which Alaric replies, “Yeah, see, I don’t get that. Stefan has his humanity, he’s a good guy. And you’re a dick and you kill people but I still see something human in you. But with her there was…nothing.” Damon’s response reveals a major point of the series’s mythology, one that has still not been fully explored. He tells Alaric that vampires have the ability to turn their humanity on and off like a switch. This “humanity switch” is much discussed in subsequent seasons, and what it means has yet to be definitively explained. I’m going to give the series a pass for now on not establishing a consistent concept of this switch because at the core of the series is the question “What does it mean to be ‘human’?” and, until that question is answered, it won’t be clear what it means to turn that humanity on and off.

But Alaric and Damon are wrong. Isobel hasn’t turned off her humanity completely, even though it appears that she has. In her first interaction with Elena, she seems to be doing her level best to alienate the girl. For example, when she notices Stefan watching Elena protectively from across the room, she bad-mouths Elena’s choice of boyfriends, saying “Stefan Salvatore. Why Stefan? Why didn’t you go for Damon? Or do you enjoy them both? Like Katherine did.” Elena is appalled. She’s even more appalled to find out that Isobel’s only reason for meeting with Elena is to ask her to get the Gilbert device from Damon. Kirshner does a great job with this scene from the way she ignores Elena while settling herself in a chair to the way she makes the phrase “It was nice meeting you, Elena” into another put-down of Elena. Isobel’s methods, maiming Matt and kidnapping Jeremy, do little to endear her to her daughter. At the end of the episode, Elena thanks Isobel, “For being such a monumental disappointment. It keeps the memory of my real mother perfectly intact.”

In fact, Isobel couldn’t have done more to alienate Elena if that had been what she was trying to do. Hmmm.

After Isobel’s disastrous meeting with Elena, Damon seeks out his ruthless progeny to find out what she’s up to. Her revelation that she’s working for Katherine doesn’t bring Damon over to her side like she hoped. The scene is executed skillfully, with the camera prowling around the actors and the editing cutting with the dialogue in the back-and-forth exchange, as both vampires try to use their sexuality to get what they want from the other. The song choice, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” by Cage the Elephant, is spot on and not too loud to detract from the scene. Damon ends up on top—literally—in the exchange and delivers a speech that indicates how much Damon has changed from the guy who spent 145 years trying to save Katherine from the tomb. He growls, “Now that I have your attention, listen up. You do not come into my town and threaten people I care about. Going after Elena, bad move. You leave her alone, or I’ll rip you to bits because I do believe in killing the messenger. You know why? Because it sends a message. Katherine wants something from me? You tell that little bitch to come get it herself.”

One of Isobel’s key qualities is perspicacity. We glimpse this in her second scene with Elena, in which Isobel rattles off what she learned about Elena and her world. She calls Caroline by the nickname “Yappy” and identifies Matt as Elena’s ex and “Yappy’s future ex.” Isobel understands that Caroline needs more of an alpha male—as it turns out, literally—than (Door)Matt. This understanding turns up again when she drops a bombshell during the exchange of the Gilbert device for Jeremy’s safe return. Elena asks her, if Isobel couldn’t get the device from Damon, what made her think that he would give it to Elena. Isobel says simply what no one else, even Damon, seems to have realized yet, “Because he’s in love with you.”

The episode has one more major revelation up its sleeve. Stefan goes to confront his brother about what Isobel said, warning him that “History will not be repeating itself, where Elena is concerned.” Damon counters by changing the subject and revealing what he’s deduced about Elena’s background, “Am I the only one around here who has the ability to put two and two together? Isobel. Hello? She dated John when she was fifteen. She gets pregnant and ends up at the doctor’s office of John’s brother. Now what do you think John’s role is in all this, hmm? I mean go ahead. Think about it. I’ll wait.” Stefan asks Damon if he has proof that “Uncle” John is Elena’s biological father, but Damon is satisfied enough to leave the proof up to “John, Elena, and Maury Povich.”

The show wisely gives the viewers confirmation that Elena is biologically a Gilbert after all by following this scene with a phone conversation between Isobel and John where they discuss their plans. Isobel has left John the device with the understanding that he’ll use it to rid the town of the tomb vampires, as Katherine has directed. Isobel adds, “I want to add two more to that list.” John assures her that killing the Salvatores was “always part of the plan,” his plan, at least, if not Katherine’s. Isobel concludes, “She’s our daughter, John. We owe that to her,” suggesting that Isobel’s goal the whole time has been to protect Elena, for, as she warned Elena earlier, “As long as you have a Salvatore on each arm, you’re doomed.” This discussion makes Isobel’s actions certainly seem less malevolent, even if they’re not conventionally maternal.

The one scene in the episode that doesn’t work occurs when Isobel seeks out Alaric before she leaves and compels him to let go of his feelings for her. Yes, the show had to give some closure to that relationship, but the scene feels too pat, too clichéd. I would have liked a messier ending for Mr. and Mrs. Saltzman, one that gives the Saltzmans the complexity of the other relationships in the show.

This episode shows the skill with which the series is structured. It works as a self-contained episode, focusing on Isobel’s visit to town. It also works as a set-up to the season finale that will follow. Both the external and emotional conflicts of the season are positioned to come to a climax. John’s prepared to take out all the vampires in town, while the Salvatore brothers come to the realization that they are in competition for Elena’s affection.

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