Originally aired 9 September 2010
Written by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec
Directed by J. Miller Tobin
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Shocking season premiere improves upon fantastic finale of previous season.
When a series has a phenomenal season finale, it leaves the audience eagerly anticipating the next season’s premiere. The expectations of the viewers are very high. Nearly always, then, the season premiere ends up being a disappointment. Even without a three-month or longer hiatus to build up anticipation, an opening episode would have a difficult time measuring up to a season finale. The culmination of something is almost always more satisfying than the opening round.
The Vampire Diaries’ accomplishment, then, in creating a season opener that does not merely measure up to the previous season finale but surpasses it, is a prodigious one.
As with all season premieres of serialized shows, the opener must reknit the plot threads left hanging in the season finale. Some of this is handled quickly. We learn that Jeremy failed to take enough pills to kill himself, so Anna’s blood actually healed him of the overdose rather than turning him into a vampire. Bad-ass Stefan reappears in this episode and slaps some sense into the mixed-up teen. If there’s a flaw in the episode, it’s that Jeremy’s attempt to take his own life is glossed over. The show doesn’t have time to deal with the fallout from his action, so the story and the characters just move on. This sweeping under the rug of inconvenient plot or character complications is a recurring problem with the series.
Caroline, who was also in peril at the season’s end, manages to hang on long enough for Damon to come to the hospital and give her some of his blood to heal her injuries. The scene with Damon and Sheriff Forbes in the waiting room is touching. Even though Damon has been lying and manipulating the sheriff, we see in this scene that the two are genuinely friends.
The third character who was in mortal danger as the previous season ended, Uncle John, also survives. Elena comes home to find him bleeding on the kitchen floor and is able to get her biological father medical attention quickly enough to save his life and allow the doctors to reattach his fingers. They’re not about to attend a father-daughter dance any time soon, however. After they argue in the hospital, Stefan force feeds John some of his blood. On the one hand, the vampire blood will help John heal. On the other hand, Stefan tells John that if he doesn’t leave town in 24 hours that he will kill him, and, with Stefan’s blood still in his system, he will become the thing he hates the most. I was so disappointed that John was leaving and that we wouldn’t get to see all the conflicts he brought to the show play out that I didn’t notice what an elegant plant the writers had created. In a conflict-driven scene, they had deftly foreshadowed the episode’s shocking end.
I missed the significance of the second plant as well. As John is leaving town, Jeremy asks John about the Gilbert ring he wears, which once belonged to Jeremy’s father, Grayson. (John and Grayson both had rings. John gave his to Isobel, who gave it to Alaric, and took his brother’s ring when Grayson died.) Jeremy wonders why the ring didn’t prevent Grayson’s death. John explains that that death was an accident and that the rings protect the wearer only from death by a supernatural force, at which point, the scene ends. I believed that the scene was about Grayson Gilbert’s death. I didn’t understand the scene’s implications until the final act of the episode. Again, the show is reminding the audience about essential information but doing it so skillfully that the viewers don’t see the obvious plot implications of that information.
The biggest part of the first season’s cliffhanger was the return of Katherine. The writers show real sophistication in the way they have other characters figure out that she has returned. Weaker writers would have had the characters piecing information together slowly, looking at Elena like she had gone crazy. In this show, however, the realization happens quickly. Damon confronts Elena about their kiss, and Elena denies having kissed him. It takes Damon about five seconds to put this denial together with the fact that there is someone else out there who looks exactly like Elena. Stefan understands the situation even more quickly. He instantly recognizes that Katherine is not Elena. It’s refreshing to see characters not flailing around trying to figure out something that the audience already knows.
For her part, Katherine remains cagey about the reasons for her return. She tells Stefan that she returned for him, her one true love, which is, at least, partially true. She doesn’t take his rejection well. When he tells her that he loves Elena, Katherine impales him with a wrought-iron bar. Clearly, Katherine will not be a bastion of stability and temperance. Surprisingly, this is not the most extreme reaction to romantic rejection in the episode.
After Stefan’s rejection, Katherine seeks out Damon for consolation sex. After several moments of erotic tussling and shirt-ripping (understandable, as Katherine’s clothes are so tight she must have been sewn into them), he pauses and tells her that he needs to know her real feelings before they can proceed. Katherine answers him honestly, even though her response will not get her what she apparently wants, naked fun time with Damon. She says, “The truth is…I’ve never loved you. It was always Stefan,” and then walks away. What we come to understand about Katherine is that the sadistic pleasure she gets in hurting Damon the way Stefan hurt her is more satisfying for her than what was shaping up to be a vigorous sexual encounter.
Like a wounded puppy, a drunken Damon goes to visit Elena. He confronts her about their earlier conversation discussing his kiss with Katherine, where Elena expressed surprise that he thought she would kiss him back. He believes that she has romantic feelings for him and tries to kiss her to prove it. She shuts him down, saying, “I care about you. I do, but I love Stefan. It’s always going to be Stefan.”
That’s one too many rejections for a drunken vampire who, on a good day, is erratic. When Jeremy comes into the room to check on the commotion, Damon grabs him and picks up the thread of their conversation in the season finale about vampire’s being able to turn off their emotions. He says that vampires can shut out their pain by flipping the off switch on their humanity. He punctuates that statement by breaking Jeremy’s neck.
I admit that I was ready to say goodbye to Steven McQueen on the show. I thought Jeremy was a goner for sure. I was holding my breath in shocked surprise as Elena held Jeremy’s dead body. However, part of me couldn’t believe that the show was going to let Jeremy die at Damon’s hand. That would certainly put Damon beyond the bounds of all redemption as far as Elena would be concerned. Only when Elena picked up Jeremy’s floppy dead arm and saw the Gilbert ring on his finger did I start breathing again. And, then, I recognized the plant from earlier in the episode for what it was. We never saw John give Jeremy his father’s ring, but learning about the transfer of the ring this way was even more effective. That is not to say that Jeremy’s survival will allow Elena to forgive Damon. I liked that in her discussion of the incident with Stefan when she avers that she hates Damon, she seems really sad about it—that the loss of their friendship hurts her. When Jeremy awakes from his temporary demise, McQueen does a really good job of conveying Jeremy’s terror at facing death.
Jeremy’s murder and resurrection seemed to be the limit for the emotional extremes of the episode, so I didn’t expect what happened next. In the episode’s last scene, Katherine visits Caroline in her hospital room. We know it’s Katherine because not only is Elena busy with Jeremy, but the big hair, tight pants, and high heels indicate Katherine, that and the fact that she introduces herself to Caroline. She, then, tells a confused Caroline to convey a message to the Salvatore brothers. The message is simply, “Game on.” She then smothers Caroline to death with a pillow.
As with the earlier ring scene planting the information about how Jeremy will overcome his death, an earlier scene has told us how Caroline will emerge from her death. The confrontation between Stefan and John reminds us that if someone dies with vampire blood in his/her system, he/she will become a vampire. Once viewers get over the shock of Caroline’s suffocation, they can remember that Damon fed Caroline blood to heal her injuries from the car accident.
Yes, neither of the two regular character deaths in this episode removes the characters from the canvas of the show. However, this audience fake-out doesn’t seem ill-devised because of the sophisticated way it is presented and because both “deaths” have significant consequences in the narrative. Narratologists would explain that Caroline’s death creates both proairetic and hermeneutic momentum. Proairetic momentum keeps the audience involved in the story by wondering what will happen next. What’s going to happen now that Caroline is vampire? Hermeneutic momentum keeps the audience involved through unanswered questions. Why did Katherine kill Caroline? What is Katherine actually doing back in Mystic Falls? Caroline’s murder makes it clear that Katherine didn’t return to town just for some Salvatore love.
Adding to the success of these plot developments is the fact that they proceed organically from the characters and their relationships and interactions with each other. The characters are not just reacting to outside forces, but they are bringing about plot developments through their actions.
The Return succeeds because it does more than just resolve the conflicts left over from the season finale; it heightens and builds on those conflicts to begin the narrative of the new season. I would count this episode as one of the best of the series and certainly among the best season premieres of all time.