Originally aired 30 September 2010
Written by Caroline Dries
Directed by Rob Hardy
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
A solid, character-focused episode reveals Katherine’s version of past events.
I’ve always maintained that The Vampire Diaries is, overall, a well-written show. Yes, it has its flaws, but, on the whole, I’ve found the writing above average. This episode challenges me to consider just how sophisticated the writing is.
Like “Lost Girls,” “Children of the Damned,” and “Blood Brothers,” “Memory Lane,” as the title suggests, features a large number of flashback scenes. While “Lost Girls” gives us Stefan’s view of the past and “Children of the Damned” gives us Damon’s, “Memory Lane” offers Katherine’s perspective on the events that led to her departure from Mystic Falls in 1864. Her version differs in significant ways from what we’ve heard and seen previously, in part because she had knowledge of her own machinations in 1864 while Stefan and Damon were acting from a place of ignorance.
However, in at least one aspect, we have to question whether Katherine is a reliable narrator. Judging from her characterization as a crazed, manipulative liar, the answer would seem to be “no.” Yet, seeing her version of the past enacted in flashback gives it a sense of veracity, particularly as we do not see another version of these events ever again. This group of flashbacks would seem to be the last word on what happened. Nevertheless, we have reason to doubt that Katherine has given us an accurate account. Even so, I wonder if the series trusted its viewers enough to believe they could recognize the possibility that Katherine’s account is highly subjective when the mere fact of it having been filmed lends it a patina of objectivity. The reputation of neither the show, the network, nor the viewership is one of sophistication, and I have to wonder how much we’re meant question Katherine’s account of what occurred.
Certain elements of Katherine’s narrative are undoubtedly meant to be taken as fact. Katherine did engineer the mass slaughter of the vampires in Mystic Falls in order to fake her own death and cover her escape. She did make a deal with George Lockwood, a Lockwood ancestor, to trade him the moonstone for his help in her plan. (As far as the moonstone goes, the writers should have realized early on that the darned thing was not working as an effective storytelling device.)
The presentation of the incontrovertible parts of the flashback is particularly well done. First, we get a subtle hint as to the key provision of the Lockwood werewolf curse that we learn at the end of the episode—that in order to change from a latent carrier of the werewolf gene to a werewolf, one has to kill somebody. The flashback shows George Lockwood returning to Mystic Falls from his time in the Confederate Army a full-blown werewolf (that the war triggered it in him is implied). The scene of Damon butting heads with George Lockwood in the past parallels nicely with the scenes of his butting heads with Mason Lockwood in the present.
Second, with a snarky tone conveying her contempt, Katherine describes Damon’s interference—how his trying to save her by having Emily protect all the vampires from burning in the church nearly ruins Katherine’s carefully constructed plan. Stefan’s outrage at learning that Katherine had planned the attack on the town’s vampires, that she was never in danger when Damon and Stefan died trying to save her is palpable. Paul Wesley shows an admirable combination of horror and anger, tempered by Stefan’s restraint, when he growls, “We died for nothing. Damon and I died for nothing.” Nina Dobrev is just cloying enough that we question Katherine’s sincerity when she says, “You died for love.”
Finally, the last flashback scene illustrates the marvelous complexity of Katherine’s character. As Katherine is heading out of town, having executed her plan, she comes across the dead bodies of the Salvatore brothers, who had been shot trying to save her, before they woke up as vampires. Ignoring Damon’s corpse, she tenderly kisses Stefan and vows to return for him before making good her escape.
Where this episode makes me wonder is if we, the viewers, are meant to believe that Katherine’s description of Stefan’s love for her is sincere and accurate. Previously, Stefan has averred that, after he became a vampire and Katherine’s compulsion, thus, became ineffective, he realized that he never truly loved her, that she had compelled his affection. Katherine reveals in the flashback that Stefan told her he loved her before she ever compelled him. Is Katherine’s story true? Is she deliberately lying? Could she be sincere but self-deluded? The fact that we’ve just seen it enacted that way lends the scene a sense of veracity. But, even if it were Katherine’s accurate memory, does Stefan’s claim that he loved her reflect his true feelings or just his interpretation of an adolescent infatuation? Later in the second season, Katherine seems to acknowledge that Stefan’s feelings for her were not strong when she calls Stefan and Damon, “The brother who didn’t love me enough and the one who loved me too much.”
Everything I know about storytelling suggests to me that Katherine is a classic unreliable narrator, but I just don’t think the writers believe that enough of their viewership would think to question her story to have it make sense for them to bother with such sophisticated storytelling techniques. But maybe I’m wrong—maybe I’m underestimating Vampire Diaries viewers and the writers’ estimation of them. Maybe I’m looking for a way to explain a flaw in continuity—in this episode only is it suggested that Stefan’s love for Katherine was real. In all the episodes before and after, his love is shown to be a product of her compulsion.
Putting the question of Katherine’s reliability as a narrator aside, the episode is solid. Damon’s interactions with Mason are a highlight. That Damon takes precipitant action against the werewolf before knowing that Mason is untrustworthy reflects strong character consistency in presenting Damon as someone who acts with little forethought.
Less consistent is Caroline’s bowing to Katherine’s threats to harm Matt unless Caroline helps her break up Stefan and Elena. Caroline has never been the type to let anyone else tell her what she should do. However, Katherine did kill her, so Caroline does have reason to be skittish in this instance.
The episode does have one really bad moment, an obvious product placement for some kind of car. When Caroline offers to drive Elena to see Stefan and then sabotages her own car to keep the lovers apart (before the car breaks down), Caroline demonstrates to Elena that the car can identify the song playing on the radio in response to a voice command. However, not only is the product placement shamelessly obvious, it’s ineffective. For one thing, I’ve seen the episode multiple times, and I don’t remember what kind of car it is. Secondly, the next scene shows the car breaking down. The message seems to be that the owner will never have to wonder what song is playing while he/she waits for AAA.
Overall, however we interpret Katherine’s narrative, “Memory Lane” depicts the greatest strengths of the show—the rich complexity of its characters and the byzantine relationships between them.