If there is one constant in The Vampire Diaries’ world, it is change. Alliances always shift, relationships ebb and flow, and plots twist on a dime, forming the bedrock of what makes the show such an entertaining ride. Season four represented the most seismic shift, examining “regular girl” Elena’s transformation into a vampire, and although the transition was a rocky one at times, it eventually settled into an interesting exploration of what it means to have humanity even when you are a monster.
All of this experience with change is why I should not have been so worried about how the show would handle The Vampire Diaries: The College Years. These writers stare change in the face and challenge it to a deathmatch (Spoiler: They win with surprise stabbings!), and Elena and Caroline’s move to college isn’t treated like a wholesale change for the entire show; it’s merely one difference amid a sea of different things, and thus manages to simply feel like the next adventure for two characters rather than the kiss of death that a high school show transitioning to the college years can be.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the sheer amount of stuff the show manages to pack into an hour of television. This episode is practically bursting at the seams, straining under the weight of catching us up with what everyone did over the summer and what they are up to now that it’s over, all while also introducing not one but three separate mysteries to unravel in the coming weeks. It’s not the smoothest, most cohesive episode the show has ever done, but that the whole thing doesn’t implode halfway through is a victory in itself.
The biggest story—and the one I had the most reservations about going in—was Elena and Caroline’s first few days at college. What’s fun about the whole thing is how it takes expected college tropes like unwanted roommates and house parties and turns them on their heads, focusing on how being a vampire can really throw a wrench in all of your human college fantasies. It’s all fun and games until you can’t walk through the front door of a house party without being invited in, right? Caroline’s conviction that roommate Megan was some sort of vampire hunter started out as typical Caroline neurosis but transformed into something else entirely, as Megan takes a header off a building and ends up at Caroline and Elena’s feet with vampire bites on her neck and a picture of herself with Elena’s father on her phone. Suddenly, this college plot is a lot less about Shakespeare 101 and a lot more about giving Elena a puzzle to solve and that? That I’m all in on.
The other thing I’m all in on is Paul Wesley as Silas. The “shadow self” doppelganger reveal in the season four finale was a bit of a confusing mess, but the realization that it would mean plenty of time for Wesley to play an evil mastermind made at least some of that confusion go away. The writers make the smart decision here to not delay important folks like Damon and Jeremy figuring out Stefan wasn’t who he appeared to be, and make the other smart decision to give Silas a bit of a mysterious quest himself: to find and kill Katherine Pierce. Is this because she ingested the cure meant for him and he means to get revenge, or does he have something else planned for her? All that is clear is that Silas has incredible compulsion powers, stronger than anything we’ve previously seen in this world, and he isn’t afraid to use them to make the entire town into his Katherine-seeking minions. It would be immensely creepy if it wasn’t so obvious just how much fun Wesley is having playing the bad guy again.
But we don’t just get to see Wesley play the bad guy. There’s also the little matter of Stefan in a safe at the bottom of a reservoir, and the show does not back away one bit from focusing on the torture he’s going through by dying and resurrecting over and over again underwater. He’s not there alone, however; guided by his visions of Damon telling him to turn off his humanity switch to save himself from misery and Elena begging him to keep it intact, Stefan’s time in the coffin is his own purgatory state, a continuation on the themes explored with Stefan and Klaus in season three and last season with Elena. These moments don’t quite mesh with the rest of the episode, but they are shot gorgeously and have a stark, emotional beauty that serves as a nice tether to Stefan’s character while Wesley is off having fun playing Silas elsewhere. I’m not sure I want eight episodes of this, but for the premiere, it was quite nice.
Less nice is whatever is going on with Bonnie and Jeremy, which simply does not work for me at all. Damon having to take care of Jeremy in Elena’s absence is kind of great. (Imagined dinner conversation: “Jeremy, eat your vegetables. Never mind about that time I killed you.”) Jeremy still talking to a dead person who refuses to let him tell anyone she is dead is less great. What Bonnie is doing right now is completely selfish and hard to watch, not to mention fairly dramatically uninteresting, considering she can only really interact with one person in the cast. Even her agony over her dead father seemed pointless because she had no ability to even communicate with him when he was alive. I’m sure the writers have some sort of plan to justify her sticking around, but for now? It feels a bit like wasted time.
The most surprising thing about this episode, though, has to be Matt Donovan getting what appears to be an actual story of his own. The brief glimpse into his threesome-laden summer adventure with Rebekah was everything I wanted it to be, but I truly expected that to be it: for Rebekah to waltz off to New Orleans and for him to continue being a bartender and occasionally turning up to play Xbox with Jeremy. But with the reveal that summer conquest Nadia stole the Gilbert ring and tracked him down in Mystic Falls to return it, only to have some spooky warlock dude put a curse on him and make his eyes turn Supernatural-demon black? Well, that’s pretty darn interesting, Donovan. What a difference a summer full of vampire sex makes.
So yes, this wasn’t necessarily a perfect episode of The Vampire Diaries but it feels like the perfect introduction to a season that looks to be filled with changing character dynamics and ever-shifting alliances. The greatest thing here was how it maintained that classic TVD tone of a sort of giddy excitement—exemplified here by Elena’s awesomely happy college vampire girl persona—undercut by a current of dread. When a happy Elena starts off the episode saying “I’ve got this weird feeling that something bad is about to happen,” Damon should know better than to brush it off, because he should know by now that any time someone is happy in Mystic Falls, something horrible is bound to happen next.
And that’s why we keep coming back for more.
- Matt. Freaking. Donovan. I’m going to need a flashback episode solely focused on Matt and Rebekah’s European sex vacation.
- So Jeremy and Elena go with the whole “I went crazy on drugs, accidentally burned down my house, and faked my death” trick, huh? Only in Mystic Falls would this be barely a blip on the radar.
- Speaking of Jeremy’s lies, he got bullied for faking his own death? And the thing that made him go insane was some guy insulting his phone? That’s some deep product placement voodoo.
- Katherine having messy hair, chipped nails, and complaining about high heels was delightful. It’s also nice to see that becoming human hasn’t changed her character, as evidenced by her careening Jeremy’s car into a telephone pole in an attempt to save herself from Silas.
- The transition from Elena in the bathtub to Stefan in the safe was nifty.
- Damon: “If I hear the word doppelganger one more time, I think I’m actually going to have to learn how to spell it.”