(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
There is a certain permanence to places on television shows, even beyond characters. We know that it's possible that an actor can leave a show, and then maybe make a guest appearance or twelve or even be resurrected. In fact, we know that that's an important aspect of television—the people behind the show can't be controlled or predicted. Sets are different, though, which is why when a show seems to be on the verge of cancellation, taking down the sets is the final signifier of its doom.
So when The Vampire Diaries burns down the Gilbert house at the end of “Stand By Me,” it feels permanent, maybe even more permanent than anything the show's ever done. Mason and Jenna and Anna and Lexi and Grams and Alaric have all come back, in various forms and fashions. Jeremy may well do the same, possibly as soon as the next episode after the break. But that house? The living room where Klaus was just trapped? The porch where Katherine deceived Damon? Alaric's couch? Elena's room, where Damon told her how he felt and took the memory away? Jeremy's pot-smoking, ghost-fucking bordello of a bedroom? And the kitchen, that kitchen, where so many surprise stabbings have taken place, where John Gilbert lost his fingers? Those are all gone now. Not to say that the house burning was more emotional than Jeremy's death, but rather that it added an aura of permanence to the mourning.
It was also unpredictable, which is an art that I'd thought The Vampire Diaries had lost since the end of the second season. The whole cure plotline has done wonders for the show, honestly, as it had been caught in a rut of “who will Elena pick?” and “how will they try to kill Klaus?” Those questions were still relevant in the race for the cure, but they added to the uncertainty, instead of existing to exist. How and when each character would betray one another, what new alliances and characters might exist, and what old characters might pick the perfect time to reappear? That was The Vampire Diaries very nearly at its second-season best.
The crucial aspect of season two, that made it legitimately great, was that Elena was a dynamic character then. Threatening to kill herself, then daggering Elijah were moments where the supposed hero of the piece actually exercised what power she possessed. Elena was able to shift from near-permanent damsel in distress to an active participant in her own life. You would have thought that Elena turning into a vampire would have helped that happen more often, but instead it was primarily used to increase the stakes of the romantic tug-of-war between Damon and Stefan over her.
That moment finally comes in this episode when she realizes that Jeremy is actually dead, that the hopes she's placed in Bonnie are thoroughly insane, and she decides to burn the place down. It's one of the show's best-ever scenes, with Dobrev finally able to let loose emotions other than worry. The thing that works about it, beyond Dobrev's performance, is that she's right. Her memories of that house really have to be tainted by the constant death in her life, and the show—and other characters—have to acknowledge that. Which they do.
But it leads to a scene that leads directly to Elena's agency being partially removed. Stefan and Damon decide to get rid of Elena's pain using the sire bond, and Damon does so by saying to “turn it off” too allow Elena's vampire side take over. The motivations and politics of Damon doing so will likely be heavily debated, both by fans and the show's characters, but I actually thought it worked. It's behavior that most all of the characters in the show, including Elena, have encouraged. It was also an extremely effective structural callback to Klaus demanding that Stefan “Turn. It. Off.” in season two (a moment unfortunately immortalized in what felt like a thousand Previously Ons afterward).
Emotionless Elena also adds a layer of unpredictability to the show, so I have some hope that The Vampire Diaries can maintain the momentum it's had this year. Katherine at large, Bonnie going insane, the possibility of a mass resurrection, and our lack of knowledge about Silas give the end of the season a great deal of potential.
Yet although “Stand By Me” had some great moments and set the stage for the final group of episodes, I'm not sure it was an exceptional episode on its own. Elena's early denial seemed done for a laugh, “I'm not in denial, I'm just denying that he's dead!” which dampens the mood somewhat. Caroline's narration of the episode via voicemails to the absent Tyler. And the unremarked upon fashion by which the characters got to and from Silas' island was silly initially, but strained disbelief when it effectively seemed to be just down the street.
Perhaps the biggest issue that kept me from falling for the episode was that I, like Elena, refused to believe that Jeremy was dead. The entire time the show dangled a magical resurrection of some kind in front of me, and even as it ended, Bonnie going rogue and bringing Jeremy back, as soon as next episode, seems entirely plausible. This isn't necessarily a bad thing—as I said, I love the potential of it. But it does mean that I didn't have the emotional reaction to "Stand By Me" that I've noticed others did.
But The Vampire Diaries has never been a perfect show. At its best, it's been fast-paced fun filled with real character insights. After very nearly giving up on the show at the start of the season, I'm happy to find that it's a show I can't wait to watch again.
- The real question: Meredith Fell's new haircut, yea or nay?
- “If there's one thing that's a guarantee in this miserable little world it's that Katherine Pierce is gone.” So much history in a throwaway line.
- I can't decide if I want Bonnie to do this or not. Sure, I miss a lot of the characters, but I don't know if they'd be reintegrated well. This is the sort of trick that a show can pull once, if it does it well.
- Imagine April Young's face at the end of that phone call.