Six seasons into a show, it’s hard to do anything that’s truly brand new. Once you get over 100 episodes in the can, it’s really more about shuffling the deck just enough to make rehashed plots and old relationships feel new again—or at least new enough to be interesting. Season six of The Vampire Diaries has been mostly successful in its attempt to shuffle something old into something new and interesting, and “The Downward Spiral” might be the best example of the show’s renewed vigor. This is an episode chock full of Big Character Moments, but they’re all moments we’ve technically seen before, in different ways. It has the potential to feel like a complete retread; instead, it’s all almost fun. The key difference? Some smart someone finally decided to downplay the angst a bit.
When Jeremy died and Elena turned off her humanity, it was intensely sad and tragic, and the whole show swiveled to deal with Elena’s deviant behavior in the aftermath, dragging the show down a pretty dark path. With Caroline in the same situation, TVD has two distinct advantages when essentially repeating the same story: Caroline isn’t the main character, so the show doesn’t need to swivel to have everyone react, and more importantly, Caroline is not Elena. Caroline can turn off her humanity and then be rational enough to bargain with her friends to give her a year of no-guilt, emotion-free fun as long as she doesn’t kill anyone in the process. Caroline can be self-aware about herself and everyone else around her at the same time and not pull everyone in her vicinity into her orbit of doom. The result is a take on the humanity-free concept that feels far more practical (and interesting) than what the show has done in the past. It doesn’t hurt that Candice Accola is clearly relishing all of the fun she’s getting to have by finally getting a headlining story of her own.
It seems fairly clear that Caroline could be the one vampire on the show who could turn off her humanity without adversely affecting the world around her, if it wasn’t for Stefan’s insistence on being Stefan. Stefan blames himself for being the sole cause of Caroline’s decision, simply because he froze and couldn’t tell Caroline he liked her. Not only is this incredibly self-absorbed, it’s also highly insulting to Caroline, who is an intelligent woman who deserves more than people to think she needs Stefan’s approval in order to not fall apart. So of course Stefan meddles, which causes Caroline to retaliate in the most vicious way possible, compelling poor Liam to perform “surgery” on the one person Stefan has been trying to protect all these years: good old Sarah Salvatore.
Really, the plot could have ended here, with Caroline killing Sarah and Stefan and Elena desperately trying to bring Caroline’s humanity back for episode after episode. Last season this might have been exactly what happened, but season six of The Vampire Diaries is working on another level. Instead, Caroline makes a deal with Stefan: He turns off his humanity, too, and she’ll save Sarah. The prospect of having snarky, humanity-free, Ripper Stefan back is almost too good to be true, but combining this with Caroline as his partner in crime? Well, this is one of the more exciting things that has happened all season. It’s especially exciting because when it happens, a helpless Elena futilely pleads in the background while an uncaring Stefan makes margaritas. The only angst here is with Elena, and she’s so far pushed to the side that it barely even registers. All the fun surrounding Stefan and Caroline drowns her angst right out.
Caroline isn’t the only person grappling with her emotions. Bonnie is still dealing with the aftermath of her time in 1994, which is manifesting much like PTSD. Her only solace seems to be her conversations with Damon, which is a nice continuation of the friendship that’s been building between the two all season. This takes a turn, however, when Damon needs Bonnie to meet with Kai in order for Kai to help him find his mother in 1903, and she refuses (Kai wants to see Bonnie so he can apologize for what he did to her in 1994, which, sure). Damon’s still not great at being someone’s actual friend when there’s something he needs more, so he surprises Bonnie with a visit from Kai and causes her to go into a full-on panic, flashing back to everything Kai did to her and leading to her torturing Damon in the same way Kai tortured her. This feels like only the beginning of Bonnie’s story, as she herself admits in a message to Jeremy that she’s a different person now. Just how different is yet to be seen.
But what about Mama Salvatore? Apparently she didn’t die of consumption in 1858, no matter how much Damon wishes she did. No, she became a vampire—even worse, a Ripper—and she caused so much damage the Gemini Coven created the 1903 prison world just to contain her. It’s only a matter of time before either she breaks out or Damon breaks her out, and another piece of the Salvatore family puzzle is put back together. Can Ripper Mama please come back while Ripper Stefan is still in full effect? We’ve all been very good this year. I think we deserve a treat.
- This was Ian Somerhalder’s directorial debut, and he did a great job. Especially great was the final phone sequence with Stefan and Elena, with the shot widening to reveal Caroline sprawled out on the bar in a tableau that promises awesomeness to come.
- I’m still enjoying the hell out of Kai, but I can’t quite figure him out. Is he softened solely because of absorbing Luke’s personality? What purpose does he serve in the show now? At least his “feelings are awkward” moments are entertaining and feel surprisingly natural, which is mostly because Chris Wood is so good.
- Finally, Sarah Salvatore sort of serves a purpose. Enzo’s plan to use her is still terrible but I did enjoy the reveal that Stefan had compelled her to not care about vampires or any vampire-related things. That’s great.
- This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: No Matt Donovan this week, but this interview from Julie Plec is interesting for all of us Matt Donovan fans.
- “Liam, the boy I totally forgot existed.” We all forgot, Caroline, it’s OK.