Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Original Airdate: November 3rd, 2011 on The CW

Whoo, it’s been a while. There are two reasons for that. First, a plague has fallen on the house of Oryx, and second, technical difficulties prevented me from my glorious plan of covering what would surely be one of the seven wonders of television history: NFL Rush Zone. Instead, I’m covering The Vampire Diaries, and since it’s a fast-paced soap opera for the hoverboard generation, I had to watch quite a bit of it to feel comfortable offering an opinion on any one episode.

Strengths

  • Rich mythology. Okay, let’s get this out of the way upfront. Diaries was obviously intended as a Twilight cash-in. The first movie in the series had come out the year before and had made billions of dollars, so the dude that brought us Dawson’s Creek dug around in the backlist and found some likely looking YA fiction from the early 1990s. So Diaries takes a minute to find its voice and walk away from its derivative roots. That isn’t helped by the fact that the central romance between Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) is as inert as a noble gas, except with a noble gas, there’d be chemistry. Despite the game efforts of Dobrev and Wesley, the writing does not rise to the occasion. Thankfully, you can’t fill seven seasons and three seasons worth of spin-off with “teenagers” making moon eyes at one another, and in the three seasons I sampled the show cultivated a rich and rewarding mythology of vampires, werewolves, witches and even the occasional ghost. There were intricate, internecine conflicts between families and schemes that took centuries to unfold. There were magical artifacts, spells and counterspells. If you’re willing to give this show a chance and overlook its kiddy-bye exterior, you’ll find that it’s really quite immersive.
  • The originals. If you’d obediently clicked the link about the spin-off, you’d have found out that it is in fact called The Originals. I bring this up because the eponymous Originals are the subject of tonight’s episode, which chronicles nothing less momentous than the invention of vampires! They all stem from the Mikaelson Family, and what with vampires being immortal, the Mikaelsons are mostly still alive and have shown up to cause problems for Elena and friends. Think about all the drama that can well up in three generations of any given family. Think of all the grudges, overlooked slights, simmering resentment and unresolved tension, much of which only dissipates upon death or estrangement. Well, now imagine your family never died and have been clashing swords with one another for a goddamned millennium. In this episode, Elena seeks to break the compulsive control that malevolent Original Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) has over Stefan. She thinks she can do this by uncovering the history of the Originals, so she seeks out his sister Rebekah (Claire Holt.) What happens next reveals that the family history that Rebekah had believed for centuries was all an ex post facto lie spun by Klaus, and we get all the dirt via flashbacks. All the best family dramas involve murder, magic and revenge.
  • Damon. Many of the characters on this show are two-dimensional, but you can’t say that about Stefan’s brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder.) Initially, Damon is set up as the evil, bloodthirsty alternative to the goody two-shoes, domesticated Stefan, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that despite his violent tendencies and his ever-present irreverent sarcasm, he cares a lot about Stefan and Elena. In fact, he cares too much about Elena, frequently butting heads with Stefan over her affections. The first time we see him in this episode, he’s sneaking up on Elena in a dark cave to scare her just for the sake of being an asshole. Later, he goes drinking and whoring with the help of some vampire compulsion. But at a key moment, he admits to Stefan that he’s trying to save him from Klaus’ control because he owes him for saving his life time and time again. He really does care! But when Stefan mocks him for it, Damon kicks his ass and leaves him lying on the ground. Sure, the bad boy with a heart of gold is a stock archetype, but Somerhalder executes it with real flair and Damon feels much more like a real person than many of the other leads, perhaps with the exception of Caroline (Candice King.)
  • Ripper Stefan. Normally, Stefan Salvatore is as boring as white toast. I had hoped for the sake of the show that they’d find a way to make him interesting and give Wesley a chance to prove himself as an actor. One fun way to do that is to give him a Dark and Mysterious Past. You see, he wasn’t always a brooding pretty boy hoping to meet the love of his life while lurking around a cemetery. No, he used to be what’s called a “Ripper,” a vampire that has renounced his humanity and just loves to tear people apart to feast on their delicious blood. Hooray! He managed to eventually get himself under control, but then Klaus undid all that hard work. So the Stefan on display here is mean and angry and all-around evil, and the show is that much more interesting for it.
  • Well-written closing scene. You could accuse this show of taking itself too seriously. It’s surrounded by a heavy aura of portentousness, perhaps to set itself apart from its wacky cousin, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the final scene here is both light-hearted and deft. Elena comes home from a long day of pumping Rebekah for information only to find a fully-clothed Damon sprawled on her bed. He’s there both to harass her and because he expects her to want to yell at him for using typically unorthodox methods to try and get through to Stefan, but she just wants to sleep and crawls into bed (weirdly fully clothed.) As the conversation unfolds, they realize they’ve come out of the day better than expected–Damon was confronted by Klaus’ vengeful father, Mikael (Sebastian Roche, Wer,) who was able to successfully extract information from Stefan by threatening Damon’s life, and Elena turned Rebekah against Klaus by revealing his murderous deceit. Thinking about Rebekah, Elena muses that Rebekah’s just a girl who “lost her mom too young and who loves blindly and recklessly, even if it consumes her.” My respect for the show skyrocketed when neither Elena or Damon pointed out that Rebekah shares these traits with Elena. The scene ends on a high note, too–Elena points out that her experience with Rebekah underscored the importance of familial bonds for vampires, which means that Elena can’t save Stefan from himself. Only Damon can do that. If that’s true, the viewers will reap the dividends—Damon and Stefan are a much better pairing than Stefan and Elena. That fact alone has no doubt brought us pages and pages of turgid, incestous slashfic.

Weaknesses

  • Elena. Diaries isn’t the first show to have a bland, featureless protagonist designed to let the viewer project themselves onto the hero of their favorite soap opera. Consider also Grey’s Anatomy, Lost or even Wayward Pines. Just because it’s a common flaw doesn’t make it an endearing one, though. What exactly are Elena’s characteristics supposed to be, anyway? According to Wikia, she is “popular, sporty, smart, compassionate, empathetic, caring and friendly.” Who wouldn’t want to be those things? Though I will say she’s sporty in the same way Melanie C is sporty, which is to say she has maybe once looked at a soccer ball. Also, compassionate, empathetic and caring all mean the same thing, and Elena is as smart and compassionate as she needs to be to keep the plot moving forward. I’m just glad that Elena’s evil doppelganger Katherine exists to give Dobrev something to do.
  • Witches. Witches on Diaries are primarily represented by members of the Bennett family, and in the present day that means main cast member Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham.) Bonnie is one of the few people of color on the show, and this means that nearly all the witches we see are black. It also means that we’re frequently seeing black witches who only exist to help out their white vampire friends, including in historical situations that have been whitewashed to remove actually existing racial tension. This is ironic considering how the show frequently uses human-vampire relations as a metaphor for prejudice and fear of difference. Other bloggers have written extensive, on point explorations of race on this show, so I’ll just point out that we’re given another example here of black witches existing only to serve their white buddies and being given absolutely nothing else to do with their kickass magical gifts. You see, Original matriarch Esther Mikaelson (Alice Evans, 102 Dalmations) is a witch herself, but on her expedition to the New World she is accompanied by another witch and healer, Ayana (Maria Howell, Addicted.) Now, Ayana is supposedly Esther’s best friend and mentor and the heir to all-powerful immortality magic. So she presumably taught Esther everything she knows about magic, giving Esther the central role in vampire mythology while Ayana gets shunted to the sidelines. All she gets to do here is to point out to Esther that creating vampires in an anti-werewolf arms race won’t be a net gain for either the Mikaelsons or the world at large, and that’s it. Witches are just as cool as vampires. They can do magic, for fuck’s sake! If you’re going to turn them into magical negroes, at least give them some thoughtful, creative stories of their own.

Motivation: Knowledge. If Elena is going to bring Stefan back to his dopey self, she needs to learn the secrets of the Originals.

Final Judgment: 8/10. This show seems lightweight at first blush, but there’s a lot going on here. Be aware that the quality of this show is wildly inconsistent—some of the episodes I watched were full of cringingly stupid moments and tired cliches, and the more time spent on Elena’s love life, the worse off we all are.

NEXT TIME: I return to the Marvel animated universe by reviewing the original 1960s Spiderman cartoon! I’ll do whatever a blogger can.

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Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”