The Vampire Diaries: "Dead Man On Campus"
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The Vampire Diaries: "Dead Man On Campus"

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The Vampire Diaries

"Dead Man On Campus"

Season 5, Episode 8

Sometimes a show has a breakout character, a character who immediately jumps off the screen and, by a combination of performance, writing, and sheer force of the actor’s will, becomes something of an unexpected sensation. Because of the episodic nature of television, this is a phenomenon almost solely limited to this medium, and watching it unfold is one of the pure joys of being a television fan.

For The Vampire Diaries, that character is Damon Salvatore. (To the show’s great credit, it could lay claim to several more as well; Damon was just the first and best.) Elena and Stefan were designed to be the anchor of the show, the grounded presence amid some serious madness. Not encumbered with these restraints, Damon was free to be the menace, the wild card amid the relative stability, and the writers and Ian Somerhalder ran with it. For the first three seasons, Damon’s unpredictability—and then as he evolved, his heart—became the most reliable unreliable thing in Mystic Falls.

But a funny thing happened in season four. As Elena transitioned into a vampire and flirted with a relationship with Damon, he suddenly became less of an active force on the show than he had ever been before. This season so far has been even worse in this regard, as Stefan got the majority of the story in the first seven episodes, and the show almost forgot Damon was there.

Until now. Damon had a spotlight episode tonight, showcasing the exasperated snark and morally slippery world view that defines his character. Elena tasking Damon to torture Wes to figure out why he turned Jesse into a vampire shouldn’t be this entertaining, but it is—and that’s all because of what this show and Somerhalder have built Damon to be. I should probably be thrilled that this episode ended with Damon suddenly realizing he was similar to Jesse many years ago, a test subject sacrificed at the altar of the yet-unseen Augustine vampire. I can’t be thrilled, however, because the introduction of this information is just so horribly, awkwardly done that it’s almost comic.

It’s clear Dr. Wes Maxfield and his Augustine vampire factory of doom is the next big story in the queue, and although this doesn’t feel like a very original direction for the show to take, I am, nevertheless, on board with the series taking it. I’m always on board with the show suddenly realizing it hasn’t used Damon to his full potential in almost a year and giving him a juicy storyline. What’s frustrating is creating arbitrary connections that are obviously plucked out of thin air in order to make the two work together. Damon suddenly seeing the barcode on the blood bag, cocking his head to the side, and being flooded by memories from out of the blue is meant to be intriguing and exciting, and instead just came across as shoehorned in and completely random. Damon ending up as a victim of Dr. Maxfield’s schemes is fine. Damon suddenly having this whole back-story he didn’t remember, a back-story that is oh-so-convenient for story purposes? That’s where it gets a little more troubling for me.

Other than Damon’s strange ending, though, this was a pretty strong episode. Bonnie’s story is suddenly interesting to me in a way she hasn’t been in quite a while, as she navigates how to balance being the anchor and letting dead supernatural beings pass through her to the other side while reigniting her relationship with Jeremy. Despite everything she is put through, Bonnie is purely happy here in a way she hasn’t been maybe since season one and it’s a pleasure to watch. It doesn’t hurt that now that Kat Graham and Steven R. McQueen can touch each other it turns out they’ve developed some fairly decent chemistry. Bonnie’s story is certainly heading into some deep misery, but for now, it’s just so nice to see Graham get to play a different emotion for once.

Back in Mystic Falls, the biggest story has to do with Stefan’s slow descent into madness as he repeatedly flashes back to his time in the coffin. On its face it isn’t much of an interesting turn for him—we’ve gotten bigger, better “Stefan is conflicted” stories in the past with his blood addiction and Ripper turn—but it kicks off a welcome rekindling with Katherine. These two are basically kindred spirits right now, both shells of their former selves who are somewhat adrift. A chance encounter at the Mystic Grill leads to a genuine heart-to-heart conversation, followed by a mutual mission, ending with an honest-to-goodness heartfelt moment. There’s a bit of reciprocity going on between the two in a way that likely hasn’t existed since they first met and fell in love, with Katherine helping Stefan through one of his memory attacks, and then later in a more surprising turn, Stefan helping Katherine come to terms with her rapid aging.

Katherine suddenly deciding her death sentence is something she wants to take care of quickly rather than figuring some sort of supernatural way out of it reads a bit out of character, but the resulting conversation after Stefan saves her from killing herself is enough to make up for that slight stretch. If there was anything Katherine needed to hear, it was, “You’re Katherine Pierce. Suck it up.” That it came from the most unlikely source, Stefan, is intriguing, both for her and for where this story between the two is headed.

Stray observations:

  • Caroline’s resurgent disapproval for Damon was strongly emphasized in this episode, which feels like a setup for whatever is about to happen with Damon and Dr. Maxfield. This show consistently does a decent job of converging its stories like this, even if it’s a bit unsubtle this time.
  • Aaron is still hanging around, waiting to get a more important role in the story as the Dr. Maxfield arc kicks off in earnest. Elena seems like she’s flirting with him constantly, so I’m curious to see what he thinks their relationship actually is.
  • Bonnie, your new role as the anchor might be difficult, but your hair looks fantastic.
  • Does Gregor’s expulsion mean we don’t get any more scenes of Zach Roerig doing a Czech accent? Come back, Gregor, and maybe stay forever?  (Seriously, though, Matt barely got anything to do in what appeared at first to be his own story.)

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