When The Vampire Diaries was at the height of its storytelling power, sometime in the latter half of season two, the episodes felt almost exhilarating in their breathlessness. There were always new plot twists to unveil, new allegiances to be tested, and new shocking deaths around every corner, coming fast and furious, at a pace that was obviously going to be impossible to sustain over the course of the series. Once season two ended, the show was able to hit these breathless heights again but with decreasing frequency, settling into a more deliberate, emotionally-tinged rhythm by season four. “American Gothic” throws that deliberateness out the window and plunges right back into those exhilarating days of the past with an episode that proves just how much swagger is left in TVD’s story tank, even this far into its lifespan.
It helps that this is essentially a caper episode—something the show always does well—focusing on the main story arc of the season: the search for the cure. Everyone sitting around debating the merits of the cure (and vice versa) all season was surely getting boring, especially as most of the time was spent with Stefan and Damon debating the cure on Elena’s behalf. Having Elena and Rebekah team up to get the cure to ensure there was no way Elena would ever be forced to take it is a nice little twist on where the story seemed to be going in earlier episodes. Add in the fact that Elena and Rebekah together have turned out to be absolute story gold, and you have all the makings for a good time.
But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the entertainment value here. Katherine always makes an episode better by her mere presence, as does Elijah, so combining their collective powers was surely a large part of the reason the episode worked so well. Katherine’s wanton disregard for anyone but herself is always a treat, as is Elijah’s buttoned-up, fiercely confident stillness, so combining these forces—and throwing an interesting emotional curveball in the middle of it all—was an inspired choice.
As soon as it became clear Katherine had an ally in her cure caper it should probably have been clear Elijah was her accomplice, yet when he stepped out of the shadows to meet Elena-as-Katherine, it was still a shocking moment. The Vampire Diaries is great at reveals, both emotional and story-driven, so his mere presence isn’t even the most shocking thing about him; it’s when he leans forward to kiss his beloved Katherine that everything immediately snaps into focus without a word of dialogue. With so much plot churned through over the course of the series, it’s easy to forget about Elijah’s connection to Katherine, but with one kiss it becomes so clear why he’s there: to help her be free of Klaus forever, and to potentially be able to be with him.
It’s an interesting turn to take right as the show drives towards the Originals spinoff, because Elijah as a character—though he’s always been one of the most vivid presences in the series' universe—is honestly barely a sketch, propelled more by a fantastic performance from Daniel Gillies than anything we truly know about him as a character. This completely works for the way he is used on The Vampire Diaries, but to make him a viable candidate for a series regular on his own show, there needs to be some shading. Reintroducing his long-lost love for Katherine and his belief that he can resurrect what he loved about Katerina so many years ago, then cleverly tying it into the Salvatores’ quest to “save” Elena from her humanity-free vampire eternity, smartly shades both Elijah’s character and Damon and Stefan’s at the same time, while steadfastly refusing to say who among the three is taking the right path.
Elijah first denounces Katherine for lying to him (as she always does) and playing him (as she always does), but Katherine shows up at the end, cure and her own heart in hand, and asks him to forgive her. Is she playing him again, simply choosing a different way of manipulating him into settling her score with Klaus? Or has she changed? As for Stefan and Damon, they spend their time in the episode—much as Elijah did—attempting to believe they can affect change on someone they both love, Elena. It’s frustrating that these two men won’t accept the choices of the woman in their life, but it’s also kind of understandable. This isn’t the Elena they knew. This isn’t the Elena they fell in love with. In their minds, there’s an easy way to bring that girl “back”; what they refuse to let themselves believe—and where this story gets frustrating—is that Elena might not want to come back. Elena gets this point across by killing an innocent person right in front of them and calling it consequences. They don’t give up? More consequences. Just how many lives are Stefan and Damon willing to sacrifice just to save this one? When is enough enough?
Caroline, who learned about sacrificing many to save one just last week, is also at an interesting crossroads as a character tonight. Last week, I complained about her learning lessons through Klaus’ eyes, but my fears might have been unfounded, as the opposite happens here. Klaus, in agony after being stabbed by Silas with the white oak stake, begs Caroline for help getting the remnants of the stake out of him. Caroline rightly attempts to broker a deal: Let Tyler return to town, and I’ll help. Klaus stubbornly refuses until Caroline lays out how everything that plagues him in life can be traced back to his stupid pride. Basically: He’s tried to kill all of her friends (and sometimes succeeded), and she’s tried to kill all of his family (and sometimes succeeded), so maybe they’re even? Caroline’s outburst causes him to snap out of his pain and realize there was never anything wrong with him at all—it was just a result of Silas messing with his mind. If Silas can infiltrate the mind of someone as powerful as Klaus, what does that mean for everyone else?
We are dangerously close to something really bad happening unless Klaus and Elijah team up with the rest of the gang to defeat Silas once and for all, which is where it feels like this is inevitably heading. With Katherine in the mix and the show’s renewed sense of frantic pacing picking up, it feels like getting there is going to be one hell of a ride.
- ELIJAH!!! Your hair is fabulous, as per usual.
- Caroline-as-Silas was downright chilling. Evil Caroline arc, please!
- There were so many wonderful little moments tonight: Stefan snarking on Damon for losing his car, Rebekah’s joy whenever Elena caused Katherine pain, Katherine calling Elena a “special snowflake of human frailty,” everyone being disgusted about Katherine sleeping with Elijah, and Katherine snapping Elena’s neck, to name just a few. There was happiness around every corner.
- More wonderful moments: Vervain fish tank, fake cure, Elijah and Elena’s kiss, and Katherine compelling everyone in town to forget her unless they were talking directly to her. Katherine is the best.
- Not wonderful: Damon calling humanity-free Elena a “stone cold bitch,” and Stefan agreeing. Not cool, boys.
- “Come home, brother. Let’s settle this like family.” Never have those words seemed so ominous.
- Elijah: “We don’t have a smart brother. Turns out I’m just as stupid as the rest of you.”