The trouble with ending your previous season on a narrative and visual stunner like The Vampire Diaries did with season three is that, eventually, you have to do another episode, and that episode is going to have certain expectations. “The Departed” was a singular achievement for the series, raising the emotional stakes for the characters while simultaneously deepening the visual and narrative language of the show. When Elena rose from that cold morgue table last May, gasping for breath and forever changing the series from a story of a girl who lived to a story of a girl who died, the stakes were irrevocably raised. The only question remaining was whether the show could sustain this momentum into the season-four première.
The answer to that question is an unfortunate “No,” although upon close inspection it is unclear how it possibly could have sustained. While “The Departed” was a remarkable episode of television and worked perfectly for what it was, by the nature of it being a season finale, it inevitably sets up a few story threads beyond Elena’s transformation that must be followed through in this première. Those story threads—notably Klaus’ possession of Tyler’s body and the escalation of the Council threat—feel like distractions in “Growing Pains,” shifting valuable story time away from Elena and her vampire transition.
The biggest offender is the Klaus story, which ends up being barely lived-in enough to even call a story. The trick of Bonnie hiding Klaus in Tyler’s body in order to save him from eternal desiccation was a pretty great one at the time, but the result of him actually being in Tyler turns out to be a bit of a snooze. The trouble with this always was that although it sounds fun to have an evil guy who loves Caroline in Tyler’s body, the show could never fully commit to that idea without losing the idea of Caroline and Klaus as a couple for good in the future. If Klaus had been allowed to take advantage of Caroline—which he was about to do, mind you—any potential pairing for them would have been off the table, and The Vampire Diaries is far too protective of its potential couplings to do something like that. Therefore, Caroline figures out what’s happening right away (which, granted, was a nice touch) and only a few minutes later, Klaus is back in his own body like nothing really ever happened. It’s the kind of twisty little one- or two-episode arc that the show likes to do—and usually does very well—but sticking it in the middle of the life-altering things that are happening to Elena just felt off.
As for the Council, the scenes setting up their encroachment on the supernatural creatures of Mystic Falls have a good energy and set up a potentially interesting human vs. supes arc for the season, until the entire thing is literally blown up at the end. Pastor Young and his band of merry vampire hunters were perhaps not suited to be the enemies for the entire season—they knew way too much too soon, thanks to the Esther-possessed Alaric—but having them be so easily defeated, and then having the Pastor blow everyone up at the end is just confounding. He lit the match chanting about them being “only the beginning,” but if they were just the beginning, couldn’t we have spent a little more time understanding Elena’s emotional state and a little less time watching all the usual suspects get rounded up?
Because, really, this episode needed to be all about Elena. Nothing as significant as Elena potentially turning into a vampire has ever been attempted on this show, and it’s doubtful anything ever will. Taking your teenage-girl lead character from the girl next door who just happens to love vampires to a vampire herself is a fairly astonishing place for a show like this to go, and aside from a few isolated moments, that gravity simply isn’t felt here.
Again, though, this is understandable at times. This is a gang who never accepts the common explanation for anything, who is always looking for a way out of whatever jam they find themselves in, so it wasn’t a surprise that this episode revolved around trying to find a way to keep Elena from turning. This was also perfectly on point for Elena’s character, as the thought of turning into the one thing she never wanted to be seems like a worse fate than the death she assumed she was choosing by asking Stefan to save Matt first. So when Bonnie literally kills herself to attempt to go to the other side and bring Elena’s human form back with her, it feels earned. When Elena realizes Bonnie’s plan didn’t work and she doesn’t have time to feed before she’ll die, her good-bye scene with Stefan feels earned.
A lot of the time in between those moments feels wasted, though, because here’s the thing about Bonnie’s spell: it couldn’t work, and it would never work, because that was never where this story was headed. Yes, they had to try, as this isn’t a group that ever admits defeat when the alternative is a plan, and in this eventual defeat they needed to embrace the true tragedy of what is happening to Elena. But did they? I’m not sure yet. There’s a lot more story to tell here, so this is only the beginning, but I do wish that beginning had been stronger.
The best thing about this episode for me, though, was the juxtaposition between Stefan and Damon’s characters and how delicately balanced it was despite the high stakes. Up until now, Stefan was portrayed as the man who respected Elena’s wishes above all other consideration, who would do anything she asked simply because she asked. Damon, on the other hand, was portrayed as profoundly selfish in his dealings with Elena, a man who had no qualms ignoring her voice if he thought it wasn’t the best thing to do. In those portrayals, Stefan always seemed to come out as the good guy, and Damon always seemed to be the one who had to apologize for his rash actions. But in the situation of Elena’s underwater wish, the waters are much murkier. Stefan did what Elena wanted and hates himself for it. Damon fully admits he’d save Elena, every time, no matter how much Elena shunned him for it afterwards. With a lower-stakes situation, it might be easy to decide who’s in the right. Here, however, they’re both colored in their own lovely shades of gray. How could honoring Elena’s wishes be seen as the wrong choice? How could saving her life? Both are right, both are wrong, and it’s this complexity that makes the whole conflict work.
The love triangle struggled throughout much of season three, but this attention to the Salvatore differences felt purposeful tonight, careful and thoughtfully measured. Now that all three sides of the triangle are on an even playing field, it will be interesting to see how these relationships develop.
But first, Elena needs to figure out how the hell she is going to survive now that she’s dead.
- The new opening sequence is horrible and makes the show seem very childish. TVD has grown surprisingly mature in the past year, so this feels like a regrettable regression to earlier days.
- I really enjoyed Bonnie’s scenes in this episode and hope this is the beginning of an interesting arc for her. Now that she’s touched black magic like this, what will be the consequences?
- The scene of Elena remembering Damon’s compulsion is pretty great, especially how it thrusts the viewer into a memory as if it was actually happening live.
- Matt’s devastation over Elena turning into a vampire because of him is palpable. Team Matt forever, guys.
- In a scene that is borderline silly in its histrionics, Rebekah destroys all of Klaus’ remaining doppelgänger blood. But how will Klaus make minions now?
- Sandwiches are not disgusting, Elena. Vampire or not, sandwiches rule.