So much of the way we consume television, especially in a highly serialized show like The Vampire Diaries, is based upon expectations. If a show is on a creative downward spiral, the expectation it will right the ship is so low that if even if it does, sometimes, fans' attention will have already moved on. For a show on an almost peerless creative and narrative tear like The Vampire Diaries, however, expectations can have the opposite effect. How exactly is the show even supposed to live up to itself? It’s almost an impossible feat.
Well have no fear, because the season three premiere lived up to any and all expectations and even surpassed what I thought was possible for the next chapter in this crazy saga. “The Birthday” was a metaphorical grab bag of everything the show does well: sex, violence, tears, friendship, love, death, booze, drugs, and even a surprising amount of well-rendered emotion. Damn, it is great to be back in Mystic Falls once again.
Let’s start by tackling the structure of the episode, because it was darn near perfect. It opens exactly where you want it to, with Klaus and Stefan wreaking havoc, together in savagery. In just a few quick seconds, we know exactly the status of Klaus and Stefan’s relationship without any expository dialogue being uttered. Klaus is still magnificently evil, Stefan is right by his side, and we (and, presumably, everyone back in Mystic Falls who loves Stefan) are in for one heck of a ride. The teaser wasn’t just character illuminating; it was also scary and exhilarating, and it posed just enough questions to keep your mind racing until you saw those two characters again. It’s wonderfully done, and it illustrates again how these writers simply understand exactly what this show is and know exactly how to tell these stories.
Once we get a taste of what dear Ripper Stefan is up to, perspective immediately shifts back to Elena and the rest of the gang. One notable thing about The Vampire Diaries is it trusts its audience. Nothing is spoon-fed; no time is wasted having nonsensical conversations that only exist to orient an audience. It’s almost immediately obvious some time has passed since the season two finale—Jeremy has different hair and is working at Mystic Grill now, and it’s mentioned that the search for Stefan didn’t start yesterday—but all of this information is doled out naturally and casually. The episode feels lived-in, like we just paused our television for three months and this is where the characters were at when we had time to hit the play button again.
Now that we have hit play again, we find Elena at a familiar place for her character. Just like when Stefan went a bit overboard on the blood in season one, she is standing right by him, searching for him, and not giving up on him or their love. She never even assumes Stefan is the perpetrator in the attacks she’s been tracking, so when Damon reluctantly has to tell her, it is gut-wrenching. We’ve seen before that she’ll stand up for Stefan despite an avalanche of reasons she shouldn’t, but how long can she ignore the pile of bodies in his wake? She’ll certainly learn just how far the destruction goes.
Even more gut-wrenching is the pleasantly confusing status of Stefan’s psyche. From all appearances, he’s fully on board with Klaus and is a willing participant in his scheme to create some sort of a mutant hybrid army. He enthusiastically murders the two innocent girls in the teaser and tortures their werewolf friend for information. Just when you think he might not be evil enough, he forces Andie to jump to her own death right in front of Damon. Granted, these things are mostly at Klaus’ behest, but not once does it feel like something that isn’t ultimately Stefan’s choice. Considering how absolutely outstanding Stefan is at being evil, it’s nice to see he’s somewhat enjoying it. However, there are moments where doubt creeps in. Is he all the way evil? Or is he just going along with Klaus until he can figure a way out of the situation? Or perhaps it is somewhere in the murky middle of those two absolutes? Klaus seems to be leaning toward the latter, and Stefan’s face when calling Elena and hanging up was not only heartbreaking but a sign Klaus may be right. Either way, this is going to be a wonderful mystery to unravel in upcoming episodes, especially if Paul Wesley keeps hitting it out of the park every week like he did tonight.
I suppose there are other people in Mystic Falls too, huh? Jeremy’s newly acquired gift of seeing dead vampires was the big cliffhanger from last season’s finale, but it took a bit of a side role in the premiere. As it stands, it seems he can see flashes and glimpses of ghosts, yet nothing as clear as he saw in the finale. The one time Vickie can actually speak to him, all she manages to say is “Help me,” which is very, very interesting. One smart thing the show has done this year is bring Matt in as Jeremy’s confidante, both because Vickie was Matt’s sister and Matt just plain needed something to do. I’m quite looking forward to the ghost adventures of Matt and Jeremy. (Mystic Grill waiters by day, vampire ghost hunters by night. Make that reality show, SyFy.)
Finally, we have Caroline and Tyler. Tyler’s return to Mystic Falls also meant a return to the Caroline/Tyler flirtation, which was something promising from last season that sort of got dropped in service of the Sun and Moon curse. Now he is back and their flirtation has gone right past “giving each other the eye” to “giving each other the… rest of it.” It’s a fun little character-driven runner throughout the episode. More importantly, it sets up the foundation for the season’s first cliffhanger when Caroline sneaks out of Tyler’s bedroom and is quickly intercepted by Mrs. Lockwood. In this case, “intercepted” means “spiked with vervain and then loaded with tranq darts.” That’s right, Mrs. Lockwood knows Caroline is a vampire and now has a sedated Caroline on her marble foyer floors. No matter how many times this show shocks me, it never has a problem doing it again.
Circling back to expectations, I don’t think I could have had higher expectations for this premiere. Over the summer, I rewatched the entire series over a span of about two weeks, which was when I realized just how tight of a series The Vampire Diaries has become. The first season solidified the tone of the show and its storytelling style. The second season mastered that storytelling style and took it to the next level by adding a significant amount of really thoughtful character development. The season three premiere took those character beats developed last season and not only executed them perfectly but also built upon that foundation. I realize I am gushing, and it may sound unseemly; perhaps watching a large volume of mediocre summer television and new fall pilots has my perception skewed. All I know is this is one of the most purely satisfying episodes of television I’ve seen in months and one of the best episodes this show has ever done. Is it next Thursday yet?
- The explanation of how Stefan got the name Ripper is disgusting, disturbing, and ultimately very sad. It’s also so perfectly Stefan. Of course he would feel remorse. Oh, Stefan, you complicated mass murderer, you.
- RIP, Andie. I don’t know if I’ve ever spelled your name right, but you were kind of fun.
- Caroline and Tyler’s conversation about being, um, randy and their later resolution of those feelings: hot or hottest thing this show has ever done?
- I kind of felt bad for Bonnie being relegated to one cell phone-sized appearance. Bonnie: as important as Mystic Grill’s highball glasses.
- My pitch for a new TVD slogan: “Come for the violence; stay for the tears.”
- Alaric needs to come back to Elena’s house. He needs to be the new daddy, you guys.
- “I thought you country folk were supposed to be more trusting.” “I’m from Florida.”
- “You should’ve knocked. What if I was indecent?”
- “There’s a reason they call him the Ripper. Feeds so hard he blacks out, rips them apart. But then, when he’s done, he feels remorse. It’s the damndest thing. He puts the bodies back together.”
- “Just because I tell you things doesn’t mean you’re allowed to know them.”
- “He hates me. His hatred of me has driven him to drugs.”
- “I can’t find my truck!”
- “Stefan is gone and he’s not coming back. Not in your lifetime.”