The Vampire Diaries: “Promised Land”
B+
Stop, in the name of Luke
Stop, in the name of Luke

The Vampire Diaries: “Promised Land”

That didn’t really happen. Or did it?

B+

The Vampire Diaries

"Promised Land"

Season 5, Episode 21

So, that happened. Maybe.

The Vampire Diaries has always played fast and loose with death. After all, death is practically baked into the premise; when we first met the characters back in season one, Stefan and Damon were undead brothers wooing a girl whose parents were killed in a devastating accident. Death surrounded everyone and everything from the very beginning—and since then, everyone on the show has died at least once, some permanently. Death is such a constant in the TVD universe that being alive and human is actually the rarity at this point (with only Jeremy and Matt claiming that honor amongst the regular characters right now, despite both dying many times in the past). Mystic Falls is a mixed up, morbid world.

And yet, up to this point no one as integral to the show’s DNA as Stefan has died, at least not like he dies here: Slowly desiccating as his heart is ripped out of chest, passing through Bonnie’s body to the rapidly disintegrating Other Side, and as far as we can tell, fully dead dead dead. But did it really happen? It’s hard to imagine The Vampire Diaries without Stefan, so odds are he will be back—and if he’s not back, the emotional impact of that moment is a bit suspect. If it didn’t really happen, though, does that matter? And what does that mean for the show?

In order for a character death to mean something, death in the world the character inhabits usually has to have actual consequences. In its early days, TVD instinctively understood this, saving important characters’ permanent deaths for when they could impart the maximum impact—like when Stefan was forced to stake an out-of-control Vicki, or when Klaus killed Jenna to trigger his hybrid curse. Death was shocking, because of both its horror and its permanence, all delivered in TVD’s patented shock-value style. Somewhere along the way, as the Other Side became more prominent, and the never-ending cycle of negating shocking deaths by finding magical ways of extending character lives took over, death took on a different meaning in this world. Death was more a nuisance, a problem to be worked through than an actual ending. This was best exemplified by Jeremy and Bonnie’s quick resurrection—both were characters that the show might even have benefitted from losing, but it was as if the writers forgot how to let go. Instead, their deaths were plot-driven, and death in this world from that point on—as a concept and as a tool—was different. (To be fair, Jeremy’s death did inspire some genuinely incredible emotional moments from Elena, and some stellar work from Nina Dobrev. But again, the impermanence of those emotions retroactively negates a lot of their importance to the characters.)

These are times when reviewing a show on an episodic basis is difficult, because everything about Stefan’s murder depends on what happens next. As an individual moment it was many things—shocking, baffling, maddening, even downright unbelievable—but Stefan’s death (or survival) simply can’t exist as a single moment. It exists as a springboard for what happens next, whether that be Bonnie figuring out a way to save everyone, or the show taking the time to properly mourn one of its most important characters. It’s a moment that demands context, even when the format of this review doesn’t really allow for it.

It hurts me to spend all that time debating something that only took up about one minute of actual episode space—especially because everything else here was so good. This episode was downright hilarious at times, light and breezy and snappy in a way the show hasn’t been in quite a while, and it was an absolute pleasure to watch. Damon’s snark was on fire, Elena and Stefan were lighthearted, and Elena even showed a lot of the personality she’s been missing for so long. Intercut with all those lighter moments was a great dose of TVD’s patented strategy of filling the screen with people who have competing agendas and letting the chips fall where they may, this time with the Travelers starting their spell to disintegrate all vestiges of witch-based magic, while Liv and Luke attempt to kill a doppelganger to get them to stop, and everyone else just wants to run away to avoid turning back into a human and dying in the process. It’s well-plotted, well-written, tight stuff. Right up until that insane ending. Which all might be a big misdirect. 

Misdirect or no, everything rests on what The Vampire Diaries does next to resolve it. No pressure.

Stray observations:

  • Standout visual moment of the episode: The montage of everyone reliving how they originally died, intercut with those scenes from the show. Evocative, creepy, and cool.
  • Also good: Liv crashing Stefan and Elena’s truck into that invisible wall. Very cool.
  • Who is in Liv and Luke’s Coven? Is this the first we’ve heard of them? Hmm.
  • When the Travelers were having their chant party in the middle of the town square, do you think all the regular folks in Mystic Falls just thought it was a flash mob? Or do they just ignore the weird stuff in their town at this point?
  • This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: Him Jake Gyllenhaaling Stefan and Elena through the underground tunnels, trying to outrun the Traveler spell. Run faster, kids, or the cold will get you!
  • “FOUND: Cave of wannabe witches. For more information call Damon Salvatore.”
  • “They’re ragged, beaten down by the world, desperate for a home.” “You just described homeless people, aging hipsters, and Matt Donovan.”

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