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Friday, 22 of June of 2018

The Vampire Diaries – “As I Lay Dying”

Still the winner and champion--and with her debt paid in full

This episode was the Damon hour. Despite that, I actually wish there had been more Damon. Yes, I am a fan of Ian Somerhalder and can never quite get enough of his hot bod, but there is more to it than that. I wrote last week that there were certain matters related to Damon that needed to be addressed (if not resolved) this week in order for the episode to be a success for me.  The show’s success on this front was middling at best.

I’ll review those finale expectations from last week after the jump (to avoid spoilers on the homepage), but in general, I thought Damon’s story moved rather slowly. Rather than force a dying, frightened Damon to have real conversations with the various people he has hurt—among the possibilities, Awesome Vampire Caroline, Sheriff Forbes, Jeremy, and Elena (Ric will be addressed below)—the writers’ trap Damon in a cell briefly and then have him wander town aimlessly for a while. The chase element did little to add suspense since there wasn’t any particular menace (i.e. Did he kill anyone while he was out there? Not that we saw). His conversation with Ric stopped before it started because Ric didn’t want to go there. Same could be said about his conversation with Elena—wonderful how dying makes everything suddenly okay, isn’t it? These were cheats that prevented all the characters from growing through actual conflict and conversation, in favor of a less satisfying compassion.

The side stories were more action driven, with Sheriff Forbes determined to take out Damon after being yelled at by Mayor Lockwood for her failure to deal with the “vampire situation.” Yet the conversations here, too, left me wanting.

You could make the argument that I am asking The Vampire Diaries to be more than it is. This is a show about action, romance, sex, adrenaline, fun, friendship, and entertainment. I get that. I watch it for all those reasons. But I see potential for more—in the actors, in the characters, and in the plot scenarios that the writers have developed. When I ask for more, it is out of love, not out of disdain or meanness.

Also should issue a caveat to my review (which is less of a recap than usual).  This was less a season finale than a preamble to season 3.  By all rights, last week was the official season finale–it resolved to a great degree a number of plot lines (Elena’s function in the ritual, her salvation, the fate of Jenna’s character, etc).  It also featured lots of fire, a series of gruesome deaths, and several heroic actions.  Because “As I Lay Dying” introduced a series of complications that will play out in season 3, some of my criticisms are somewhat premature.  But as we have several months to ponder the episode, these questions will only grow more urgent, so a deeper consideration of them now may be appropriate.

A brief nod to the episode’s title, which references a rather wonderful novel by William Faulkner (well, it could reference the band, but I’m going with the Faulkner theory).  I read this book many years ago, but I remember its primary (and somewhat revolutionary conceit) to tell the story from a variety of character’s viewpoints as a relative dies in their midst.  Kinda wish this episode had given us a taste of that–perhaps by showing all the characters contemplate their relationship with Damon as they come to terms with his possible death.  Would have given Damon a larger spotlight and also might have developed his relationships with other characters more.  But, alas, the title is a rather shallow reference.  So be it.

Now, about Damon. Let’s review what I wrote in last week’s review:

Somehow, in one episode, The Vampire Diaries has to find a way to reconcile the following:
Damon’s yearning to be human.
Damon’s decision mid-season to return to killing/feeding on humans.
Damon’s decision to end Elena’s human life.
Damon’s eternal battle with Stefan for the love of a woman.
Damon’s passion for Katherine

Did we get anything more about Damon’s yearning to be human? I suppose we can say, “a qualified yes.” The focus here was less about Damon’s longing for his human past than about his effort to come to terms with his choices regarding Katherine. I don’t object to this shift, though it somehow left me feeling disconnected from Stefan’s efforts to save his brother. Here’s what I mean by that—if the flashbacks had featured scenes depicting both brothers, showing how Damon’s choice to drink Katherine’s blood related to a scene with Stefan, the episode could have advanced the story of both brothers at one time. Even cooler, we could have seen how Stefan and Damon remember things differently. Instead, Damon’s hallucinatory “memories” convey truth value only in terms of what the visions mean to Damon. We don’t necessarily know that these events happened exactly as depicted but rather we took a journey into Damon’s own feelings of guilt, loss, and jealousy.  This can be fine, but there was more potential in this set-up that remained untapped.

I like that Damon took responsibility for his choices—that he was not tricked into drinking Katherine’s blood but rather wanted it quite badly because he wanted her. To know that one is willing to die for an obsession must be quite humbling, especially considering the cost to his relationship with Stefan. There is potential here to redeem Damon in all kinds of ways next year. So far, he has been less of a prick (you know, but not killing people as often) because he wanted Elena to love him. Now, perhaps, he will try to polish off his tarnished soul (oops, no soul, right? Has TVD taken a stand on this?  Alert: vague mythology) to save himself.

Damon killed a woman half way through the season in “The Descent,” (my review is here). Damon makes a pretty big deal out of killing this woman. To quote him then, “I’m not sure [if I’m going to kill you]. Because you…you’re my existential crisis: do I kill you, do I not kill you?” It sure seemed like he was making a pretty big choice—one that would forever change his future path. I don’t think I’m making too big a deal of this episode and this scene. I know I’ve referenced it repeatedly during the second half of the season, hoping it would come back into the picture, and this finale was the place for it to come back.

If Damon is flashing back, why not let him flash back to problematic kills? Kills like his witch friend at the bar, Lexie, that random woman in the street—all these moments could combine with his memories of Katherine to advance further his reconsideration of his past. If the show was going to make it the Damon hour, then go there full throttle. Give Damon a real opportunity to flash through his life and its biggest moments.

In fact, I’d prefer if his reveal to Elena was more than that he loves her. The audience already knew that—we saw him admit that a year ago. Let him admit something more personal, something that makes him more vulnerable—that Damon is actually afraid he can’t be a better person, that he doesn’t have it in him. Then we have a character who is truly struggling, who really needs Elena to help him find the better man that Damon pretends disappeared when he became a vampire. If the point of this episode was to show how the human Damon made choices that led him here, don’t wipe those away with his love for Elena (i.e “it was all worth it so I could meet you”). Instead, how about Damon realizing something like, “my choices led me to you, but they also made me unworthy of you, and that wrecks me”).  Redemption is a noble goal, but it is more effective if the obstacles are clear and the challenge is extreme.

This is where Damon’s decision to end Elena’s life enters in—or rather, it could have. If Damon is realizing he has made choices—more to the point, if Damon is realizing that he made specific choices with Katherine that lead to his human death–then isn’t the corollary with Elena that he made a similar poor choice due to his obsession with her? What if Damon learns that his version of love isn’t very much like love at all, as Elena commented last week? My favorite part of Stefan these past few weeks has been his willingness to trust Elena to make her own choices. Sure, he tried to save her, but he didn’t decide he knew better than she did. Damon, instead, tried to kill her (super ironic considering how much Damon has professed not wanting to be a vampire). How much more fulfilling would it have been if Damon had admitting more than that he was sorry but rather that he was WRONG because real love is helping a person be the best version of herself that she can.

Wiping away Damon’s past wrongs doesn’t help him become a better vampire. This is why Damon’s scene with Ric bummed me out. Wouldn’t it be great to see these unlikely friends have the tough talk and come out the other side better informed and better connected? Be a real friend, Ric—admit that Damon hurt you. Then forgive him. I’d rather see that than see Ric avoid the conversation (yes, he was drunk, and drunk talks can be problematic, but they also can be therapeutic).  I’m still really relieved that Ric is alive, so I’ll refrain from more commentary about their conversation other than to say that I hope to see this awesome friendship develop next year.

Elena forgave Damon, but she did really? Does she have a better understanding of who he is, why he made the choices he did? When she said she liked him as he is, what does that mean? Does she ignore the lesser parts of Damon or does she accept him for his good and bad sides? We don’t really know the answers to these questions.

Here’s the kicker—why did Elena kiss Damon? Because she felt sorry for him? Because he was dying, and it was the kind thing to do? Or because something he said touched her in a new way? I wish I knew, because only that last one advances their relationship in any significant (and interesting) way.

Stefan’s actions this episode were sort of, mostly, kinda all about Damon. But were they? Stefan has his own guilty past. He, too, has made poor choices. The way Klaus describes him, Stefan was practically Angelus (woot woot—a Buffy reference). So perhaps Stefan is working through is own past, in particular his guilt over Damon. Or maybe his guilt isn’t about Damon at all, and Stefan is taking this journey for rather different reasons.

Elena almost became a vampire. Stefan almost had her forever. Is he just the tiniest bit sorry that she is still human? I mean, in the very depths of his, um, soul (there’s that word again). Is Stefan perhaps driven by more than his desire to save his brother? [I’m not even going to go into how ridiculous it is that Klaus feels a need for a buddy in his travels—nor into the fact that Klaus should have no idea that Elena is still alive, meaning he should be torturing Stefan with her death as he tries to convince him to join him. But just to summarize–it turns out Klaus’ blood can heal a werwolf bite.  Guess there’s a sort of logic to that. In exchange for his blood, Klaus wants Stefan to become his partner on the road to hell.]

Oh, Katherine is loose again. Kinda feel almost nothing about that. Glad she saved Damon because she owed him one (paid in full, I imagine), but her taunting of Elena only works if I believe Elena actually desires Damon. And I don’t see that yet.

In other news, Sheriff Forbes grabbed Elena, tried to kill Damon, actually shot Jeremy, and sort of hugged Awesome Vampire Caroline. If I’m going to be picky about rules, then I have to cry foul about Jeremy coming back to life. If no one can die on this show, then what’s the point? If there aren’t real stakes, then why do the characters fight so hard to stay…alive, human, together?Ditto on Jeremy seeing dead people. These better be psychotic vision because if dead people are wandering around and Jeremy can now see them, then characters really don’t leave this show, and the impact of individual deaths is undermined.

Had a brief chat about this with my partner, and he brought up Lost. Now, he hasn’t watched Lost (poor, deprived guy), but he’s familiar enough with the infamous finale to know that one complaint by fans is that the truly poignant deaths in the series were undermined by the final vision of all those people happy in heaven (of the doorway to heaven, or whatever the hell was that Unitarian church). I can sort of see his point, but I think the situation is more severe here. There are a lot of shows that have gained a sort of esteem by making tough choices (another Buffy nod is appropriate here). When viewers learn they can lose their favorite characters, then the events a series depicts gain greater resonance and urgency. For Lost, the series was over, so the creators wanted to reunite the favorites. It would have worked better as a “ten year anniversary special” because some of the losses were so recent. With The Vampire Diaries, we are still in the midst of the action. Not only has Jeremy been brought back from death (through seriously vague means—why are witches now able to save people from a non-supernatural death? Is nothing sacred?), but now we see also Vicki and Anna running around the Gilbert home. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Anna character, but part of the reason I like her is that she died a tragic death. I don’t know yet how the writers plan to develop this storyline, and I am not opposed to Jeremy having a storyline besides Bonnie. But my BS sensors are up.

Here’s the trick with fantasy and supernatural series. There HAVE to be rules. I could make the case that Supernatural violated a classic rule when they allowed Castiel to bring the boys back from death (repeatedly). Without death as a stake, the only real threat for these boys is hell (sure, hell is a potent stake, but an extreme one). Same too when Buffy gave Spike a soul—I mean, are they handing these things out like breakfast cereal toys? Angel’s uniqueness was undermined…period (and I like Spike. Hell, I love Buffy, but my criticism of its inconsistency doesn’t diminish that). Fans have all kinds of rules that we impose on a show (ex. I quit Alias when they fired Vartan—not because they fired him but because they did so due to his personal relationship with Garner, not due to a storyline mandate), and I suppose we can debate which rules are more sacred than others. But for fantasy series, they live or die by the ability of their viewers to suspend disbelief enough to buy in to the premise and its subsequent iterations. Fuzzy mythology can damage a show’s integrity.

The Vampire Diaries needs to consider the terms of its mythology. When Awesome Vampire Caroline told her mother, “it’s me, it’s Caroline,” I wondered to what extent that was true. Do these vampires have a soul? Is the soul what makes someone human? If they don’t have a soul but still can retain their humanity, then is being human more about making choices? This is a more agnostic view of the world, and I’m not opposed to that vision. But I wonder if the writers even know the answers to these questions.

More to the point re: Stefan. If he spends the summer killing people with Klaus, can he just decide to stop killing and be, you know, okay? What does he lose each time he kills someone? What are we supposed to believe Damon lost when he killed that random driver? Why do these vampires avoid killing humans—what are the values to which they hold on to maintain a semblance of humanity? If Stefan kills people but does it out of a sense of love for his brother, do the negative and positive values cancel each other out? My questions here are getting a bit philosophical, and I never really liked questions that don’t have answers, so let me reiterate what I’m asking of the writers.

I want to care about what happens to these characters. In order for that to happen, I need to know the rules. Whatever those rules are, I need the writers to stick to them. Rewriting mythology to get around a plot point (let’s see—maybe the witches can save Jeremy!) doesn’t always cut it. Particularly with our main characters. Stefan and Damon are fascinating—they are tortured in a variety of ways, but they both also try really hard to be better people. This is the part of the show that is most engaging, and it is why I tune in each week. And why I’ll continue to tune in next year.

As another season of The Vampire Diaries closes, I choose the remember the high highs–that premiere episode of season 2!  The continued awesomeness of Awesome Vampire Caroline!  The redemption of Tyler and his painful first transformation!  Stefan and Elena keeping it real by respecting each other as people in episode after episode! Isobel’s death!  John’s death!  Katherine always finding a way to escape!  Ric being, well, Ric! Damon being, well, Damon!  I will miss you most of all this summer, dear Damon.  I hope to get to know both you and your brother more fully in season 3.

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