Review: ‘The Vampire Diaries’: Rising from the ashes
Death is never easy to understand, even on a genre show like ‘The Vampire Diaries’ in which 50 percent of the cast who were present in the first season are now slowly decomposing in the Mystic Falls Cemetery (RIP Everyone) or in the woods with a headstone that may or may not have the correct date of birth.
Even on a show where death is almost a character in itself, lurking behind every corner and behind every stranger who comes to town, we may never fully understand how or why it happens – not the literal how and why, mind you, that much is clear, but the existential how and why.
By definition death is a confusing bag of fear and darkness, both for the deceased and for those they’ve left behind. And very few shows have truly been able to capture the swirl of emotions that follow a loved one’s sudden death. One such show that expertly handled the topic is a show often brought up in these reviews because of its importance both in the genre, and because ‘The Vampire Diaries’ owes most, if not all, of its existence to it. I am, of course, talking about ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“The Body” is an expertly written and directed piece of art, one of the truly great ‘Buffy’ episodes. It’s the episode in which Joyce Summers, the mother of the show’s titular heroine, dies. Her death is shocking for several reasons, because it comes almost out of nowhere, and because she dies a natural death after suffering a brain aneurysm. A character dying a natural death on a genre show happens so infrequently I can probably count the numbers of times it has happened on one hand.
Buffy, much like Elena in tonight’s episode, is at first in denial about her mother’s death, refusing to believe it’s real. Others react emotionally from the get go, while others still make logical plans, like Caroline did last night. The most realistic reaction, however, surprisingly comes from Anya, an ex-vengeance demon, who doesn’t understand death as she’s only recently become human again. I’ve embedded the clip of her breakdown below:
For Elena, the loss of Jeremy is so severe that she refuses to believe it’s real for the first half of the episode. And to be fair, none of his previous deaths have stuck, so it makes sense even as she knows this time is (most likely) permanent. As the episode progresses you can see Elena making her way through the five stages of grief, though she doesn’t travel through them the way most people do. She’s in denial for a bit and then jumps to acceptance before backtracking to an emotionally powerful stop somewhere between anger and depression. There’s very little time for bargaining.
This episode is one long drawn out beautiful heartbreak, but it allows several of our favorite characters to shine. And it’s truly unfortunate that Nina Dobrev will probably be overlooked come Emmy time simply because she’s on a genre show on The CW, because she gives her best performance yet as she pours lighter fluid on every surface in the middle of her emotional breakdown.
Dobrev shares the spotlight with Zach Roerig as Matt slowly processes and grieves his friend’s death. His emotional breakdown in his truck has the internet in tears today (and shame on the person who GIF’d that moment and broke my heart all over again!). But as the one person in Mystic Falls who knows how it feels to be Elena right now (RIP Vicki), he gives good shoulder when it counts.
In the end Elena copes with Jeremy’s death by turning off her emotions at Damon’s insistence. The sire bond has been the weakest part of a shaky season, a crutch the writers have leaned on in times of need, but it works in this instance. Though it isn’t exactly clear whether or not it’s the sire bond at work or if Elena simply realizes Damon’s providing her with a way out. Either way, that scene was beautifully acted, and it bears repeating: Dobrev deserves some recognition.
However, it’s clear flipping the switch wasn’t what Stefan had in mind when he told Damon to help Elena. He probably meant for Damon to comfort her, hold her, calm her down the way most humans would think to do, but Damon isn’t human and he’s never been particularly good at dealing with his own swirl of confusing emotions, let alone someone else’s.
Elena’s humanity is the one thing she had left and now she’s turned it off. Stelena shippers will use this in their war against Damon, claim he’s messing with her mind, but it’s within character and it’s helping Elena to cope. He helped her the only way he knew how. And if she’d been able to think clearly, or if one of her friend’s had been going through this instead of her, I don’t know that it’s so far fetched that she wouldn’t have suggested it herself. We have to remember that this is the woman who had Jeremy compelled twice in order to spare him pain, and by turning off her emotions, she’s doing the vampire equivalent.
When looked at from another perspective, Jeremy was the physical representation of Elena’s humanity. He was the last remaining link she had to a life before vampires and werewolves and witches. Without him, there’s no reason for her to pretend that nothing has changed, that she hasn’t changed. She’s finally able to let go of her former life and embrace the new one that she was given at the end of last season.
And that’s why her decision to burn down the Gilbert family home, a living memory of everything she has lost – her parents, Jenna, Alaric, John, and now Jeremy – makes sense. It’s purpose was threefold: it created a cover story for Jeremy’s death, it gave him a proper send off via a funeral pyre, and it was a cleansing fire for Elena. Did it hurt like hell? Oh yeah. That home was the center of so many pivotal moments in the world of ‘The Vampire Diaries’, the front porch alone was legendary for heartfelt moments of sadness, but it is a rebirth, both for Elena and for the series.
A few weeks back I wrote about the show’s ability to constantly reinvent itself, and this latest development is just another in what has become a long line of reinvention. This is the show hitting the reset button again. Elena has burned the vestiges of her old life, and is being reborn, not entirely unlike a phoenix. Not to venture too far into the realm of symbolism and all that jazz, because I always hated that part of college, but this show is very good at it and I would be remiss if I didn’t point this out.
When a television show kills off a major character like ‘The Vampire Diaries’ has done, it’s not for shock value, it’s definitely for a reason. This past season on ‘Sons of Anarchy’, a character adored by nearly every fan was murdered, but his death was necessary to launch the series’ protagonist on to the next leg of his personal journey. And that’s the case with Jeremy’s death. It was a necessary sacrifice. I’ll probably never give up hope that Jeremy will return (I take biceps very seriously), but I have found a way to accept his death and accept that this wasn’t done in vain.
On a final note: not to beat a dead horse, but it’s a truth of human existence – and non-human as it were – that to gain anything, one must first lose everything. And that’s where Elena is at right now. She’s lost her brother, she’s lost her humanity, and it will be interesting to see where Julie Plec and the writers go from here.
Some stray observations:
- The most touching part of the episode for me was not watching Jeremy’s body burn in the fire, but the last tender moment ever had on the Gilbert porch, the moment when Stefan and Damon put their problems aside and told each other they loved each other, knowing that they were the lucky ones, because no matter what has come before or what will come after, they still have each other and they are better off for it. Their inability to convey their emotions was completely in character, and you guys know I adore my Team Salvatore.
- I don’t know if it’s my love of science fiction and fantasy, or if I’ve simply watched too much TV, but it was very clear to me early on that Silas had taken Shane’s form and was using it to manipulate Bonnie to complete the third and final sacrifice. I do think that my love of ‘Buffy’ and this season’s similar arc to that of ‘Buffy’s seventh season, made my Spider-sense tingle, but it’s also partly the work of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ because I was receiving Gaius/Six vibes from him. That being said, Bonnie, I will not board your fucking crazy train. Not even if you promise me that you can bring Alaric back.
- Let’s all take a minute and remember the Gilbert house and everything that was lost in the fire. Including a shirtless Alaric offering Chunky Monkey. RIP Gilbert House.
- I miss Tyler already.
- Did Rebekah choose to stay behind or did everyone just leave her behind because they’re assholes?
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