Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Vampire Diaries - "Memorial" Review

Mystic Falls takes out the garbage in this haunting, fantastic episode.

When you're a show that runs at such a neck snapping pace, how do you remain fresh and relevant in your maturing years?  How do you continue to navigate the ever growing narrative minefield that your labyrinthine plots construct? At what point does it start to feel like we're just going through the motions, and that no amount of clever storytelling can break you free of your own soul-crushing status quo, tethering you to the earth, determined to drag you slowly into triviality?

"Memorial" addressed all of these issues and a myriad of others, while still managing to provide some of the most tense and gripping moments the series has seen in some time.

The opening scene with Stefan and Elena was great for so many reasons.  It was clear that the writers do not intend to gloss over Elena's transition like they did with Vicki and to a lesser extent, Caroline.  They made sure that every embarrassing, anxiety inducing, uncertain, and terrifying moment was exploited, mostly by way of impromptu blood barfing (allegory much?).  Our deep empathy for everything that Elena was going through, and the relatively new insight we received about the process reminded us of how much it really does suck to be a vampire.  After all my talk of it not seeming like a net negative, the writers dance away from the cliff of belief suspension once again by giving weight to their own convictions, which makes everything feel real and relatable.  Elena as a vampire looks like a horrible experience, and they delve into so much detail purposely to show us that, because if we're not on board, it all falls apart.  They could've bulldozed this and headed straight to the next storyline and made everything else an afterthought, but the show knows that this is its lead character, so everything needs to be front and center.  Also, the more Stefan and Elena get to spend time together, the better this show is.

It would seem that the competition between the Salvatore brothers is still alive and well, and I'd say that is to my dismay, but they once again found a way to make it worth it.  This wasn't just some juvenile dick swinging to see who could woo the wovewy wady.  Both Stephan and Damon had Elena's best interests at heart, and each argument the two had regarding the best way to handle her transition was reasoned, rational, and informed by character.  Even though the whole blood feeding thing was positioned as a big deal, it came across as much more platonic to me.  Maybe that's my own wishful thinking, but I truly do not believe that Damon had any malevolent or selfish intentions for what he did.  He just cares about her, and as much of an asshole as he can sometimes be, there was no hidden agenda, and that's what made it work.  If there was ill will behind it, we would've just felt like we were running in place, because we've been down that road before.

In fact, most of what went down this week had a familial vibe to it, which is exactly the vibe the show needed.  The cast has been so fragmented for so long that after awhile the show ran risk of losing focus.  After everything that has happened to these characters, they needed a moment of reunion.  They needed to realize that the only way to defeat what's to come is together. They needed a scooby gang, and this hour was spent bringing the scoobies together and allowing them to help each other.  Just something small like seeing Tyler and Caroline in the mansion plotting their next move was fresh and exciting.  There's this sense of group dynamic that this show rarely gets to utilize that I think would make it infinitely more fun.

This review may seem a bit redundant, specifically the phrase "exactly what I wanted", because in a lot of ways, thats what the characters did this week.  I had hoped Bonnie wouldn't go bad and just be mourning the tainted soul of a loved one, and at least for now, I got what I wanted.  I wanted Stefan and Elena to remain together and strong, and that's what they did.  I wanted everyone to come together as a united front, and that's what they did.

Still not much to say about the council going kaplooey, since we still have barely any information. Obviously it wasn't to get Connor over there cause, y'know, they could've just called.  I imagine the seasons big bad is right around the corner.  I wouldn't be surprised if they spend the majority of the first nine episodes building Connor up as this unflappable badass, only to have some grander, even more indifferent evil enter and just wipe the floor with him.

Jeremy noticing Connor's invisible ink was an interesting development.  Are we now adding inter-dimensional beings to the list of half dead Mystic Falls residents?  Regardless, I do think Jeremy is in dire need of a plot that doesn't at some point involve "get the girl lose the girl".  As soon as April waltzed in, who I mistook for Anna for a good ten seconds, she may as well have been speaking in Swahili, because all I heard was, "Hello, I will be your love interest for this season.  Please look intrigued at my presence."  That's why I nearly jumped out of my seat when she got stabbed, presumably to death, and even though she lived, it was at the expense of a good character moment between Elena and Caroline, and another opportunity to detail Elena's transition.  So, three cheers for damsels in distress... getting saved by other damsels in distress.  Other, slightly fangier damsels.

And how 'bout that funeral scene, huh?  That was some bravura television right there.

Stand up and cheer in thanks, everyone.  Matt had something to do!!!

His allowing for Elena to feed on him was exactly the moment of redemption that the character needed, and hopefully the shot of life that can propel him back into the relevant plot.  The scooby gang needs human representation.

I really can't say enough about that scene.  The relentlessness of Connor provided a tense backdrop for a proceeding that was heartbreaking, panicky, profound, triumphant, and really ended up becoming the lynchpin for bringing everyone closer.  Matt's sacrifice was a moment of subdued brilliance.

This show really does not belong on the CW.  There's a maturity to it not found amongst its peers.  It went into Buffy territory this week, as it not just told a great story with great characters, but really mirrored a lot of aspects of the human condition.

So many times when you watch TV dramas, don't you think "how have these people not just given up on life"?  I mean, seriously, how much shit can possibly go wrong before you just decide to pack it in?  That's why I usually hate reset television.  Every week we tune in, and life is more or less the same, with nary a mention of the extremely traumatic events that have taken place last year, or even last episode.  So few shows even bother to address the taxing nature of their central drama, and the toll it takes on the characters, and without that, what's the point?

Hey, network TV.  This shit matters.  At least, The Vampire Diaries thinks it does.

The flood gates of grief that threatened to consume Elena's humanity was a perfect representation of it.  The writers understand that if the characters move on as if nothing happened, so will we, and the process will fall into banality, yet at the same time, TVD uses the difficulty of coping to provide character growth and catharsis that provides hope for the future.

The downside to having a show that runs at three times the pace of normal shows, is that you suck the well dry faster, and pile on backstories for everyone to keep track of.  It really felt that show was taking out the trash in "Memorial", laying to rest the very long, convoluted avenues that got us to this moment of clarity.  Even down to the new intro, it all gave the sense of a series starting over.  And this show has a lot of cleaning up to do.  I mean, just look at the laundry list of people they have to say goodbye to.  It would be laughable if it wasn't so true.

And they did it while still managing to subvert expectations.  You just assumed that Elena was going to shut the switch off.  The writers spent most of the episode warning you, and it seemed that she was about to break.  She and Stephan were having an argument, and you could see the writing on the wall.  It's the obvious move.  That's the great thing about The Vampire Diaries.  It makes you want to stare at the wall and then turns you around to look at the beautiful room you forgot you were in.  Somehow, they always end up with a storyline that is actually more interesting and truer to the characters.  It really is quite something to watch.

So Stefan and Elena got through it.  The spat was minor, and the power couple endures, as they should.  They aren't going to waste any time whining and moaning about the little things, beacause in the face of all this grief, what they needed was each other, which set up the pitch perfect final scenes, a culmination of everything this hour did right.  Seeing it, I knew I was watching a show who's writers knew their characters like the back of their hands, knew their show, and were confident in its direction.  The increased familial bond between the entire cast is what is going to make this show work from here on out.  No scene could have possibly hammered this idea home better than the one we got, especially that of Damon, the black sheep with the heart of gold.  His monologue at Alaric's grave was nothing short of masterful.

The japanese lanterns were not just symbolic of the characters letting go of the past, but of the show itself.  It was a reaffirmation and indeed a redefinition of the show's central premise.  Let's face it, turning your lead into a vampire is a bold decision that really has serious implications about where to go next, and rather than trying to walk it back to keep the status quo, in hopes that they can somehow put a now square peg in a round hole, its nice to know that the show is embracing the change in all the right ways.  The Vampire Diaries recognizes its past, and is ready to face the future with a new sense of vitality.  Those lanterns were the much needed glimmer of hope in the face of the uncertain abyss of the  future.  They have each other, and at least for now, that's enough.

Virtually everything I wanted the show to do this week it did.  Every avenue they needed to take they took, and executed it better than I ever could have hoped.  It kicked everything into high gear while providing deep, introspective moments of character.  It sped up and slowed down at the same time.

I imagine that a lot of regular watchers of The Vampire Diaries will kind of sleep on "Memorial", given that no "game-changing" moments took place during its duration.  Nobody died, nobody became a vampire, no unspeakable tragedy befell the town, nothing twisted, and nothing turned. But make no mistake, this was an important episode of The Vampire Diaries, and mark my words, when it's all said and done, "Memorial" will go down as a pivotal turning point in the series lore.

I think The Vampire Diaries just may have grown up.

95% = **** = "Masterpiece"


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