Last night's Vampire Diaries was so brilliant, it nearly took my breath away. It really is hard to watch other TV shows after seeing the recent episodes of this one. There were a lot of things about "The Reckoning" that bowled me over, but the most gutsy was the choice to make this something of a Matt-centric episode.
Think about all the stuff that happens in this episode to our various supernatural characters — to Stefan, to Klaus, to Damon, to Tyler — almost every one of our major characters has a no-turning-back transformation in the episode. And yet, the episode chooses to spend an unusual amount of time exploring the mind of Matt, the one ordinary guy left. And the results are brilliant.
Some of those Matt-centric scenes were utterly brilliantly staged, too — in an episode that was chock full of set pieces, the director found time to make the "Matt alone in a deserted high school" thing scary not once, but three or four times. We start with the terrible banging noise in the empty school... only to realize that it's Matt, doing weights. And then Matt hears someone else in the school and goes to investigate... only to discover that it's the other kids, working on Senior Prank Night to prove they're still normal. (Which, clearly, they aren't.)
It goes on and on — at one point, I thought Matt was going to dive into the pool looking for his keys, and get drowned. The episode keeps hinting and teasing that Matt is going to die. Until he does, but of his own volition. And only temporary. Best swimming pool drowning scene I've ever seen, with Matt floating peacefully on the bottom of the pool, with the big gym weight holding him down, and Bonnie diving desperately to save him. John Behring, the director of this episode, is an evil genius.
And all of these weird little moments of Matt peril just make us more invested in the moments of Matt character development. Like Caroline stopping, in the middle of making out with Tyler, to worry that Matt doesn't have anyone to talk to any more. And Matt talking to Bonnie and various other characters about the fact that he's the only normal one left, the only one who even has a shot at a normal life. And yet, he feels isolated and a bit useless in the middle of all this supernatural crap. Plus he keeps getting his nose rubbed in his sister's death, which he'd put behind him. And thus Matt makes a defining choice to go for the big swim — and it pays off, more than he ever imagined it would.
Last week, I did a feature on how to make horror and dark fantasy work on weekly series television, and one of the main points seemed to be that scares on TV need to come from our investment in the characters. Last night's Vampire Diaries illustrated that perfectly.
After the piece had already been published, I got a response to my message to Vampire Diaries executive producer Julie Plec, who wrote:
The mistake I've seen made in trying to execute a scary sequence is when it's not storyboarded or shot listed first. In tv, when things operate at such a breakneck pace, such film basics are often considered luxuries. But you can't just shoot it like a regular scene. You need the extra sizes of coverage. The designed 'reveals'. The extra wide scope shots and the very, very tight pieces. Etc. There's a method to the madness.
This episode really bears out what Plec was saying — a lot of these sequences are clearly very carefully planned and the shots are set up to maximize the horrifying intensity.
So even in an episode where all of our main characters are thrown into a blender and pureed, the Matt-centric parts of this episode still stood out and formed a really interesting counterpoint to the main action, which is a fantastic compliment to the people making this show.
My other favorite bit in the episode, besides the Matt bits, was Damon ditching Katherine, explaining to her that it's not that he doesn't have heroism and self-sacrifice in him — it's just that "I wouldn't have done it for you." And indeed, Damon is the ultimate puppy dog, returning to save Elena. (I seem to remember season one Damon being just as much of a puppy dog for Katherine, though.) Damon, of course, only achieves a pyrrhic victory, driving Klaus away but keeping Klaus' evil henchman on the scene. More of that in a moment, though.
As Damon becomes even more devoted to Elena, as a paradoxical result of his having tried to abandon her, Stefan meanwhile gets torn away from her to a much greater extent. Stefan fights Klaus' compulsion, at Elena's urging, and even tries to stake himself to keep from hurting her. But it's no use, despite all of Stefan's frantic brow-acting. Klaus just puts a double-whammy on Stefan, forcing him to turn off his emotions and become a full-on Ripper. If Klaus didn't turn out to need Elena alive, Stefan would gleefully drain her blood himself.
(And yay for the show finding a reasonable explanation for why Klaus doesn't just kill Elena — we didn't have to suffer through weeks of Klaus being unable to figure out that Elena was still alive, or Klaus setting ever more complicated mousetraps for her. Just a fairly logical plot twist — and one that lets Klaus show us how clever he really is. The Original Witch says Elena has to die, so therefore the opposite must be true.)
And like I said, this episode was chock full of irrevocable turning points. Matt can now see his dead sister. Katherine and Jeremy are road-tripping together — and they've already found Michael the badass vampire-hunting vampire that Klaus is afraid of. Klaus has figured out how to make more vampire-werewolf hybrids, which means next time we see him he'll have a posse. Tyler is the first of Klaus' hybrids, which could mean that he's going to start being a total psycho in the near future.
And the two Salvatore brothers have managed to reverse the status quo of the first season entirely — Stefan is now the evil bastard they can't get rid of, while Damon is the sweet, caring protective brother. If any other show had tried to shake up its characters as quickly or as often as Vampire Diaries does, it would feel like a terrible mess.
How does Vampire Diaries do it? A huge part of it is stuff like what the creators did in this episode: focusing on Matt, arguably the least important person in the story, and giving him some moments to breathe and feel like a real person in the midst of all the chaos. And keeping us absolutely terrified that the insanity is going to devour Matt any second.