The Vampire Diaries, “The Descent”

When most people talk about The Vampire Diaries, the first thing they mention is Ian Somerhalder, and for good reason. Somerhalder isn’t the greatest pure actor, but he’s an electric performer who just happens to be fantastic at the kind of scenery chewing this program asks of him. He is most certainly the best part of The Vampire Diaries, but most of the time, he’s supplemented by some good performances and interesting stories elsewhere.

In the first episode of 2011, that’s not really the case. “The Descent” fully relies on Somehalder’s powerhouse performance to keep things compelling while a lot of the other characters find themselves moving around as the plot for the second half of the season starts to measure up. That’s a necessarily bad thing, but by now the series has trained us to think that the plot is going to be moving a mile a minute without looking back. “The Descent” features a lot of talking and a lot of planning that will surely play out in some crazy-ass ways over the next 10 episodes, but when all threads are in the building stage at once, it doesn’t quite feel like a usual episode of TVD.

But again, thank god for Ian Somerhalder.

If you recall from way back in December 2010 — so long ago, I know — a new werewolf came to Mystic Falls looking for Mason, got into with Damon and ended up attacking his sort-of love interest Rose with all intentions of killing him. This episode picks up soon after the events of that night with Rose slowly dying from the werewolf attack, making the legends about deadly wolf bites being legitimately and unfortunately true. As this episode progressed, Rose slowly lost her mind, became more dangerous and found herself more thirsty for blood than ever before.

In theory, building an entire episode around Rose’s demise shouldn’t really work, and I’m not fully convinced it does here. Rose is a character that we only met just a few episodes ago and although the rotating cast of characters isn’t a new development for this series, we aren’t usually asked to feel this sorry and hurt for a guest stars’ death. Rose is miserable, she’s angry and she’s on the edge of death and we and Elena have to stick it out with her until the end comes. Amid the constant cat-and-mouse games between the rabid Rose and the scared Elena, there wasn’t much to Rose’s journey here. Yeah, I understand that she’s been running for a very long time and therefore doesn’t have anyone really important in her life to watch her as she passes away. The regret is obvious, but I couldn’t really find myself to care about her. In general it’s hard to care about guest star characters on TVD because they’re always going to end up dead anyway, which doesn’t make their usage worthless, but this one is trying too hard to make us believe that Rose is someone worth carrying for. Hell, even Elena seemed a bit bored.

Fortunately, by the second half of the script it seemed like writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain figured out that if they were going to stick us with the Rose death episode, they might as well use that to really hook is in with a great Damon story. Though he’s still been cracking wise and being a general badass, Damon has certainly subdued this season in hopes of being a better “man” for Elena. He’s constantly done the right thing, tried to protect everyone around him and more or less been a hero whenever called upon.

But with Rose’s imminent death slowly sinking in, Damon realizes that being the good guy doesn’t always work out in the end. He was too cocky with Jules and even though she’s probably a villainous character, he made a mistake. And more importantly, when you start letting yourself feel things, you have to take the good with the bad. And letting someone you care about, if even just enough to numb the pain of not being with the one you really care about, die because you ran your mouth definitely falls under “the bad.” Damon is fully overwhelmed with guilt, anger, sadness and probably a bit of confusion because he’s feeling all of those things and it turns him into a big mess.

Thankfully, Somerhalder plays a big mess beautifully because he can turn on the overly intense eyes while trying to cover it up with false macho BS when he’s with Elena and then become a total sweetheart for Rose in her final moments just before mercy killing her. By the time Rose is gone and the guilt has fully taken over, Damon has had it. The episode’s final sequence is its best, with Damon controlling a random stranger and forcing her to serve as his existential crisis. He wants to kill her so bad because the pain is just too difficult and the hunger is so strong, but he’s also smart enough to know that this one kill will lead to a whole lot of awful things in the future. He wants so badly to be a human, but at the same time wants to give into the desires of being a monster. In the end, Damon gives in to his vices and destroys the young girl. Not too many actors can deliver ridiculous dialogue about existential crises and blood-lust while actually showing those feelings on their feelings, but again Somerhalder nails it. And now Damon faces an uphill battle between who he is and who he wants to be, a battle that will surely lead to the death of dozens.

Like I said up top, thank god for Somerhalder, because the rest of this episode was a bit of a bore. Stefan disappeared for nearly the entire episode on a journey to find Isobel, but thankfully he returned near the end with Elena’s father John Gilbert. I already discussed Elena’s lack of important things to do. Jeremy and Bonnie were MIA. Matt finally made another move on Caroline, but so did Tyler, which certainly led to the best line of the night with Caroline’s “Everyone needs to stop kissing me!” but not a whole lot to report there either.

But now John’s back in town, Stefan still wants to snake out of Elena’s deal with Elijah and Tyler knows that Caroline has been lying to him about the other vampires. These people are about to make some really bad decisions and I have to imagine that Damon’s going to be there instigating a lot of them. So while tonight’s effort wasn’t too strong, the pieces are in place for a string of great episodes to come.

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