When you’re a series that’s almost entirely defined by your ability to come up with the most insane twists (in a good way), sometimes expectations for that kind of thing get too high. At the time, the end of The Vampire Diaries first season seemed like the most wild thing ever and throughout the series’ second season, the writers consistently topped themselves. I say all that as set-up for the fact that I thought “As I Lay Dying” was a bit of a disappointment. It’s far from bad and oftentimes very good, but general expectations of the series’ ability to craft WTF moments and the lingering impact of last week’s really moving episode bring this one down, even just a bit. Because last week’s penultimate episode covered the sacrifice plot that had completely driven this season, “As I Lay Dying” has little to wrap-up and instead focuses a lot on table-setting for season three. That’s not necessarily a bad choice, but one that certainly leads to a less exciting and entertaining episode. The super-insane season-ending twist is still here, but the previous 42 minutes don’t quite add up in the same way.
I don’t want to get into some sort of shipper debate, but I have to imagine how much mileage you get out of this episode depends on how invested you are in the Elena-Damon relationship. This episode is most certainly all about Damon, both on a character level and how his choices subsequently impact everyone else, but so much of the episode’s heavy lifting leads to Damon and Elena’s final few minutes in his bed when it appears as though he is going to succumb to the werewolf bite. As someone who doesn’t really “ship” any couple on this series, I didn’t really mind Damon’s “This is you life” journey between 1864 and 2011 and how that related to his relationship with Elena, but I’m not sure it was worthy of all the time the episode spends on it. Damon is a self-destructive mess so of course a probable death is going to turn him into a self-pitying whiner who just has to have Elena’s forgiveness before he goes. For me, the returns to 1864 have become a bit tedious and created a situation law of diminishing returns situation. We get it, Katherine was pretty manipulative back then and Damon was extremely naive and love-sick. I understand the reason why the series likes to use that device, but I need a break from it.
But seriously, a lot of this episode suffers because it makes the inanity of the plot mechanizations too obvious. Damon stumbles into one location, causes a problem, then meanders elsewhere, only to have the people looking for him arrive at the first location confused as to where he could be. Characters jet around like crazy on this series, but it felt atypically obvious and flimsy here. Damon gets imprisoned by Stefan…for about 3 minutes. Elena gets arrested by Sheriff Forbes…for about 45 seconds. That’s part of a series like this, but for whatever reason, it felt particularly apparent here. We knew Damon wasn’t going to die and we knew that he and Elena would have to have their moment. When they did, it was actually fantastic. But the middle part of the episode got lost in the hysteria of moving pieces around just to move them around. It wasn’t very smooth, which is actually odd for TVD.
Thematically, “As I Lay Dying” works a lot better. Although the season has been powered by Elena’s possible sacrifice, the secondary runner to that story is the dueling ideologies of the Salvatore brothers as to how to save her. Damon, from the very beginning, has been very willing to do “whatever it takes,” even if that means turning Elena into a vampire. He might have realized the error of his ways in the moments after, but his rash decision-making works in direct contrast with Stefan’s more sympathetic, calculated thought process. Stefan wants to avoid any bloodshed, both for humanity’s sake and because he knows that he cannot be like Damon. If he acts like Damon, he becomes worse than Damon.
But just as Elijah stupidly decided to let his guard down with Klaus and paid the price for it (that damn dagger got him AGAIN), Stefan’s sympathy for his brother gets him in trouble here. Damon probably would do anything to save Stefan as well, but the stakes are higher when Stefan has to step outside of himself. Here, he agrees to be Klaus’ wingman for the unidentified future so that Damon can live.* It’s sort of interesting that Stefan wouldn’t do “whatever it takes” when trying to save Elena, but he’s most certainly ready to do so for Damon. Obviously the circumstances were different and he was willing to sacrifice himself either way, but it’s impossible to break the bonds between Stefan and Damon, no matter how much either protests. Doing things his and Elena’s way led Stefan to his current predicament, which doesn’t make Damon retroactively right all along, but it raises some interesting questions. Elena’s safe, Damon’s alive and now Stefan has to become the ripper he’s been running from for decades.
*I’m really glad that the cure was as simple as using Klaus’ hybrid blood. We didn’t need an entire new MacGuffin to power this episode.
Clearly, this sets up all sorts of possibilities for season three. Stefan’s working for Klaus, leaving Elena and Damon back in Mystic Falls, together. Elena and Damon’s kiss didn’t mean what Katherine tried to imply it meant, but there’s no question that an extended absence for one of the Salvatore brothers could very easily push Elena into the arms of the other, especially considering all the awful things we all know Stefan is going to do. I’m sure Paul Wesley is super-excited that he gets to do some cool stuff next season instead of just standing around with those sad, sympathetic eyes. KILL SOME PEOPLE.
Of course, we can forget the twist. Although I think the series has done a much better job with him this season than they did last, Jeremy’s still the odd man out in this supernatural mess of a world. Thankfully, that’s all about to change. After getting shot in the chest, Bonnie has to bring Jeremy back to life with her witch abilities, but apparently there are consequences. You know, like Jeremy SEEING GHOSTS OF ANNA AND VICKI. It’s completely out of nowhere and not even remotely related to any of this season’s narratives, big or small, but wow, that was a tremendous twist. It’s yet another set-up for season three, but it’s a damn good one.
Overall, this episode feels more like a transitional set-up piece than a finale. Last week’s episode had more of a finale vibe and this one is still fine, just different. I’ll have more on the whole season in the coming weeks, but wow am I so glad that I caught up on TVD this summer.