One of The Vampire Diaries greatest strengths is its ability to come up with wild plot twists that seem both entirely crazy and completely believable at the same time. There have been roughly 9,000 insane developments in the first two seasons alone. And I might be understating it a bit. At this point, we expect TVD to shock us, but it’s never clear where those big moments are going to come from and whom they are going to impact the most. Like I’ve said before, this is what makes the series so damn good.
However, I would argue that Julie Plec, Kevin Williamson and the rest of the TVD team know how to do more than shock and awe storytelling. When necessary, this series can slow things down, avoid too many bonkers moments and just tell relatively low-key character stories that help set up some of the bigger, crazier moments that are surely to come right around the corner. Somewhat surprisingly, the season three premiere, “The Birthday,” is one of these “quieter” episodes.
Because last season ended on a less substantial cliffhanger than season one – sorry Jeremy, your ghost-seeing isn’t as dramatic as THE RETURN OF MOTHERF*CKING KATHERINE – “The Birthday” doesn’t need to jump head-first into rapid exposition and insanity. Instead, this effort expertly reminds us of everyone’s present circumstances and how generally miserable all of them are. Nothing too unexpected occurs and yet all the little necessary character moments are tackled with ease. Sure, there are a few dead bodies along the way, but nothing here stacks up to kind of wild events of last season’s premiere. And that’s absolutely fine.
There are two primary reasons why I like that Vampire Diaries took this kind of approach to its season premiere. First, I think it is crucial to stop and take a look (however quick) at how awful Elena, Stefan and Damon (and Alaric and Jeremy and Matt and Caroline and Tyler, but you get it) feel right now. The horrible events just kept coming last season and even though the finale was a bit of a reflective compression, things were so bad that the characters need more time and we probably need to see more of it. Each of these characters has been through their own individual tragedy or seven over the last two calendar years and trying to “act normal” is a logical, but completely hopeless endeavor.
Secondly, this slower pace allows for the series’ actors to strut their stuff a little bit more than usual considering they’re doing more “normal” acting instead of reacting to wild supernatural insanity. Ian Somerhalder is the stand-out performer and he’s very good here as usual, but Paul Wesley has taken to the Ripper Stefan role fantastically well. For the first 40 minutes of the episode, Wesley brought the right kind of different energy needed to convince the audience that Stefan had truly reverted back to his uber-dangerous persona. It wasn’t strained at all and Wesley did such a good job that by the time Stefan broke down at the end of the episode, the moment meant that much more.
Nina Dobrev was unsurprisingly solid here as well. As the one person who doesn’t want things to be “normal,” Elena has a lot to deal with. In the span of like 30 months, Elena has lost the people she thought were her real parents, the two people who were actually her real parents, her aunt and her boyfriend. That is a substantial amount of death for an 18-year old. Even though Elena is clearly hurting, confused and angry right now, Dobrev didn’t overplay those emotions. One of the best parts about this series is that Elena is such a strong young woman who doesn’t allow herself to become a pawn in stupid male power-plays – you know, unlike Sookie and Bella – and Dobrev did a fine job of making sure we still saw that side of the character even though she was trapped in such a terrible situation. No one in this cast is a master thespian, but performances like Wesley’s and Dobrev’s this evening make the characters’ emotions real and tangible despite all the madness happening on a weekly basis.
In general, the plot developments here are minimal. Klaus clearly wants to build a hybrid army and that story could and probably will take us through at least the mid-season break. Stefan wants Damon to stop trailing him and Elena wants Damon to stop lying about it to her. Alaric, Jeremy and Matt are all very sad about losing people and /or seeing ghosts. You know, the normal. Tyler and Caroline finally give into their sexual desires and unfortunately for them, Tyler’s mom is not too happy with their cross-breading. I was a bit shocked that Caroline being shot by Tyler’s mom with tranq darts was our first-week cliffhanger, but I think the writers just like to do terrible things to Caroline at the end of their season premieres now. It’s a good trend to keep alive, I guess.
With “The Birthday,” The Vampire Diaries doesn’t so much as come out with a full sprint as it does a light, but moderately brisk jog. This is just the beginning warm up stretch, but it’s a useful, enjoyable one nonetheless. I can’t wait for the rest of the season.
- I was talking about this with my girlfriend, but it always seems like Elena gets stuck in this larger dresses that aren’t overly flattering. I’m not sure if it’s Nina Dobrev’s choice or it’s a way to make sure the audience knows Elena isn’t Katherine (who appears in much sexier outfits, usually), but it’s certainly something we both noticed. I did like the color of those heels though.
- A new season always brings slightly new haircuts for some of the performers and much like the changes on Parenthood, I’m not a fan of what happened to Ian Somerhalder’s (too long) and Steven R. McQueen’s (too short) hair.
- Caroline picking the random party-goer who was in her way by the neck was one of my favorite little moments of the episode. She’s the best.
- Bonnie starts the season out of town. I’m not really sure where she would have fit in with this episode anyway, but that seemed sort of odd. Was Kat Graham doing something else at the time the premiere was shot?