Picking up exactly where the first season left off, the second season took us back into the Gilbert kitchen with John (David Anders) bleeding on the floor after being stabbed by Katherine (Nina Dobrev), and Elena (Nina Dobrev) unknowing walking in. Watching Katherine dance in the background while Elena did not know was hair-raising and spine-tingling all at once. Like Katherine said at the end of the episode, "game on."
The entire episode Katherine wove her spell of deceit around everyone -- fooling some, not fooling others -- but with everyone asking one thing: what did she want? In the end, it was exactly as she said: she wants to play a game.
A vampire who lives for eternity must surely get bored out of their minds. Without the intoxication of love to sustain her, the only other satisfying drug of choice is games. Katherine relishes the challenge -- the mind-sport, anything that makes her feel powerful and relevant. She may have been wantonly doing as she pleases as she always had, but now that Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon (Ian Somerhalder) have fallen in love with a human girl that looks exactly like Katherine, Katherine feels challenged. There is now a purpose for her. Something to do -- or something to play with.
Over a hundred years ago, making Stefan and Damon fall in love with her was just sport. Now it is 165 years later and Katherine feels both threatened and challenged. Who is Elena? Who is this teenager who has so easily stolen Katherine's boys? Why should she have them both? Why should she have either? Katherine has come back to reclaim what she believes belongs to her -- the hearts of the Salvatore brothers. But time has not made the heart grow fonder. Instead, Stefan and Damon have moved on. Katherine has become irrelevant. So she returns to take back what she wants and to have a little fun in the process.
Beware the angry, jealous vampire who knows exactly how to get what she wants -- even if it means killing a few humans in the process. After all, what are a few bodies along the way?
Everything. It is nearly impossible to spot any flaws in this episode. It was a jaw-dropping adrenaline rush from the second it started and one did not dare exhale until after it was done -- and even then, one still felt a bit breathless. Just waiting for Katherine to pounce was enough to make breathing difficult. Also watching Damon's heart repeatedly shredded was also painful and left one feeling similarly heart-constricted.
When Stefan had said last season, "I know the risks, but I have to know her," he was referring to getting to know Elena. But that risk felt all that much more heightened this season. Fort Stefan did not just take a risk in revealing who and what he was to Elena; instead the real risk was to Elena. Stefan may feel that he risked everything to be with Elena -- the girl who looks exactly like Katherine, but yet who is nothing like her -- a girl with a pure heart, a soul, a conscious. But in doing so, Stefan unleashed untold misery on Mystic Falls. His presence brought Damon, who then unleashed the tomb vamps and then, inadvertently, they attracted Katherine's attention. She who had been studiously avoiding them and taking virtually no notice of them for over a century -- that is until they both fell in love with Elena.
When Damon declared, "You decided I was worth saving -- I wanted to thank you for that" and kissed Katherine thinking she was Elena, it was the nail in the coffin for Elena. It was proof to Katherine that she had already lost Damon. Fortunately for her, Katherine never really cared about him. He was just hers for the taking and she wanted to prove that she could have him back. However, Katherine has not yet learned that real love can never be stolen. If what Damon feels is real love, she will never be able to take that away from him. She may toy with him, but it will never take the place of something real.
When Damon figured out that he kissed the wrong girl, he was rightfully outraged as he exclaimed, "You've got to be kidding me!" He had chosen to be human again and to feel something real. Opening his heart like that was an unexpected miracle. That is the gift that Elena gave him and which Katherine now seeks to steal from him. Katherine is not so much a love-thief, as she is a humanity-thief. She despises all that it means to be human. She stole Damon and Stefan's humanity once when she stole Stefan's physical humanity and Damon's love, and she now seeks to steal their humanity again -- this time by stealing their souls.
Yet while Damon may not yet know the difference between Elena and Katherine, Stefan was not so easily fooled. Stefan knows what it feels like to hold a real human in his arms -- but Damon will have to learn.
Trying to fathom what the differences are, Damon told Elena: "I kissed you. Though you kissed me back. Doppelganger hi-jinks ensued. How do you think I'm doing?" Elena knowing better said, "I think you're hurt." When Damon flippantly replied, "I don't get hurt, Elena," she simply said: "No, you don't admit that you get hurt. You get angry, then to cover it up, you do something stupid." But sensing her worry, Damon insightfully said: "You're scared. You think Katherine's going to send me off the deep-end. Don't you?" When she did not respond, Damon asked curiously, "Why is it such a surprise that I would kiss you?" Elena cautiously responded: "That's not a surprise. I'm surprised you thought I would kiss you back." Understanding finally the difference, Damon softly said, "Now I'm hurt."
Just as insightfully, when baited by Katherine, Stefan snapped: "Don't flirt with me, Katherine. I'm not Damon. I haven't spent 145 years obsessed with you." To which Katherine coyly responded: "Based on your choice of woman, I'd say otherwise. Though I'll admit that it does bother me that you've fallen in love with someone else." As Stefan stubbornly insisted: "I was never in love with you, Katherine. You compelled me. None of my feelings were real." Katherine merely smiled and said: "Believe what you want, Stefan. But I know the truth and deep down, so do you. ... You want to know why I'm here: I came back for you." When Stefan then retorted, "The problem, Katherine, is that I hate you," Katherine snapped back: "You hate me, huh? That sounds like the beginning of a love story, Stefan. Not the end of one." Stefan may have just wanted to try to figure out what she was up to, but for Katherine, it is all about the power. She just wants to conquer. For her, the thrill of winning is everything.
So when Stefan then told Damon: "Katherine is going to try to play us against each other. ... We need to stay united against her." But trying to get a rise out of Stefan and to prove that the kiss meant something, Damon stubbornly said, "I kissed Elena." Stefan only responded with sadness and understanding: "Because you feel something for her. Because you actually care -- and I'm not going to let Katherine come in here and destroy that part of you that is finally, after all this time, willing to feel something. She'll try to break you. She'll try to break us -- and how we respond to that will define us. It's our choice."
But patronizing Damon and making him feel like he is less will not win him over. He will hate himself for being weak and vulnerable -- open to ridicule and reject. The pain of Elena's rejection is humiliating. Will he feel spurned and return to Katherine? Or will he pretend to go back to Katherine to get close and kill her to protect Elena? Will his humanity ultimately be strong enough? Will true love -- real love win out? The battle is not for Stefan -- but for Damon's soul. Thus, when Damon found Katherine waiting for him at the mansion, he casually said: "It's very brave of you to come here. ... Leaving so soon?" Katherine said: "I know where I'm not wanted. ... Want a good-bye kiss? ... Kiss me or kill me -- which one will it be, Damon? We both know you're only capable of one." Damon stopped her there, saying: "Okay, wait, brief pause. I have a question. " Katherine replied: "I already know your question and its answer. The truth is: I've never loved you. It was always Stefan." With that final spike through his heart, Katherine drove Damon away from the brink of humanity -- away from love. She drove him straight into wanton hatred, self-loathing -- all the dark things that Elena had slowly lured him away from. The destruction is done and his heart shattered into a million little pieces.
Thus when Damon went to see Elena to prove that what he feels for her and that must she in return is real, he kissed her. Yet Elena is not Katherine. She cannot turn on and off her feelings. She tells him: "Damon, don't. What's wrong with you? ... Stop it. You're better than this." Damon angrily replied, "That's where you're wrong!" Still wanting to belief she could reach him, Elena tried to reason with him and said: "Damon, listen to me. I care about you. I care about you. I do. But I love Stefan. It's always going to be Stefan." With that last final rejection -- both by Katherine and Elena, Damon gave into his anger and retaliated by snapping Jeremy's (Steven R. McQueen0 neck -- which is not the way to win over the girl of your dreams. But Katherine rejected him and Elena rejected him -- and the pain was unbearable. Because he cannot cause Katherine pain, Damon inflicted the ultimate pain on Elena -- he killed her brother.
When Stefan tried to defend Damon by saying: "She got under his skin. She undid everything that was good about him," Elena sadly replied: "There's nothing good about him ... Not anymore. He's decided what he wants. He doesn't want to feel human. He hated it. It's just easier that way. He got his wish." Despite what Elena may believe, Damon does regret it. The fact that he still feels pain and regret may yet be the sliver of salvation for his soul.
This episode test boundaries -- the boundaries of love, of friendship, of abilities. While Damon, Stefan, Elena and Katherine were amidst their self-discoveries, Bonnie (Katerina Graham) too was discovering what her limits were. She discovered she would do anything to save Caroline (Candice Accola), including let Damon feed her his blood, and she learned that while she can hurt some vampires, she is not strong enough to tangle with Katherine -- yet.
It was certainly fun watching Bonnie tell Damon to just "do it" -- granting him permission to save Caroline -- and his offer, "If I do this, you and me -- call a truce?" To which Bonnie archly replied, "No, but you'll do it anyway -- for Elena."
Also loved love all the major shock-value moments with Damon snapping Jeremy's neck and Katherine smothering Caroline. In both cases, it is not immediately obvious that each will survive. But Jeremy is revealed to be wearing John's healing ring and Caroline has Damon's blood in her system; so both will survive. Unfortunately for Caroline, she will live as a vampire; and unfortunately for Jeremy, he is still human.
What Didn't Work
Watching Tyler (Michael Trevino) nearly attack his mother was unsettling. It may have gone a long way to showing Tyler how out of control he is, but it could have easily have been an attack against his uncle or someone else. It seemed unnecessary to have him attack his own mother. That poor kid has enough to deal with without that on his conscious too.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
"The Vampire Diaries" stars Paul Wesley, Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, Steven R. McQueen, Candice Accola, Katerina Graham, Michael Trevino, Zach Roerig, Sara Canning, Matt Davis. "The Return" was written by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, and was directed by J. Miller Tobin.
"The Vampire Diaries" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.
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