When we first met Elena Gilbert, she was grieving, but she was determined to go on living in the face of tragedy, in the face of loss. In Down the Rabbit Hole and Stand by Me, Elena Gilbert is once again tested: her faith that everything will somehow work out for the best is stretched thin to a breaking point, when the search for the cure ends in disappointment and the risks wagered result in incalculable loss.
“Guess that’s what happens when you’re dumb enough to hold out hope,” Stefan says in Down the Rabbit Hole, and in that episode, the idea of sacrificing and failing, of placing faith in something that turns out to be false is introduced, as the gang learns there’s only one dose of the cure. (One dose that ends up in the hands of Katherine Pierce.) The promise of the cure has driven much of this season’s action: not only could it be a way to defuse the threat of Klaus, a cure for immortality meant restored humanity. Down the Rabbit Hole saw more nuanced discussions of the cure, and characters’ desire to take it or not. Stefan and Elena had their first “friends” talk — and in Stand by Me, his presence at her side cements and uncomplicates that status — and he admits that his desire to be human outdates her, because in the long run “even the good parts [of being a vampire] kind of suck too.” That said, later at the top of the cliff, Rebekah knows that no matter how much Stefan might want the cure himself, he would give the one and only dose to Elena if he had the chance, choosing her happiness over his own. But, pack of selfless vampires that they are, Elena wouldn’t take that only dose even if she could get her hands on it. She believes she doesn’t deserve it anymore than anyone else, and that instead of fighting who she’s become since her death, it’s time to accept it. The idea of their humanity being restored was always, as Elena realizes, false: she changed when she died on Wickery Bridge, and becoming human again wouldn’t reverse that part of who she now is.
When does one give up hope? Or realize that one’s faith is misguided? At the end of Down the Rabbit Hole, Shane is lying at the bottom of a pit with a broken leg, and still he seems to believe in the apparition who comes to him in the shape of his wife. Despite Shane’s proven capacity for manipulation, he’s weak-willed when it comes to Silas’s ability to present as the beloved dead. He knows the persuasive power of hope — the idea of returning to a time when everything is “normal,” to a pre-tragedy paradise that’s just as false as the apparition. Instead of returning from the island with a sense of security, or a promise of a return to some imagined past when they weren’t living in a nightmare, the opposite happens: Katherine returns, steals the cure, and feeds Jeremy to Silas, who kills him; the cure is gone; and the First Immortal Being, the Dreaded, No One Knows What He Looks Like and He Could Be the Guy Right Next to You, has risen. Even the promise of being safe from Klaus is gone.
Though Klaus spends nearly all of Down the Rabbit Hole trapped in the Gilbert living room (RIP), he’s still able to best Tyler and keep the gang under his thumb. But Klaus’s actions are not quite as starkly evil or revenge-y as they once were: he seems to be trying sort of to redeem himself in Caroline’s eyes. It’s clear from his conversation with Caroline that his desire, or ability, to show compassion and mercy is relative — for a big bad like him, his granting of a headstart to Tyler seems benevolent. Klaus’s message to Rebekah on the phone — “I hope you get to live and die as you wish” — was a touching Originals moment, and one that seemed sincere. Will the Original siblings, like the Salvatore brothers, put their differences and squabbles behind them? For Caroline, Klaus’s “kindness” is devastating. On the Porch of Epic Moments (RIP), Tyler and Caroline bid each other a tearful goodbye, refusing to entirely give up hope that there they can one day be together. Their “until we find a way” pledge carries Caroline through Stand by Me, where we see her leaving voicemail after voicemail for Tyler — needing him to stand by her, as she supports her devastated friend. She has to believe that Tyler will live, that they’ll figure out a way to evade Klaus, that their love story didn’t end. Despite Caroline asking Tyler to forget her, to be happy without her, it’s impossible to just erase a person from your life, to stop caring.
Elena has always been a survivor, but when Stefan points out to Damon that Jeremy’s Gilbert ring won’t bring him back because he’s supernatural, Damon says: “She won’t survive this.” And it’s painful to watch Elena go through those hours after Jer dies — like sobbing, aching, make-it-stop painful, and we know these aren’t real people. But what Julie Plec has written in Stand by Me is an achingly honest, nuanced, and unflinching portrait of raw grief. I thought often of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body” while watching this; like that episode, the supernaturality of it all — the magic versus science — only serves to heighten the suffering that is totally human.
In a prototypical Elena reaction, she turns immediately to reassurances: It’s fine. You’ll be okay. She sits in that crypt, cradling her dead brother and reassuring him that he’ll live. That’s what Elena does: she believes that somehow things will work out for the best. And she’s not wrong when she tells Stefan and Caroline that there is a sliver of a chance that the Gilbert ring will bring her brother back to her like it has in the past. But at what point is that hope so remote that it’s time to let it go? We watch Elena struggle to even entertain the possibility of Jeremy being truly gone, let alone accept it. She struggles to say the words “my brother’s dead” even when they’re preceded by “There’s absolutely no way…” Later, in a perfectly executed moment (from Nina’s performance to the sound design to the framing), the heated debate between Caroline, Matt, and Bonnie about dropping the veil between this side and the other, becomes muted as Elena blocks out everything, holding it together barely, only to be interrupted by April’s phone call. When Elena cannot lie to this girl on the phone, she cannot put the whole universe at risk to bring back her brother, she finally says it — and when she does, what Elena couldn’t say before becomes what she repeats over and over: he’s dead. She looks at his body, fully understanding that he is truly gone. She’s able to see the cold facts of death — his decomposition already something a vampire can smell. It’s shocking and raw and tragic.
Elena sees that in this case her hope is futile, as pointless as Caroline’s effort to scrub out the burn mark from the floor where Kol died. Some things can’t be made right or erased.
As much as it was an episode about Elena coming to accept that Jeremy is dead, we see how denial and acceptance, hope and its absence affect the other characters. In Down the Rabbit Hole, Bonnie is side by side with Jeremy in his last moments; they help each other reach the cure, and they fall together. In Stand by Me, we see her move from vehemently believing that necromancy is unnatural — telling Shane “You can’t bring back the dead” — to seeing it as the right solution to their problem. Drop the veil, bring back Jer, bring back Grams, bring back all the Bennett witches. Shane (or Silas-as-Shane?!) is there to guide her into that belief, in her shell-shocked and susceptible-to-influence state. While Shane tells her he refuses to “let her fall apart,” that’s the “natural” reaction to losing someone you love. That’s a more natural reaction than massacring a dozen people in order to bring back that one. What Shane does is channel the power of her grief as we saw Silas-as-Shane’s wife do to the Nutty Professor — by deliberately misleading her. By episode’s end, it’s established that the humans who died in Silas’s name will not be returned to life. Silas doesn’t have that power; Bonnie doesn’t even have that power. Only by harnessing the power of 36 dead (in an “Expression Triangle,” or “Crazy Psychotic Plan”) can she drop the witch-created veil between the Other Side and the mortal plane. Bonnie’s resolution to “do whatever it takes” is motivated by crazed grief: to “fix” the situation, to save Jer, to protect herself and her best friend from further loss — and, perhaps, to prove that she is in control, something she was so confident of before they entered that crypt.
While Bonnie’s resolve is strengthened, Matt “Poison your best friend once and suspicion follows you forever” Donovan is near broken by episode’s end. He’s there for Elena —showing up at her house in a moment that mirrored her at his place after Vicki’s body was found — and we see Elena see Jeremy through Matt’s eyes. The two have their isolation and grief in common, as well as their need to hold out hope. Matt says it’s what keeps him going, and we see him lose it when he’s alone, just him in his truck.
Just as in real life, friends play different roles in assisting the grieving: Caroline goes into Caroline mode — lists, casseroles, plans, and strategies — while Damon makes his choices based on what he believes Elena needs the most: Stefan by her side, him bringing Bonnie home. And, ultimately, her overwhelming pain to be dulled, sedated, so she can carry on. So she can survive this. Despite Stefan’s protestation, Damon uses the sire bond to “help her” the way one might medicate an extremely grief-stricken person. And in that moment, we see the difference between a stone-faced Elena when she’s barely holding it together and an Elena who’s flipped the switch on her emotions.
In a nice moment of understanding, Stefan and Meredith find common ground in how they experience others’ grief: how each death is hard, no matter how many you see, because watching someone on a collision course with the pain of realizing that their loved one is gone never stops being a special kind of torture. I’ve been long awaiting the return of Dr. Fell, and the confrontation between Meredith and Elena was powerful, with Meredith giving Elena the medical facts of the situation, trying to break through to her. But Elena’s argument, though incredibly heartbreaking, is not entirely irrational — we’re not operating in a world that strictly follows the rules of science; magic applies here. It would be hard to accept the reality of death when you’ve just come from a mystical island where a man who’s been “not-dead” for 2,000 years was reanimated. Phrases like “release the body” and “say goodbye” lead to an explosion from Elena, for to restate her desperate belief in empty reassurances, that Bonnie will magically fix it, that everything will be OK again.
But Bonnie does just the opposite. The only solution she presents is morally reprehensible to Elena, and she won’t do it — even if that makes her a “bad sister.” (It doesn’t, in my book.) And so she accepts reality: her little brother is dead. And there are practicalities to attend to. What Elena wants in a state of heightened grief turns out to be the same thing she wants after Damon commands her to flip the switch: to burn down the Gilbert home. The house, still in shambles from their fight with Kol, is destroyed by fire. Everything gone — the memories, mementos, the stuff that makes up a life, a family history. Jer’s art, that birthday card he drew for Elena, all their family photographs, Elena’s teddy-bear, her favorite sneakers, her diary — how she made sense of her world — those doors everyone was always popping up behind, Ric’s bourbon, all the comforts of the home you grew up in. Gone.
And Elena walks away from it with nothing but the clothes on her back and the two Salvatores at her side. Stefan took a last look, but not Elena. She’s sure that she’ll never want to go back to that place, which held all the memories of those she loved and lost. Forever gone.
Compelling Moment: Nina Dobrev’s performance from beginning to end of Stand By Me. From the subtle moments to the big breakdown that was painfully believable, once again the success of this episode hinged on her ability to make us empathize with Elena, and once again she knocked it out of the park. Stunning.
Foggy Moments: In Down the Rabbit Hole, Jeremy knew that Galen was a hunter even though he didn’t tell him (he just says they are on the ‘same team’) and his tattoo was gone.
- Who are Shane and Bonnie planning on killing in Massacre #3?
- Does the Hunter’s Curse apply to Silas? Will he be haunted by Jeremy’s ghost?
- What will Katherine do with the cure? Is Stefan right: is she going to use it to leverage a pardon from Klaus? Or will she go on the offensive and try to jam the cure down the Original Hybrid’s throat?
- Does Katherine also have the super valuable Qetsiyah-blood/tombstone?
- So Galen tells us (well, Damon and Rebekah) that Katherine tracked him down and had intel from Hayley. When Katherine attacked Galen in Silas’s crypt, she must never have been planning on killing him (knowing he’s a hunter, and about the curse), but did he know that she planned to abscond with the cure? Or had she convinced him she was down with his plan to kill Silas?
- Where is Katherine? Where is Klaus? What will our big-bads’ next moves be?
- What the heck is going on with Shane? Last we saw him in Down the Rabbit Hole, Silas was talking to him in the guise of his dead wife, and Shane had a nasty broken leg. In the woods, when Shane is taking care of Bonnie/convincing her to slaughter a dozen innocents, he holds a bucket, tends to a fire — i.e., he interacts with the physical world. And when Bonnie trips over fake-Jeremy, Shane is nowhere to be seen. Does Silas have the ability to change his physical form and be corporeal? Would other people be able to see the Shane that Bonnie can see? Shane (or Silas-as-Shane) says that because of the whole no-two-supernatural-identities-at-once, vampire-or-witch thing, Silas doesn’t possess any magical skillz, but does he? Does he have, like, really, really advanced mind-control skills where he can cause hallucinations? (Like waking dreams?) Will the Shane that Rebekah tripped over in the woods (which I presume to be the real Shane) be alive much longer?
- What will Rebekah do now? She seems genuinely freaked out about Silas, and she says very pointedly to Galen that her “supernatural destiny” is not to kill Silas with the cure — but will that become her mission? She says to Damon that it would “benefit us all to be a bit concerned” about Silas. Perhaps she’ll lead the charge…
- Will April Young clue in to the fact that Elena told her Jeremy was dead before he ‘officially’ died in the house fire? And I hope the fire didn’t spread to the neighbors’ houses!
- What will emotions-off vampire Elena be like?!
Bring it on, Thursday!
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