How fleeting happiness is in Mystic Falls. In an episode that frustrated me on first watch but resonated on the second (more on that in a bit), the ties that bind brothers, friends, lovers, and allies. With the question of the sire bond at the forefront, We’ll Always Have Bourbon Street pushed characters into taking a position, making judgments, and deciding what was, for them, the right course of action.
On first watch, my frustration stemmed from seeing characters misjudge each other, or their situations; I found myself disagreeing with their logic, actions, and even in the way they insulted each other (hey Caroline, looking at you kid). Then I realized that this discord (both within the show universe and, arguably, outside it as it subverts audience demands) is exactly the episode’s strength. We’re not supposed to always agree; problematic can be good; and every word and deed illuminated that character’s bias and motivation. Like the Salvatore brothers with each other, sometimes we the audience should be at odds with the characters and their choices — it’s more challenging, more fun, and, definitely, more frustrating that way. At the heart of the episode was a debate about forcing people’s behavior in the name of what’s “right,” reminding us that being judgmental often speaks more about the person judging than that which is judged, and that the line between acting selflessly and selfishly is sometimes razor-thin.
Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged: Though they are far from the only ones, both Stefan and Caroline have long had judgmental streaks in their personalities, and when it comes to Damon, both find it difficult to either bite their tongue or give him the benefit of the doubt. In the ’40s flashback, we see one of the reasons why Stefan believes that Damon will think of himself first, always, as Lexi puts it. Stefan reconciles with his brother, seeing him for the first time since the human-blood-drinking/decapitation incident of 1912 after which Stefan launched into his true Ripper period. (By this time, he was not yet “feeling himself,” according to those diary entries from The End of the Affair.) As “penance” for his serial-killer days, Stefan plans to ship off to Egypt to be a frontline ambulance driver; Damon promises to join him, and never shows. What Stefan didn’t know then, of course, was that Damon’s no-show was a direct response to Lexi’s condemnation of his character — her suggestion that he will damage his brother further, and that his own need to have his little brother around should be put second to Stefan’s need to rehabilitate. Damon obliges (much as he does in the present day, immediately testing the bond with Elena and then setting to work to break it). While the brothers investigate how literal the sire bond really is, Stefan expresses his doubt in Damon’s ability to do the “right” thing, the selfless thing, in this situation: to put his desire for Elena aside and break the bond. In a classic brother moment, Damon spits it back at Stefan: how selfless is Stefan’s motivation? Is he after a “factory-setting Team Stefan” Elena, or is his only and true interest in protecting her right to free will and self-determination?
At the Salvatore house, Caroline treads a similar line when it comes to Damon-Elena romance. She has a hard time “laying off the hate” (to be fair, she is drunk on Dom and high on spirit tea), and it’s not long before she’s judging Damon’s promiscuity while in the same breath excusing Stefan’s recent string of bloody murders. Caroline ignores the capacity for evil in Stefan because of what he’s done for her — his friendship when she was transitioning, his kindness, his understanding — and she ignores the capacity for good in Damon because of what he did to her. When she tells Elena about the sire bond and immediately assures her that it’s not her fault, that Damon took advantage of her, she could just as easily be speaking to her season 1 self – the girl who was Damon’s “lapdog,” at his beck and call, used by him as he terrorized her, his brother, and Mystic Falls. These are the darkest corners of the characters on TVD: both of our much beloved Salvatores have behaved reprehensibly, unforgivably. So as much as I cringe when Caroline uses sex-shaming insults (which she does here for Damon, and did last season for Rebekah), and mourn the loss of her open-hearted attitude (“Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Sex.”), I get it. What she experienced shouldn’t be forgotten or its impact on her character underestimated (as Elena seems to do — her capacity to forgive the Salvatores of their sins is seemingly endless). (As a side note, Caroline’s beliefs about the sire bond are also no doubt shaped by the change she saw in Tyler, as he defected and became Team Klaus post-hybrid transition last season.)
Self-delusion is hard enough to identify for a regular old human, but it is mystically complicated in We’ll Always Have Bourbon Street. Just what does the sire bond mean for Elena? Enter Charlotte, a warning of just how much power that bond can have. For vampires, there is no equivalent to a hybrid’s gratitude at being free from the lunar change. Though we could question the reliability of the information presented, let’s assume that Nandi the NOLA Witch knows her stuff: there is no magical escape from a vampire’s sire bond (which is a refreshing change from last season’s overreliance on magical escape routes for sticky plots), and that the bond is derived from strong human feelings between sire and sired — feelings that are heightened to the extreme in the transition to vampire.
Putting aside the issue of command and control a sire has over the bonded, are these heightened feelings less valid than any intense feeling an unsired vampire has? We’ve heard again and again (and again) about how “heightened” a vampire’s feelings are, and those emotional extremes are accepted as just as legitimate and real as a human’s feelings. That Damon and Stefan love Elena is not up for debate. We accept those heightened vamp feelings as valid. So are Elena’s heightened feelings for Damon negated by the fact that she is sired to him? Or are they legitimate and to be honored? In the cliffhanger final scene, she argues the latter.
Elena alone knows what she felt for Damon before the change — feelings she never articulated, that she hid from those around her (as best she could). Elena is the only one who can evaluate whether what she feels now is markedly different than what she felt then. But, as a sired vampire, she has also become a puppet unaware of her strings (until now). Damon has unwittingly manipulated her actions — most notably her ability to consume blood from any source but a living human — and she was clueless. Is her happiness a reflection of Damon’s? Or is it her own? Is the bond deluding her? Or is Tyler’s suggestion that the sire bond has no effect on emotions, just on actions, true for Elena? How can she ever know for sure?
Elena isn’t the only one with puppet strings she is unaware of: as Tyler fights to free his people from the evil overlord that is Klaus, he’s completely trusting of Hayley — who’s manipulating him for her own gain and who is herself being strung along by Professor Creepy. Kim, such a rebellious hybrid, points out to taskmasters Tyler and Hayley that the point of breaking the sire bond is to have free will, not to be told what they “have” to do (especially when it’s torturously painful). But even without the bond, these half-werewolves have a pack mentality that Hayley encourages Tyler to capitalize on. Her motivation is self-interested, while his is to do the ‘right’ thing and break free from Klaus permanently. It’s an interesting distinction between Tyler and Klaus as hybrid leaders: one who can be challenged and must respond by asserting his dominance and the justice of his cause, versus the other who dictates his will to those who are powerless to object. (Wait, did TVD just turn into political allegory? Someone write a masters on this!)
But let’s put all that aside, you guys, because it seems like the apocalypse might be coming? Nandi tells Damon and Stefan that expression, the form of magic Shane is schooling Bonnie in, is beyond black magic — it’s incredibly dangerous: “channeling the power of human sacrifice calls on darkness that can’t exist on this plane without swallowing it whole.” (Anyone else picturing the Sunnydale hellmouth collapsed in on itself?) We know that Shane is rounding up 12 not-loyal-to-Klaus hybrids for some nefarious purpose, and then there was that Shane-related explosion that killed 12 council members in the season premiere. Shane’s creepy assurance that Hayley will be able to see her parents despite them being dead suggests more than a little séance and spirit channeling. He says, We are the beginning. Dare we ask: of what? What kind of overthrow-the-order-of-the-universe plan does Shane have? What is his motivation?
Compelling moment: Amid all the complications of this episode, the pure fun of Bonnie holding up a big bag of “spirit tea” with a giant grin on her face takes the cake.
The Rules: A vampire sire bond is markedly different from a hybrid’s: it is formed thanks to the soon-to-be-vamp’s strong feelings for the sire before transformation. Werewolf packs in the TVD universe, as in others, have alphas, challengers, and dramatic reassertions of who’s boss. Shane is teaching Bonnie a different form of magic — unconnected to the spirit world — “expression,” something Nandi describes as worse than dark magic.
Foggy moments: It seems like a pretty ludicrous idea to send a vampire who freaks out at the sight of human blood to the front lines of World War II so he can see “death and blood as part of life.” Um, Lexi, do you remember the Civil War and all that blood, all the wounded, all those corpses? Not exactly temptation-free times. Damon’s guilt-free attitude would be the least of Stefan’s problems.
Other thoughts & questions:
- Even when they end up in a big ole fight, it’s lovely to see the three ladies hanging out and having a laugh. More please!
- It’s nice that Hayley wants to know about her birth parents, but turning over 12 hybrids for the info? Kind of negates the Aw sweet reaction. Why is Shane uniquely positioned to find the dirt on her biological parents? (i.e., Did she try Binging them first? Worked to find Isobel!)
- We know sire bonds are rare in vampires; they certainly don’t happen every time a vampire turns a love-struck human. Damon isn’t sired to Katherine despite how crazy in love with her he was in 1864. (Too bad, isn’t it? The fun she would have.) Does Damon have particularly strong wooing powers? Something in his blood?
- Loved this line from Shane: “You ever hear of a text message? Maybe give a guy a head’s up.”
- Stefan’s reaction to Charlotte = priceless. Love when Stefan gets to bust out the dry humor. (But seriously: how many bricks are in New Orleans?)
- Was “expression” used in the spell that created vampires? Is that why Ayana warned Esther against doing it? Was the dark spell that Bonnie used last season where she stopped Jer’s heart to take down Klaus a form of “expression”? (Also: what is up with the name “expression”?)
- As with the friend trio of Elena, Bonnie, and Caroline in this episode — bonding, fighting, making peace — there’s nothing better than watching the ebb and flow of the Salvatores’ relationship, is there?
Coming soon: my post on the mid-season finale, O Come All Ye Faithful.
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