The Vampire Diaries, S2E11: By the Light of the Moon [TV review by Robin Franson Pruter]

The Vampire DiariesOriginally broadcast December 9, 2010
Written by Mike Daniels
Directed by Elizabeth Allen
My rating: ★★★

Werewolf transformation elevates disjointed episode.

* * *

 As the title suggests, this is another werewolf-focused episode. The full moon hits Mystic Falls, and, unlike so many of the random parties and town festivals, the event is a naturally occurring one and doesn’t come off as merely a tool of the writers to unify an episode. However, the full moon doesn’t work as effectively as such a unifying tool as some of the other special events do. Thus, the episode seems to be five separate storylines, only two of which manage to come together at the end.

The centerpiece of the episode is Tyler Lockwood’s first transition into a werewolf. Like True Blood and unlike MTV’s Teen Wolf, at the end of the transformation, Tyler is fully wolf, as opposed to a hybrid wolf-man creature. The focus, however, is not on his time as a wolf but on his transition to wolf state. As previous episodes established, a werewolf’s first transition takes about eight hours and is excruciatingly painful. Supposedly, transitions get easier in time, but the first one involves several hours of unbelievable pain.

Thus, the success of the episode depends a lot on Michael Trevino’s performance. He rises to the challenge here. Trevino doesn’t shine in scenes of line delivery or character interaction (as particularly apparent in the season four body-switching episode where he plays Klaus). However, Tyler Lockwood is not a particularly expressive or articulate character. Much of Trevino’s characterization of Tyler is physical. As an actor of limited stature, Trevino uses his carriage to show Tyler’s arrogance and his imposing, aggressive nature. This episode requires immense physicality, which Trevino readily provides.

Yes, some of the physical changes are done through special effects but not as many as one might expect. The production’s limited budget shows here, but it also helps.  Unlike other series (Teen Wolf, Being Human) that present detailed werewolf transitions, The Vampire Diaries eschews heavy prosthetic make-up and major creature effects and thereby avoids some of the cartoonish or laughably fake-looking werewolf and transitioning-werewolf images that proliferate on those series. Tyler goes from mostly human to fully wolf very quickly near the end of the transition. We see extreme close-ups of eyes and teeth, a dark shot of an elongating ankle, a few more dark flashes, but nothing too overtly creaturish before the wolf appears.

During most of the transition, Tyler appears fully human. The sequence focuses on the complete breakdown of Tyler’s human self rather than his emergence as a wolf. Writer Mike Daniels and director Elizabeth Allen have to be given credit here for showing a clear progression of Tyler’s experience instead of just having him writhing in extreme pain the whole time, and Trevino does an excellent job of embodying that progression. At the beginning of the episode, he shows the tension in Tyler’s body in anticipation of the change, even when Tyler makes a lame joke about not getting to keep his pants “like the Incredible Hulk,” to defuse the tension in the atmosphere. When his bones start breaking, the viewers can see Tyler fighting the pain, until he’s so beaten down that he just gives in, and the viewers see the tension release. Trevino reveals Tyler’s utter vulnerability as surrender to the pain fails to bring respite.  From a technical standpoint, the physical requirements of the scene had to be extremely difficult, when one considers that Trevino had to hit certain marks and positions in order for the special effects to be added in post-production all the while making it seem as if his body is contorting beyond his control.

What works particularly well about the sequence is that the transition to werewolf is not an end in itself. The scene is about the development of the Tyler Lockwood character, as much as it about the plot development. The breaking down of Tyler’s body metaphorically reflects the destruction of the character’s previous self. The arrogant, aggressive douchebag that Tyler was in the first season is obliterated. The post-transition Tyler will be a very different person.

I’ve said repeatedly that the things The Vampire Diaries does particularly well are character development, character interaction, and character relationships. Not only does the werewolf transition sequence show the development of the Tyler Lockwood character, it also advances Tyler’s relationship with Caroline.

Despite the threat to her (we’re deftly reminded in an unrelated sequence that werewolf bites are fatal to vampires, in case we’d forgotten), Caroline remains by Tyler’s side throughout the transition even though, as Tyler pointed out in a previous episode, they’ve never been close friends. In almost every episode, Caroline seems to grow stronger, more rounded, more powerful. Caroline chooses to be with Tyler because he needs her, and she responds to that. That Tyler is not the type who would ever express that he needs someone else makes Caroline the perfect person to help him because she has no reservations about inserting herself into situations when she isn’t asked to do so. Wisely, the series doesn’t rush into a romantic pairing between the two but, instead, chooses to show two people coming together because, in their trauma, they need someone.

The other storylines in the episode aren’t nearly as powerful or successful. Michaela McManus (TV’s One Tree Hill, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) joins the cast in the recurring role of Jules, a werewolf friend of Mason. She comes to town looking for her missing friend and cottons on pretty quickly to the fact that Tyler is a werewolf and to the likelihood that Mason has met with foul play. Jules, I think, was always intended as an antagonist. However, McManus comes off as unpleasant and uninteresting to watch. The sequence where Damon and Alaric run a scam on her in order to determine if she’s a werewolf only to find themselves outwitted by her could have been fun. Somerhalder and Davis work well together, but here they seem to be playing to a brick wall of bitch.

Damon, again, here demonstrates that he’s his own worst enemy by baiting a werewolf on a full moon, knowing that a werewolf bite could kill him. Alaric talks him out of escalating the situation, showing that Alaric has become the only person besides Elena that can talk Damon out of being rash. I like the friendship between the two characters, especially as it had one of the most unlikely beginnings for a bromance ever.

But the damage has been done. Jules, as a wolf, rampages into the Salvatore mansion and attacks Damon. Rose gets in the way and gets bitten instead. I like the fact that Rose doesn’t die right away. However, I don’t think the fake-out where she seems to have recovered completely only to discover that werewolf venom is a slow-acting poison had any significant dramatic impact. The story would have worked if she had just begun to decline right away without the false recovery.

The other audience fake-out in the episode doesn’t work either. We see Stefan and Katherine, who are locked in the tomb together, apparently making out and about to have sex only to have it be revealed that the scene was only a dream implanted in Stefan’s head by Katherine.  The fake-out fails on two levels. One, nothing builds up to it—we never doubt that Stefan is committed to Elena and never believe he is tempted by Katherine. Two, nothing comes of it—Stefan tells Katherine that he’s not interested and to stay out of his head, and that’s it.

Also pointless is Bonnie’s attempt to destroy the Moonstone. As we viewers still aren’t sure exactly what the Moonstone does, we don’t know why it needs to be destroyed. Bonnie gets help from Luka, but we already know that he and his father are working for Elijah, so we know whatever he and Bonnie do is bound to fail. Thus, there can be little viewer interest in watching a scene where we know nothing will happen and nothing will be revealed, a scene about a macguffin so confusing that it carries no inherent concern.

The remaining storyline of the episode is the one that has the greatest importance for the arc of the season. Elena makes a deal with Elijah for him to protect everyone she loves if she promises to do what he says and not try to turn herself over to Klaus. Careful viewers may recognize the significance of the wording of the deal, remembering how literal Elijah takes his deals as shown in the earlier episode “Rose.” The first time I saw the episode, I didn’t recognize the importance of this pact or what Elena had ultimately agreed to, not until the writers make it explicit to the viewers several episodes later. Seeing it again, I can understand why I missed it, because the pact scene is presented as very ordinary. While this presentation serves to keep the viewers in the dark, it fails to intrigue them.

The pact provides a kind of deus ex machina for Stefan’s dilemma. As a result of Elena’s agreement with Elijah, Elijah gets Jonas to do a spell to release Stefan from the tomb while Elijah compels Katherine to stay inside. (As an Original, Elijah can compel other vampires, as he did with Slater in an earlier episode.) Stefan’s getting caught in the tomb seems even more pointless now that he was released with such celerity and ease.

My final quibble with the episode is Aunt Jenna’s continued ignorance, which leads to her inviting Elijah into the house (Originals still need an invitation to enter a private dwelling). When Elena was just dating a vampire, it made sense for her to keep Aunt Jenna ignorant of all the supernatural shenanigans in town. Jenna might have tried to break up her romance with Stefan or end her friendships with a witch and a vampire or simply moved the family out of town. Now that Elena has discovered that, as the doppelganger, she’s the one who is attracting all the danger and there’s nothing she can do to stop being a danger magnet, it would make the most sense to tell Jenna about the supernatural business so that Jenna stops putting them in more danger by acting in ignorance. The only reason to keep Jenna ignorant is to give the writers extra conflict to work with; it, in no way, benefits the characters in the story.

The strength of the transition sequence in this episode elevates it above the average. However, the episode would have been stronger had it been more unified and cohesive and had it tried to cover less ground.

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About Robin Franson Pruter

Robin Franson Pruter is a recovering academic. She is now in the process of making amends for egregious use of esoteric neologisms and for passing around scholarly journal articles at social gatherings. She studied screenwriting in film school and really plans to finish that degree someday. Luckily, she has three other Master’s degrees collecting dust on her wall. A permanent resident of the state of adolescence, she obsesses over teen media—having, in the past, argued for the social and cultural relevance of girl group music, taught college courses in teen films and Harry Potter, and delivered conference presentations on the latter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (An article of hers can be found in Terminus: Collected Papers on Harry Potter, 7-11 August 2008 available through Amazon.) The only film that has ever scared her was The Green Man—yes, it is a comedy, but she was four and there was a body in the piano.
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