Note: Everything that happens in season three is spoiled in this review.
The third season of The Vampire Diaries opens up with perhaps the most grandiose season drives it has created to date: Damon and Elena are alone together, the third part of the triangle is out with the Biggest Bad of this show yet being lured by the darkness, Jeremy can see ghosts, we are being introduced to the originators of the vampire species, and one of them has made it his mission to create an army of hybrids — much more agile and dangerous than any vampire or werewolf league.
But those storylines do not progress much more beyond that. The Originals, the first vampires, take over the series (especially in the later half), consuming storylines and screen time that could have been better spent focusing on our current cast of characters — in fact, a couple of them, Tyler and Jeremy, even leave the fictional town for a long stretch of episodes. Other characters are relegated as nothing but collateral damage and used to further extend the stories the “more important” characters are going through, mainly Bonnie. The hybrid army that Big Bad Klaus created did little to convince anyone that they were an actual threat, being easily killed by humans and overall a futile attempt. The idea that Klaus is a direct threat to Elena (since she’s supposed to be dead) or anyone else is automatically done with once he finds that the secret to his hybrid army’s creation is her blood. From then on, we spend half a season with Klaus being all talk, and no action; his threat level is almost embarrassing. So much so, the tension for the second half of the season comes with his mother trying to kill him and his siblings.
The show switches gears. We’re no longer on the side of getting rid of him, but wanting him to stay alive. Unfortunately, his docility creates fervor for his departure (despite the passion the audience may have for the actor), something we never get.
Having Damon and Elena alone in Mystic Falls does help progress their story forcefully, with only a handful of scenes that payoff in subtlety (in the best way) during the first half of the season, and once Stefan leaves for the second time, it seems the tension is just ramping up. But the Elena character does a complete 180 a couple of episodes after her official first kiss with Damon. Now, she begs for Stefan to take her back in a sense, and the storylines shift to focus all attention on the love triangle (and many other love triangles, about five of them). Even then the story drags out, and other plots that seem to be dark and intriguing self-contained vignettes of other characters are nothing but tied to the triangle. Character-driven stories have never truly worked well for The Vampire Diaries, which mainly benefits from plot-driven ones, knowing what the endgame is, and taking its story there at an excitable and unimaginable pace. Instead, the latter half of season three sometimes spends entire episodes just with the characters and heightening the lovesick story. Certainly, that’s great if you watch mainly for that…but previous seasons had not made it the main story, only relegating it to the background more or less.
This season, it’s in full force. At times, it’s the only storyline. Others stop dead in their tracks, are left hanging, or do nothing more than be an extension of the plot to get rid of Klaus — who, as aforementioned, is not a believable threat.
The first half of season three definitely knows where it’s going: we’re getting rid of the evil guy. And episode nine, the winter cliffhanger episode, gets to that point (except the plan is foiled, obviously). But it’s a clear and concise roadmap, it’s a fast-paced journey as is the norm, and it’s as twisty and impactful as Vampire Diaries ever is. The latter half stays stagnant at times, seems aimless, and even predictable (unusual for this series). This isn’t even counting the ideology that everyone is dark and the muddled up moral compass that was created out of it. The only true storyline to root for is the magical ring storyline, where we find Alaric blacking out and murdering vampire sympathizers. And it quite strangely formed suspense on this series in a way we’ve never experienced before.
That’s not to say there are no good installments during the latter 13 episodes. There are. “Bringing Out the Dead,” which featured Elijah’s return, was an episode where not much happened, but resembled the fantastic dramatic, tense installments of season two (which I regard as an outstanding achievement as a whole for television). It’s an hour of our heroes sitting down with the antagonists, but it works — writing, production values, and suspense. “The Murder of One” was a reminder that this series can still pull a twist out of nowhere and shock the very core of this universe, especially convenient in a time when the episodes were stalling to a bore. And finally, “Before Sunset,” the season’s penultimate episode was quite the thrill ride (even if we quipped at some illogical happenings) where our group was finally somewhat victorious.
And although the final episode once again shifted most of its focus to the triangle, using almost every scene to aid it, it proved that this series is still fearless with its twist of turning Elena into a vampire. Albeit, the outcome was also predictable and it felt as though Alaric’s storyline was created just to push this twist, but it also remains as evidence that The Vampire Diaries knows when it’s time to amp aspects of its plot up. More so, it proved that emotional payoff and excitable twists sometimes go hand in hand with this show, that coalescing those parts of this series can create a — if not precisely ideal — beautiful hour of television.
And though Elena’s transition may mostly be used to put even more focus on the triangle, the story has yet to unfold. This is a series that told an almost flawless baby vampire story in early season two, morphing an annoying extraneous character into a fan favorite in Caroline. There is faith that it can recreate that (while not completely reiterating it). But it does, however, seem as though the “sophomore slump” — the idea that the second season of a show cannot live up to its first, certainly not the case with Vampire Diaries — delayed a bit and reared its ugly head during this third season. Not mentioned but definitely important and a huge plus, the first half of this season showcased compelling mythology for the TVD universe. Given this, coupled with the fact that the first half of this season maintained the momentum from its fantastic achievement that is season two and that even in its lull was able to create a couple of perfectly thrilling hours of television, season three was still entertaining as a whole. The latter half does not undo the greatness of the first half.
Even then, a bad hour of Vampire Diaries is usually a good hour of most things on TV.