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ONE PERFECT EPISODE / Vampire Diaries: "The Return" / Phoebe Cramer


Girl-meets-monster is a tale as old as time. She tames him or he corrupts her. He transforms into a prince and they get their happily ever after, or else she dies, tragically, symbolically, violently, senselessly, the way women in fiction often do. 

Girl-meets-self-and-self-IS-monster is a stranger tale, one less frequently told and, perhaps because of this, one which opens up a new universe of possibilities. 

At its start, The Vampire Diaries, the CW’s eight-season-long soapy, supernatural fever dream, seemed primarily interested in the first trope: formerly-popular, newly-emo girl Elena meets tortured vampire hunk Stefan Salvatore and his devil-may-care vampire hunk brother Damon and finds herself at the center of a blood-soaked love triangle. But “The Return,” the perfect episode that opens TVD’s second season, shifts this focus by introducing Katherine, Elena’s 500-year-old vampire doppelganger. 

The two are polar opposites living parallel lives. Sides of a coin, connected in a way that even they can’t understand. Nina Dobrev portrays both characters with knife’s-edge precision. Where Elena is principled and compassionate to the point of martyrdom, Katherine is manipulative and entirely self-serving. Katherine’s presence re-centers the narrative of the show on what happens when you are forced to confront the monstrous not just in the person you love, but in yourself.

Though the myth of Katherine Pierce haunts the show from its pilot episode, showing up in flashbacks to Stefan and Damon’s human days, “The Return” is Katherine’s first appearance in the present, the first time her actions are allowed to speak for themselves, freed from the framework of the Salvatore Bros.’ memories. 

Even without the massive thematic shift that Katherine’s titular ‘return’ represents, her entrance is explosive. Over the course of just this one episode, she impersonates Elena, kisses both Salvatores, cuts a man’s fingers off, crashes a funeral, threatens a witch, stabs Stefan in the stomach with a candle holder, and, in the final, noir-like shot – high heels across a shadowy floor – struts away from the hospital bed of Elena’s poor, high-strung sidekick Caroline Forbes after smothering her with a pillow. Katherine Pierce is a wrecking ball to The Vampire Diaries’ world-order and the destruction she wreaks allows the universe to expand exponentially.

Katherine’s presence also throws a wrench into the traditional girl-meets-monster narrative in how completely she turns Damon’s head. 

Damon, the older, more dangerous of Elena’s love interests – in folklorist Maria Tatar’s terms ‘the wild brother’ – is the one that, in what has become the standard vampiric love story (see: Twilight, True Blood, Buffy, etc.), is most in need of Elena’s domesticating, moralizing influence. Redemption arcs for abusive men – literal blood-suckers, in the cases of the stories listed above – have become all too prevalent in popular culture. That Damon is so willing to forgo virtuous Elena, his professed love, for a life of villainy with Katherine, is a character swerve that, at the time the episode aired, felt too big to come back from. So too did Damon’s unforgiveable act, in a moment of blind rage at the end of the episode after both women reject him, of snapping Elena’s little brother’s neck.

The show and Elena both ultimately do forgive Damon. Soap operas, by necessity, have short memories. But for one brief moment in the season two premier, the standard trope of the tortured hero transformed by the love of a good woman is subverted and the villain is treated as what he is: a villain.

If this all sounds highfalutin for a supernatural high school soap opera, that’s because it is. What makes “The Return” work so well is the balance it strikes between these larger thematic shifts and the on-going, nitty-gritty machinations of its ever-bonkers plot. Sure, the main character may have to confront the fact that the darkest version of herself is out to systematically dismantle her life, but she also has to hash out relationship specifics with her two broody beaus, take care of her little brother, and visit her best friend in the hospital. It makes for a staggering juggling act and an episode of television that is simultaneously trashily compelling on a self-contained, beat-by-beat level and ushers in a paradigm shift for the season ahead.

Phoebe Cramer is a queer writer and performer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and has appeared in Catapult, Longleaf Review, Gravel, Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit and elsewhere. She works as a bookseller and can be found on twitter @PhoebeLCramer.