The Secret Circle: The Dark Is Rising (PHOTO RECAP)

Magic! There was magic on The Secret Circle, you guys! And I don't mean magic as in cool moments that gave us brain-tingles (there were some of those, though), but the actual witchcraft kind of magic that this show about witches has been so stingy about. "Darkness" was the first new episode after a seven-week hiatus, and while it definitely contained a few series highlights (a coffin exploded out of the ground!), I couldn't help but feel sort of restless, you know? We're 10 episodes in and it still doesn't feel like there's tons of forward momentum going on. Sure, the Witch Hunter Jake plotline distracted us for a handful of episodes, but now that it's mostly wrapped up, what we're left with is a show whose flaws (and there ARE flaws) are starting to seem less temporary and more fundamental. Sure, you can kill off a weak character, but what do you do about a weak premise? Individually powerless witches who don't seem terribly interested in practicing magic? Evil, scheming parents who are not evil and who don't have an apparent scheme? Crystals? Get it together, babyshow!

But don't worry, I definitely DID enjoy this episode overall. I watched it three times! We might as well talk about it.

Things began in Cassie's bedroom, where a strange noise led to a surprise reunion:

Hi Jake! Cassie was probably super ticked about getting woken up in the middle of the night, but it's Jake, you know? How ticked would YOU be if he swung by your bedroom? Anyway, it wasn't the most romantic reunion, as he immediately started laying into her about her dark magic and how her bloodline can basically be traced back to the Devil.

And then THIS happened!

Oh no, poor Jake! Luckily none of it was real.

Sigh. Now, it's not The Secret Circle's fault that this week's TVD ALSO began with a witchmare, but that doesn't mean I can't rant about dream sequence fake-outs for a second. The dream sequence fake-out is probably the most tired, lazy device a writer has ever devised. It's about one step removed from a cat jumping out of a trash can. Go to Netflix Instant Streaming and watch the opening scene of the worst horror film on there, and there's an 85 percent chance it starts with a bad dream. Cut it out, writers! If you want to begin a story with a suspenseful dose of prophecy (don't, but still) how about not making us feel like fools for having been invested in your fiction-within-a-fiction? No stakes, no care.

Plus, you know, this fake-out also made the awesome final shot somewhat less so. It's hard to feel too excited about the return of a romantic lead when the last time we saw him, he was being a bossy jerk and bleeding from the mouth.

So the next morning Cassie was paid a visit by Adam, a truly nice, truly forgettable guy she was supposed to have romantic chemistry with at some point. (Whoa, sorry, this Dayquil I'm on is making me moody!) Basically he just came by to check on her.

It was actually nice seeing them just hanging out together. I'd find a brother-sister relationship between these two much more compelling than a romance, and I liked that Adam seemed to genuinely want to help Cassie without tryin' to get up on her.

Anyway: dark magic research party!

In Adam Cassie found a confidante and made him swear to keep a secret that seemed to be common knowledge and didn't have any apparent consequences. Everybody in town knew Cassie's father was evil, and at this point her "dark magic" abilities looked more like "weak regular magic" to me. Still though: Zip it, Adam!

On a more highly awesome note, we got to meet Diana's grandmother, Kate!

Kate's a truly great character, and I love that she continued this show's tradition of casting forty-something-looking actresses as grandmothers. Why not? She also did the hilarious thing that only happens on TV when people just show up at front doors (or bedroom doors) without calling or texting first. Kate's reason for visiting was to help comfort Diana over her break-up, OR SO SHE CLAIMED.

Back at school Melissa was still mourning Nick, and while I respect this show's realistic take on mourning dead characters, at this point it's just wheel-spinning. Fortunately Faye seemed to agree, and reminded Melissa that Nick wouldn't have wanted to see how boring she's become (fair enough). But Faye also had a wonderful solution for cheering her up: Voodoo. Melissa didn't quite make the connection about how helping Faye get individual powers would help her get over Nick, but oh well. It's Faye.

So Grandma Kate went all Melrose Place RIGHT AWAY. She basically barged into Dawn's office at school and immediately called her out for killing her own father-in-law and for also only pretending to be dating her increasingly mentally handicapped-seeming son.

Elsewhere Adam was doing some important research:

Cool URL! I'm gonna go type that in right now. Oh, but it was hilarious when Diana caught him reading about black magic and he closed his laptop all quick like it was porn.

Anyway, Diana pretty much immediately guessed that Cassie had a dark magic issue, and Adam made the mistake of confirming that suspicion right when Cassie was in the doorway five feet away from them.

Heck hath no fury like a Cassie annoyed! So she pushed him like she had pushed Jake in her dream (but whoops, that point of reference never happened!) and he started gasping and wheezing.

Cassie felt super bad, but just so you know, you can undo a dark magic spell by shouting "I didn't mean it!" That's for all you dark magic hobbyists out there, make a note of it.

So then the circle confronted Cassie, and is it just me or was everyone super mean to her about it? Even Melissa was throwing shade her way, all sneering "What's wrong with you?" Honestly, if one of my friends was struggling with a dark magic issue, the LAST thing I would do is be disrespectful. I just think you probably shouldn't upset people who are struggling with dark magic issues, okay? That's just how I was raised.

Meanwhile, Dawn was increasingly nervous about what Charles' mom was doing in town. She had a wonderful solution:

Haha, oh Dawn. She is so trigger happy when it comes to nosy seniors.

In what was becoming a recurring theme, Diana then walked in on Cassie while she was dabbling in black magic.

Cassie admitted she'd been attempting an "attraction spell" which would somehow draw Jake back to town. (Um, did you try texting him?) But that's actually beside the point, what matters here is how awesome of a friend Diana was. She was pretty understanding about what Cassie was going through and invited Cassie to come stay at her place while Jane was chillin' at a healing facility getting her brain unbroken. Diana just seems like a good person, you know? I still think it was a mistake to glam her and Melissa up so much (sorry, straight dudes!), but I find her utter decency so winning! It's weirdly surprising, I don't know.

Back at the lair, Faye was Bing-ing voodoo.

If this Lee LaBeque is half as good at voodoo as he is at web design, Faye really found a winner!

Melissa spent most of the episode giving people the side-eye like it was HER JOB.

Later, at Charles' house, Dawn crashed Grandma Kate's dinner party. It was pretty funny when she just laid the gnarliest french kiss on him right in front of his mom.

Haha, nice try! Anyway, Charles was slightly suspicious about Dawn's motives, especially since she kept going on and on about the wine she'd brought for Kate.

It didn't end up coming to anything except yet another hushed conversation between Charles and Dawn about whether or not to murder an elder. So no, the wine was not poisoned.

Oh, check out Lee LaBeque!

This reaction pretty much summed things up. Grey Damon is handsome! Lee LaBeque was just some dude who lived with his parents and ran a voodoo operation out of the garage. It was funny when he mused that Faye and Melissa probably wanted to just get some revenge on their school's mean girls and Faye replied, "We are the mean girls." Very The Craft, Faye! Faye <3s The Craft so much.

Lee's ritual was slightly sexy in that it required Faye to remove her jacket so that he could finger paint on her upper bosom area. Melissa was NOT impressed.

Later that night, Cassie awoke from yet another nightmare (which we didn't see because DREAMS ARE NOT IMPORTANT) and ran into Grandma Kate in the kitchen.

Right away Kate asked Cassie about her dark magic and then told Cassie that her father had once been an innocent who allowed his dark magic to overtake him. See, it's always fun when there are some inter-generational witch conversations going on. This show has been so pokey about blending the teens with their parents that it just seemed straight-up refreshing for Cassie to actually consult with a HIGHLY KNOWLEDGEABLE PARTY.

Anyway, Kate offered to help "cleanse" Cassie of darkness, but she would have to follow her into a remote area of the forest (cleverly called "Harbor Woods") where a casket and a dagger awaited them. You know, nothing scary or ominous about that scenario.

Haha okay this is not a knock on this show per se, but I can't stand it when people in movies or on TV intentionally cut their palms. Ouch! You're gonna need to use that, okay? Also, continuity always becomes a joke afterward when their hands mysteriously heal later on. Anyway, yeah, Cassie got her palm cut, she bled onto the weird flag thing, and then immediately the forest started going crazy with wind.

Then Kate opened the coffin, pulled out a "death branch," and broke it!

Don't worry, Cassie didn't die. They should've called it a "pass out for about ten minutes branch."

Meanwhile Diana was rifling through Kate's suitcase and came upon her collection of paraphernalia.

And it did NOT look like friendly stuff. There was even a baggie of Mandrake root in there, which this show would like us to know is fatal to witches.

Anyway, then Cassie woke up in the casket and it did NOT seem fun.

At this point Kate finished the spell and the entire forest floor CAME ALIVE and the coffin was swallowed up into the ground! The special effects were truly awesome looking and it was all just very creepy. Plus it was capped off with Kate saying that the only way to cure Cassie's darkness was for it to BLEED OUT OF HER AS SHE DIED. Dang, grandma!

After being left to die, Cassie quickly got control of herself (it was seriously creepy how quickly she became serene) and then dug deep to figure out a solution.

And then THIS happened:


Seriously, this was just a perfect TV moment and maybe my favorite Secret Circle moment ever. It was the best example yet of magic's practical applications in this world as well as just a straight-up triumphant thing for our heroine to do. More exploding coffins, please!

After Cassie crawled out of the rubble from her EXPLODING COFFIN, Diana and Adam ran over to find her. In a truly perfect exchange, they sort of dumbfoundedly asked her if she was okay, and she responded, "I don't know." Not sure if I've given Britt Robertson enough credit, but she somehow imbued those three words with like forty different intonations. Such good acting, seriously. This lady's an MVP for sure.

So back at the house Kate came clean to Charles about what she'd been up to.

It turned out that she'd come specifically to deal with the Cassie situation, but I'm not gonna lie, I kind of didn't completely understand what was going on here. Kate tried to murder Cassie to cleanse her of dark magic, then she said it was merely a test to see if Cassie was powerful, but then talked about how Cassie was "just what we need" to tip the balance between good and evil. Pardon me, but who is WE? Is Kate working with Charles all of a sudden? And which side did Kate want to tip the scale toward, anyway? Isn't Kate sort of evil for being so quick to murder a young girl? Maybe it's obvious to everyone else, but I thought this conversation was so vague for some reason. I don't know, I'm not a genius. But I DO love this Kate character, she is awesome.

Needless to say, Faye's voodoo solution didn't work, and it mostly had to do with the fact that Lee had used Halloween store blood and a fake (?) feather.

So after she tore apart his garage (Melissa had declined to join her on this particular errand), Lee just calmly told Faye that he knows she's a witch and he'll help her now.

I'm sorry, but what? Why on earth would she trust him now? If this show weren't so shy about its magic, he could've taken this opportunity to, I don't know, SHOW her that he is indeed the real thing. But nope, telling is just as good as showing in this world. It's a bummer because this is a pretty promising storyline (and looks to be pretty interesting in next week's episode), but in this episode it basically felt like a dream sequence fake-out.

We closed with a nice scene between Diana (the best) and Cassie (the BAMF). Diana was asking her all about her dark magic skills and Cassie owned up to how good the power felt.

I liked how Diana was both worried and understanding, yet also seemed kind of jealous? See, THAT would seem real to me. Teenage witches should be OBSESSED with magic, not blasé or disinterested.

Oh, but shhhh... the excellent soundtrack is starting to get louder! Diana asked Cassie just how powerful her magic is...

Powerful! Guess her "attraction spell" worked after all! Or maybe Jake just re-upped his minutes and finally got her texts. Either way, this reveal was so well done that I clapped at my TV like a society lady at the opera. Good stuff. Awesome song. Perfect Jake.

So, sorry to do this to you, but I think I'm gonna have to put on my critics' hat for a second. (It's more of a sombrero, but still...)

The following should serve as a time capsule for when I'm re-reading these after the Season 8 finale and appreciating the evolution of The Secret Circle. But as of January 7, 2012, these are my biggest concerns about this show:

1. The binding of the circle has been a disaster so far. Don't tell me this is a show about witches and then systematically remove their powers. This is a show about a secret group of teenagers who use magic and the dramatic tension that arises between them. Be about that.

2. If the idea is that the kids are powerful together, then show it. I don't think we've seen a satisfying use of group magic since the kids sent their stalker to the ceiling in Episode 3. And don't tell me teens wouldn't have tons of uses for even petty spells (athletic advantage, natural perms, winning scratchers). If their magic has to be a consensus, then show them doing it council-style, where they each bring a wishlist of spells, debate them, and then vote. I don't know, just more magic please! The Secret Circle has fallen into a bad habit of telling us the witches are witches rather than showing us.

3. The parents' plotline is awful. It's one thing to de-fang the villain (and has Charles been acting slightly mentally handicapped lately?), but Charles and Dawn's scenes have been incredibly repetitive and pointless. They want magic. So what? Show them actually doing something about it. Or better yet, let them interact with other people (or their kids!). Sure, they sorta broke up in this episode, but whatever. Fighting over a crystal is just not interesting. Also, it was completely unforgivable that they were never made aware of the witch hunters. And I laughed out loud when Diana suddenly worried that Kate knew about her witchcraft. You come from a multi-generational family of witches! This sort of storyline segregation is not only implausible, it's pretty much killing the dramatic suspense.

4. More story, please. This episode felt padded like crazy, and looking back on ten episodes, simply not enough has happened overall. The Secret Circle has now had ten episodes to play with, and it's nowhere near built up any season-long suspense. If you look at what cable series can accomplish in only 12 episodes, you'll realize that's why cable shows are absolutely murdering network series when it comes to quality.

5. Cassie's exploration of dark magic is interesting, but don't tell us there's any possibility that the HEROINE is in any danger of turning evil. This isn't Breaking Bad. (Clearly.) Anyway, it's 2012 and the average TV show NEEDS to be savvier about audience expectations.

6. The Cassie + Jake plotline would've worked better if they'd had an actual romance going before he left. They kissed that one time, I guess. Oh well, hopefully he'll loosen up now that he's back.

Okay, I'm sorry, I probably should quit complaining so much. It's just that I love this show, but I'm starting to fear that I'm simply in love with the possibility of this show and not the stuff that's actually happening on screen. I don't claim to know what the thinking is on any of the behind-the-scenes decisions, but I'm holding out hope that its more compelling elements will finally gel sooner rather than later.

But let's be honest, I'd probably watch these people read the phone book. Such good actors!



... How awesome was Kate?

... Were you excited to see Jake again (at the end, not during the blood-coughing part)?

... Would you let Lee draw a fake-blood star on your upper bosom area?

... Is Melissa just completely over it?

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