One of the ripest running jokes stemming from the Vampire Diaries-verse is that Mystic Falls gussies itself up for one soiree or another every ninth day or so. It’s true, this show does love to stage episodes around a party, or a ball, or a Founder’s Something or Another. But it’s a running joke told with affection, because said episodes are often exceptionally strong ones. They tend to let the show ground its sometimes-sprawling plots in and around one setting, let it take stock of things, and then push forward with a major development or two.
“Pictures of You” didn’t do that. What it mainly did was expose many of the ruts Season 4 has been stuck in. Namely: Damon and Stefan keep trying to reawaken Elena’s emotions, Elena keeps irritatedly rebuffing them (they’ve clearly never read that hoary old adage about the definition of insanity). Bonnie’s involuntary magic keeps flaring up and setting things on fire. Klaus snarls some more threats at Tyler and then stands around so he can run away. (Hey, at least it’s been so many weeks since that last one happened that it almost felt fresh. Almost.)
Sure, there were some pleasant scenes and a neat twist or two. Nina Dobrev continued to have a blast playing Evil Elena with just the right balance of vindictiveness and insouciance. Elijah made the most of his level-headed family arbitration; even better was the reveal of Silas duping him, which mimicked a classic present/future cross-cutting scene beautifully to disguise what was, by that point, at least the third different Silas fake-out.
As the show’s lodestone of humanity, Matt remains the best, calling Rebekah on her shit and spurring her to overcome it with equal gumption. And now that Bonnie’s had a chance to properly grieve for Jeremy, she’s in a strange and potentially fruitful place, teetering on the edge of a Dark Phoenix scenario where her ability to rein in her growing power might also depend on becoming someone willfully, instead of inadvertently, dangerous. (Would that the show might explore this from a genuine interest in Bonnie as a character, rather than a plot device.)
These were all character-based highlights, and those keep me hooked even when the story is kind of a mess. On the narrative front, though, the episode was a worryingly common Season 4 exercise in wheel-spinning.
Part of the problem is that, until this season, for an aggressively serialized show, TVD hasn’t done a big season-long story arc on the scale of Race for the Cure 2013™, and now it’s struggling to pull one off. Past seasons have assembled strings of shorter, more focused story arcs, with each one overlapping with and catalyzing the next. That’s what's let the show maintain its signature breakneck plotting, hitting the turbo boosters on one story just as the prior one was running out of steam.
Portions of this season have veered in that direction, but underlying everything has been the cure and Silas’s scheme. The drawback of being entirely serialized is that TVD doesn’t have enough story engines to generate self-contained episodes on top of which the season-long elements can just skate for a few weeks here and there. So when the momentum of the primary arc stalls, there’s not a lot to fall back on, narratively.
“Pictures of You” made abundantly clear another reason why the show does a better job with shorter arcs: The plots are so patently ridiculous that the longer you stop and think about them, the less sense they make. Now, ridiculousness is not inherently a problem for a show about sexy vampires and witches stabbing each other in between boot-knockings. It only becomes a problem when the show starts taking its plots this seriously, rather than shrugging them off as, essentially, a big bag of MacGuffins (*cough* Sun and Moon Curse *cough*).
Being reminded of the same harebrained schemes week after week exposes how flimsy they are. I have long since stopped caring about whether Silas wants to die and tear down the veil, or tear it down first and then die, or not die but give the veil a lovely new coat of paint. I’m tired of updating the spreadsheet of who currently has the cure, wants to take the cure, wants to destroy the cure, wants to give the cure to someone else, or wants to listen to The Cure while reviewing a TV episode titled after one of their songs.
And yet the writers want me to care about these things so badly. And I expect they will continue to insist that I care about them for the next four weeks. Yet all I want to do is move on to the next batch of supernatural silliness and sex and stabbings. Shit or get off the pot already, show.
– Caroline, as usual, had her ups and down. Plus column: that dress; offering a shoulder for Stefan to lean on; sharing the flask with Damon; getting to dance with her man; that dress. Minus column: Abandoning the event her entire party-planning career has been building up to doesn’t strike me as a win for Caroline Forbes. She surrendered the night to Elena with scarcely a fight, rather than sticking it out with her friends as planned (did she even say five words to Matt and Bonnie?). And the less I say about the utter pointless incongruity of slinking off to Klaus to raid his closet for evening wear, the safer I’ll be.
– TVD’s traditional early scene exposition dumps are seldom artful, but if the show wants to have the Salvatore boys toss around the ol’ pigskin while catching us up every week, I would be totally cool with that.
– Elena ganking Caroline’s dress was such a predictable yet hilarious dick move that I wish we could get a whole episode of just them trying to out-mean-girl one another.
– Is it just me, or did Damon’s forcible corsage application have, let’s say, uncomfortable overtones?
– It was sweet—or, y’know, as close as TVD gets to sweet—to bring Jeremy and Tyler out of mothballs so that everyone could take part in the prom episode. It was less sweet that Jeremy was only a demonic delusion, but in Mystic Falls you take your moments of happiness where you can find ‘em.
– Matt’s freshman-year hair. That is all.
– Sorry, Rebekah, but I don’t think “I used my vampire powers to save a person’s life” would piss off Big Bro all that much. He’s not testing your biological humanity.
– 'Sup, Klaus? Katherine here. Hey, I heard there’s a bunch of cool and dangerous shit happening in New Orleans. Might take five or six seasons to sort through it all, if we’re lucky. So you can officially forget about your centuries-long obsession with me for a little while and go do that! Kthxbai.
– Oh, hey, Silas actually has his own actor now! And from the brief glimpse we got, I suspect he is not someone who typically appears on your average CW casting-call roster.
– “You of all lovesick fools should applaud his devotion.”
– “Why do I feel like we’re at a practice run of Caroline’s wedding?”
– “Is this real?” “Does it matter?”
– “Hindsight is almost a bigger bitch than you.”
– “So technically, you’re a walking reminder of all the horrible things that have happened to me.”
– “I know you said to kill her with kindness, but can’t I just kill her?”
– “You’re not a good person. You’re not going to win this cure by being yourself, so just stand there and refrain from talking. Okay?”
– “It is such a hollow little life that you lead, Niklaus.”
– “Lemme guess: An extremely handsome man came up to you claiming to be me.”
– “Talked about his hair. Figured it had to be you.”
What'd you think of "Pictures of You"?