Last night's Vampire Diaries was so brilliant, it nearly took my breath away. It really is hard to watch other TV shows after seeing the recent episodes of this one. There were a lot of things about "The Reckoning" that bowled me over, but the most gutsy was the choice to make this something of a Matt-centric episode.
Think about all the stuff that happens in this episode to our various supernatural characters — to Stefan, to Klaus, to Damon, to Tyler — almost every one of our major characters has a no-turning-back transformation in the episode. And yet, the episode chooses to spend an unusual amount of time exploring the mind of Matt, the one ordinary guy left. And the results are brilliant.
Some of those Matt-centric scenes were utterly brilliantly staged, too — in an episode that was chock full of set pieces, the director found time to make the "Matt alone in a deserted high school" thing scary not once, but three or four times. We start with the terrible banging noise in the empty school... only to realize that it's Matt, doing weights. And then Matt hears someone else in the school and goes to investigate... only to discover that it's the other kids, working on Senior Prank Night to prove they're still normal. (Which, clearly, they aren't.)
It goes on and on — at one point, I thought Matt was going to dive into the pool looking for his keys, and get drowned. The episode keeps hinting and teasing that Matt is going to die. Until he does, but of his own volition. And only temporary. Best swimming pool drowning scene I've ever seen, with Matt floating peacefully on the bottom of the pool, with the big gym weight holding him down, and Bonnie diving desperately to save him. John Behring, the director of this episode, is an evil genius.
And all of these weird little moments of Matt peril just make us more invested in the moments of Matt character development. Like Caroline stopping, in the middle of making out with Tyler, to worry that Matt doesn't have anyone to talk to any more. And Matt talking to Bonnie and various other characters about the fact that he's the only normal one left, the only one who even has a shot at a normal life. And yet, he feels isolated and a bit useless in the middle of all this supernatural crap. Plus he keeps getting his nose rubbed in his sister's death, which he'd put behind him. And thus Matt makes a defining choice to go for the big swim — and it pays off, more than he ever imagined it would.
Last week, I did a feature on how to make horror and dark fantasy work on weekly series television, and one of the main points seemed to be that scares on TV need to come from our investment in the characters. Last night's Vampire Diaries illustrated that perfectly.