3.01 The Birthday
- "Stop looking for him. Stop waiting for him to come home. Just stop. Stefan is gone and he's not coming back. Not in your lifetime."
- —Damon to Elena
Original air date: September 15, 2011
Written by: Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec
Directed by: John Behring
Guest cast: Dawn Olivieri (Andie Star), David Gallagher (Ray Sutton), Cherilyn Wilson (Samara), Sarah Cooper (Keisha), Lilly Roberson (Sofie), Diany Rodriguez (Claudine)
Previously on The Vampire Diaries: Paul Wesley
It's Elena's 18th birthday: Caroline throws her a massive party, Damon tracks down his brother, and the birthday girl's wish actually comes true.
When season 2 of The Vampire Diaries ended, Stefan had sacrificed himself to save his brother, agreeing to be Klaus's wingman in exchange for some precious werewolf-bite healing blood. With "The Birthday," we meet Stefan two months into his sentence and he's not the man who left Mystic Falls. He's a ripper. The horror-movie-style opening sequence lets us know that Stefan's heroic act has made him a villain: he kills those two women at Klaus's command and, before the day is done, has tortured a werewolf and killed Andie Star, who he used to be concerned about. The writers make it clear from the top: this is not your season 2 TVD.
The jump ahead in time is one of many ways this episode signals a new beginning for the series; most notably "The Birthday" marks Elena's official entry into adulthood as she turns 18. But hitting this milestone day on the calendar doesn't mean the past will be easily forgotten. In Mystic Falls, the characters struggle in various states of limbo until they ultimately force themselves to choose between letting go or holding on. Despite trying their darndest to be normal and boring, their attempts to cover up the messy truth fail when they pretend to be something they're not. Elena sucks at being the chipper birthday party girl, Jeremy's mundane existence at the Grill is punctuated with ghostly visitors, Caroline and Tyler can no longer deny their physical attraction, Alaric feels like a fraud acting as a guardian to the Gilbert kids, Damon has been hiding his search for his brother from Elena, and Stefan's ripper act isn't as convincing to Klaus as he thinks it is. Even Klaus himself puts on an American accent, telling the suspicious Floridian that he's not a serial killer.
While no one has an easy time letting go of the past, for Jeremy, it's ever present. His past is literally haunting him and he's been holding on to a huge secret all summer. Until he opens up to Matt after the party, he is alone with a terrifying reality: Anna and Vicki appearing to him as a result of Bonnie bringing him back to life. Jeremy's been playing at normalcy, but judging from his reluctance to get out of bed and his pot-smoking at the party, he's regressing to his season 1 stoner self instead of dealing with his supernatural problem. In the same way that Elena is drifting, purposeless except in her hunt for Stefan, Jeremy is in a kind of limbo, just like Vicki and Anna. Matt describes Jer as on a "downward spiral" and himself as "out of it"; neither one knows where they fit in the new supernatural normal. Though Jeremy opens up to Matt, Matt isn't ready (or sober enough) to hear that Vicki's ghost is real and not imagined, a product of Jeremy's grief.
While Jeremy's exes interrupt his phone conversation with his current ladylove, Bonnie, Matt has to deal with watching his own ex dance around a relationship with his best friend. Matt reminds Caroline that she and Tyler are supposed to be, like, mortal enemies; as much as this werewolf and vampire duo act like everything's normal, they're actually quite subversive with their inter-species relationship. The tension between these two supernaturally horny teenagers is palpable, and the payoff a racy kickoff to season 3. But Werewolf Road and Vampire Boulevard may not meet again if Carol Lockwood has anything to say about it. Though Sheriff Forbes has changed alliances — she's feeding information about vampire attacks to Caroline and company to help them find Klaus and Stefan — in the wake of her breakthrough with her daughter in "As I Lay Dying," the acting mayor of Mystic Falls is still maintaining the old founding family philosophy: vampires are the enemy.
The self-proclaimed "chaperone teacher from hell," Alaric Saltzman has been living in his own limbo: on the couch for the two months since Jenna was killed in the sacrifice, drinking excessively and feeling like a bad role model and an unfit guardian to Jeremy and Elena. In a heartbreaker of a scene, he tells Elena it's time she take care of herself, and he leaves, a man broken by the relentless tragedies he's suffered. Alaric may have moved out, but he hasn't moved on; his grief and disconnection just have a new address. Though Elena still has her little brother (and his adorable birthday drawing), she feels very much on her own, holding down the Gilbert fort and holding on to hope that Stefan will come home — in her lifetime.
In "As I Lay Dying," Elena told Jeremy that they had to start going through the motions of their lives, so that at some point it would feel normal again. But, in addition to mourning Jenna over the summer, Elena seems to be stuck in a kind of Stefan-less limbo. It's no wonder that Caroline is concerned about her friend not living her life. As Elena insists on tracking down Stefan, clinging to the possibility that he's alive and not already one of Klaus's innumerable victims, there's an interesting tension set up between her and Damon: they are at odds despite sharing the same goal. Damon is just as single-minded and determined to find his brother. But he has a second, contradictory, motivation: protecting Elena. By keeping his intel from her, he's shielding her from the truth about Stefan's murderous deeds, letting her hold on to the idealized Stefan, the Stefan she loves who would never dismember and reassemble victims. Or kill Andie in a "cool" way just to drive home his point to his brother.
But, having witnessed a murder firsthand, by the end of "The Birthday," Damon's faith in his brother is shaken, if not destroyed. Stefan had been Andie's defender and, while it seems like Damon's "complicated dynamic" with his "fake compelled girlfriend" was on slightly more equitable terms than last we saw them, the safe bet would have been on Damon killing Andie one of these days, not Stefan. In a quiet moment before the raucous party, Damon returns Elena's necklace to her, the symbol of the "good Stefan" and of the love shared between Stefan and Elena. But by the end of the night — after Andie's death and Stefan's insistent growl that Damon let him go — Damon loses it with Elena, finally coming clean to her about what Stefan's done, that those are his victims up and down the eastern seaboard, not Klaus's. In a small but telling gesture, Elena clutches her necklace: she wants to hold on to her faith in Stefan.
Alone in Stefan's room, Damon tears up the place that stores all of Stefan's memories, revealing how upset Damon is by Stefan's dark turn. Though it wasn't his choice, Damon is the cause of Stefan losing himself. It was to save Damon's life that his little brother gave up his identity, his values, and the woman he loves. Stefan is trapped in a kind of purgatory, he's descended into a dark prison guarded by the biggest (and potentially indestructible) baddie of all time. No wonder Damon's drinking champagne before breakfast.
This true introduction to Stefan the Ripper is masterfully done. Villainous but sympathetic, Stefan straddles the roles of romantic hero and gruesome imaginative killer with subtle gradations in Paul Wesley's performance that reveal Stefan's internal conflict. In a very deliberate moment, Stefan delivers Damon's "Hello, brother" line from the pilot — signaling the role reversal between the Salvatores from season 1 to 3 — and it's Stefan, not Damon, who racks up an impressive body count while Damon is left to cover up his brother's bloody tracks. It's more than a little bit cool to see the transformation from the Stefan we know and love to this unflinching killer. But as much as Stefan plays his part as Klaus's dutiful henchman, it's clear to Klaus, if not to Damon, that Stefan is doing just that — playing his part. He hasn't truly given in to his dark side; it's serial killing by numbers. Though Stefan's not following his moral compass, he's still holding on to it; his love for his brother and for Elena is buried but burns bright. Stefan acts like he's enjoying himself — "It's a little bit cool, no?" — but his duties are a burden, not the pleasure Klaus wants them to be.
As if leashed to Klaus, Stefan can only escape as far as the bar's parking lot. Stefan knows the truth of Damon's warning — that it's a fine line he's walking — and his façade is breaking as Klaus's words ring true: every time he feeds, the blood makes it easier to give in to the Ripper. It's a testament to Paul Wesley's command of his character that he can bring us to very different places with Stefan in this single episode — from murderous rampages to desperation in his wordless phone call to Elena. She knows it's him though he can't speak to her, and she says just what they both need to hear: never let go. This show is never more accomplished than when it goes to dark twisted places while maintaining its firm grasp on the emotional heart of the story, the motivating forces that drive its characters to such extremes.
Isolated but hopeful, Elena remains unwavering in her faith rather than accept reality; she'll never stop fighting no matter how dire things are. And with Klaus now one step closer to enacting his master hybrid plan, it seems like things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
- COMPELLING MOMENT Elena and Stefan's phone call. From that crack in Elena's voice to the way Stefan holds back his tears and says nothing, it's a short scene that's powerfully emotional and beautifully performed.
- CIRCLE OF KNOWLEDGE
- Damon quips that Stefan could be "alive and well and living in Graceland," Elvis's Memphis, Tennessee, estate. Like Elena whose hope for Stefan's safe return is unwavering, some Elvis die-hards still believe the King lives on.
- In response to Elena's glum birthday girl attitude, Damon references the 1963 Lesley Gore song "It's My Party," where the birthday girl is thrown over by her boyfriend and says she'll cry if she wants to.
- The pins on Damon's Stefan-tracking map are in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The newspaper articles are from fictional Tennessee papers: one from Memphis, another from Sylva (which is actually in North Carolina) and reference is made to Meeman-Shelby Forest Park, near Memphis. The article "Body Discovered at Drive-In" includes this quote: "What kind of sick [expletive deleted] chops somebody into pieces and then puts them back together for someone to find?" The answer is provided by Damon's stickie note: Stefan.
- Klaus lets Stefan leave to deal with his brother in a test of trust proven by Stefan's return. It's a moment that nicely contrasts with another Original's relationship with one of the gang. In "Klaus," Elijah allows Elena to tend to Jenna, and she proves the value of her word when she returns to him. Here, instead of being tentative allies like Elijah and Elena were then, Klaus and Stefan are master and slave.
- R.I.P. Andie Star, Action News. Though it seems as though she spent her final days exercising a little more independence and control over herself (if that get-the-champagne-yourself moment was any indication), Andie's murder is one that Damon may feel culpable for, despite not actually being her killer. Because Damon wanted someone to feed on, she was vervain-free and therefore vulnerable to Stefan's compulsion and attack.
- THE RULES Unable to compel a werewolf, Klaus resorts to torture, but he leaves handling the wolfsbane to Stefan. As a hybrid vampire-werewolf, both vervain and wolfsbane are poisonous to Klaus. To turn Ray into a hybrid, Klaus is trying the usual human-to-vampire three-step transition: Klaus feeds the werewolf his blood, kills him, and, presumably once Ray resurrects, he'll be forced to drink human blood.
- PREVIOUSLY ON THE VAMPIRE DIARIES In this season 3 premiere, there are a number of echoes of the pilot episode: a grieving Elena forces herself to face the day, she prods her brother into at least going through the motions (getting him out of bed and off to work) and helps out her slightly inept guardian (Alaric now, instead of Jenna). Jeremy is back to feeling morose and smoking weed to avoid his problems, while Elena's not into partying though Caroline is gung-ho ("Pilot," "162 Candles"). The photo of Elena and Stefan dates from before she knew he was a vampire; it was taken on the day he gave her the necklace ("Friday Night Bites"). Though Stefan gave her that necklace, Damon has had some key moments with it, as he does here in "The Birthday": he put it on Elena in "Fool Me Once," and he returned it to her at the end of "Rose." Damon escorts Elena down the stairs in a moment that recalls when he stood in for Stefan at the Miss Mystic Falls pageant ("Miss Mystic Falls"). Damon trashes Stefan's room like he did in "Lost Girls," but instead of that gleeful destruction, it's more of a breakdown akin to Stefan's own in "History Repeating."
- OFF CAMERA David Gallagher plays hybrid–guinea pig Ray Sutton; Gallagher is best remembered as Simon in 7th Heaven and was more recently seen in Super 8 as the stoner, Donny. He actually auditioned for both the Stefan and Damon roles on The Vampire Diaries, and the producers were happy to finally find the right fit for him on the show with Ray.
- For the first released scenes of season 3, the producers chose a great teaser: the clip shown at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2011 was of Elena getting an eyeful of Damon wearing nothing but bubbles.
- The phone call at the end of the episode was Kevin Williamson's idea, and when he outlined it to Julie Plec, as she related to Entertainment Weekly, "I started to cry. I was like [in weeping voice], ‘That's the best thing I've ever heard in my entire life.' And then he started to cry. Because that's what we do, we get each other going, because we're complete saps. . . . There's something about seeing Paul Wesley trying not to cry that is so sad. So he just nailed it. That's one of my all-time favorite moments emotionally." It was also one of the most difficult season 3 scenes for Paul Wesley to film. Shot on location, a group of fans had gathered across the road (on public property) to watch the filming, and unfortunately they were directly in Paul's eyeline and trying to get his attention. It was a big distraction for the actor, and he modestly credited the editor, Sean Albertson, with pulling together such a powerful scene from the performance he gave.
- FOGGY MOMENTS While it's believable that Alaric still can't operate the coffee maker after two months of living at the Gilbert house, it's incredible that, after Elena takes over, the coffee brews in a matter of seconds. On Damon's tracking-Stefan wall, the newspaper article with the stickie note that reads "Neck Wounds" is actually a sports report about a local baseball team. Klaus tells Ray that he's the first werewolf he's come across "in many moons." But in "The Sacrifice," Klaus had Tyler lined up as his werewolf to sacrifice; has he forgotten about him, or is Klaus more interested in Ray's pack than a lone Lockwood wolf?
- Will Damon tell Elena that Stefan killed Andie?
- Where is Katherine?
- Vicki asks Jeremy to help her. What does she need him to do? Are she and Anna on a ghostly quest together?
- Does Carol Lockwood know better than to turn to Sheriff Forbes for dealing with her outed vampire daughter? Will people ever quit it with the surprise attacks on Caroline?