Whenever character matters more than plot, the fifth season of The Vampire Diaries has succeeded. Whenever plot chips character away, makes them pawns on a chessboard to maneuver so that plot point X is hit, or so that the season moves somewhere by season’s end, I lose interest. The Katherine hijacking storyline was great fun, dynamic, a distraction from a directionless season. Katherine’s gone, Elena’s back, and everything’s sort of miserable again. “While You Were Sleeping” deals with what Elena missed while away from her body, the ripper virus Katherine injected into her body to destroy her, and the return of those dam Travelers, still with the arm gestures and the magic and lifeless performances from all the extras (Yeah, I know that’s the point). And what she deals with is love triangle stuff. The deal made between vampires and the travelers for her will matter, but nothing mattered as much as the inevitable conversation between Elena and Damon about Aaron, which further layered an already layered triangle.
“While You Were Sleeping” begins with a dream. The episode’s full of dreams and hallucinations. The difference between a dream and hallucination, seemingly, is the difference between waking and sleeping (or it’s in the dose). Elena dreamt about a wild college party. Young folk danced, drank, and smiled a lot. Elena danced on top of a table. Her friends loved it, but she wanted to know why they didn’t notice she wouldn’t behave that way. She wasn’t her. Elena then wakes. The rest of the episode involves her spiral stemming from being unaware of what Katherine did while in control, while no one noticed. Elena wanders out of her room to an empty hall. The college emptied for spring break. The sounds in the hallway are the echoes of her movements, which contrasts with her lack of an echo, her lack of voice. She woke up to where she’d been—alone in an empty place.
Disconnection and disembodiment dominate Elena’s state of mind, aided by the ripper serum moving through her blood stream, making her violently hungry for vampire blood. Stefan delivers her vampire blood and exposition about the last three weeks. Damon’s consoling on the phone with her. Elena opens up about the security she felt while in his embraces seconds before she disappeared. Aaron’s absence bothers her. Damon won’t say a word about what he did. Elena’s hallucinations begin with the brothers and with Aaron. Trickles of information about what Katherine did fall to Elena, raising paranoia about what happened. Most dreadful of all to the Gilbert girl is the thought that she killed Aaron. The thought sends her off the edge. She uses force to escape from the spell Bonnie and Liv put on the dorm and then, unraveling, wanders the campus, pale as a ghost,
Damon saves her. Stefan can’t. Retrieving the antidote from Enzo, who began working with the travelers to create the antidote, brought Stefan and Caroline to the travelers. It’s a whole thing involving doppelgangers, fate, the word ‘special,’ and plays out like déjà vu. Stefan notes that Tessa didn’t draw blood for her spell. Sloan tells him she will because she needs it. It’s really riveting content. Elena hallucinates Aaron when Damon approaches her. Her reception of him is tinged with relief, gladness, and a retreat from near-madness. The hallucination breaks, and Damon tells her truth about Aaron. His explanation for why he murdered Aaron failed to justify the murder. The best part of the conversation happens when Elena wonders to Damon why he didn’t recognize the difference between her and Katherine when Stefan did. Elena’s wonderment calls back to a scene earlier in the episode, a violent hallucination in which she fights Stefan’s kiss off to remind him she wouldn’t lead him on, when Stefan tells her he knew it wasn’t her when she kissed him. The triangle is sad and complicated and dramatic. Elena and Damon decided to end things because of Damon’s monstrous behavior and his inability to separate the girl he loves from the girl he despised for over a century. Immediately after agreement, Damon breaks the bed with her. See, Aaron was only a tertiary character, a plot device created for this very scene.
Enzo brought the antidote to Damon and Elena, so one needn’t dread more weeks of monster Damon and Elena in hysterics, out of control of their emotions and choices, and reliant on others to save them. There are other battles, though. Witches are the threat now. Liv, the insecure witch, is not at all insecure. The random dude introduced before an act break is revealed as Liv’s gay brother. They want to do something to Elena and her friends. Their heel turn scene is dangerously expository. Exposition delivery takes skill and practice. Those actors sounded like they were reading it off a giant card or came into the scene having read the dialogue seconds before the take. TVD’s writers introduced several villains this year; none caught on. The witch characters seem more of a nuisance than a threat. Dr. Wes had originality, Silas and Tessa added a new dynamic to the triangle, and the witches and travelers are there, doing stuff.
The unwieldy and bendy fifth season continues on with a promise of learning what makes Stefan and Elena so special; I think that’ll be the entire point of the season. Until then fans need to tolerate more false foes and stories that betray character.