Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…

I have a weakness for grieving men on TV — you experience the vulnerability without having to deal with the palpable pain. Hence me finding Damon Salvatore extremely attractive in this episode. Definitely his best hour to date, and he didn’t even murder anyone (though, of course, he tried to).

Rather than give a chronological play-by-play, let’s examine it story line-by story line.

Damon’s diabolic plan: The show did a nice fake out making us think since the pilot that Damon just wanted to make Stefan’s life miserable. After Elena told Stefan that Damon was terrorizing Bonnie so she’d give back the crystal, Stefan was determined to find out what his brother was really plotting. The first step of his plan was to continue the “I’m pretending I’m you” game the boys started in the beginning of the episode when Damon came to apologize to a gratuitously shirtless Stefan for killing his oldest friend last week. Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder played that bar scene perfectly, with hints of smiles that made you wonder whether it was the actors or the characters enjoying each other’s impersonations of eyebrow acting and forehead brooding. (Both probably.)

Next came Stefan kicking Damon’s ass in darts and showing him just frustrating it is to spend time wondering what game someone is playing. Then it was time for a sentimental tossing of the football and a heart-to-heart on the field. Stefan said their love for Katherine wasn’t real, she compelled them. Damon didn’t want to go there and started walking away — until Stefan asked about the crystal. The exchange that followed was another one of those rare moments when Stefan steals a scene from his brother:

Damon: How did you know it was Katherine’s? Emily [Bonnie’s ancestor, who was also Katherine’s handmaiden] gave it to her on her last night. I was with her, and you [smug look] weren’t.

Stefan: I was the last one to see her, Damon.

Damon: [Looks genuinely hurt]

Stefan: Now, what do you want with Katherine’s crystal?

Damon: [Recovering] She didn’t tell you?

Stefan: We had other things on our mind. [HOT!]

Damon: [Now in Stefan’s face] I could rip your heart out and not think twice about it.

Stefan: Yeah, I’ve heard that before.

Damon: I have a bigger surprise, Stefan. [Cue eyebrow acting] I’m gonna bring her back. [Evil smile.]

As Damon later explained, he’d asked Emily to use her magic to protect Katherine, and, with that crystal powered by a comet (okay, sure, why not), she sealed Katherine in a mystical holding cell in a tomb underneath the church the townsfolk thought they’d burned her and other vampires in. Damon had to wait for the comet to return to juice the crystal, and then he could free Katherine. In exchange, he promised Emily that her lineage would survive — a vow he was still keeping by not killing Bonnie to get his crystal. Am I surprised that Damon is a man of his word? Yes, pleasantly — it adds a layer to the character.

The only problem I had with the episode was that Stefan, who’s usually so cautious around Damon, forgot that his brother has superhearing. Stefan really should have had Elena text where Emily-possessed Bonnie said she was heading to destroy the crystal. Damon, of course, overheard Elena on Stefan’s cell, and was at the ruins of the old church to meet Emily. Love that she was powerful enough to send Damon flying and impale him on a tree. Stefan showed up in time to free Damon and hear from Emily that it was “them” that Damon wanted to free. She had to save all 27 vampires in the church to save one that night. She couldn’t keep her promise to Damon; the current townsfolk didn’t need to see that kind of evil unleashed. Stefan didn’t believe that Damon was doing this out of love, he thought it was just for revenge on the town. Here’s what I think: Damon was telling the truth when he said he only cared about rescuing Katherine. It’s just that if saving her meant that 26 other vampires would get to feed on people he believed would try to hunt them if they knew vampires existed, that was okay with him.

Emily succeeded in destroying the crystal, and when the flames surrounding her went out, Damon attacked Bonnie. Stefan saved her by giving her his blood. I find it interesting the way that Damon just stayed there, without Elena or Stefan protesting. Maybe a small part of them couldn’t blame him for being overcome with anger when his last chance (?) to see Katherine again was taken away from him. Damon’s grief was believable in his next scene. He told Stefan that Katherine never compelled him, he knew everything. “It was real for me,” he said. Then choking back tears added, “I’ll leave now.” It’s my favorite Damon moment of the series, and he wasn’t even shirtless or being a bitch. Shout-out to the director or whoever decided to shoot Damon’s dialogue through the trees. Every time the camera emerged from behind a trunk to show his devastated, defeated face, it cut into you a little deeper. Were I to actually believe that Damon would leave town, I would be weeping. I’m looking forward to seeing what this means for the brothers’ relationship…

• Stefan and Elena’s romance: After seeing that Stefan could save a life, not just take one, Elena realized that she could handle being in a relationship with him. Stefan, however, hadn’t changed his mind — there’s been too much drama for him to stay in Elena’s life. Coming back to town was a mistake, he said, before walking away as she begged him not to. Elena told Stefan that she was going to tell Bonnie the truth about what had happened to her with Damon and Stefan. Seeing the two girls crying and hugging in the end montage, you have to think those tears were for Elena losing yet another person she loved. If Stefan and Elena’s makeout scene in the promo for next week’s episode is a dream sequence, I will murder someone. Not because I’m against the writers finding more ways to keep them apart, but because I hate manipulative promos.

• Alaric Saltzman: Matthew Davis (What About Brian?, Blue Crush) made his first appearance as the new history teacher. We’re allowed to just call him Ric. I’m sure his ancestry is important since he took the time to bore his class by detailing it, but I can’t be bothered to type it out. Presumably, he’s a vampire, which we know by the ring he wears and the way he hesitated after walking Aunt Jenna to her door after meeting her at that one teen-friendly bar/restaurant everyone in town frequents every night. If he’s telling the truth, his wife was killed in North Carolina, and I’m guessing he’s tracked the killer (Damon? Logan?) to Mystic Falls. I’m sure he had an ulterior motive for giving Jeremy an extra credit paper on “local history,” especially since Jeremy’s late father just happened to have a passion for it. What do you think he’s up to? (SPOILER ALERT: I’ve read an interview that implies he’s some sort of slayer.) Do you think that Matthew Davis can pull off a vampire? He doesn’t scream intrigue to me, but I’m willing to give him a chance while I secretly hold out hope that he’s a human who loved a vampire, and it’s her ring he wears. I suppose Aunt Jenna being used by Ric will give her another excuse to be out of the house and clueless to things such as the fact that Elena’s manicure night turned into a séance that started off lame (Bonnie suddenly wanted to see spooky Emily?), but ended up sufficiently scary (awesome shot of Emily in the mirror as possessed Bonnie walked out of the bathroom).

• Caroline and Matt: Do I miss Caroline being Damon’s snackfood? Yes. But if she and Matt actually manage to have a sweet relationship (read: take things slow, continue spending time in bed eating junk food) instead of a codependent mess, I am all for this coupling. Matt saying he was creeped out by the cuddling they did last week — because he doesn’t like her — reminded me of the love-hate relationship Xander and Cordelia had on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That’s another case of a nice, lonely guy and a bitch that isn’t entirely without a heart making it work. It could provide some levity to the show… until the day Matt finds out that Damon has not only chowed down on Caroline but also essentially killed his sister.

• Logan: He returned. As a vampire. How? We know from Stefan that in order to become a vampire, you have to die with a vampire’s blood in you. Who turned him? Does anyone really care about Logan? I kinda don’t. But if the actor surprises me and goes balls to the wall during Logan’s killing spree next week, I’ll reconsider.

So, what did you think of the episode? Did you guess Damon’s plan? Are you ready for Elena and Stefan to make up already, or would you like more foreplay? Are you psyched for Alaric’s arrival and Logan’s return? Do you endorse Caroline and Matt as a couple?

Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert/The CW

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Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…
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Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.

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