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Vampire Diaries: Season 4, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 3, 2013 // Region 0
List Price: $69.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 18, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Fair Warning! Stop if you haven't finished watching season three quite yet.
There are a bunch of different ways you could describe Elena Gilbert. Loyal. Determined. Courageous. Alive, and that's saying something considering the circles she runs in over in Mystic Falls. You'll
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have to scratch that last one off your shortlist, though. As the third season of The Vampire Diaries came to a close, Elena died. This year follows her rebirth as a vampire, although if Stefan and Damon have their way, Elena will be re-reborn soon enough.

You see, there's a cure for vampirism, entombed for two thousand years with an immortal creature known only as Silas. Even with the crypt on the other end of the continent and before embarking on one epic quest after another to unlock it, they all start fantasizing about what they'll do if they ever get their hands on the cure. They could shove it down Klaus' throat and at long last end his reign of terror, although who knows what kind of collateral damage would result from slaying an Original. Perhaps it's the shot at redemption that Rebekah has been waiting for. Maybe it's a chance for Stefan and Elena to enjoy a long but less than eternal life together as humans. It ought to go without saying that not everyone will be able to get what they want, especially since they're not the only ones in search of the cure. Supernaturally-fueled vampire hunters have started to make their presence known for the first time in ages, and they aim to strip Silas of his immortality and end him once and for all. Anyone who gets in their way is expendable, and it kind of follows that Elena's vampiric bodyguards don't pose much of a threat to seasoned killers engineered to butcher the undead.

Season four is largely shaped by those three plot threads: Elena coming to grips with her vampirism, the search for the cure, and the resurrection of Silas. Most everything else that happens this year is fallout from one or more of the above. One of the people closest to Elena is saddled with the mantle of a Hunter, and the path to Silas' tomb can only be unearthed by having him slaughter as many vampires as possible...a compulsion he's all too eager to indulge. Cut off from the source of her mystical gifts, Bonnie begins to embrace darker magicks. They imbue her with the power needed to unlock Silas' tomb, but this raw, boundless energy may consume Bonnie before she's given the opportunity. And...y'know, endless love triangles and shocking betrayals and a sprawling body count and all that other stuff that keeps millions of eyeballs
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glued to The Vampire Diaries.

For several years now, I've gushed at length about how The Vampire Diaries is one of the most underappreciated series on television, and I strolled into season four hoping it'd continue to clear the impossibly high bar it's set. I have to admit that this latest season is kind of a letdown. One of the defining characteristics of The Vampire Diaries for me has been its manic pace. This season seems to trudge along a lot more slowly, in part because seemingly everything swirls around the search for the cure. There's constant progress along the way, but one episode after another after another after another of "okay, now to get our hands on the cure, we have to do this" quickly feels tedious. The breakneck twists are less surprising. I frequently found myself ahead of the big reveals, something that almost never happened throughout the three seasons prior. There was once a sense that no one was safe, but The Vampire Diaries had already slaughtered so much of its supporting cast that there's not much of anyone left. Most of the deaths this season are third-stringers that lack any meaningful impact as a result.

The Vampire Diaries does its damndest to shake up the status quo in other ways. I mean, its central character was once so defined by her humanity, and now Elena is another of the undead. In no way is this an easy transition for her, and she transforms in ways far greater throughout the course of the season than sprouting fangs and sucking on blood bags. The status quo between Elena, Stefan, and Damon is upended as well, and not necessarily in the way you might think. Still, Elena is so mercurial that she seems like an unrecognizably different character every few episodes. There sort of ceased to be anyone I really liked and was really rooting for anymore. The soapier elements dominate the series far more than they have in years past, and an awful lot of the hurdles that face Elena, Damon, Stefan, and company
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stem from their own poorly thought out choices rather than external threats.

There just wasn't much of a hook for me this year in terms of character or plot. Those newly introduced to the supporting cast are mostly dead air, such as the inescapable Professor Shane (David Alpay) whose greasy charm masks some sinister motives and blah blah blah blah blah. He's awfully annoying after just a couple of episodes, and I'd audibly groan whenever he'd start droning on for the eight quadrillionth time about the lore of Silas and his spurned lover Qetsiyah. Silas is frustrating for much of the season because it's no show and all tell. There are seemingly hundreds of pages of dialogue explaining how terrible it'd be if Silas were to be awoken, but that looming sense of danger is never really felt. It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that Silas is eventually released from his ancient tomb. When he's free, he doesn't...really do anything. Much like the First Evil in the final, dreadful season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Silas' M.O. is to take the form of others to torment and manipulate. Probably two-thirds of the time, it's glaringly obvious when it's a shapeshifting Silas, and he never does any significant damage. It's mostly talk, and nothing he really does is any worse than what Damon and Stefan routinely pull on one another.

My favorite turns throughout the season -- a particularly badass siege, Mystic Falls better steeling itself against supernatural threats -- are quickly shoved to the background. The moments that made my jaw drop the most are in the premiere and finale, with almost everything in the middle coming across as an indifferent shrug. C'mon, high school forms the backdrop of The Vampire Diaries, and this season couldn't make me care even a little bit about prom or graduation. That's not a good thing. The dialogue is a little more tin-eared than usual, especially since everyone refuses to shut up about what's epic and feelings and the cure and, I don't know, their epic feelings about the cure. It starts to feel like there aren't really any consequences with so many get-out-of-jail-free cards or the way everyone reacts to betrayal and murder with the sort of casual annoyance you'd feel if someone took your parking space. Even the return of some familiar faces I never thought I'd see again frequently falls flat. Who'd have thought I'd ever get sick of Lexi? The tone is more consistently dour, veering away from the dynamic highs and lows of previous seasons, and even the more joyous moments are invariably characters indulging their darkest impulses. There's not even that sense of escalation that The Vampire Diaries is building to something extraordinary. You get a solid premiere, a spectacular finale, and twenty-one episodes of oh-whatever sandwiched in between. Rent It.

By and large, The Vampire Diaries continues to look phenomenal on Blu-ray. The digital photography pushes the noise a bit more heavily than, say, Supernatural, although that texture actually makes the image seem a
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little more interesting. That sheen of digital noise can clump together and look a little blocky, but it's not all that distracting, especially at a normal viewing distance. The image is otherwise clean, clear, and strikingly detailed, and the silky smooth transitions between light and shadow greatly set these Blu-ray discs apart from anything DVD could hope to match. Quite a bit of this season of The Vampire Diaries is set outside the confines of Mystic Falls, and some of the establishing stock footage looks pretty lousy. Aside from that, there's very little room for complaint. If you've been impressed with the first three seasons of The Vampire Diaries on Blu-ray, you'll be thrilled to hear that this most recent collection maintains that very high standard.

This collection continues the combo pack approach introduced in season three. Its twenty-three episodes are spread across four dual-layer Blu-ray discs and five anamorphic widescreen DVDs. As expected, the season is presented at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been encoded with AVC.

The Vampire Diaries offers a very respectable set of 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. Though less aggressive than the most recent season of Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries still delivers a very active soundscape. The surround channels adeptly set the tone -- a funereal hymn, skulking around in an underground cave, haunting ethereal voices, violent winds, snarling werewolves encircling their prey -- as well as some occasional discrete, directional effects. Some of the dialogue early on struck me as kind of edgy, and I found myself wishing at times later on that it were a touch higher in the mix. Bass response is decent enough, especially the tight kick to the music. Some dialogue heavy sequences were plagued by such a persistent dull rumble that I wound up turning off my subwoofer a couple of times, though. One oddity is that the vocals in the licensed songs are mostly (entirely?) limited to the rears, and I occasionally found that distracting. Imperfect but still a solid effort for a TV-on-BD set.

The same as season three before it, there are no audio commentaries. Each episode features a lossy Japanese 5.1 dub (640kbps) as well as a stereo Portuguese track (192kbps). Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

  • Deleted Scenes (25 min.; HD): Thirteen of this season's twenty-three episodes feature at least one deleted scene. Unlike the most recent season of Supernatural, this footage is available via the episode selection submenu as well as under 'Special Features'. Among the highlights are additional Vampire 101 training with Stefan and Elena in "The Five", super-cute newbie April starting to dig a little more deeply into Mystic Falls' secrets in "O Come, All Ye Faithful", "After School Special"'s werewolf assault before any lycanthropic digital effects could be sprinkled in, an explanation about the gumbo supply getting cut off in "The Originals", Silas' attack on a hospital in "The Walking Dead", and a very welcomed reunion in "Graduation".

  • Featurettes (31 min.; HD): The rest of the set's extras are spread across disc four, chief among them a half hour of short featurettes. "Inking the Brotherhood: The Hunter's Mark" (7 min.) delves into Steven R. McQueen's transformation into a hunter in both the digital and gruelingly
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    physical domains. "Creating Silas' Island" (6 min.) aims the spotlight towards this season's shadowy, shapeshifting nemesis as well as how a park outside Atlanta was convincingly reshaped into a remote, Canadian island. Despite its eye-catching title, "Blood, Boys, and Bad Behavior" (5 min.) rarely shifts its focus away from the four-season-strong love triangle and who on the cast/crew is on Team Stefan or Team Damon. Producer Julie Plec is the dominant voice in "The Evolution of Elena Gilbert" (9 min.), peeling back Nina Dobrev's multilayered performance as Elena this season and showcasing some of her standout moments. Finally, "The Ultimate Prop Master" (5 min.) gives propmaster Joe Connolly a chance to show off some of his most memorable creations this year, among them the vial containing the cure, the sword that holds the key to unlocking Silas' crypt, and different versions of an important mystical headstone.

  • Fandom (4 min.): If you haven't seen the extremely charming The Impact of a Single Show on YouTube, it's a tribute to how The Vampire Diaries can bring people together in the most unexpected places, including one fan and a workaholic father. The "Fan Gallery" sounds like it's going to be much larger in scope, but it's a handful of high-res pieces of fan art, all apparently by the same artist.

  • Second Bite (3 min.; HD): A pretty solid gag reel rounds out the extras.

Again, this fourth season of The Vampire Diaries is a nine-disc set, featuring four Blu-ray discs and five DVDs. The enclosed episode guide breaks out the content by format, and an UltraViolet digital copy code is tucked in right alongside it. The collection comes packaged in a flat cardboard slipcase.

The Final Word
Throughout its first three seasons, The Vampire Diaries' grip on me hardly ever relented. This fourth season, meanwhile, maps out many potentially compelling milestones and colossal reveals but isn't entirely certain how to string them all together. I might've had a different reaction if the canvas were only twelve or thirteen episodes wide, but spread across twenty-three...? I found the end result to be bloated and uninvolving, two words I'd never have thought to direct towards The Vampire Diaries. I have high hopes for season five, especially in the wake of the tremendous season finale and so much of the cast being shipped off to The Originals, but slogging through almost everything else this year felt like I was being punished. Rent It.

Related Reviews
I've written much more enthusiastic reviews for the first three seasons of The Vampire Diaries, if you're interested.
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