The Secret Circle recap – 1×15: ‘Return’

Courtesy of The CW

A call to ‘Daddy’ two episodes ago pays off as John Blackwell (Joe Lando) arrives in Chance Harbour and his name is on everyone’s tongue. So why does this episode feel like so much of the same?

Let’s bitch it out…Beware: Rant ahead!

Going into this episode, I can unequivocally state that this was a make-or-break storyline for me. And while ‘Return’ didn’t end up being a huge success or a huge disaster, it’s complete “meh-ness” has reaffirmed my belief that this show is creatively stifled and that the writers have yet to determine how best to utilize the actors or the show’s central concept.

Initially I was just going to do a recap, but then I realized that ‘Return’ is a great chance to discuss my persistent issues with this show. Because let’s face it: this episode is what the series has been building to for the better part of six months (and fourteen episodes). The reveal that John Blackwell is alive and well, and back in Chance Harbour and meeting with his daughter for the first time in her life should have been epic. So why was it so bland?

This is a discussion that the A.V. Club and I have been having for weeks (without actually acknowledging each other’s existence). Each week -around 99% of the time – we’re on the same page, which is that this show is just not getting the job done. Somewhere between germination and implementation the show lost its way. Despite some solid episodes, and mostly good performances (watch those eyebrows Thomas Dekker!), The Secret Circle has struggled to excite in all the ways that its sister show, The Vampire Diaries, has.

Courtesy of The CW

Running down the list of offences:

  • Repetitive storylines (circles of flames in the woods at night, Britt Robertson’s Cassie has difficulty recognizing stranger-danger, characters practice magic that they don’t understand with unintended consequences)
  • Dull (Hi Melissa!) or stupid characters (Cassie refuses to learn from her mistakes and consistently puts everyone in trouble)
  • The generational divide between characters is mishandled (Adults are conveniently present one week when required to introduce a grandmother, but absent following near-death experiences)
  • The traditional CW love triangle reliably interferes rather than complicates the narrative

Let’s face it, this show is no Vampire Diaries. But you can tell that it wants to be. It’s a bit like a younger sibling that imitates the dress of the elder child but fails to understand how to put together a successful outfit. Or, to put it delicately, it’s a show built on the idea of being thrilling, sexy and dangerous that has no sense of dramatic conflict, character development and is more chaste than my two year niece (aside from the occasional Phoebe Tonkin striptease).

Take John Blakwell. Cassie’s father is connected to the boat fire and her dark magic history – two prevalent storylines that have been simmering and boiling in the background ever since Cassie first set foot in Chance Harbour in the pilot. The entire time we’ve been exploring demons, and ghosts, and voodoo, the show has been building up to the reveal of the boat fire and Blackwell. So when he appears, we’re ready and waiting for everything to come together.

So what do we get: revelations? Shocking twists? Amazing feats of magic? A huge blow-out? Besides the expected “Daddy, I hate you but I secretly want your affection”, we get none of that. Instead we get a lot of talking, and Cassie telling people she doesn’t need help, and witchhunters kidnapping someone. These are all things we have seen before. The man who we’ve been waiting for for the entire duration of the series shows up and the dramatic conflict is that the witchhunters use ink eyedrops to ‘spell’ Cassie to kill her powerless-father. Hit the snooze button because I am completely asleep.

Even if we assume that part of this is that the show is holding back awesome stuff for the finale (still six episodes away btdubs), couldn’t we at least have gotten some realistic questioning? Wouldn’t it have been natural to demand an explanation of where Blackwell’s been, why he doesn’t have powers (the whole “elders stripped them along with the other circle’s” was a complete cop-out considering how much this guy has been talked up). What about what he wanted the medallion for? And while we’re questioning the plotting: Why would Cassie refuse to allow Adam (Thomas Dekker) – or even Jake – to accompany her to meet with her father, or even better yet, why not involve the entire circle considering it affects them as much as her? Simply put, the characters in this show do not behave the way people actually would: they make stupid decisions, and then when they should have learned from them the first, second or even third time, they make them again (how many times have we seen Cassie trust someone she has only just met only to end up in a coffin, or have her power drained, or be kidnapped?Too many times for a show on its fifteenth episode).

Courtesy of The CW

Let’s dare to compare to another show based on a series of books by the same author, L.J. Smith, using the same character types, supernatural principles and narrative formulas (dances, and ball, oh my!). The Vampire Diaries frequently has Elena Gilbert – the protagonist played by Nina Dobrev – make rash, impulsive, stupid decisions. The difference is that her actions frequently have consequences: people die, people get turned into vampires, people hate her. On The Secret Circle, after Cassie (or Phoebe Tonkin’s Faye) put the entire group at risk, you half expect the others to give the offending girl an “aww shucks” and a gentle punch to the shoulder. For individuals frequently at risk of being hunted and killed, interacting with forces significantly greater than they can comprehend or control (a recent spell was – I kid you not – “Lock unlock”), you’d think that these people would be pissed at how frequently Cassie creates fatal situations. If your friend routinely almost got you and all of your friends killed, wouldn’t you put a muzzle and a little cat bell on her to keep her from getting into trouble?

What about plot construction? On The Vampire Diaries there are lots of vampire attacks, and balls, and spells. The difference is that all of this repetitive elements are in service of advancing the narrative. A recent ball on The Vampire Diaries was an opportunity to connect two characters (Joseph Morgan’s Klaus and Candice Accola’s Caroline) who had only vaguely interacted, as well as initiate a death pact between Elena and the matriarch of the most powerful vampire family in existence, which also served to further complicate the romantic triangle between Elena and the Salvatore brothers. Compare this to Adam’s recent birthday, wherein Adam and Diana’s (Shelley Hennig) feelings/issues about their break-up are readdressed and boring Melissa’s (Sarah Parker Kennedy) two episode addiction to Devil’s Spirit is introduced. But consider this: why was it necessary that these activities be at Adam’s (or anyone else’s) party? The rocky relationship between Adam and Diana could have been – AKA has been – explored (stagnantly) in a number of different situations, and while Hennig sold her lame-o speech about her past with Adam, there was no specific reason this needed to occur at his birthday. Same with Melissa and Callum (Michael Graziadei)  – the party was an opportunity to have him appear, but this interaction could have just as easily occurred elsewhere (and does – in fact – later in the episode). So why bother having a party at all? It wasn’t actually necessary.

Causality has become a huge issue on The Secret Circle. Why introduce a medallion, activate it, claim it’s a huge liability and then destroy it in the space of two episodes? I appreciate that it’s a MacGuffin: the medallion is there in order to bring the witchhunters and John Blackwell back, but why do we need an entire episode in which angry dead witches try to kill Cassie? The show needs to stop pretending that these one-off plot contrivances are going to have a lasting impact. You don’t need an excuse to reintroduce the witchhunters and Blackwell – they’re at your disposal to use, so stop initiating non-starter storylines. It’s frustrating and feels like an insult to fans who watch the show week in and week out.

Courtesy of The CW

Problematically, the show just as frequently goes the other way, too. Take the example of Lee’s (Damon Grey) girlfriend. First mention that he’s not over her, then show her in a coma the next episode and then have her awaken in the next. I’m not faulting the show for showing a bomb in the first act and then setting it off in the third, but somehow the plotting that works on other shows just feels lazy here.

One reason is that we do not care about these issues (or people). Had Melissa overdosed last week, I literally would have shrugged (well…cheered and then shrugged). So why does the show think it’s a huge reveal to wake up Lee’s girlfriend (which, P.S., was a storyline used at the start of the series with Heather)? We don’t know – it’s like we’re supposed to simply accept it. But I can’t just go with the flow every time when the show refuses to make me care about the main cast – never mind the supporting characters.

The problem is that by following familiar patterns, going for the obvious story beats and repeating the same conflicts, it doesn’t feel as though the show has progressed. In fifteen episodes it feels as though very little has happened: we know Cassie is a witch, that there were two previous generations, one had a terrible accident and the other stripped the survivors of their powers.

How about some outstanding questions:

  • What circumstances led to the boat fire? We know it was a disagreement between witches and witchhunters, but what caused this? How did the conflict even originate? What role did everyone play?
  • We don’t know anything about the relationships between the parents’ circle. Why do Adam Harrington’s Ethan and Gale Harold’s Charles hate each other so much? Because Ethan kinda sold them out to the witch hunters… or something?
  • We don’t know why Charles and Dawn (Natasha Henstridge) want their powers back (‘because they do’ doesn’t cut it as a motivation).
  • And, frustratingly, the circle still doesn’t know what they can do (One of last night’s biggest pleasures was when the kids acted collectively to nearly kill Eben and it was a success because we haven’t actually seen the circle work together or flex their witchy muscles on their own for almost the entire series).

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the circumstances weren’t so mundane: life and death has rarely felt so unexciting or lacking tension. And that’s because none of these characters will be killed off. The show played its hand when Nick was killed because unless there are other magical cousins to introduce, the circle will lose their powers if someone else dies (this is why there were 12 people in the books! And no binding spell come to think of it). There are no other characters to dispatch outside of the circle and the adults – and even though we’ve almost killed the parents a few times, it never sticks because the show just whips out a magical crystal (the narrative equivalent of building a show around a group of Supermen who cannot be injured or killed because they just heal). While The Vampire Diaries can conveniently use its magic rings to keep Matthew Davis’ Alaric alive whenever he dies a supernatural death, there is only one magical ring on that show so others are in constant danger.

Here no one is at risk when everyone has magic (or magical crystals). Dawn gets gutted? Heal her with a crystal! Need someone to forget something? Hit ’em with the crystal! And while you’re at it, why not introduce voodoo, too? This way we can have two different sets of powers (the rules of which are never explained) so that even more people can do…stuff…that doesn’t appear to have limits unless the story needs them to. Why can’t Cassie break the spell the witchhunters put on her? Ummm…Because. I mean, she can reverse engineer the medallion to fight back against Nana Kiri’s Lucy, who has no powers, in ‘Medallion’ but not against the witchhunters, who also have…no powers. Doesn’t that seem the slightest bit illogical? Just because we’re playing by supernatural rules doesn’t mean that there aren’t any governing rules that structure this world. Someone needs to have a rule book, otherwise there is no internal logic to anything that happens!

If it seems like I hate the show more than I hate Ringer (and readers know how much that show can vex me), it’s just because – like the SMG starrer – I can see a ton of potential in The Secret Circle. So every week when I sit down to recap it, and it takes my excitement and smacks me in the face, I feel betrayed. I want the writers to get their shit together and figure out what story they want to tell, and give me characters that I care about, and give the talented actors something to do (poor Joe Lando coming back for this).

Oh, and bring back Cassie’s grandmother, Jane (Ashley Crow). If there’s one person that made the series significantly better, it was her.

What do you think, readers? Am I off the mark, or are you, too, frustrated with the direction the show has taken? Did you expect more from John Blackwell?

About cinephilactic

cinephilactic is a university contract instructor in Film Studies. He is an avid TV watcher, particularly science-fiction, fantasy and drama series. His favourite shows currently airing on TV include The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, Justified, Hannibal, Game Of Thrones and a smattering of shows on The CW. He has a tendency to "hate-watch" particular shows and likes to think that his sarcastic voice comes through in his reviews, though sometimes he's just being bitchy