There were lots of things to quibble with in Monday's episode of Teen Wolf: the five minutes of expositional dialogue at the beginning (seriously, there are too! many! characters! on this show) and some particularly cringe-y line readings and my god, did I find Sheriff Stilinski's monologue about how he couldn't be with his wife when she died because he didn't believe hard enough manipulative, but-- but! It was so much better than anything the show's put up in the last few weeks that it's honestly almost not worth mentioning the parts I didn't love. This, at last, was the kind of stuff I'd been hoping to see when MTV announced a smarter, darker direction for the show, something still a little bit rooted in camp but also capable of mining the dark hysteria that is the flipside to surrealism and absurdity.
Plot-wise not all that much happened: once again characters ran around trying to figure out what the audience already knows, which is that Jennifer the Darach has Scott's mom, Melissa and Stiles and Allison's dads, the first-nameless Sheriff and Chris, stashed in the root cellar of the house with the Nematon, which is mysteriously located in some sand dunes near woodsy Beacon Hills. Chris has gotten himself captured on purpose, thinking he'll be able to use his training as a hunter to fight Jennifer. She mostly dashes these plans, stripping him of every hidden knife he's got, but he manages to hang onto some kind of low-frequency radio that will call the wolves to him. This is crucial, since Derek and Peter have been to the Nematon before but the memory of where it is has been removed from them by their old Alpha, Derek's mother, the now-late Talia Hale.
Derek spends the episode trying to decide whether he's going to heal his sister, Cora, who's dying of mistletoe poisoning, at the expense of his status as an alpha and possibly his own life. Of course he does it, his eyes turning back to beta blue in the episode's final minutes; it remains to be seen whether it worked for her, and what kind of weird evil plans his awful uncle Peter had in store when he suggested this strategy in the first place. Peter's been manipulating Derek since he was sixteen, apparently. Maybe next week if we're lucky we'll find out why.
In the mean time, Scott leaves Deucalion's pack (well, that was short) and Lydia kisses Stiles out of a panic attack, which... might work, sometimes, for some people, but is definitely not adviseable as a general strategy. The episode's real emotional whallop comes in the final third, when Deaton announces that in order to protect their parents, Scott, Allison and Stiles have to repeat Isaac's ice bath trick from earlier this season. They have to die, just briefly, in order that their parents might live.
It's a really gorgeous sequence, one of the very few instances in which the show's love affair with slow motion is justified. There's something heart-rending about Allison's perfectly pedicured toe testing the icy surface of the water: it's exactly why I love Allison, because she dresses up like a girl every day and never bothers to act like one. Each of the kids compelled to make this sacrifice is the child of a sinlge-parents household: Allison's mother and Stiles' both died tragically, and Scott's father left him years ago. (He's back in town now, though, as an FBI agent investigating the various disappearances.) They're scared, of course, but not nervous. They have always known they would do this for their parents, that for them family and love are quite literally as necessary as breathing. There's been lots of talk this season about sacrifice, what it means and what it is. There's no joy in this moment, in the faces of the anchors who will hold Allison, Scott and Stiles down, who will also tether them to their bodies as they die. There is, however, a certain kind of graceful surrender, a sense of the characters finally finding their place and their plot, slipping into it gratefully. At last, at last there's something they can do. It's the same relief that washes over Lydia when her kissing trick works, which is beautifully clear on Holland Roden's face in the scene, and it's the light part of the agony on Derek's face when he heals Cora. The power of sacrifice comes in surrender gracefully given: you wouldn't think Teen Wolf would be capable of getting us there but this episode does, almost wordlessly highlighting the quiet power of knowing exactly how and when to give up, to give in.