The Real Modern Family: Breaking down the familial relationships of ‘The Vampire Diaries’
Note: This post, originally published on my Tumblr, was mentioned in a tweet by Julie Plec, executive producer of ‘The Vampire Diaries’
For all its talk of hybrids, vampires, doppelgangers and witchcraft, the ‘Vampire Diaries’ is not actually about the supernatural beings who inhabit the terribly unlucky town of Mystic Falls, VA. Instead, it is a well written allegorical narrative about the influence and importance of family, and how it is not our past mistakes, but the choices and actions of the present, that define us and make us who we are. This show is as much about the supernatural as ‘Battlestar Galactica’ was about science fiction.
Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec have created a world so intriguing and a story so complex that I sometimes forget this show is on the CW. Because although it’s the child of The WB, the network that brought us Williamson’s own ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and the pop culture loving ‘Gilmore Girls’, the CW has never really achieved credibility as a network. This is, after all, the network that imposed major structural changes upon, and then canceled without a proper series finale, the original and smart ‘Veronica Mars’, but still allowed the overindulgent piece of garbage that is ‘Gossip Girl’ to reach 100 episodes.
So when the CW announced in 2009 that it had picked up Williamson’s ‘Vampire Diaries’, my first instinct was, “Wow, what a stupid name for a TV show; not gonna watch it. It’s probably going to be terrible just like all that ‘Twilight’ garbage.” And as a woman currently in her mid-twenties, I was raised on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’; I’d already sworn a blood oath to the one and only God and Master, Joss Whedon. And I’d already cheated on the Joss-man the summer before when ‘True Blood’ premiered on HBO; I couldn’t really afford any more bad karma. (Being a fan of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, I was hesitant about Alan Ball’s show, but eventually found it to my liking. Though, I think Alexander Skarsgard might have had a hand in that.)
But, as it usually does, my love for all things supernatural/fantasy got to me. I was curious about the show and purchased the first book in the LJ Smith series on which the TV show is based. Turns out, I hated it. I didn’t like the Elena in the book (for some reason I could not get past the fact that Book Elena was a blond when I already knew Nina Dobrev from ‘Degrassi: TNG’ and knew she was a brunette), the story was lackluster, the characters were boring, and I wasn’t really a fan of the diary format. Once again, I was ready to write the show off before it even premiered. But for some Pacey-shaped reason, I found myself feeling guilty for not giving my dear old friend Kevin a chance. So I decided I’d at least give it a try. But. I. Was. Not. Going. To. Like. It.
Fast-forward three years and here I am writing post after post about how amazing this show is, how wonderful the story is, and how it keeps me on the edge of my seat week after week. I’ve never been more happy to be wrong about a TV show in my life. And I have Kevin, Julie and the incredibly talented writing staff at TVD to thank for that. They’ve created compelling drama out of less than appealing source material. They’ve taken all of these characters, who felt stiff on the page, and turned them into complex men and women with rich back stories, and who continue to evolve and develop as the seasons progress. But more importantly, they’ve created relationships and situations that seem genuine, ones their viewing audience can relate to.
Now, I know most people watch the show because of the love triangle between Stefan, Elena and Damon (Team Delena!), or because they have a thing for shirtless, attractive males. I myself am guilty on both accounts, but as I said before, that’s not what this show is about when you strip away all the sexy half-naked men and get to the bare bones of the matter. It’s not about which archetype can most easily get into Elena Gilbert’s pants, and it sure as hell isn’t actually about vampirism or lycanthopy, both of which are actually metaphors for our most basic and primal instincts. It’s about family, it’s about human nature, and it’s about having a choice and a chance to change who you are for the better.
Exhibit A: The Brothers Salvatore
The most obvious example of this is the brotherhood of Damon and Stefan Salvatore. Countless acts of bravery – or stupidity, based on how you look at it – have been committed by the Salvatore brothers over the course of two and a half seasons. They’ve risked their own undead lives time and time again for each other, for Elena, and for the oblivious men and women of Mystic Falls. And when you consider the fact that Damon and Stefan were not even on speaking terms at the start of the show, I would say that’s pretty significant. (Hey, no one has ever accused this show of moving too slow.)
It could be argued (and has been, by yours truly) that at the start of the series, Elena Gilbert was nothing more than a plot device used to bring the Salvatore brothers back together and to change them for the better. I know that sounds ridiculous. I can hear you all yelling, “She’s the main protagonist of the series, Kaitlin!” Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s no fun looking at it this way, but bear with me for a second, guys. I swear, I have a point.
Prior to the beginning of the show, the brothers Salvatore are not speaking to each other. In fact, they haven’t seen each other in quite some time. Neither of them is aware of what the other is doing; they’ve long since parted ways on unfriendly terms (it should be noted that Damon promised his brother a lifetime of misery after Stefan forced him to drink blood and complete the vampire transformation in 1864, and he’s felt bitter and angry since then). This is because they differ on a few simple matters, mainly, their views on what is moral and ethical. Stefan feels remorse for the evil acts he’s committed as a vampire, while Damon declares he has no humanity left within him, that he has flipped the switches of his emotions to ‘off’.
So Damon does not care for Stefan’s goody-two-shoes, brooding heroic bit, and Stefan does not approve of Damon’s complete disregard for human life. While Stefan bides his time saving people from car crashes, satiating his thirst for blood on poor innocent bunnies, and trying to add some serious wrinkles to his perfect face, Damon traipses across the globe leaving a trail of blood and destruction and feels no remorse for his actions (but he looks really good while doing it; that man has never met a piece of leather he didn’t like).
When the show premieres, Stefan is masquerading as a high school student who falls for the beautiful, sweet, damaged teenager Elena Gilbert – who looks exactly like his one-time vampire love, Katherine Pierce (this knowledge, of course, isn’t revealed until midway through the first season). Damon, who turns up with a smirk and a “Hello, brother,” at the end of the series premiere, turns Vicki Donovan into a vampire, compels Caroline, violating her mind and her free will, and does just about everything he can to prove to his brother that he has no humanity left in him. He spends most of the first season trying to find a way to open the tomb, believing Katherine (yep, she was his one-time love as well), to be trapped inside. But over the course of the first season we see Damon start to evolve as a character and as a person. He stops compelling Caroline, stops actively trying to thwart his brother’s plans – and even saves his life a couple of times – and slowly but surely, he starts falling for Elena, in a real, honest way (this, of course, is the beginning of The Love Triangle, whose presence is necessitated by The Pacey Witter Theorem). He risks his life time and time again for her, something old Damon would never have done. During the first season finale, Damon believes he is sharing a passionate kiss with Elena on the Gilbert porch, but it is eventually revealed to be Katherine.
At the start of the second season, Damon, still thinking he kissed Elena, confronts her about the kiss, and it’s obvious that he has definitely fallen in love with our heroine/plot device (and not because she looks like Katherine – who, Damon finally realized never loved him and was actually a horrible, manipulative troll). Elena makes him want to be a better man, something he cannot stand about himself. He confesses his love to her in ‘Rose’ only to wipe away her memory of the moment, which many Stefan/Elena fans found to be completely intolerable. They took to the Internet to decry that Damon’s action was a violation of Elena’s mind. But that was not really the point of that scene. That scene was written to show us that Damon’s love for Elena has changed him, that he truly cares about his brother and his brother’s happiness. When he says, “I don’t deserve you, but my brother does,” he made women everywhere swoon, but what he’s really saying is that his brother has been a much better man over the last century and a half, and that he deserves the goodness that is Elena’s love more than himself.
Still not buying Elena’s presence as merely a plot device? Well, OK, I’ll give you that she’s not just a plot device, but she’s definitely the catalyst for change when it comes to the Salvatore brothers and their relationship. Without Elena, these two brothers might never have reunited. Without her presence in their lives, Damon would probably still be compelling sorority girls for blood and sex and killing anyone who looked at him wrong. And Stefan would still be brooding in his room, writing in his diary and complaining about how irresponsible his big brother is.
Most people tend to focus more on how Damon has evolved over the course of the show, because he’s the character most noticeably changed from his early series persona (he’s not killing everyone just for the sake of killing people, for starters), but it would be amiss to ignore all of the ways Stefan has evolved and been influenced by Elena’s presence in his life, too. I sincerely doubt that pre-series Stefan would have ever given up his life to Klaus or given up his decades long abstention from drinking human blood, in order to secure the cure to Damon’s werewolf bite; that’s some serious relationship development, folks. And I don’t think we can count out Stefan’s apology to Damon for turning him. It was a very big step in repairing their relationship when he admitted to Damon that he turned him because he needed his brother with him. And let’s not forget Stefan’s habit of saving Damon’s life, something he’s done countless times since the start of the series, most recently, when he stopped Damon from killing Klaus, an act that would have unleashed a pack of hybrids on the older Salvatore.
When examined this way, it’s easy to see Elena as a plot device or catalyst for change. She’s the person who brought the Salvatore brothers back together and taught them that family is important, even if they are constantly doing reckless things to piss you off – or in their case, put you and your friends in danger. Elena is the reason Damon wants to be human again, she makes him wants to be a better man worthy of her love, and she makes Stefan see that he’s responsible for Damon’s actions as he forced him to turn in 1864. Both Stefan and Damon love Elena (and she them), but at the end of the day, their bond of brotherhood, their love for each other, is what makes them who they are. It’s what saves their lives time and again, as they’ve both come to each others rescue several times over the course of the show.
Exhibit B: The Buffy Phenomenon
It’s easy to see why the Salvatore brothers’ relationship is the one most consistently addressed by the writers (they’re two of the three leads, and they’re actually biological brothers), but the truth is, the importance of family doesn’t just begin and end with them, it doesn’t just stop with blood bonds on this show (poor choice of words, but I’m going to stick with it). Just like it’s mommy ‘Buffy’ before it, this show has a deeper message: family, both conventional and unconventional, is all we have.
‘Buffy’ taught us that family is made up of two distinct groups: those whom you’re predestined to be tethered to, like your biological family, and those whom you choose to be tethered to, like your friends, lovers, and annoying little sisters who are actually balls of energy and the key to opening up a portal to a hell dimension.
Much like Buffy, Elena Gilbert’s life is lacking in the predestined, biological family area. Her adoptive parents (who she thought, up to and even after their deaths, were her biological parents) died in a car crash before the series premiere. Her birth mother, Isobel, who turned out to be Alaric’s missing wife, was turned into a vampire by Damon Salvatore at her request and eventually met the sun. Her birth father, whom she’d known for most of her life to be her uncle (and who was actually the brother of her adoptive father), sacrificed himself so she could live at the end of season two. And then her last familial connection, legal guardian Aunt Jenna, was turned into a vampire and subsequently killed by Klaus. (Whew. It’s like a freaking soap opera over in Mystic Falls. You need an organizational chart just to keep it all straight.)
Again like Buffy, the only people in Elena’s life whom she can count on are all of no blood relation. Elena’s brother, Jeremy, is actually her biological cousin, and thus share a blood line, but he is not really a member of her biological immediate family. (Thank you to the anonymous message for reminding me of this.) He is, however, human and was never a mystical key to unlocking dimensions (though he did have that whole “I see ghosts” thing going on for awhile – that was fun). It appears that prior to their parents’ deaths, Elena and Jeremy shared a strong bond. After the car accident that killed their parents, that bond was weakened by Jeremy’s downward spiral into drugs and Really Other Bad Decisions (the hair, the clothes, the music), but has since grown to be even stronger, as Elena sees Jeremy as the last remaining evidence of her old life. Elena feels the great need to protect Jeremy, despite his protestations, and asked Damon to compel him into leaving Mystic Falls so he has a chance to live a normal, vampire-free life.
Because of Elena’s lack of biological or adoptive family, she finds herself relying on friends, lovers, and a surrogate father figure (Alaric Saltzman – the equivalent of Buffy’s Rupert Giles, albeit significantly younger and less British), in times of need. She owes her life to both Damon and Stefan Salvatore, the show’s versions of Spike and Angel respectively (the similarities are actually so similar that I’m kind of surprised Warner Bros. isn’t suing for copyright infringement), but also to best friends Bonnie Bennett and Caroline Forbes. Bonnie, a witch, and Caroline, a newly turned vampire (truthfully, the best thing that has ever happened to this show), are Elena’s versions of Willow Rosenberg and Cordelia Chase, they’re her two best friends and she constantly relies on them for their support.
Now, I know most of you are thinking, “Cordelia, huh?” I know. Truthfully, if you look at it strictly in terms of the level of Buffy and Cordelia’s friendship, Cordelia is not the right choice, Xander is. But Caroline is not this show’s Xander, that spot is reserved for someone else (see below). Think about in these terms, instead: When the show premiered, Caroline played the role of the shallow Resident Popular Bitch, who harbored a secret jealousy of our heroine, the same role of Cordelia during her time on ‘Buffy’. Over time, Cordelia evolved into a stronger version of herself (I’m talking about the Cordy of ‘Angel’ now, folks), and became someone to rely on, someone whose strength grew out of determination and a will to live and protect herself from a world inhabited by evil. It is hard to deny Caroline’s similar path of character development. (She’s also the show’s Anya, only in reverse – Anya started out strong as a vengeance demon and was weakened by becoming human; Caroline started out weak, but has become strong after being turned into a vampire. Both are still very neurotic and talk entirely too much, but I wouldn’t change that one bit).
‘The Vampire Diaries’ is rounded out by a handful of other characters, like Tyler Lockwood, a werewolf-turned-hybrid, the show’s answer to Daniel ‘Oz’ Osbourne, and Matt Donovan, Elena’s ex-boyfriend, and currently most reliable, and only human friend, in Mystic Falls. Matt fills the shoes of the one and only Xander Harris, only with a lot less screen time and sadly without the quips. He’s often on the fringes of the action because he has no supernatural abilities, but what he lacks in supernatural, he more than makes up for in loyalty. He’s also stronger than he appears at first sight, proving this when he drowned himself in order to be able to see Vicki and to get answers.
And last, but certainly nowhere near least, Katherine is the show’s equivalent of Faith. She’s a mirror of our heroine, someone who also has power, but uses it not for heroics, but for greed and and self-preservation. She’s very independent, strong physically and mentally (Faith was always a little fragile emotionally and mentally, attaching herself to stronger characters like the Mayor, for the promise that he’d take care of her and provide for her – this is where the two characters differ and the comparison becomes a little weak), and her alliances often change depending on her own agenda and the likelihood of winning the battle (kind of like Italy, that way), but still she shows up to the fight with her fangs out.
As one can see, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ share a lot of similarities, both in their characters and the roles they play in our heroines’ lives. But how could they not? Every vampire story post-‘Buffy’ is bound to run into these comparisons, it’s just not possible to ignore the show that spawned the recent popularity of the vampire, the witch and the werewolf. The show, and its characters, are pop culture legends; Elena and Co. owe their very existence to Joss Whedon and the Scooby Gang.
So just like Buffy, we see that Elena would probably have died a long time ago if not for the help of her own surrogate family (who sadly do not have a cool name like Buffy and Company- rectify this immediately, writers). Every single one of them have come to her aid or rescue at some point over the course of the show. Whether it’s to save her from the grips of the villainous Klaus, or as a shoulder to cry on, they’ve all been there for her, and she, in turn, has been there for them.
Elena has come to realize over the course of two and a half seasons that family is not always determined by blood; family is determined by choice and by love. Your family are the people who love you and who stand by you, no matter the cost. Your family is made up of the men and women who will risk their lives to save yours, even if you don’t always deserve it, and that’s truly the essence of this show’s narrative. We cannot help the lot we are dealt in life, but we can choose how we go about dealing with it. We choose the people we want to help us along the way, and we learn from our mistakes. We must accept that we’re not always right, and that we all sometimes need guidance and advice. We’re constantly evolving and changing as we grow older and experience new things. But if this show has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot look backwards with regret, we cannot judge ourselves or anyone else by past transgressions. Because we are all capable of change and we are all capable of love, and as long as we have our family, we can learn to make the right choices here and now.
Author’s Note: It’s not that I forgot about our newest familial addition. It’s just that there really isn’t much to say about the Originals yet because we’re only just now beginning to understand them. But I can say this even the evil Klaus, whose sole existence seems to be to cause pain and bring harm to anyone who might get in his way, including his brother Elijah, could not bear the thought of being without his family. He daggered them all and laid them to rest in coffins, which he then loaded into a U-Haul or something and transported them around the world with him wherever he went. Klaus is a lonely man who has thoroughly angered his own family, so it will be interesting to see how their familial bond is tested over the course of the rest of the season – but I do think it’s important to mention that his mother, whom he supposedly killed (God, I have no idea how their going to explain this), is willing to forgive Klaus his sins because he is her son. I imagine that over time, we’ll come to better understand Klaus and the Original family. For now, all I can say is that I look forward to the adventures of the Originals, and hope the CW orders a spin-off. Because I’d watch the hell out of that.