Review: ‘The Vampire Diaries’: Well, what is bad?
Author’s note: I apologize for the delay in posting this review. It’s longer than my normal reviews and discusses more than just the subject of the episode, hence the several days wait time. Enjoy!
With a title like ‘The Vampire Diaries’, no one would fault the show for being campy. Its sheer ridiculousness is right there in the title. But luckily the show has risen above its unfortunate name and continues to surpass viewers’ expectations by going balls to the wall nearly every week and by its handling of difficult topics.
Now in its fourth season, the show knows what it can get away with and what it can’t. And fortunately for viewers, there’s very little that the show can’t get away with (insert GIF of Jeremy ripping his shirt off like he’s the Hulk here). It has earned that right after three and a half stellar seasons of fast paced edge-of-your-seat action with the occasional love triangle on the side.
Now, to be fair, the love triangle is more than just B-roll. It factors heavily in to the overarching mythology of the show, as well as acts as the catalyst for several of the series’ best moments. But the show also works best when it lets the love triangle exist as a supplement to the main story, not as the main story. (That sound you just heard? The collective gasp of an entire fandom ready to light my hair on fire.) Not to rehash a debate I’ve already covered extensively elsewhere, but this isn’t a love story. This fandom is one of the worst at picking sides and throwing down gauntlets. But at the end of the day, I think a lot of viewers mistake not liking Elena with one of the brothers for not liking that brother. And they let that be a driving force in how they watch and interpret the show.
Instead of focusing so heavily on which brother is the better of the two, viewers should be asking themselves what makes either of them better than Klaus, or even Kol. When this show premiered there was a distinct line drawn in the sand. Elena and Stefan were on one side with Damon, the villain, clearly on the other. But over time it has become clear that Damon isn’t necessarily the bad guy. He’s a man who’s done a lot of bad things, but a lot of those bad things were – to steal from another show that often dances a fine line between right and wrong – justified. Damon does a lot of bad things, but he does them for good reasons – or reasons that viewers perceive as good because they benefit the show’s heroes.
The conversation Damon and Klaus have regarding Elena’s willingness to forgive Damon’s past indiscretions is about much more than Klaus looking for tips to get Caroline to forgive him for murdering Carol Lockwood. Of course, on the surface, that’s exactly what it is; Klaus wants to know what Damon says to Elena in order to make her forget the terrible and evil things he’s done – like murdering hundreds of people (including her own brother a couple of times). But underneath the surface, the conversation is a commentary on the eternal battle of good versus evil and if – or when – evil acts can be forgiven. And it’s arguable that if the evil act benefits the greater good, like killing one in order to save hundreds or millions, then it’s not entirely evil or unforgivable. And that’s been the underlying theme of Damon’s character, and the show itself, for several seasons now.
When Klaus was first introduced in season two, Damon told Stefan, “I don’t mind being a bad guy. I’ll make all the life and death decisions while you’re busy worrying about collateral damage. I’ll even let her hate me for it. But at the end of the day, I’ll be the one to keep her alive.” And that’s Damon’s justification for everything he does. If it means keeping Elena alive, he’ll do it. And that’s why Elena is able to forgive him of his past sins. He’s repented and he’s proven that he’s capable of redemption. But he’s also incredibly loyal to her, and to Jeremy by association. Does this make him a good guy in the vein, of say, Matt? No, at the end of the day he’s still the same person who will still act rashly without considering the consequences, but his actions, for the most part, are based in the realm of “for the greater good” and that’s why Elena and viewers have been able to forgive him.
In that same season two episode Damon tells Elena, “Let me be clear about something. If it comes down to you and the witch again, I will gladly let Bonnie die. I will always choose you.” Two seasons later and this still stands – Damon will always choose Elena – but he’s so in love with her that he will always attempt to save the people she cares about too. This means Jeremy, of course, but he’ll risk his life to save Matt, Caroline, Bonnie and even Tyler because he knows how much it means to Elena. And because he knows it’s the right thing to do. But he’s still not the picture of perfection.
And when he tells Klaus, “I don’t mind being the bad guy because somebody has to fill that role and get things done,” he admits that he knows he’s still not a good guy – he’s not Stefan, who no matter how hard he fights it, will always be the good to Damon’s bad – but he’s also no longer the guy who is bad just for the sake of being bad. “If you’re going to be bad,” he tells Klaus, “be bad with purpose. Otherwise, you’re just not worth forgiving.”
It’s clear that Damon thinks Klaus does bad things for no reason. He think he does them simply because he can, because he is a dick. But that’s not exactly true either. We’ve come to know Klaus’ character fairly well over the course of the last two seasons and it’s quite clear that Klaus’ anger and his actions stem from a deep and crushing loneliness. One could argue that his entire obsession with creating hybrids was so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
But then there’s the flip side to that argument. Klaus wasn’t alone; he had his siblings, but he chose to dagger them all, including Rebekah who’d stuck by his side nearly their entire lives, because he could, because they weren’t giving him what he needed. Klaus’ maniacal need for control and power pushed his siblings away.
This idea that there’s a fluid line between good and evil has been a theme throughout this season. It certainly can be argued that Stefan and Damon (and Elena, after this week’s episode) aren’t any better – or any different – than Klaus. “Loneliness,” Klaus tells Stefan in the Christmas episode, “that’s why you and I memorialize our dead. There’s the briefest of moments where we hold their life in our hands and then we rip it away and we’re left with nothing. So gathering other peoples letters or writing their names on a wall is a reminder that we are left infinitely and utterly alone.”
But the difference between Klaus and the Salvatores is this: they want to be better. And it’s their mutual love for Elena that drives them to be better. In this week’s episode, Stefan recounts the ’80s for Rebekah, and also mentions that he spent much of the decade with Lexi. “I was just a better person when I was with her. I didn’t think I’d ever feel that way again,” he says. “Until Elena,” Rebekah responds knowingly.
And it’s true. Stefan’s drive to be a good person, to not give in to the natural killer instincts that come with being a vampire, are what separates him from Klaus. And Rebekah’s own desire to experience that same kind of love, and everything that comes with it – including children – is the reason she isn’t lumped into the same category as her brother. “You’re right, I do care. I want stupid koala corsages and a prom, and I want to have kids with someone who loves me enough to stand outside my window with a stupid boombox. I want to be human,” she confesses.
The show almost acts as if loving someone is enough to change a person. And while I like the subtle commentary on the nature of good versus evil and justifying evil acts for the sake of saving innocents, this is something that I have a problem with. For Damon and Stefan, yes, loving Elena has made them better people. Damon’s no longer killing for the sake of killing, and Stefan has a reason to remain on the wagon. But what kind of a message does this send to the show’s viewers? The target demographic for ‘The Vampire Diaries’ is definitely young, impressionable females. And while we’d like to believe that they’d be smart enough to realize that love does not, in fact, always conquer all (evidenced at least a bit by Damon being unable to fight off Klaus’ compulsion despite Elena’s love and his love for her), the show does tend to give off that vibe at times.
And it’s not just Elena and the Salvatores. There have been glimpses for two seasons that Klaus’ obvious feelings for Caroline might be the thing that changes him, that could make him want to be a better person. But then he slaughters twelve hybrids and drowns Carol Lockwood, and his feelings for Caroline are not enough. This begs the question: is Klaus capable of changing for the good? Has he given any inclination that he wants to change? He assumes Damon’s compelled or manipulated Elena into forgiving him, not once considering that she might love him or that she might just recognize the good in him and has decided the good outweighs the bad. As Damon says, she knows impulse control isn’t really his thing. Elena knows Damon very well, and while it’s become clear that she might not know Stefan as well as she thinks she does (see last week’s episode), she is still someone that looks for the good in people. In fact, she looks for the good in everything.
For a teenager who has lost every single parental figure in her life and then some, Elena remains an overly optimistic character. She doesn’t look at a plan and say, “Uh, guys, this is batshit crazy and I think we’re all going to die trying to do it. So let’s not, you know, do it.” She’s the person who says, “Yeah, guys, we can do this! Let’s totally run into a fire covered in gasoline because we’ve got determination and Good on our side.” I might be paraphrasing a bit (a lot), but the point of the matter is this: Elena is a character who is A) forgiving and B) willing to take risks, both in terms of her heart and in terms of what is right and what is wrong.
This week, when Elena kills Kol, she justifies it to Klaus by saying that they had no choice, that he was going to hurt Jeremy. And that’s how she justifies her actions. It’s the same way Damon justifies his own. Elena is willing to do anything to keep her brother safe, even if it means killing Kol and his entire bloodline. So this opens up the debate again: is Elena a good person now? She and Jeremy are responsible for the deaths of God knows how many people. Sure, they were vampires, but who’s to say they weren’t like Damon and Stefan, championing innocents and fighting against assholes like Klaus? Elena didn’t stop to consider the lives that would be lost, just that it meant she and Jeremy were safe, and they were that much closer to that damned cure.
I don’t have the answers to this one. This isn’t the kind of thing I can make a Paint infographic for that shows on one side who is good and on the other who is evil (except Matty – he’s precious and perfect and I’ll fight anyone who dares claim otherwise). This show walks a fine line between the two and I think that’s the reason it’s viewed so highly. It’s not just a campy show about vampires. This isn’t ‘Twilight.’ It doesn’t come out and tell viewers “this is what is right, this is what is wrong.” This show challenges its viewers to think and to form opinions for themselves. The show might be frustrating in the way it specifically doesn’t label its characters as good and bad, but it definitely does open up a lot of good debates on the subject.
Note: Photo courtesy of The CW.