Review: ‘The Vampire Diaries’: Evolution and revolution
When Elena died at the end of the third season of ‘The Vampire Diaries’, that event was, for lack of a better term, a game-changer. Her death was the end of Book 1: The Human Years and the beginning of Book 2: (Probably) Immortal And Other Stuff.
I’ve seen a lot of comments around the Internet in the last few weeks that ‘The Vampire Diaries’ has “gone down hill” or that it “isn’t the same as it used to be” and while I agree (with an asterisk) with the latter, I don’t agree one bit with the former. The show has not gone down hill, it has simply changed and evolved over time, just as its characters do. But that doesn’t mean the show is somehow less than it was during the first three seasons.
If you’re looking for a show that refuses to change and evolve over time, you’re probably not looking for a serialized drama, but a procedural, a show that follows the same formula every week and that doesn’t always lend itself to character development the way serialized dramas do. Now, it’s not to say that over the years we haven’t had our fair share of great character development inside the procedural formula, but if you’re looking for a show that isn’t likely to undergo a transformation the way this show has, it might be your best bet.
For three seasons, ‘The Vampire Diaries’ was the story of Human Elena and her place in the world of the supernatural. It was about her legacy as a doppelganger and her relationships with the various supernatural creatures whom she has chosen as her surrogate family after nearly her entire biological family was taken away from her. While Elena wasn’t necessarily a weak character during these seasons, she was definitely breakable in the sense that everyone seemed to be on Elena Watch, worrying about what danger would befall them next.
Everything that happened on the show in the first three years was very Elena-centric. There was never really a global sense to the danger that the show dealt with. There were of course, those months where Ripper Stefan and Klaus were munching their way across the continental United States, but for all intents and purposes, the threats that Elena and Gang encountered were centered around Mystic Falls directly. And that much is obvious when Elena and Damon don’t immediately go chasing after Stefan and Klaus in an attempt to stop their trail of blood.
At first this doesn’t really seem all that weird, until you consider other genre shows like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, which paved the way for shows like ‘The Vampire Diaries’ to exist, and ‘Supernatural,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and even ‘Doctor Who’ took on events that meant to bring about the end of the world, not just the end of the main character. These shows often deal(t) with the threat of danger on a grand humanity-wide scale. Buffy thwarted apocalypse after apocalypse, and yet, this Silas storyline is the first real global threat that ‘The Vampire Diaries’ has faced. And while the cure storyline seems to have bogged down a show that is more accustomed to break-neck pacing, it doesn’t mean that the show has become weak or has lost its way. It just means the show has evolved. It has outgrown the world of Mystic Falls, and part of that is due to the fact that Elena Gilbert is no longer human.
Another product of Elena no longer being human is the role that both Salvatore brothers play in her life. Stefan is intent on fixing Elena, but he does still love her. That’s why he wanted the cure for her. Damon also wants the cure for Elena, but for entirely different reasons – he wanted to break the sire bond – but he loves her whether or not she’s a vampire. But when Jeremy died and Elena turned off her emotions, that brought about a third version of Elena, one without emotion and thus, humanity. This Elena doesn’t care about who she hurts or what other people may want or feel, she wants what she wants and she’ll do what she wants. And while it’s refreshing to see an Elena who is isn’t burdened with too much compassion, it’s also terrifying to see the other side of the spectrum – of what she’s capable of when she has no compassion at all. And we’re scared of this new Elena because of what we know about who she is when she allows herself to feel. It’s not that this Elena is wrong, per se, it’s just that she’s different and we don’t know what she’s capable of just yet.
While Elena was downright bitchy last week, this week humanity-free Elena seemed toned down just a bit. She became new and exciting as opposed to annoying and mean. And her reluctant team up with Rebekah in this week’s episode is laced with the right amount of danger and devil may care attitude that it’s a welcome change. Rebekah’s animosity toward Elena post-daggering seems to mostly have evaporated, but she wants to find the cure for herself and Elena’s along for the ride. This new Elena and the way she interacts with the brothers doesn’t mean the show has lost its way or that the love triangle is dead, it just means it’s paving a new path, because the old paths were worn and boring.
Listen, I enjoyed the hell out of the first three seasons of ‘The Vampire Diaries’. I loved watching the Brothers Salvatore come to both Elena’s rescue and each other’s time and again. Hell, Alaric was my favorite character so it’s a struggle to watch this show every week with his absence. But in order to stay relevant in the current television landscape – a landscape littered with more shows than any one person could ever watch in a lifetime – the show has to change and evolve. If it stays the same and keeps telling the same sorts of stories, it’ll die. And it won’t be a pretty underwater death scene scored to Sigur Rós. It will be a ‘Gilmore Girls’ slowly dying an agonizing horrible death for an entire season kind of death. And as a genuine fan of the show and the characters, I don’t want to see that happen to this show.
Yes, Elena has morphed and changed. Yes, Stefan has become a different character. Yes, Damon’s ’77 hair is the best hair. Oh sorry, that came out of nowhere. The point is – nothing in life stays the same, and we shouldn’t expect ‘The Vampire Diaries’ to continue along the same well known paths. The show continues to be bold in its choices – killing off Jeremy was outrageous and it cut deep to the bone, but it keeps the threat of danger real. As happy as I was when Buffy and the Scooby Gang managed to constantly thwart the bad guys (Tara and Anya aside), it just wasn’t realistic. The stakes in ‘The Vampire Diaries’ are very real and I like that. But it also means that we’re going to have to accept that our favorite characters will change along with the show and vice versa.
I don’t know if there’s a way for me to convince you to stick with the show, or to make you look at it from a different perspective – and if you don’t like the Silas/cure storyline at all, I’m probably just talking to the wall here – but I’d like to try. The fourth season is definitely different – this isn’t the same show, but with the death of so many characters and with Elena’s subsequent transition into a vampire, there’s really no way the show could have remained the same. The truth is Elena isn’t the same person and because of this, the show and the characters around her must shift and change with her.
But for all of that, there’s one character who refuses to change and that’s Bonnie. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile or if you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I really, really dislike Bonnie. And while it’s mostly because I feel she doesn’t add anything to the show, it’s really because she’s the character who’s changed the least over the course of four seasons.
Bonnie is one of the few characters on this show who wasn’t thrust into the world of the supernatural. Her place in this world was with her from birth. She might not have known she was a witch until the beginning of the show, but her abilities are natural and she comes from a very long line of witches. She wasn’t forced to change into a vampire, she didn’t have to kill anyone to activate a werewolf curse (Tyler’s the other character who in a way was destined to a life of supernatural the way Bonnie is), she was just born a Bennett. And I think that something to do with the stasis her character seems to be in.
I can’t explain it exactly, but it seems that more often than not, while Bonnie’s skills as a witch seem to factor in to most everything, her existence seems to be almost forced in. The existence of magic and witches and the Other Side used to be a natural fit for the show, but as time has progressed, I can’t help but feel as if the writers just use magic whenever they can’t figure a way out off something or when they need to write a scene for Bonnie because she hasn’t been around for awhile. She’s had some emotional arcs on the show – her mom and her relationship with Jeremy are two examples – but she’s not as well drawn as Caroline and she’s not as deep as Damon. She’s just kind of around to fill the witch role. And I take issue with that and with the fact that she’s conveniently unable to remember anything that has happened to her since the island.
As a fan of ‘Smallville’ for many years, I’ve used up my tolerance for amnesia. Every week Lana Lang would find out Clark Kent’s secret or witness something she couldn’t explain and then she’d get a bump on the head and she’d wake up unable to remember anything. Brain damage concerns aside, it was just lazy storytelling. And that’s how I feel about Bonnie being unable to remember Silas controlling (?) her since she woke up in the cave on that Canadian island. And for a storyline that includes the final sacrifice, I think this is ridiculous.
The only part of the witches storyline that I’ve liked is the part that involved Caroline choosing to save her one friend, and thereby inadvertently completing the expression sacrifice triangle. Because of this she seems to be questioning her own morality, which seems to be one of the central themes of the season. There’s been a fluid line through all of the episodes in which our characters are forced to examine themselves and whether or not they are good people or bad people. And now this thread has reached Caroline, one of the more emotional and well-rounded characters on the show, and it’ll be interesting to watch the fall out of her actions and to see how she will deal with the ramifications of killing 12 witches (one witch bound with the essence and power of 11 others) and possibly bringing about large-scale danger.
Whether or not you’ve liked this season, I do think that you should be able to appreciate what the show and the writers have been trying to do. It can’t be easy to write stories that consistently keep viewers on the edge of their seat. It can’t be easy for them to service both sides of a love triangle while trying to reinvent a character who was defined by her humanity and now has none. The show is different and the characters are constantly reinventing themselves, but the quality of the show and of the performances and of the writing hasn’t changed. It’s still the same show we love, it’s just maturing along with its viewers.
No stray observations this week, as this post is already longer than I’d anticipated it being.
Note: Photo courtesy of The CW.