The Vampire Diaries’ Return To Its Thematic Roots

The Vampire Diaries' final season has been as surprising as it has been memorable for its fans. Here's why...

Since The Vampire Diaries premiered back in September 2009, a lot have things have changed. TV has become unrecognizable. The CW has evolved far past its identity as a haven for teen romance and guilty pleasure soap opera to a haven for superheroes and critically acclaimed soap opera, and the vampire craze faded out along with True Blood and The Twilight Saga.

So now it’s time for The Vampire Diaries, too, to bow out feeling somewhat dignified, the last of its kind, with a final season that’s been as surprising as it will be memorable for fans.

In it, the show has been doing what all should do as they draw to a close – take us full circle whilst saying something new. By bringing together its central themes and disparate stray threads, all of those plot holes and messy season arcs can be forgotten and its legacy more easily felt.

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And what a legacy it is. The shine may have worn off over the last few years and it’s long been out of the wider public’s consciousness, but there was a time when The Vampire Diaries was playing with television conventions in truly revolutionary ways. Without it, it may have taken much longer for the kind of fast-paced, anarchic storytelling that’s now commonplace to take hold, and it will go down as one of the more novel interpretations of modern vampire fiction.

The vampire as myth is a malleable thing. Historically, it’s been used to represent ‘the other’ in society, but it wasn’t until authors like Anne Rice that we began to see common tropes such as the undead romantic hero that’s now so ubiquitous. More recently on Buffy, vampires were used to represent the obstacles of adolescence, and both Angel and Being Human were explicit about it being a metaphor for alcoholism.

Over the years there’s been a tendency for The Vampire Diaries to throw everything at the wall in terms of the larger metaphorical meaning of its own vampires, werewolves and witches, but I’ve always been struck by the condition’s use as a stand-in for depression and grief, and it’s one of the things that’s been brought to the forefront in this final season.

We learn early on that everything’s heightened for vampires – love, lust and hunger but also pain, remorse and suffering. It is the overwhelming feeling of being truly alive as we grow into functioning adults, and all the good and bad that entails.

The show began as a story of a girl who’d lost her parents in a tragic accident. While Elena’s younger brother slipped further and further into depression – even attempting suicide in the first season finale – she herself met Stefan, fell in love and found herself engulfed in the supernatural world. After her brush with tragedy, the only way to dig herself out of her grief was to open herself up to a world that quite literally straddled the line between life and death.

As the show progressed we learned of a vampire’s ability to switch off their emotions at will, making the whole practice of killing and feeding on humans a lot less bothersome. This has happened to the majority of main characters at one point or another over the years – when we meet Damon in season one, when Elena can’t stand the grief of losing her brother, after the death of Caroline’s mother – and each time it has a slightly different storytelling intention.

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But it’s always a big deal when it happens. As fast-paced, melodramatic and generally crazy as The Vampire Diaries can get, it’s first and foremost in love with its characters. These story arcs, when they do come, are intensely character focused, with those involved coming out of the other end fundamentally changed. The show started as a look at a young girl’s grief and loss of childish innocence, and became one about much bigger and more complex ideas.

Season eight has brought all of those things home. By making the show’s final big bad the devil and hell itself, it has been able to explore topics such as morality, redemption and accountability with an urgency that’s almost impossible to come by for a series in its eighth year. Having dealt with doppelgangers, hybrids and ‘the other side’, there weren’t a lot of ways for The Vampire Diaries to up its game, but the latter half of this season has seen the show back at its best.

We began with Damon under the control of a siren who, in turn, was under the control of the devil. In order to carry out his orders – killing humanity’s worst members – he was forced to turn his humanity switch off. The show has played with Damon’s emotions more than any other character, with even his season one arc essentially consisting of him going from completely narcissistic and hopeless to realising that there are things – and people – worth really living for.

That struggle has run through the entire show and, at the start of this final season, Damon has lost hope that he can wait for Elena – his motivation to do the right thing over the wrong – to return. His support system, Bonnie, Stefan and Alaric, aren’t his biggest fans for one reason or another. As the season has progressed we’ve seen his journey to the realisation that atonement and redemption aren’t steps taken to an ultimate goal, but worth doing because they’re the right thing to do.

He’s basically come to the same realisation that Angel did back in 2001, with his ‘if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do’ epiphany speech.

Meanwhile, the show had an ace up its sleeve with the vampire cure. Stefan, a character that began the show as its most stereotypical figure (comparisons to Edward Cullen weren’t unfair in those early days) is now human. Even more surprisingly, it hasn’t solved all of his problems.

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What happens when a vampire-as-recovering-alcoholic character no longer has the option of turning to the bottle? When he’s forced to feel the guilt of the thousands of murders at his hand, and nothing to do but atone? It’s a fascinating subversion of such a familiar trope whilst also contributing to the season’s ongoing exploration of the achievability of redemption.

For a series with an extraordinarily high body count, acknowledging the ‘collateral damage’ of your undead protagonists is a hell of a way to make the audience question what show we’ve been watching all along.

As for the others, as cliched as it sounds the town of Mystic Falls has always been a character in and of itself, and has guided the characters from clueless teenagers ‘protected’ from the truth by their parents – the Founders’ Council – to the gatekeepers of that truth themselves. The world hasn’t changed, as Caroline says in You Made A Choice To Be Good, they just didn’t know any better before.

Now, the internet news beast has ensured that we all know Nina Dobrev (along with her characters, Elena and Katherine) will be returning for the series finale, and it feels like the perfect way to see the show off.

The romance and the love triangles have been a delightful side dish to the people involved, which is one of the reasons the show didn’t completely cave in on itself when its star departed at the end of season six (though season seven was rough). Don’t get me wrong, we’re still rooting for our favourite pairings to get together, but the writers have been smart in not misunderstanding the show’s main draw. We care about these characters and would have been dissatisfied with one long romantic reconciliation.

The Vampire Diaries, for all its fumbles and faults, has always been an ambitious show. Its commitment to always going to those deeper places about the compromise and greyness of adulthood, whilst also juggling a bunch of ever-evolving love stories and a storytelling pace that’s still unusual, ensured it was always worth checking out even as television trends left it behind.

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It consistently rose to the top of its genre and, while its ideal sell-by date passed a couple of seasons ago, should be applauded for all it did and tried to do over the course of its run. To quote the show itself, it’s been a hell of a ride.