Back in the olden days, when The CW was fresh from its origins as super-channel of the WB and UPN merged together, back when the best it had to offer post-Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls were a handful of cheesy teen dramas and the last gasp of Smallville‘s decade-long run, and back when Twilight was still a thing people talked about, The Vampire Diaries premiered.
It was a little bit silly, camp and stilted when it began, but fans of the books and the genre took a chance on it, and a solid fanbase was pretty much a sure thing in light of the popularity of vampire content at the time.
Then something weird happened, and people started to realise The Vampire Diaries might actually be a decent show. Moreover, it was even a great show at points in its first two seasons, and was one of those rare shows to break through the stigma of its network and catch the attention of outsiders ordinarily embarrassed to admit they watched such soapy, melodramatic, fantastical fun.
Much of the reason for that success was the abundance of talent on-screen, talent which included the young actress tasked with portraying resident heroine Elena Gilbert – Nina Dobrev. The centre of a love triangle and the human girl trapped in a vampire-ridden town, Elena is comparable to the wishy-washy protagonists before her in more ways than one. But she was also strong and resilient, not easily manipulated always prepared to save herself.
The Vampire Diaries was a great example of its genre in those early days, subverting expectations of what romantic fantasy drama should be and crafting complex, meaningful characters and relationships that viewers immediately latched onto. The fandom was huge, shipping wars were born and people were suddenly talking about it as something beyond a guilty pleasure.
But it’s not that show anymore – this week’s announcement of Dobrev’s exit was the most anyone outside of the fanbase has talked about the show in years – but, more importantly, television isn’t the same as it was when Vampire Diaries premiered back in 2009.
We now have a landscape where every other series commissioned has some kind of fantasy hook to it, and The CW is the hub of many of the most prominent genre shows currently on the air. Once a great fit for a network that specialised in female-leaning high school shows, love triangles and hunky shirtless men, The Vampire Diaries is now practically an anomaly on a channel stuffed with superheroes and dystopian sci-fi.
So where does that leave it? In a place where it has to evolve.
The sixth season has been seen by many as a return to form, clawing its way back from a dodgy fourth and fifth season and doing so with a renewed energy and focus on character over convoluted plot and needless romantic strife (though there’s still plenty of that). It’s back to its emotionally devastating, obsession inducing, batshit crazy best, and has the potential to become better than ever.
But, by design, Elena hasn’t been the same character since the end of season three, when she stopped being the token human girl constantly in danger and became just as supernaturally powerful, and mystically tortured, as the rest of them. The show changed with her, but not necessarily for the better. As exciting as it was to wonder what The Vampire Diaries could do with an undead leading lady, they fudged the landing.
It lost its identity by, ironically, trying to hang onto its initial premise too tightly. The love story between Elena and Stefan and Elena and Damon might have been what kept shippers involved, but everyone else had been watching for very different, more varied reasons. The continuous cycle of falling in and out of love with the Salvatore brothers hurt all three characters in those seasons, and its only now that they’re starting to recover.
But Elena has been a background player at best, an energy-suck at worst. She has no purpose in this new phase of the show, her story having ended somewhere around the time no one was looking. It’s the worst example of a previously great character being allowed to fizzle out simply because there’s no more story to tell. Her brother left town, her heart has settled on Damon, and she’s on her way to becoming a doctor.
That’s as good a happy ending as I could ever imagine for her character – one where she can channel her previously caring nature as a human into a career that can help people.
In terms of female leads, Bonnie and Caroline have proven they’re more that capable of picking up the slack. Once the convenient plot device and grounding human influence, respectively, both characters have been developed into two presences that feel completely integral to the show in its current form. They’ve even formed strong connections with Damon and Stefan, removing the need for a love triangle to keep anyone busy.
Now that we have all of the information, it’s clear that showrunner Julie Plec and co. have been moving the pieces around in preparation for this big upheaval – if that’s what it takes for the show to refocus and rediscover its mojo, then I’ll take it in a heartbeat.
Too many shows keep characters around out of habit, concocting increasingly unbelievable reasons for them to still be there, and that’s why the departure of Dobrev, along with Michael Trevino as Tyler, is a refreshing turn of events. Trevino has arguably suffered even worse than Dobrev from the same problems, becoming an increasingly superfluous recurring character with no real anchor in the action for seasons on end.
Whether it was totally Nina Dobrev’s decision to leave after six seasons, or there’s more to the story we’ll never be privy to, the departure of Elena is the best, most gracious thing everyone involved could have done for the character.
The question of how it’s going to be done still remains, of course, and there’s a definite worry that the show will choose to kill Elena off in her final moments. It’s certainly a possibility given how involved she and Damon still are at this point in the series, because a couple like that doesn’t really split up without some pretty heavy drama introduced to pull them apart. Then there’s the cure, reintroduced in the most recent episode. Foreshadowing, perhaps?
No matter how it ultimately goes down, fans now know for sure that season seven of The Vampire Diaries will go ahead without its heroine. For a lot of shows this would be a cause for huge concern but, at this point in its run it just feels like another step towards The Vampire Diaries regaining its voice.
Elena Gilbert was wonderful, and will be missed, but there comes a point when a storyline has simply run its course and should be given the ending it deserves as quickly and honestly as possible. It’s to the show and Dobrev’s credit that she’ll go out on their terms at the end of the current season and, if there’s one thing The Vampire Diaries has always done brilliantly, it’s heartbreaking farewells.