As The Vampire Diaries wraps up 2013 with its fall finale, it’s become readily apparent that the show is in the midst of a good, old-fashioned slump. Let’s talk about why, shall we?
Mystic Falls has a villain problem
The most obvious issue the show is having right now is the big, gaping void where all their reliable villains used to be. When Klaus jumped ship for The Originals, he freed the show from his increasingly stifling grasp. The problem is that ever since he left, The Vampire Diaries hasn’t figured out a way to successfully replace his evil energy. I was a big proponent of getting the Originals off the show because it seemed like the writers were using them as a crutch, and their inability to effectively replace them with new threats pretty much proves my theory. On top of jettisoning Klaus, the show also took Katherine on a path from reliable antagonist to rehabilitated villain, and no matter how enjoyable that storyline has been, the lack of her evil energy does leave a hole.
The trouble with removing reliable threats like Klaus and Katherine is that The Vampire Diaries is a show that feeds off of the energy of its villains and uses that evil energy to drive the plot forward, so when the villains fail to register, everything around them starts to fall apart. Silas was a fairy terrible villain—his whole end goal was to die, which is a weak motivation for a bad guy—but our familiarity with the character and Paul Wesley’s fantastic performance allowed Silas’ weakness as a story engine to slide under the radar for quite a while.
Dr. Wes Maxfield doesn’t have this luxury. Introduced as the next big threat after Silas finally achieved his goal of dying (R.I.P. Paul Wesley’s Silas performance), Maxfield was revealed as an evil, vampire-experimenting, all-around shady dude whose story has ties to both Elena and Damon’s past. The show deserves credit for laying the groundwork of this story all the way back in the first episode of the season, weaving it into Elena’s college story in at least what probably started out as an organic way. The problem with this story is twofold: It requires a lot of retconning to make the plots work for both Elena and Damon’s past (and present), and Maxfield is just not a compelling enough villain on his own at this point to make up for the other shortcomings in the story. Speaking of which…
Damon did what now?
It’s been quite a while since Damon had a significant story of his own that wasn’t tied directly to winning over Elena, so it’s too bad that when he finally does get one it’s tied directly to losing her instead. It’s not a secret that I’ve struggled with the sudden reveal that Damon has a hidden past with Whitmore College—struggled so much that I actually fundamentally misunderstood it last week—but it’s just far too obvious that the writers are pulling every bit of this thing out of thin air. To their credit, the big beats of the story actually fit into the timeline of the show, but when you look at it closely through a character lens, it is far less effective, especially because it appears to be yet another way to fan the flames of the love triangle.
Fundamentally, the love triangle will always be a large part of this show, and it’s a part of the show I actually enjoy when it is done well. What’s less encouraging is when significant portions of a character’s backstory are revised in order to make a character “bad” so he’s no longer worthy of our heroine. The entire point of Damon’s character arc for the last two seasons was for Elena to recognize her connection with Damon despite his bad deeds and for him in turn to feel worthy enough to “deserve” her. What was the point of all of that if the show was just going to erase it all by inventing a convenient reason for Damon to ignore his own development? It can’t be a coincidence that just as Damon was deciding he was too evil for Elena, his brother with the hero hair was busy saving her life (and leaving the bad doctor alive, a decision that’s going to come back to haunt everyone).
Elena is barely a character anymore
All of this might have been easier to accept if it seemed like the show was giving Elena any sort of choice in her own destiny. Silas’ story introduced the idea of doppelgangers as fated soulmates, putting a sort of timer on the love triangle that’s slated to go off at some point this season. That’s fine, as the whole idea of a love triangle is that it’s more of a constant work-in-progress rather than a fixed endpoint. Less exciting was the scene tonight where Damon’s insecurities took over and he basically decided that he wasn’t good enough for Elena, breaking off their relationship and giving her no say in the matter. Even Elena is fairly dumbfounded by this, reiterating that she chose Damon, and she continues to choose Damon despite his faults. Yet, despite her insistence, Damon does what he feels is best for her. As a fan of powerful female characters with control of their own choices, this is infuriating. What is the point of Elena making a choice at all if the men in her life are constantly deciding what’s best for her?
This might not be so bad if Elena even felt like a three-dimensional character at this point. I’ve spoken of this in the past, but the Elena I fell in love with—strong Elena, impulsive Elena, fiercely and irresponsibly loyal Elena—is almost nowhere to be found since she transitioned to a vampire, and she wasn’t given any sort of new traits to take their place. It’s like she just sort of exists, the center of a show where she serves no purpose but for plots and fates and characters to revolve around her, and that’s simply not interesting. Elena needs to want something, needs to need something, needs to have something, and right now she has nothing, and as a result she’s the most passive character on the show. Your lead simply cannot be the most passive character on the show.
Thank you, Katherine Pierce, for sucking it up
Despite all that complaining, one thing is going very, very right for The Vampire Diaries this season: Katherine Pierce. I admit I had a few doubts when the show turned Katherine human, but her struggle to accept her sudden human frailty and impending accelerated death has been one of the most consistently satisfying threads of the season so far. Having her face her impending death while giving her just a glimmer of hope in her longtime love of Stefan is some nice, subtle, lovely writing amid a sea of clunky nonsense, and both Paul Wesley and Nina Dobrev play their sense of history and newfound respect for each other well in their scenes here. Dobrev’s ability to make Katherine a fully distinct presence from Elena, even in more tender scenes that are on the surface very similar to the ones she would play as Elena, is always the show’s biggest asset.
The next episode is the show’s 100th, and it looks like the writers are spending their time wisely: by giving Katherine a hilarious, drunken wake where everyone bitches about all the horrible things she has done to them over the years. I might be a bit disillusioned with the show right now for all the reasons outlined above, but in no universe does that not sound like the best premise for a 100th episode of all time. See you in 2014, The Vampire Diaries.
- I am very confused how Megan got chased and thrown off a roof in the season premiere if she got attacked by Enzo in the dungeon. Did Maxfield chase her and throw her off the roof to silence her? Did Enzo get out of his cell? This is probably another thing I’m fundamentally misunderstanding.
- So Elena’s father’s office burned to the ground (in season one, I think?) and nothing happened to the outside? And the people who owned the building didn’t use the insurance money to fix it up? And… oh, I just need to stop asking questions about this story.
- Not everything non-Katherine in this episode was terrible. For example: Stefan and Damon teaming up to interrogate Aaron was great, old-school TVD fun. We need less of the brothers off on their own and more of them working together as partners in menacing snark.
- Also good: Aaron finally has a bit of a personality, and it’s a start. At least he’s not a pushover.
- Yet more good stuff: Matt is back! Matt is training Katherine! Matt is the keeper of the Traveler knife! Nothing can go wrong there, I’m sure of it!