If you could describe The Vampire Diaries in one word, that word would be: epic.
This show does nothing by halves. Everything is life or death, all the time. It is in the very nature of the characters: they are alive—they are mortal, they are dead—they are immortal. Dating is a whole different ball game: you don’t just love someone—you love someone, find out you are sired (in the archaic sense) to him, seek a cure for your supernatural sickness that will simultaneously free you from this bond, attempt to convince him you will still love him when you are free, and generally base your life on a present choice that is challenged by an entirely uncertain future.
This can get frustrating. At times I want to yell at the characters and tell them to STOP BEING SO DRAMATIC. Take a leap of faith! Trust someone! Make a choice!
A lot of the time I am yelling at Damon, who seems to continually shoot himself in the foot. “Face reality, Elena,” he says in episode 13. “We don’t work.” She insists that the cure, becoming human again—”It’s not going to change the way I feel about you.”
I wish there was one more line: “And it’s not going to change my choice.”
Love in this show seems so predicated on feeling—an attitude very apparent in the Stefan-Elena-Damon relationship. (I think Caroline and Tyler are a strong example of love not just by feeling but by choice—they will do whatever it takes, work through whatever problems, hold out every hope, to be together.) Rebecca asks Elena in episode 10, “Do you still love Stefan?” and Elena says Yes, but when Rebecca asks “Are you still in love with Stefan?” Elena says No. And that’s that.
How did “Do you know why I was even on that bridge? I was coming back for you, Stefan. I had to choose and I picked you. Because I love you. No matter what happens, it’s the best choice I ever made” turn into “No”?
What I love about Vampire Diaries is that its less than perfect subject matter—mortals and living-dead-immortals—creates a very unique setting in which to ask deep questions. The question of what free will is becomes a lot more meaningful when the people asking it are, by their very natures, hardwired to do something that goes against their humanity, their conscience, and their taste for salad. The question of love is likewise difficult when there is no “till death do us part” clause, or when it is only applicable to one person in the relationship.
And what is love? Loving someone for themselves? Wanting the best for them? And what is that? And who really loves whom? I think Elena loves very strongly and deeply; she would do anything in her power to help Jeremy, or Stefan, or Bonnie. And as we saw in the Season 3 finale, Elena will sacrifice her own life for those she loves. But at the same time—and this is understandable, as she is actually quite young—Elena can be very self-centred. She loves Stefan, so she loves Stefan; then she loves Damon, so she loves Damon. “I enjoy other cultures, Stefan,” says Rebecca. “I know that might be hard for you to understand, considering you dated a child who only thinks about herself.” When Elena dies for Matt, even that is because she refuses to be saved.
And who really loved Elena in that scenario? Stefan, who respects Elena’s free will above even her life and rescued Matt and let her die? Damon, who would have saved Elena in a heartbeat and gladly let Matt die? Elena tells Stefan, “You did the right thing. You did what you always do; you respected my choice.” So, Elena got her way. And becoming a vampire? “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” When Damon says he would have done nothing of the sort, Elena cries that Matt would be dead! “But you wouldn’t be,” Damon replies. “And you would have gotten to grow up and have the life that you wanted—the life that you deserved. And I know that I didn’t used to get that, but I do now, and I wanted that for you, Elena. And I would have gladly given it to you and lett Matt die, because I am that selfish. But you knew that already.” There is no argument or discussion.
And can there be? Damon does what is best for Elena—or what he thinks is best (cut him some slack; none of us are God)—and sometimes this is not what Elena wants. Whereas Stefan does what Elena wants, and sometimes this is not what is best. The result is that Elena will never have to choose between Stefan and what she wants—but this also means that when Elena wants what turns out to be bad, Stefan has to deal with the fallout. Is it his fault that Elena died and became a vampire? No—technically, it is Elena’s. But it is easy to blame him, especially for Elena: he is a constant reminder of her mistake. In episode 10, Rebecca asks, “How do you feel when you’re with Stefan?” And Elena replies, “Lately, I feel like I’m a project. Like I’m a problem that needs to be fixed. I think I make him sad. And I can’t be with someone like that because when he looks at me… all he sees is a broken toy.”
Damon in a certain sense has it easier: he does what he wants which, in the case of Elena, is what he thinks is best for her and when he screws up it is entirely his fault. Elena can justly blame him for his mistakes even when they involve her. Yes, if Damon had been on that bridge then Matt would have died, but that would have been neither her choice nor her fault. Elena would not have to blame herself. When Rebecca asks what it is like to be with Damon, Elena replies, “When I’m with him, it feels unpredictable. Like I’m free.” But this also makes it harder for Damon; his faults are so obviously his faults that it is very easy—at least for us—to reject him out of hand.
I’m not sure which brother is right. Instinctually I side with Damon’s approach, simply because that is the way the world works. Even Stefan cannot always yield his will to Elena’s; in episode 5, when Connor has Matt, Jeremy, and April trapped at the Grill, Stefan tells Elena that she cannot come with him to rescue them.
ELENA: Then I’m coming with you.
STEFAN: You’re not coming with me, Elena.
ELENA: You need my help, Stefan.
STEFAN: What if Connor attacks and you have to defend yourself? And what if you kill him? The guilt will wreck you.
ELENA: You don’t think that I’m afraid of that? Of course I am. Stefan, I’m barely holding it together. If Jeremy gets hurt…
STEFAN: I’ll get Jeremy out, okay? I promise you.
STEFAN: Elena, listen to me. Listen to me. This is the most important thing that I have ever asked you to do. I just need you to trust me. Please.
If I had to pinpoint one moment from this season where Elena turns away from Stefan, this would be it—rather, the moment just after, when Elena decides not to listen to Stefan. She ignores the “most important” wish of the person who has always respected her wishes. She ends up doing exactly what he predicted and being doubly tortured by guilt and the Hunter’s Curse.
She turns away from Stefan and, eventually, turns towards Damon. But perhaps this makes sense. “We’ve all done horrible things,” says Stefan. “Anyone capable of love is capable of being saved,” says Caroline. Sure, they’re talking about Klaus, but can’t we apply this to Elena? Can’t Elena apply this to Damon, and love him even when he fails—even in episode 11, when he can’t resist Kol’s compulsion to kill Jeremy? “You’re strong enough to resist the compulsion,” says Elena. “You’d do anything for me. So please, do this for me.” All Damon can say is “I’m sorry.”
He’s not perfect. But he tries–even when he doesn’t want to. He sets Elena free from the sire bond: “You’re going to go home. I’m setting you free, Elena. This is what I want. This is what will make me happy.” Does he tell her in the next episode to “Get in your car, right now. Come to me”? Well, yes. But does Stefan tell Rebecca to erase all his memories of Elena, later declare “Listen. I hate my brother. And you hate yours,” and essentially blame Elena for his misery when he says “You don’t know what I look like when I’m not in love with you”? Also yes.
But, as Elena says, Stefan is hurt and acting out. And as Damon professed, he is the bad guy “because somebody needs to fill that role and get things done.” But he is bad with purpose. “Otherwise you’re just not worth forgiving.”
I think that is the real truth. Vampire or not, these characters are eminently human—and forgivable. They are not totally good. They are not totally bad. Even Klaus isn’t pure evil: “There is a part of you that is human,” Caroline tells him. And as another one of my heroines stated, “People themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.” One day, we might be surprised. One day, as Damon tells Stefan, “You’re going to realize you don’t know me half as well as you think.”