Monday, March 19, 2012

Why The Vampire Diaries' most important theme is family

Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley as Damon and Stefan Salvatore. Source.

If you, unlike me, aren't absolutely obsessed with The Vampire Diaries, you might think that the show is mostly about romantic entanglements. The CW certainly markets it by playing up the love triangle between Stefan, Damon and Elena, and the most vocal 'shipper camps are those of Delena and Stelena.

I, however, belong to neither of those teams. I am firmly in the camp known as Team Salvatore, the one that roots for Damon and Stefan. (NOT in a sexual way, people, so get your minds out of the gutter.)

The thing is, The Vampire Diaries is at its most compelling when it focuses on the relationship between the brothers. The most recent episode, "1912," was just one of the many hours that benefited from keeping the story largely confined to Damon and Stefan. There was some stuff happening with Elena and Matt in the background, and the requisite final-scene cliffhanger was all about Alaric, but the real heart of the episode came from watching Damon trying to save Stefan from himself.

This isn't anything that we haven't seen before. In this particular iteration of the Damon and Stefan relationship, Damon spent the hour convincing Stefan that quitting human blood cold-turkey would only lead to more problems. At other points throughout the series, the Salvatore story lines have seen Stefan giving himself to Klaus to save Damon's life, Damon trying to bring Stefan back from his heartless, bloodlust-induced rampage, and Stefan refusing to kill Damon even after his brother has murdered his best friend.

These stories work, instead of just getting tiresome and repetitive, partially because of the incredible quality of the series' writing, but mostly because the series always insists on the importance of the Salvatore brothers' relationship above all else. The show says this outright when Elena, heartbroken from the loss of Stefan, tells Damon that he is the only one who can bring Stefan back. Stefan may love Elena, but his connection with Damon will always be stronger.

This focus on family ties over romance might seem odd for a show that many people think of as a mere Twilight knockoff. First, let it be stated that The Vampire Diaries is not only better than that other teenage supernatural love triangle - largely because Elena Gilbert has more agency in her little finger than Bella Swan has in her entire pouty body, but also because the bloodsuckers on The Vampire Diaries are real vampires who burn in the sun, and who do not fucking sparkle - it's also better than HBO's True Blood. I suspect that people would be more willing to accept this fact if TVD aired on a different network and had a different name. As it is, the writers spend each week giving a master class in television writing only to be ignored in favor of the increasingly schizophrenic True Blood.

Second, when you really start to watch the show, you notice that familial relationships are always the main focus. Whether you're talking about the Salvatores, the Originals, the Forbes or the Lockwoods, brothers and sisters and parents and children are always front and center. The very structure of Mystic Falls is dependent on a group of so-called "founding families," for god's sake. It's all right there, hidden in plain sight.

This season's Original Family arc has made the theme even more clear. One of the things that particular story hit on brilliantly was the way that complicated family dynamics tend to reduce even the most self-sufficient, powerful people to children. (This is, essentially, the same observation that animated the recent, excellent Simpsons episode "Holidays of Future Passed.") Klaus, the invincible werewolf/vampire hybrid, is really just lashing out as his parents for their dishonesty. Rebekah is reduced to a bratty, rebellious teenager when faced with her brothers' disapproval. Elijah is torn between absolute love for his mother and her hatred of his very being.

These vampires could eat the world alive if they wanted to, but instead they squabble and tease. And, much like the Salvatores, their love for one another almost always prevails. Even the Original's mythology is built on a familial structure; there wouldn't be such a thing as vampires were it not for a mother's desire to protect her children.

The show is also filled with a myriad of smaller moments between family members, and those moments are where The Vampire Diaries' heart can be found. Caroline's fractured, broken relationship with her father is moving because she is willing to look past every terrible thing he has done if only he'll go back to loving her unconditionally. When vampire Anna tries to communicate with Jeremy from beyond the grave, it's not because she wants his love, but because she's lonely and can't find her mother. Even Carol Lockwood, one of the show's least interesting characters, gets her moment to shine when her son, Tyler, forces her to watch him transform into a werewolf so that she can understand his pain.

When you start reading The Vampire Diaries as a show about the importance of family above all else, you can also begin to tease out where the series' real tragedy lies. The show can be seen as the slow, systematic loss of everyone in Elena Gilbert's family: her adoptive parents, her mother Isobel, her father John, Aunt Jenna. Now, with Jeremy away and Alaric slowly going insane, Elena is completely alone. She's missing the network of family who can love and protect her when no one else, not even Stefan or Damon, can.

Looking at Elena's situation this way adds a whole new layer to her confession to Matt, the show's other orphan, about why she fell in love with Stefan. When I first watched "1912," her blunt statement that she loved Stefan because he would never die seemed too simple, too reductive, to really work. Thinking back on it now, however, it makes perfect sense. As everyone in Elena's family has been taken away from her, it makes complete sense that she would latch on to someone who would never leave. Elena's reason for falling in love with Stefan isn't simple or reductive; it's an expression of the fundamental importance of family, one that gets right to the core of Elena Gilbert and of The Vampire Diaries.

4 comments:

  1. That was probably the most profoundly correct interpretation of the Vampire Diaries that I have ever come across. Bravo and well done. I think also though, while family is indeed at the forefront of the series, there is another prevailing theme: the idea of humanity. For being a show predominantly about supernatural characters, I've never watched something so focused on exploring the idea of what 'being human' really means. A prime example of this is Damon, who seems to struggle constantly with overcoming his vampire nature - almost every episode he is faced with some sort of existential crisis/dilemma. I think that is what really makes this show watchable and enjoyable, because at the heart of everyone, there is an innate drive to find out what it really means to live and be human. Humanity exists in everyone to some extent, because no one is a cardboard, 2 dimensional being. We are all multifaceted people, who have weakness, who feel pain and love and hate. The Vampire Diairies taps into this, and that it what makes it a truly great show.

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    1. I agree that the show does a beautiful job of exploring the human experience, which I happen to think is something that is only possible in a story where some of the characters aren't human. And yes, Damon really embodies so much of that struggle; one of the most heartbreaking, profoundly moving moments of the series the scene in "The Descent" when he confesses to a stranger that, for all his swagger, he can't actually shut off his emotions, and then kills her in a burst of anger at himself, at what he is, and at what he feels.

      The reason I focused on themes of familial connection is that I really think the show's focus on family is what distinguishes it from other supernatural romances. Yes, the Stefan/Elena/Damon triangle is pretty central, but the most compelling relationships are those between family members and surrogate family members. And, of course, that bleeds into the love triangle aspect, since Elena's reluctance to choose between Damon and Stefan has a lot to do with the fact that they are, in many ways, her surrogate family, and alienating either one of them is more than she can handle right now.

      Also, thanks so much for the response! It's so great to hear that it struck a chord :)

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  2. Yeah, no problem! Thanks for sharing a new perspective too. I really like this whole idea of family bonds in it. It almost makes the show even more worth watching, given that it is exploring themes deeper than the superficial ideals of love and attraction. Thus, It's been my mission to prove to as many people (guys specifically) that this is not just a show for the teenage/young adult female! :D So far, so good.

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    1. Oddly enough, every single person I've convinced to watch the show is a guy. None of my girlfriends will watch it, but I have a whole group of guy friends who love to dissect every episode with me. So there's hope!

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