thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Unique, Potentially Surprising Ethics of The Vampire Diaries

In gender, girl culture, teen soaps, Television on March 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Sarah S.

*spoilers*

The Vampire Diaries employs many twists and turns of plots in its depiction of the supernatural roller-coaster that is the life of Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev). And it needs these twists to keep the story going through now, its third season. If Elena and her vampire boyfriend Stefan (Paul Wesley) vanquished all the bad guys, found a non-Elena true love for Stefan’s brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), and lived happily ever after, the show would be over. Many series deal with this dilemma with a shrug, paying no heed to continuity or character development in pursuit of ever more soap-operatic happenings to keep viewers engaged (paging Lost). The Vampire Diaries does something different though: it adheres to an unwavering ethical conviction in second chances that grounds its continuous switching of allegiances—romantic, familial, political, or all-of-the-above.

The motif of redemption characterizes the entire love triangle between Stefan, Damon, and Elena. When the series begins, she’s looking for a new life after the death of her parents, Stefan’s looking to fix the mistakes of his past by loving Elena, and Damon comes to strive for the same endeavor—albeit with seductively wiggling eyebrows and the added moral quandary of not hurting his relationship with his brother. This dynamic continues in seasons 2 and 3 when Stefan “turns off his humanity” and becomes a monstrous, murderous “ripper” who Elena and Damon, nevertheless, believe can be saved. Elena functions, in many ways, as the moral compass for both brothers and for the show as a whole. However, she’s no pure and wilting damsel, making mistakes of judgement herself that often require apologies or other attempts to fix what’s broken. In the end, no matter how despicable either Stefan or Damon is, was, or will be, all three of the central characters believe the offender can be redeemed.

She's like a love compass.

We see a similar emphasis on second chances in the rest of the boys who round out the cast: Elena’s emo younger brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen); the high school quarterback Matt (Zach Roerig); the tortured vampire hunter/history teacher Alaric (Matthew Davis); and the town bully turned self-reflective werewolf Tyler (Michael Trevino). Tyler epitomizes the group’s belief in second chances perhaps best of all, transforming from a swaggering ass to a tortured werewolf to Caroline’s boyfriend to a hybrid werewolf-vampire unable to exert self-will against the orders of his “sire,” Klaus (Joseph Morgan).  Through each of these transformations—emotional and supernatural—Tyler grows as a character and, therefore, rises in the audience’s connection to him.

Even Elena’s doppleganger, the vampire Katherine—selfish, terrible Katherine—finds a modicum of forgiveness from the audience (if not from Stefan and Damon) through her attempts to aid them in destroying an even greater evil—Klaus—who carries most of the blame for making Katherine who she is. (And now we’re beginning to see signs that perhaps Klaus may turn out to be redeemable.)

Most of the series’ characters screw up time and time again, and the ways their missteps hurt their friends and loved ones provides much of the drama of the show. Perhaps the prime exception, however, lies in Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola) who begins as an obnoxious, type-A, cheerleader stereotype and grows into one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. Caroline first chirps her way into our hearts with her ability to be a great friend and her sometimes shrill honesty. However, her struggles to come to peace with herself after being transformed into a vampire—against her will by Katherine—mirror the struggles of adolescence while lending a heart-rending urgency to her predicament. As she develops, Caroline becomes more comfortably Caroline—friend to vampires, humans, and werewolves alike; daughter to vampire haters; high school senior; devourer of human blood (strictly out of blood bags of course); and Miss Mystic Falls. Caroline never really falls again after her first “second chance,” not in any significant way. However, she often finds herself in the position of holding the moral ground, rejecting people (etc.) when they’ve erred and re-accepting them once they’ve adequately redressed their mistakes.

Oh, Caroline.

In the most recent episode, for example, Caroling unflinchingly keeps Elena at bay while their best friend Bonnie (Katerina Graham) keeps vigil over her “transitioning” mother. Elena’s crime? Nothing but being loved too well by those who will hurt anybody to protect her. Caroline is not rejecting Elena in the long term but she is rejecting the moral quagmire of Elena’s “endangered heroine” status, thereby serving as an unwavering ethical compass.

On one level, the standing belief in second chances lends a sweetness to the show. It also grounds the community that the characters make together, a community they need in order to survive the various nightmares thrown at them by the screenwriters.

On another level, I am impressed by the sheer usefulness of this approach in lending emotional and character logic to the show’s fantastic twists of plot. Without a grounding in such a logic, the character and plot inconsistencies would turn it into a mindless soap opera. However, in a show very self-aware of the genres it’s working in (from teen soap to vampire story to slasher/horror) it utilizes the ethic of redemption to sustain its verisimilitude.

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  1. […] post over at Girls Like Giants. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. Okay, you sold me. I have to give this one a shot.

  3. I am so glad you talked about how great Caroline is. She is definitely my most favorite Vampire Diaries character! Also, reading this reminded me of how much I need to catch up on VD …

  4. Cosign on the Caroline love! And Phoebes, this season is so great!

  5. […] characters, a rightful fan favorite. (Sarah S. explains in more detail what makes her so awesome here.) She’s funny, neurotic, and deeply caring; her commitment to social events and proper dress […]

  6. […] Sarah S. revels in Vampire Diaries, Caroline, and second chances in “The Unique, Potentially Surprising Ethics of The Vampire Diaries.” […]

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