Before I say anything else, I need to make something unambiguously clear: I am a fangirl of The Vampire Diaries. An uber-fan. I’ve watched all 8 seasons of this show at least thrice, and I have watched certain episodes several times, replaying scenes that are so emotionally-stirring, deeply romantic, or masterfully erotic that they remain, even now, breath-taking.
The Vampire Diaries is a television series set in the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, a place which has been brimming with largely undetected supernatural activity in the form of vampires, werewolves, and witches for hundreds of years. Centered around the character of Elena Gilbert and the love triangle she finds herself in the middle of when vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore fall for her, the series soon ventures out into the plethora of dangers that find these three, and Elena’s friends, as well as the dangers that they pose to one another. As the group dodges death at every turn, we explore their various romantic feelings for one another.
The Vampire Diaries premiered on The CW, a network known for pumping out historically well-received teen dramas, on the heels of the first film of the Twilight franchise, a time when teen girls were absolutely obsessed with the modern portrayal of vampires as edgy and fashionable. That being the case, the timing could not have been any better. Also a fan of Degrassi: The Next Generation, I was happy to see Nina Dobrev as the series’ lead, Elena Gilbert, but because Mia, her character on the popular Canadian drama, had been left under-developed, I didn’t know if Nina had the acting chops to step up to the plate, and with The Vampire Diaries having already been, as it remains, an incredibly beloved novel series by L.J. Smith, I hoped that I, and other fans, wouldn’t be disappointed.
We weren’t. Not only did Dobrev embody the essence of the novels’ Elena, even absent literary Elena’s trademark blonde hair, she portrayed Elena flawlessly, as well as one of the main villains, Katherine Pierce/Katerina Petrova, seamlessly alternating between the two characters, and later portraying a short-lived third character. Although Elena was ultimately the source of much pain and misery for the humans in her life, Dobrev’s portrayal of Elena, as loyal, compassionate, honest, and of course, beautiful, made it very clear why they were all willing to stick around through the fuckery, bad luck, and shenanigans that followed this girl everywhere.
Paul Wesley is an actor who I’d see over the years as a guest star on shows like Smallville, The O.C., 8 Simple Rules, etc., as well as the TV miniseries Fallen. But no character ever stuck to Wesley, or seemed to fit him so well as Stefan Salvatore, the kind, sincere vampire intent on making amends for his checkered past. Similarly, Ian Somerhalder is an actor I’d seen in various roles, including Paul Denton in The Rules of Attraction and Hamilton on The WB’s short-lived summer series Young Americans, a show now so obscure that one can only find it on YouTube, but Somerhalder, who was gorgeous even back then, experienced a serious fucking glow-up as Damon Salvatore, Stefan’s bitter, brooding, and scheming older brother.
Kat Graham is a beautiful and talented actress, singer, and dancer whose largest claim to fame at one point was as the lead in Honey 2 (Can we get a moment of silence for our sister?!), but who became an anchor in every conceivable way to the chemistry and longevity of the series as Bonnie Bennett, aka the girl who saved everyone’s ass, repeatedly. And she looked fly as fuck doing it, too. The Vampire Diaries had an attractive cast, but Graham stood out in more ways than one, her beauty being one of them (Yup, I’m biased).
The Vampire Diaries did so many things right, so let’s start there. The producers were adamant in making sure that the cast was actually talented, and not just a group of beautiful people trying to carry dialogue on a hair flip and prolonged stares (*cough* Twilight *cough*). The writers did an excellent job in making sure that each and every episode was engaging and that each major character was developed and portrayed as having depth and nuance as the seasons progressed. The casting directors struck gold in making sure that, though talented, the actors cast didn’t have such a huge amount of celebrity that this would eclipse the show, or allow one person to become the face of the brand. Audiences came into The Vampire Diaries with little to no biases or preferences, and this proved to be a winning formula.
The Vampire Diaries didn’t just have great material and a strong core cast, the show also offered us a variety of rotating villains who were just as nuanced and well-developed, not to mention thoroughly entertaining, as our leads, so much so that The Vampire Diaries inspired the successful spin-off series, The Originals, starring several of those villains. The series also featured some incredible music. The Vampire Diaries has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard, coming in at a close second to Grey’s Anatomy. As an audiophile, I’ve re-watched several episodes and scenes just to drink in the music and silently admire how well-placed it often was.
In the 8 years that it aired, The Vampire Diaries was never stale, never boring, and always made a great escape from both reality, and other lackluster television series. The writers, producers (including Kevin Williamson of Dawson’s Creek fame), and actors all seemed united in the goal of making this series memorable. I think the fact that, as aforementioned, the actors, though experienced, weren’t very well-known prior to this series made them just hungry enough to put their all into their roles. All of the leads became visibly stronger actors during the series’ run, lending more depth and range to their performances, and allowing the material to truly shine.
Now to the bad. The Vampire Diaries was overflowing with problematic shit, so I will only tackle some of the major issues I had with this series. The most obvious is the age issue. Stefan is 162 years old in the pilot episode, but is enrolled in high school to get to know Elena, the 16 year old girl who happens to look exactly like his ex. Pause the fuck up. Can we say grooming? An older man charming a significantly younger partner is predatory as hell. When Stefan and Elena finally consummate their relationship, she is still a minor (Hell, who isn’t the minor of a 162 year old man?!), which is unambiguously statutory rape in most states. Yeah, I know. He is a vampire. He is a supernatural being, his body stopped aging when he was still young and hot, so they look the same age, and that makes it okay. Except it doesn’t. It makes the shit infinitely worse. Stefan’s brain didn’t stop aging. He didn’t stop maturing as a person. He admittedly had myriad life-altering experiences before even Elena’s grandparents were conceived. And despite all the women he’s met, a teenage girl who’s never even been outside of her small-town is the girl who has his heart. A teenage girl who looks identical to his ex-girlfriend. Pause. Elena’s relationship with Damon, while toxic in other ways, is only slightly less predatory in that at least she was legally an adult, and he wasn’t her first serious relationship at the time that their relationship became official (read: He’s just a young-looking old pervert, too).
The never-quite-was relationship of Klaus and Caroline was just as bad, and the relationships of Bonnie and Enzo, and Caroline and Stefan only marginally better. The flaunting of the relationships between young women in or barely out of their teens and dramatically older men isn’t unique to The Vampire Diaries; it’s a trademark in the vampire genre, and I can’t help but think that this is the ultimate male fantasy, to remain young forever in order to effectively prey on young women who wouldn’t look twice at decrepit old men who actually looked their age. The fact that the genre originally featured creatures who would actively pursue virgins makes me think that I have a pretty strong case here.
Next on the chopping block is Bonnie, or rather how the character of Bonnie was used. While Graham gave consistently solid, evocative performances and her character was a fan favourite, it was also very clear that she was being tokenized. When the series first aired, we saw other Black people in close up shots as well as in the background, but as the series progressed we saw them less and less, and that included the characters of Bonnie’s grandmother, portrayed by Jasmine Guy, two possible Black love interests, and her father (Rick Worthy), all of whom were killed in service to her friends or as a consequence of their actions. Hell, even Caroline’s would-be Black collegiate boo got taken out! The passive disregard for each and every Black character introduced was heavy throughout the series. Bonnie’s White love interests? Also killed off. The girl wasn’t allowed a fucking shred of happiness or even a full day to grieve after each loss, before one of her parasitic White friends would come knocking at her door, begging for her help in a situation that they usually helped create. Bonnie was a person who was consistently used as a tool, a means to an end.
Bonnie was essentially the Mammy of the group. Always expected to be strong while those around her were given the privilege of sulking, mourning, and falling apart, with full support and patience from the group. Never have I wanted good things for a character more than I have for Bonnie. The constant dismissal of her pain and trauma only highlighted her grief for me. It was almost as if she were made to suffer. Even her self-professed “best friends” during the series run, Elena, Caroline (Candice King), and later Damon, have been guilty of abandoning her to her grief, lying to her, or checking out when she needed them the most. Any time Bonnie needed help, she had to help herself, lucky to have even the smallest amount of assistance from her friends; there is literally only one exception to this in 8 years of 22-episode seasons. In the case of Damon, in particular, Graham and Somerhalder had some insane chemistry that became undeniably obvious around season 6. When Dobrev temporarily left the series, many fans were rooting for a Bonnie/Damon romance, but the writers wouldn’t allow it and co-producer Julie Plec voiced disgust at the idea. So they gave Bonnie a new love, the love of her life, in Lorenzo “Enzo” (Michael Malarkey), only to take him away from her, too.
Bonnie’s losses are always severe, but ones she’s never allowed to fully process, as she’s told that the group needs her help once again. Your grandma just died? Sorry, but we could really us your help. Your dad was just killed in front of you? Well, we’re kind of having an emergency, so… When other characters experience loss, they are allowed to wallow and break down entirely for weeks or months at a time (usually 2 or more episodes worth), and we are often privy to heart-felt funeral scenes and outpourings of group solidarity. When Bonnie experiences loss, not only is she often alone when it takes place, she has zero emotional support after the fact as well. The lack of acknowledgement for Bonnie’s grief, never allowed to go on longer than an episode, and forever treated as an afterthought, the persistent insinuation that her loss matters less, was quintessential passive racism. Bonnie’s love interests? All tragic and/or under-developed. Bonnie’s family? Largely glossed over, unless it somehow related to something her friends needed. Bonnie wasn’t even given one decent sex scene, not even with her great love, Enzo. Seeing a core character treated with such casual dismissal of her basic humanity was painful to watch. The only character who came close to being treated as badly was Matt Donovan (Zach Roerig), who had quite a lot of airtime for someone with zero supernatural abilities whatsoever.
Like most series on The CW, and television in general, The Vampire Diaries had a predominantly White cast and a token person of colour whom is used to feign an attempt at diversity. The problem is that it’s quite clear that it isn’t sincere (see: aforementioned treatment of Bonnie). This is also obvious in the Mystic Falls celebration of the Founders Day festival, episodes where Bonnie’s character is absent or makes a very minimal appearance, since the founders of any town in fucking Virginia are bound to be racist, classist, slave-owning pieces of shit. Yet the festival, and what it means to Elena, Stefan, and Damon, is always deeply romanticized. Cause who wants to talk about slavery, right? Bonnie’s ancestor, Emily (Bianca Lawson) who was Katherine’s handmaiden centuries ago, helped both Katherine and Elena’s ancestor, Jonathan Gilbert simultaneously, in an effort to keep the peace and the balance. In Bonnie, the tradition of a Black woman selflessly doing for narcissistic, unappreciative White people continues.
From beginning to end, the writers tirelessly shat all over Bonnie’s character. The only witches portrayed on the show were always Black people, mostly women, and save Bonnie and a distant cousin who appeared on exactly one episode, every single one of them met a horrible end helping (White) vampires and humans like. Black people almost never exist on this show until a White person has need of them; ironically, like they are waiting to be summoned. In a classic turn of art imitating life, Black women are the mule in The Vampire Diaries, thanklessly doing the legwork and mending everyone’s blunders and boo-boos. Bonnie is often portrayed as more than willing to put her life on the line, if it means saving one of the very people who are usually to blame for endangering it. Bonnie literally exists to serve. But in so doing, in making Bonnie the constant go-to whenever the group was in crisis (read: always), Bonnie became an irreplaceable character who was essential to the series’ success. In the series finale, Bonnie was holding a travel brochure to Africa. Here’s hoping that Bonnie finally got herself some Black friends!
Then there’s the toxic masculinity. Whether it’s in Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino) who is never held accountable for his anger-management issues and gross misogyny, first because he is filthy rich, then because he turns out to be a werewolf, and they’re just “naturally aggressive”, in Damon, whose bids to get a woman’s attention included and weren’t limited to killing her friends and family, or in villains like Niklaus “Klaus” (Joseph Morgan) who abuses and exploits every woman he comes into contact with, including his own family, the series is ripe with men behaving badly. Though these men are often called out on their bad behaviour, no one ever makes them face any real consequences for it, and the verbal, physical, and emotional abuse that they indulge in is supposed to be viewed as sexy and powerful, or at least understandable or “not their fault”.
In the cases of Damon and Klaus, especially, this is even more alarming, considering how fucking old they are and how many decades and centuries, respectively, they have had to learn self-control, had that ever been a priority for them. All of these men are clearly deeply abusive and entitled, but the variety of women in their lives are charmed by this, or at least begrudgingly accepting, and routinely make excuses for them. Tyler, Damon, and Klaus would routinely go into raging fits, violent tantrums, and/or deadly killing sprees every time their fucking feelings were hurt, the women in their lives did something they didn’t like, or someone pissed them off. Self-awareness, reflection, and analysis? Fuck that! Why do that when you can punish the people you claim to care for, and even perfect strangers, because you’re having a bad day? Make no mistake: This is not behaviour which should be accepted or encouraged. The hot abusive guy is still abusive! Accepting abuse from someone because they are good-looking is a very dangerous precedent which shouldn’t be mimicked in real life relationships. Ever.
Last but certainly not least, there’s my petty pet peeve: Steroline, AKA the relationship of Stefan and Caroline BKA stale saltine crackers. The characters on The Vampire Diaries switch partners like they’re playing musical chairs and nearly all the pairings, however short-lived some might have been, were incredibly fun to watch. Caroline and Tyler? Hotter than a double-boiler. Bonnie and Enzo? That was a damn inferno! Stefan and Elena? Epic. Elena and Damon? A force of nature. Stefan and Caroline? That relationship was as hot, and as interesting, as tepid bath water. Not only did Wesley and King have zero romantic chemistry, but Steroline, a relationship which was heavily-alluded to for a couple of seasons before it became official, was the only relationship on the series which seemed beyond forced. So forced that if King had been cast as Elena, I’m sure that the series would have plummeted years ago.
It’s almost as if the writers didn’t want us to connect to Steroline and root for them. Their relationship is foreshadowed for a couple seasons before Caroline declares her feelings and Stefan isn’t ready to receive them. Then when Stefan declares his feelings, she’s not ready. Then Stefan abandons her in order to save her life. Then she has a family to raise, and a fiance after they are separated for several years. We never do get even one sex scene as great as the ones between Wesley and Somehalder, or even King and Morgan. They are reunited and Stefan decides that it’s easier to be a dick. Then they get a happily-ever-after which lasts less than 12 hours. And when Caroline and Stefan are together, and both of sound mind, they are tense, anxious, and speak to one another like close friends or an old married couple, not two people in the throes of a new, burgeoning romance. In the creation of Steroline, The Vampire Diaries took a serious L. This couple wasn’t fun, sexy, or remotely interesting. The situations around them always intrigued me more than actually seeing them together. But one strained relationship between two characters in an 8-year run is forgivable.
This series could have been better in myriad ways, chief among them being having a more diverse cast, including other Black people and people of colour, more LGBTQIA characters (there was literally only one gay character in 8 years), and lending more compassion to their treatment of said people. But in the end, the stories were moving, sometimes haunting, engaging, and wildly entertaining. Plot twists and cliffhangers overfloweth in what grew to be one of The CW’s most epic sagas. Hats off to the cast, and a special salute to Kat Graham for a display of grace and beauty, for breathing life into a character that was routinely beaten down. This series wouldn’t have been great without you. I will miss The Vampire Diaries.
I give this one 4.25 stars.