The Vampire Diaries: Season 2
The second season of Vampire Diaries was a very curious one: the show at once came into its own as possibly the best genre show currently on American television, and revealed massive flaws that show how the series could easily jump the shark with just a slight tipping of the scales. The blistering pace and moral ambiguity of the series have always been dangerous elements, ones which simultaneously make it exciting to watch, and difficult to keep in check. It’s anybody’s guess as to when the obstacles the series has built for itself will become too much to overcome, but seeing as it’s more or less a given that the show will continue for years to come, that time will come eventually. Till then we can just hope for a couple more seasons as exciting and crazy as this one.
The season immediately establishes an edge over the first season by “introducing” the two best characters on the series yet. As the ending of last season’s finale suggested, the premiere is all about the return of Katherine, Elena’s vampire doppelganger who was responsible for turning Stefan into a vampire. We’ve seen Katherine in flashbacks, but she didn’t have nearly as much power in them as she does here, where she turns from murdering psychopath to playful sex kitten on a dime. Nina Dobrev proves once and for all that she can actually act: her Katherine is immediately distinct from her Elena, merely from the way she moves. There a few costume and hair shortcuts here that indicate whether it’s Katherine or Elena in a particular scene, but they’re quite subtle, allowing Dobrev to do most of the work. Katherine is somehow far sexier and more charismatic than Elena: all the air goes out of the room when she enters the scene. She’s the funniest, sexiest, and scariest character on the show, as if Dobrev had spent a whole year thinking up ways to top Ian Somerhalder’s scene stealing performance and was finally given free rein to do so.
Katherine is also responsible for introducing one of season 2’s other big additions: Vampire Caroline. Admittedly this is not a new character, and the power of this development draws from the surprisingly deep character work that the first season had established, but Candice Accola finds another gear for this character that makes her not only the most relatable and sympathetic character on the show, but also one of the most fun. One of the best ideas in the series is that vampirism doesn’t make people less human, but more so. All their emotions, strengths, and weaknesses are heightened exponentially, to the point that they are completely uncontrollable. Caroline was already an insecure, neurotic, yet surprisingly bubbly mess of a person and becoming a vampire takes these tendencies to the extreme. She’s quite frightening when first turned, and even kills a random bystander as a result of her initial uncontrollable bloodlust. Yet in the same episode she is also sweet and funny, impossible to dislike. She’s involved in the plot in a way she had never been before: she starts out as a pawn of Katherine’s, forced to spy on her best friends, and ends up being entangled in the season arc, which involves a super evil vampire/werewolf hybrid named Klaus who sends a succession of henchmen to retrieve a mysterious relic called the Moonstone for mysterious purposes. Sadly, she becomes sidelined in the final third of the season, weirdly isolated from the rest of the cast as she is entrenched in a love triangle that is compelling, but feels low stakes compared to the other happenings in Mystic Falls.
I’d go into greater detail describing the storyline, but I could probably use up 5,000 words just trying to recap what happened over the course of the season. Vampire Diaries is hugely focused on plot, perhaps more than any other show I’ve seen, and that works well for it. The sappier love scenes are easily ignored, or even embraced, when the show keeps moving forward like this. It never draws out a storyline too long, but also never seems like it shortchanges one. Its pace can feel a bit breathless at times, but that’s mainly because we’re used to shows having lots of filler episodes to keep from using up too many plotlines in a single season. This season is much more elegantly structured than last year’s: it gradually builds up a single season long arc, and the succession of new villains serves to build one big, most evil vampire of all, Klaus, as opposed to season 1’s rather aimless string of increasingly powerful vampires who show up and died a few episodes later. My only issue is that the final episode was a bit of a letdown: the show opts for a True Blood-esque calm after the storm finale, which suggests some intriguing places for the next season, but is ultimately too slow and unsatisfying for this show. It could have worked as a surprising, moody, unusually meditative pause from the breakneck pace, but the show doesn’t quite seem to know how to do this: instead it just comes across as a lot of exposition and foreshadowing that will pay off next year. The final scene, in which Elena’s brother Jeremy, having recently been brought back from the dead by his girlfriend Bonnie, has visions of his two previous (dead) girlfriends kind of encapsulates the episode: on one level it’s intriguing and surprising. But on another level it’s hard to see where they’re going with this, and it has nothing like the visceral power of Season One’s unforgettable cliffhanger.
Which leads to my next issue: can Season 3 possibly live up to this standard? It’s a question of how long the series it can keep going like this, and although this season is probably the show’s peak, there are very visible cracks in its foundation, just beneath the surface, that makes me worry about how long it can sustain this kind of momentum without devolving into a soap operatic mess. Worst of all is the possibility that the show will simply slow down, content to play the same kinds of beats over and over again, like pretty much everything else on the CW. What’s great about The Vampire Diaries is that it’s always moving forward, especially in the midst of dull, repetitive modern vampire romances like Twilight and the last two seasons of True Blood.
Because a critic can never be happy (perhaps TV critics most of all), let’s focus on what this amazingly consistent, constantly exciting, and overall pretty great season of TV got wrong. After all my review for Season One consisted of almost universal praise aside from the first few episodes: that kind of optimism can’t last forever. This is a fantastic show, but one that has issues built into its basic premise that will be difficult to overcome year after year. Let’s take a look at Season 2’s three biggest issues:
- Bizarre Ethics:
Okay, this issue comes up in every vampire romance, ever. Vampires are, by nature, vicious killers that thrive off of human blood. It’s pretty much impossible to tell a good vampire story in which the vampires don’t kill people: it neuters the entire concept of what a vampire is. Buffy avoided this for a while by making the sympathetic, lovey dovey vampire, Angel, have a soul: his soul can be taken away from him, but when he has it he has free will and tries to do good. When he doesn’t, he doesn’t really have any free will, and becomes a vicious killer. Yet as the show wore on and more and more major characters were introduced to the central cast who were former demons/vampires/whatever, the show’s code of ethics got increasingly bizarre: certain vampires and demons could be killed without question, but others couldn’t, especially if they had some kind of romantic attachment to a member of the core cast of characters. This fuzzy logic was one of the many factors that led to the final two seasons being such a drag. Its spinoff Angel avoided this issue by pretty much saying upfront that the central characters weren’t really heroes, or necessarily the good guys. They usually tried to do the right thing, but ended up making the world a worse place as often as not. The central characters could get away with doing the most terrible things, because either their actions were caused by good intentions, or they immediately attempted to atone for them. Furthermore terrible actions had repercussions even a season later, and none of the characters ever forgot what the others had done in the past.
The Vampire Diaries would probably be wise to follow the path of Angel. Make it clear that it’s not just Damon who’s the antihero: Stefan, Bonnie, Caroline, Alaric, and Elena all have teamed up with mass murderers time and time again to serve their own desires. Stop acting like Elena is pure and good: she cares about those close to her, but has a strange disregard for the lives of those who aren’t her friends. Her actions mainly come about from her strange undying affection for the Salvatore brothers, both of whom she refuses to give up on, even though one or the other of them have basically ruined her life, hurt all her friendships, tried to kill members of her family, etc., etc. She’s hardly a saint, and doesn’t think very rationally most of the time, but she’s sympathetic because all her actions are informed by love. The show just needs to stop acting like she’s the pure, good, unselfish one: though she seems to have a nearly complete disregard for her own safety, in a lot of ways she’s selfish, willing to choose what’s best for the people she cares about over what the right thing to do is.
The same is true for many of the other characters: when Bonnie voices her anger towards vampires, it’s easy to see her point. I don’t need my shows to be populated by “good” characters, so long as they’re sympathetic, but I do think the show needs to abandon this good versus evil perspective it has. The heroes’ motivations aren’t always that much purer than the villains’ and they both seem to get a ridiculous number of innocent people killed. For the show to continue work, it will have to essentially abandon ethics, and shift its perspective to a kind of “us versus them” perspective instead. Still, handling this sort of thing can be tricky: how far can the heroes go before they become completely unlikeable? I suppose we’ll see with next season’s “Dark Stefan” storyline.
- 2. Damon
Damon was the breakout character of Season 1: at the beginning of the season he was fun, campy, and deliciously evil. Ian Somerhalder turned out the kind of crazy, wild, unpredictable performance that no one ever knew he had in him, and became the show’s first highlight. Damon was a lot of things, but he was never boring: he even managed to make brooding seem interesting. However, while everything around him improved immensely in Season 2, Damon’s character started to deteriorate. Yes he was still fun and interesting, but he was no longer as exciting to see onscreen, and the little quirks and mannerisms of the character began to get repetitive. The show doesn’t quite seem to know where to take his character, after burning through several years’ worth of character development in the first season. First he got about as bad as he could get, killing Jeremy (who happened to be wearing the immortality ring), but confessing that he had no idea he was wearing the ring. He did this for no better reason than that he was frustrated by Elena’s refusal to admit her feelings for him. Of course then he had to be sad and heroic for a while, since the show had to come up with some explanation as to why Elena would speak to him again (though this still rang a bit false), before returning to the bad boy behavior again, and having him basically mind rape a TV reporter by glamouring her into being his girlfriend as a cover (this is what I mean about the questionable ethics).
In the midst of this the show floats a tantalizing explanation for Damon’s behavior (in one the best scenes of the season): he tries to act as inhuman as possible, because acting human reminds him that he wants his humanity back more than anything in the world. It’s also revealed that Katherine didn’t turn him, but rather Stefan, who didn’t want to be alone. Damon never wanted to be a vampire, but was forced into it. However this thread quickly gets dropped, unfortunately, and the show goes back to Damon moping about how Elena will never love him, and getting depressed about that. Most unpromisingly, the show looks like it will move closer towards Damon and Elena acting on the sexual tension between them, which is the point where the bad boy vampire type of character always gets lame and tiresome (see Eric on the most recent season of True Blood). I’m honestly not sure what the show can do to keep Damon from continuing to deteriorate as a character: I just hope that the show will realize the problem, and be willing to massively shift the dynamics of the show by killing him off or making him shift to a full on, irredeemable villain before he starts to become a drag on the whole thing.
3. Sprawling Ensemble
Like seemingly all CW shows, The Vampire Diaries has a ridiculously large cast, and it’s not always clear why. I suppose it’s so that the show can feature more romantic pairings that way, and can involve unexpected characters in new plots, but it means that a lot of characters sit around with nothing to do an awful lot of the time. Bonnie has been given some character development this season, having to deal with one of her best friends becoming a vampire, and starting up a romance with her other best friend’s brother, but she’s still basically a plot device. The show is happy to feature her heavily when the writers need one of her plot advancing spells to come into play, and then not even feature her, with little explanation, for 2 or 3 episodes at a time. Then there’s Jeremy: he was sympathetic and fairly involved in the central storyline last year, due to his woebegone girlfriends both getting mixed up in the central vampire storyline, but no one quite seemed to know what to do with him this year. First he died, then got weirdly buddy buddy with Damon, and finally hooked up with Bonnie, died again, and got brought back to her life by her… mainly because the show needed surprising things to happen to Jeremy to justify his presence on the show. However it seems like this all might be going somewhere long term, now that he’s seeing the ghosts of Vicki and Anna because of Bonnie’s spell: let’s hope that storyline goes somewhere and gets involved with the other characters populating Mystic Falls so that Jeremy won’t seem like the useless kid brother anymore.
But the show’s least promising character is Matt. Looking back, there has been no point to his character over the last two years, other than to make Caroline more relatable. His past with Elena is easy to forget, as is the fact that his sister died, so his only real function has been to be Caroline’s boyfriend (and in this season, get involved in a love triangle with her and Tyler). He wasn’t even aware that vampires existed until towards the end of the season, which just made him seem even more isolated from the rest of the characters. The show has shown that it knows how to resolve some of these issues, as it made Season One’s most annoying and pointless characters, Tyler, integral and sympathetic by having him become a werewolf and making a connection with Caroline, and killing off Jenna, Elena’s likeable but rather pointless aunt. Hopefully Season 3 will draw in its outliers more, instead of isolating even more characters from the main plot.
And so we approach Season 3, the season that could make or break the show. Is the show one of the greatest genre shows of the millennium? Or has it just briefly distinguished itself from the rest of the CW crowd, before lingering on for 5 mediocre seasons, causing everyone to forget what they liked about it in the first place? Only time will tell. For now, however, the second season of The Vampire Diaries can stand alongside the best seasons of teen and horror/fantasy shows, a surprising breakout triumph coming from a show that seemed like one of television’s worst offering when it first premiered.