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The Vampire Diaries season six cover

Like all universes, the one housing The CW’s Vampire Diaries is constantly expanding and contracting, shedding, and accreting plot lines and characters like so much cosmic dust. Similarly, the protagonists’—Salvatore brothers, Stefan and Damon, and their shared love interest Elena Gilbert—cycle of progress and regress gives the show its rhythm, if not a sense of consistent characterization or development.

The show takes place in Mystic Falls, where the core trio is accompanied by little brother Jeremy Gilbert (a vampire hunter) and best friends Caroline (a vampire) and Bonnie (a witch). The only standard-issue human on the show is Matt, but even he has an enchanted ring that makes him unkillable, and his best friend Tyler is a werewolf.

The CW’s source material is a set of young adult novels of the same name by L. J. Smith, and writers’ and producers’ resumés include other teen melodramas like Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. This lineage provides The Vampire Diaries’ structural blueprint: neither particularly nuanced nor technical, the show thrives on pacing and the thrill of sussing out secret schemes and shifting allegiances.

Season 6—the most recent—so far strikes a more somber, reflective mood, refreshing in the way it casts off the plots and villains of its predecessors. The first five seasons of the show were dominated by origin stories and archaic mythologies, a long chain of interconnected events set in motion in Rome and Greece, and pulled taut around The Vampire Diaries’ throat. In other words, most of the show’s drama was driven by villains whose primary motivations relate somehow to long-forgotten curses or ancient bloodlines.

On a more granular level, the show often plays out like a tiny political diorama, full of mysterious plots, betrayals, and double agents, in which competing factions of witches, werewolves, and vampires negotiate and jostle for power. The plot often finds a way of maneuvering these actors toward impasses until a threat, bargain, or agreement forces someone’s hand and pushes the action forward. In exchange for an antidote that would save his brother’s life, for example, Stefan leaves a trail of bodies up and down the East Coast; no one bats an eye.

This combination of lore and plot gives The Vampire Diaries a sense of fatalism or determinism: the peculiarities of Elena’s lineage often put her in the middle of large-scale, long-term conflicts of which she has no knowledge and over which she has no control, and the heroes’ immediate concerns (chiefly, keeping themselves and their friends alive) leave them with few options. This makes for fine melodrama, but it also prevents characters from making interesting decisions. “I had to do it!” is an oft-heard exculpatory trope that keeps interpersonal consequences at bay and stifles character development in favor of constantly rising action.

It is, ironically, Damon’s casual regard for human life that allows him to ignore other characters’ threats and operate outside the strictures of Stefan’s latest agreement or compromise. His agency is rarely curtailed or challenged and, as a result, he has the most clearly discernible arc of the crew. Indeed, he and Bonnie are one of the reasons Season 6 starts so well. The Season 5 finale resolved a set of ancient grudges and blood-feuds, and in the process Damon and Bonnie—presumed dead by their friends—are marooned in a time-locked pocket universe, where they are doomed to repeat one summer day in 1994 over and over.

The slate wiped clean, Season 6 is the first that doesn’t raise or revolve around conflicts that are tied to the characters’ relationship with the show’s mythology. The conflict that does exist in the first several episodes stems from the widening gulf between friends as they deal with grief, exile, and isolation. The relative sobriety of this year’s first ten episodes stands in relief of a previous reliance on punchy melodrama and rapid-fire plot development to hold viewers’ attention. The mid-season finale closes with tender, earnest scenes that are successful because the early episodes took a bit of breathing room to highlight characters instead of action.

That isn’t to say that character relationships haven’t always been a part of The Vampire Diaries, but they are often driven by external conflict, and executed clumsily and clunkily. One particularly egregious scene in Season 4 had a powerful vampire force Stefan and Elena to play Truth or Dare in order to over-explain why their relationship fell apart. With character studies like that, it’s no surprise that The Vampire Diaries is heavy on action and exposition.

In the past, the show’s overarching tension was that its characters complained about vampirism being a burden and a curse, while the plot only ever showed them being heroic, adventurous, invulnerable, and inexplicably wealthy. The Vampire Diaries’ supernatural premise worked as long as the show explored topics like power, control, and the transformational potential of true love, all the while shining a light on the types of young people that might be attracted to those things. Dracula terrifies people, but Damon and Stefan Salvatore cut aspirational figures.

Now, for the first time, most characters have problems that seem appreciable and understandable, and they’re all decidedly human. This season’s best scenes—Bonnie decorating a Christmas tree by herself, Stefan restoring Damon’s favorite hot rod, Caroline and her mother in the hospital—stand out for their restraint and for how little they rely on the show’s supernatural elements. The Vampire Diaries is at its best when vampires and werewolves complement, not supplant, its sense of drama, poignancy, and mystery.

Part of what makes The Vampire Diaries such a fun, compulsively streamable show is its sheer velocity: when it ramps up, each scene of a given episode can change the stakes, shift the landscape, or push the action forward in unexpected ways. These plot twists are fine and good, but The Vampire Diaries supports them with a deeper calculus.

A typical The Vampire Diaries episode touches on multiple seemingly-unrelated subplots: the local occultist begins dating a doctor, Damon and Bonnie make breakfast, and the rest of the gang goes to a party. As the season moves forward, these threads twine together in unexpected ways before coalescing, resolving, and pushing forward. The result is that each season is structured as a set of nested, Matryoshka-like arcs, each made of multiple parts and moving inexorably into the next.

The moment of revelation, when each disparate gear and cog finally whirs in lockstep, is often satisfying in the same ways that well-executed football plays or particularly vexing whodunnits might be. The reveal of this season’s villain was appropriately operatic, and a recently alluded-to long-lost Salvatore sister seems poised to dominate the second half of the season.

The result is a narrative clockwork that simultaneously revels in its intricacy while being appreciable to new viewers. Long-time fans get the pleasure of sussing out and identifying each hook and eye clasp linking things together. Meanwhile, because The Vampire Diaries plays so fast and loose with its own internal logic, it doesn’t take long to find the emotional through-lines of each roughly self-contained arc, even without foreknowledge of the show.

But, back to 1994: A few quips aside, these scenes aren’t played for irony or nostalgia, snugly fitting into a show that already depends on a steady rotation of flashbacks to 1492, the American Civil War, the Roaring 20's, and World War II. As the only two people in a bespoke prison-dimension, Bonnie and Damon are forced into an awkward domesticity as a way to mitigate the creeping sense of existential anguish. It’s fun to watch their previously icy relationship thaw over shopping trips to an eerily empty supermarket, but Bonnie is also simply one of the show’s best supporting characters: she is loyal without being cloying or martyr-like, vengeful without being cruel or needless.

Bonnie’s loneliness is particularly acute throughout the first half of the season, but it’s the dominant mood on both sides of the inter-dimensional chasm. For both Elena and Bonnie, happy memories, instead of mitigating their isolation or providing comfort, turn bitter. We mostly see this in flashbacks, but also in the two women’s unsuccessful attempts to rekindle and recreate the camaraderie of previous seasons. The motif is most explicit in Elena’s decision to erase the memories of her and Damon’s relationship.

Setting and theme converge most clearly in the time-stuck dimension: in 1994, Elena’s house still exists. Despite The Vampire Diaries’ being generally easy to pick up in medias res, there are two things you should know about Elena in order to make sense of this season’s most important scene. One: after her brother Jeremy’s death, Elena burned her house down. Two: after Damon’s apparent death, she erased all of her memories of him. Elena has had her fill of grief.

By a weaving and winding turn of events, Damon and Elena find themselves on the porch of the Gilbert home. Damon explains: “Bonnie and I came here every day. It was the closest thing I had to a picture of you, and I needed every reminder I could get.” The couple decide to enter the house but are sucked away before they can. The past, the house, and the metaphor go unexplored.

The scene is a turning point for Damon and Elena’s apparently on-again relationship (they promise to make new memories to replace the old ones) and for Season 6 as a whole: from here, the plot moves rapidly and the focus moves from reflective introspection to action and danger. From both vantage points, the implication is clear: it is time to look forward, not back.

To pull the lens back another level, the scene encapsulates the entire The Vampire Diaries endeavour so far: the old mythologies have been resolved, the loose ends tied off, the villains dead, dispatched, or given their own spin-offs. It’s difficult to see how a series could narratively and thematically reboot itself six years into its run and still be as evocative and stylish and mischievous as before. The Vampire Diaries threatens to grow long in the tooth, even while Season 6 is refreshing and surprising in its earnestness and pensiveness.

Joseph Leray is a journalist and critic living in Nashville whose work is often disrupted by his three cats and one dog. He tweets.

Joseph Leray is a journalist and critic living in Nashville whose work is often disrupted by his three cats and one dog. He tweets.
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