For a show which has always managed to execute one story twist after another without violating the core identities of the characters, has Vampire Diaries finally gone too far? If so, did they learn nothing from fellow vampire TV show Angel, which notoriously destroyed the character of Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) through horribly ill-conceived and mismanaged plot developments during the show’s fourth season?
*SPOILERS ABOUT VAMPIRE DIARIES AND ANGEL BELOW*
The current season of Vampire Diaries has been a tough one for Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev). Being turned into a vampire will do that to you, I guess. Plus, let’s be honest: when has Elena ever had a relatively easy-going year? She lives in a turgid supernatural soap opera. Family members drop like flies around her, and vampires routinely drop to their knees in front of her (like, you know, to give her flowers or something, not something dirty).
However, even with an endless supply of supernatural drama on hand Elena has been consistently presented as a tenacious force of nature to strong-willed to allow anyone else to make her decisions for her. It’s become a running joke how often her plans fall through, usually in spectacular fashion, but the truth remains that the plans and related mistakes are her’s to make. Even though it came about outside of her control and against her wishes (suck it, Bella Swan!), Elena’s transition into vampirism at the start of the current season did not initially alter this. In fact, the subsequent dissolution of her romantic relationship with Stefan (Paul Wesley) came about largely because he was attempting to control her by applying a fix to her, i.e., a cure for vampirism, as opposed to accepting what she had become. Or so we thought.
Then Caroline (Candace Accola) opened her mouth and revealed the gotcha moment the show had been building towards: Elena was sire-bound to Damon because it was his blood that turned her into a vampire (“My Brother’s Keeper,” EP. 7). The sire-bond means she has to do anything Damon says, be it an action ordered by him or simply agreeing with all of his arguments. For the season’s first seven episodes, she became the most agreeable friend Damon could ever ask for, and somehow we hadn’t figured it out before the show yelled, “Surprise!” at the exact moment Damon and Elena were consummating their relationship. None of the characters were clued in on this until the audience was, meaning the only minds raped here were probably those of the viewers.
It was a way for the show to finally put Elena and Damon together without really doing it. She chooses Damon over his brother Stefan, but the choice comes at a time when she has been robbed of her free will thus throwing all her decisions into question.
The twist proved to be a dramatic boon for Damon, whose subsequent “Not like this, Elena. Not like this!” arc was genuinely compelling and charted growth in a character who previously had no problem taking advantage of women not in complete control of their faculties. However, what about Elena? The anti-Bella Swan who refused to be controlled was now reduced to slavish devotion via magical explanation to a vampire. The sire-bond story, beginning with the moment Caroline figured it out and explained it to us, lasted for 9 episodes, only ending when Damon ordered Elena to turn off her emotions before she suffered a complete breakdown following the death of her brother (“Stand By Me,” EP. 15). Somewhat unexpectedly, Elena has since become a sociopath, who closed the show’s most recent episode by dispassionately murdering an innocent woman as a warning sign of what will happen if Damon and Stefan don’t stop trying to cure her (“American Gothic,” EP. 18).
So, while she was sire-bound she had no agency, but she still resembled the Elena we knew. Now, she’s become a stone-cold killer who even freaks out Katherine, her doppelgänger who may now be the least malicious vampire played by Dobrev on the show.
The show has dipped into the “turn them evil” well before [see: both Stefan and Alaric (Matt Davis) last season]. As such, it may simply have been Elena’s turn, and the manner in which it happens (i.e., she turns off her emotions) is consistent with the rules of the universe within the show. However, add up the sire-bond story arc which occupied nearly half the season with this new era of evil Elena and one wonders if the result is a show which has pushed a character beyond recognition.
If this is correct, they are not the first. As argued by Jennifer Crusie in “The Assassination of Cordelia Chase,” Angel definitely pushed the character of Cordelia to far:
“[…] the first law of characterization is ‘Never violate your character’s core identity.’ You can play all the variations on her psychology that you want, you can show her growing and regressing, making huge mistakes and taking huge maturation leaps, but you cannot violate who she is at heart. The choice between honoring character to show growth and mutilating character to serve plot spells the difference between the delighted reaction, ‘I can’t believe she did that!’ and the betrayed protest, ‘I don’t believe she’d do that.’
From the moment Cordelia agreed to become a higher power, literally ascending to the heavens at the end of the third season, her character trajectory was one ‘I don’t believe she’d do that’ moment after another. It simply was not consistent that Cordelia would even agree to become a higher power, despite her susceptibility to flattery, and upon returning to Earth but stricken with amnesia nothing she did made sense.
Then she had sex with Connor, Angel’s son.
Similar to Elena and the sire-bond, all was done as a build to a gotcha moment where we discovered that Cordelia was possessed (the actual explanation is horribly complicated, but possessed about covers it) and secretly aligned with the primary antagonist at that time. After the reveal, the show was free to deepen Cordelia’s evil streak because the audience was now in on it. However, some things once seen can’t be un-seen. We had seen what we thought to be Cordelia having sex with Connor! Monica, you want to take this one (from the “The One With Chandler in a Box” episode of Friends in which Monica realizes she just kissed the adult son of her much older ex-boyfriend):
The show held back the reveal for far too long and betrayed the audience’s trust. Plus, the post-reveal storyline involving Cordelia giving birth to Connor’s child didn’t help matters (to be fair, Carpenter’s real-life pregnancy massively altered what the writers had originally planned). The damage done to the character of Cordelia took an absolutely brilliant episode to begin the healing. Luckily, season 5’s “You’re Welcome,” in which the real Cordelia finally returns, was up to the task.
Has Elena Gilbert reached a Cordelia Chase-level character assassination point? Not quite. Unlike Cordelia, Elena had not been acting horribly out of character before the big gotcha moment. In fact, the show was doing a masterful job of handling her transition into vampirism. She seemed to be growing and maturing as a character, coming to the decision to part ways with Stefan not because she didn’t love him but because he was not what she needed at the time. However, the sire bond story effectively placed an asterisk next to her emotional growth, as if an athlete caught using steroids.
The characters around Elena have consistently indicated they know what is right for her, much to her chagrin and consistent defiance. The sire-bond story continued this, but now the audience actively knew Elena was indeed wrong, at least if the topic involved Damon in any way. As such, she was ill served by this story line. However, since losing her emotions as well as the sire-bond Elena’s actions have been informed by her fierce independence, with the recent murder she committed simply being her new way of showing how little she cares for others trying to dictate her actions. Granted, how far into evil territory can they drag her before they make her irredeemable, but her behavior is true to her core identity as a character. The story line thereby argues how crucial emotions are to making Elena complete.
So, is Elena the new Cordelia Chase? That depends. The bad Cordelia from season 4 Angel? No. The awesome version of Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Kind of. Elena now “fights back, indignant that anyone or anything can threaten her” (Crusie). She has become an incredibly practical, smart bitch, the word used here in the nicest possible sense. That sounds an awful lot like Cordelia Chase. Yeah, did Cordelia literally have no emotions and show no regard for human life, killing at will? Well, no. Good point. Okay, maybe this is a rather strained comparison. However, I know that Angel ruined Cordelia during its 4th season, and Vampire Diaries has not quite done that with Elena during its fourth (i.e., current) season.
This post was inspired by “The Assassination of Cordelia Chase,” a Jennifer Crusie essay published in Five Seasons of Angel: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Vampire. Amazon.com. The full essay is available at Crusie’s personal website.
Vampire Diaries returns tonight with a new episode after two weeks of re-runs. Not everyone had a problem with Elena’s sire-bond story, and not everyone is probably completely down with evil Elena. What about the rest of you? What do you think?
- 5 Reasons You Should Be Watching Vampire Diaries (weminoredinfilm.com)