When The Vampire Diaries debuted half a dozen years ago, it looked like Twilight: The TV Series. But one thing quickly came to set TVD apart from other paranormal romances. One distinctive sound effect: the neck-snap. When someone's neck got snapped, you knew shit had just gone down.
Spoilers for recent episodes ahead...
Now TVD is in its sixth year, and has a spin-off in its second season, The Originals. And the neck-snap remains a constant. It's become comforting and almost jolly: the trademark noise as the upper vertebrae splinter, the sight of someone's head turning in an unsustainable angle. The neck-snap signifies a plot twist (literally), but also re-ratifies the franchise's covenant with the viewers. "We haven't gone soft," both shows announce with every twisted neck. "We're keeping it real."
Vampires can recover from a broken neck, so the neck-snap usually just puts one of the show's characters out of action — but the same maneuver does get used to cull the ever-dwindling cast of humans, as well. In either case, the broken spine usually comes as a surprise, and signals yet another betrayal.
The constant churn of plot twists, burning through a season's worth of plot developments in a single episode, helped set the TV version of Vampire Diaries apart from other fantasy universes. And that signature "turn-turn-turn" style depends on having characters who are impulsive, self-interested, and a little bit crazy. (To its credit, though, Vampire Diaries generally keeps its characters consistent enough to be believable, and instead of having convenient amnesia, will remind you of their labyrinthine histories in ways that are sometimes startling.)
Which brings us to the other thing that sets Vampire Diaries and its spin-off apart from a lot of media paranormal romances — their fiendish love of bad boys.
The Bad Boy
Twilight is a fable about choosing a husband who's so morally upright, he crosses over into being kind of a creep. Edward is a vampire who never takes human lives, which dovetails with his general uptightness — which includes his controlling, stalkery tendencies.
In the first couple seasons of Vampire Diaries, Stefan Salvatore is set up as being sort of the Edward surrogate. He also doesn't take human lives, and is the "nice" vampire as compared to his amoral, psychotic brother Damon. The show slowly develops into a love triangle between Elena, Stefan and Damon, with Stefan generally winning — until Elena becomes a vampire and suddenly prefers Damon. The metatextual background of that reversal comes from the fact that Damon is a hugely popular character, and over the past couple years, Vampire Diaries has become more like The Damon Show.
The most recent episodes of Vampire Diaries and The Originals both revolved, to some extent, around speeches by the respective show's chief "bad boy" characters: Damon and Klaus. Damon had to give a eulogy at a funeral, and Klaus had to give a speech at a wedding, and in both cases, the suspense revolved around whether these archetypically dickish characters would ruin things by being dicks.
The big "surprise" of both episodes is that Damon and Klaus do the right thing — Damon, for his part, puts aside his guilt about not giving his own mother a eulogy back when he was human, in order to deliver an actually decent eulogy for Caroline's mom Liz Forbes. Because Damon realizes Liz's funeral isn't about him, but about Caroline instead. Meanwhile Klaus keeps teasing us with the possibility that he'll have one of his trademark murder sprees at Haley's wedding to Jackson — only to deliver a heart-warming speech, instead.
If there's one go-to move that both TVD and Originals have used up, it's having the "bad boy" characters turn out to be kinda nice. Not that Damon and Klaus aren't still allowed to go murdery at times — but they get softened, over time, because they're kind of the heroes at this point, and because they have to be lovable enough for the show's other characters to love them.
There's a line that Klaus, Damon and the other amoral characters on these shows have to dance along, in fact: they have to be evil enough to keep surprising us, and keep that anti-heroic mystique, but they have to be nice enough that they're still part of the family.
Low Stakes, No Villains
Every now and then, one of these shows will flirt with having huge stakes. Like, the quasi-Romany "Travelers" will wipe out magic, worldwide. Or Klaus will create an army of half-vampire, half-werewolf "hybrids" that will rule the world. Or every supernatural being who ever died will come back to life and run rampant.
But these sorts of raised stakes are atypical for both shows, which tend to focus pretty heavily on low-stakes, high-emotion storylines in which the most important thing is a handful of characters and their emotional fulfillment. Maybe we worry a bit about who's running New Orleans. Or what's going to happen to the tiny town of Mystic Falls, the murder capital of Virginia. But for the most part, it's much more about romance (on Vampire Diaries) or family (on The Originals), or some combination of the two. It's about relationships, and who's going to be fulfilled emotionally, rather than who's going to claim some epic power.
And that's the thing that anchors these shows to the "paranormal romance" thing. If you think of Urban Fantasy, as a genre, having a spectrum that runs from paranormal romance to Dresden Files, something like True Blood is somewhere in the middle. But every time Vampire Diaries or Originals seems like it's about to start raising the stakes, there's a correction and the stakes get lowered again.
(It's been interesting to watch the impact of this on The CW's other main paranormal show, Supernatural, which used to be a masterclass in raising the stakes little by little, until they reached apocalyptic levels. And now, the stakes have descended to somewhere around "Sam and Dean might be more dysfunctional than usual.")
Part of the lowering of stakes on both shows is the avoidance of villains — every time a new serious "big bad" candidate is introduced, he or she either dies (Silas, the Travelers, the werewolf crime boss lady) or eventually becomes sort of lovable (Damon, Klaus, Kai, any number of other characters).
"Heightened Emotions" And The On/Off Emotion Switch
The other big development in last week's Vampire Diaries — and yes, this essay is in part in lieu of the recap I didn't get to do for both shows — was that Caroline Forbes decides to turn her emotions off. Her mom is dead, and she feels like Stefan is blowing her off (even though he's actually decided to ignore Damon's typically horrible advice, and try to date Caroline).
And of course, Caroline's emotion switch is accompanied by snapping her best friend's neck — even though it only takes a vampire a split-second to flip the emotion switch and there's no logical reason for the neck snap. It's a symbolic snap!
One of the most fascinating innovations in the Vampire Diaries universe is the way the vampires' emotions are either one extreme or the other — either you have "heightened emotions," as Stefan explains in every other episode, or you shut your emotions down altogether and become a heartless killing machine.
This duality is at the heart of the shows' approach to morality. Because the endless progression of neck-snaps is a minor setback to vampires but a career-ending injury to the human characters on the show. And one of the threads that runs through both TVD and Originals is that human life is intrinsically worth less than vampire life.
My theory about the ethical framework behind this disparity has always been that human life has less worth because vampires feel things more intensely than humans — and emotions = value. It's like the difference between you and a guinea pig. You and the guinea pig might both be "sentient," according to some definition of sentience, but you have more awareness, and probably feel things more deeply, than the guinea pig. (The guinea pig has no concrete sense of the past, or of object impermanence, and thus arguably cannot feel loss the way a human can.) So human life is worth more than guinea pig life.
In the TVD universe, vampires have two modes — feeling too much, or not feeling at all. And this is the duality that approaches good and evil. Neither mode actually results in behavior that a normal person would recognize as "good," but the "heightened emotions" mode at least encompasses the potential for goodness. Notably, the "heightened emotions" never include increased empathy — a vampire with those intensified emotions can stand right next to a suffering human, and apparently feel nothing.
Rather, the "heightened emotions" of a vampire are all relationship-based — romance, friendship, family. A vampire feels things more deeply, but only in totally selfish ways, or ways that relate to people he or she has an immediate connection with.
And that's the key to how Vampire Diaries and Originals have managed to transcend their "paranormal romance" origins — they're still largely personal and intimate, but their morality is limited to how you treat the people who have a claim on you. Edward Cullen would be horrified by absolutely all the characters on both shows, including his surrogate Stefan Salavatore.
And Stefan doesn't get nearly enough credit for being a stone cold badass, by the way — he can be more cold-blooded and ruthless than Damon, when he wants to be. If there are going to be teams, I'm Team Stefan — albeit not rooting for Stefan to end up with Elena, who's increasingly hard to like. I'm still not sure if I'm a Stefan-Caroline shipper, or just rooting for them to have the most awesome friendship ever. (Which could also be the most awesome romance — that's part of why Damon's terrible advice to Stefan was so terrible. Damon apparently believes that the only valid love is "epic stalkery true love," instead of love that grows out of friendship. The fact that Stefan and Caroline were friends first is the best reason to be optimistic about their romance.)
Typically, when you have a series about supernatural powers, the storylines wind up revolving around the responsible use of power — which, given that the audience consists largely of super-privileged Americans, becomes a metaphor for our own power and ability to walk over other people, without even realizing.
The Vampire Diaries and The Originals flirt with this question from time to time — chiefly in Stefan's struggles to keep from turning back into his serial-killer "Ripper" persona — but the most intriguing thing about both series is the way they invite us not to care. Sure, some people have more power than others. Sure, there are historical injustices — but what matters is how we treat the people we've pledged ourselves to, and how to navigate between the twin poles of "caring too much" in some instances and "not caring enough" in others.
In this way, both shows remain intriguingly dangerous, year after year — and also, arguably, present a more accurate portrait of our 21st century emotional and ethical landscape than most hand-wringing narratives about power and responsibility.