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'Vampire Diaries' loses stakes in season four

CW

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published February 1, 2013

Unless you’re dealing with a one-season wonder, every series, at some point, hits its slump. Even the near-perfect “Friday Night Lights” had the Season That Shall Not Be Named (known more commonly as season two). Everything went to shit when Connor came to “Angel” in its third season, and even though it eventually bounced back, his entrance marks a very dark time for the series. Who could ever forget the rogue cougar that forever lingers in our memories of “24,” a seemingly small detail that nonetheless dragged the entire season into stupidity. Every show, eventually, has its cougar. “The Vampire Diaries” ’s cougar? A little magical blemish called the sire bond.

The end of season three spurred a complete course change for “Vampire Diaries,” as Elena (Nina Dobrev) transformed from the show’s central human — and therefore its moral grounding — into the very thing she never wanted to be. Becoming a vampire changed Elena, and the first several episodes of season four probe these changes, showing more sides of the character than we’ve ever seen before. Her transformation draws her closer to Damon (Ian Somerhalder), who isn’t as hell-bent on making her human again as boyfriend Stefan (Paul Wesley) is. So Elena makes the emotionally mature decision to leave Stefan.

As it turns out, these changes are mostly just a byproduct of some stupid sire bond that gives Elena a creepy, unshakeable desire to please Damon.

Siring is by no means a new concept to vamp lore: Fans of “Buffy” and “Angel” will recall the quasi-familial, quasi-psychosexual bond forged between turners and their turnees. It was an essential component of Whedonverse mythology, the link that kept Angelus, Spike, Darla and Drusilla connected through centuries.

But in Mystic Falls, the sire bond doesn’t get its first mention until Klaus and his hybrids show up, and even then, siring in relation to vampires emerges out of nowhere like an uninvited guest. It’s a hackneyed plot attempt intended to shift the gears on the ongoing Elena-Stefan-Damon love triangle that over-occupies this season’s narrative.

Though it has no shortage of strong female characters, “Vampire Diaries” has always struggled with Elena. As a human in the middle of a world of supers, she sometimes slipped into distressed damsel debility. In the past, Elena’s agency was important to both the series and to Stefan: Last season, Stefan’s decision to save Matt first at her insistence ultimately distinguishes him from Damon, who wouldn’t have hesitated to save Elena first, even if she asked him not to. But the sire bond, even with all the asterisks the writers throw after it (it only manifests if the siree had feelings for the sirer before the transformation, apparently), threatens the very agency that makes Elena more than just someone who needs to be saved.

Despite its current slump, the season hasn’t been a complete failure. Standout episodes like “Memorial,” a classic TVD tearjerker that’s as moving as it is thrilling, and “We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes,” which dips into the horror genre with wonderfully wicked success, reinforce that the show hasn’t entirely lost itself yet. And the hunt for the fabled vampire cure so central to the season’s arc works well, as it affects each and every one of the characters in the ever-growing Mystic Falls web, in different and compelling ways.

But even with these upsides, it seems that showrunner Julie Plec has forgotten where the series’s strengths rest. Loyalty and love have always transcended bloodlines for these characters, but the Mystic Falls family is in shambles. The once beautiful friendship between Elena, Caroline (Candice Accola) and Bonnie (Kat Graham) is nowhere to be seen. When Caroline reacts negatively to Elena’s budding romance with Damon, she’s painted as petty — Elena even goes so far as to slutshame her for having eagerly slept with Damon back when he was just the smirking, mysterious new guy to town.

Elena acting so out-of-character is its own problem, but do Plec and Co. really think we’ve collectively forgotten about how Damon sexually and physically abused Caroline in season one? None of the characters think to mention it, and the show therefore dismisses an important aspect of its past, rejecting the careful character work behind Caroline. It’s unfair to the character and to Accola, who so far hasn’t been given many opportunities this season to flex those immensely powerful acting muscles we’ve seen her rock in the past.

News of a backdoor pilot for a Plec-produced TVD spinoff called “The Originals” couldn’t have come at a better time. While the arrival of Klaus and his family of thousand-year-old baddies propelled “Vampire Diaries” through some of its best story work, their complicated mythology has almost become too big for Mystic Falls. Perhaps taking them out of the equation will be just what “Vampire Diaries” needs to get back to basics. At the very least, let’s hope it allows Katherine (also played by Dobrev, in an amazing feat of duality) to fall back into the fold. Though Rebekah (Claire Holt) makes for a fine supremely evil queen of the undead, life without Katerina Petrova is far too boring and whiskeyless.