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Friday, 23 of April of 2021

The Vampire Diaries — Heart of Darkness

Look up chemistry in the dictionary, see reference to this scene

I haven’t been keeping up with my TVD reviews as I’d like, and I was sitting on some pretty serious disgruntled feelings in the last few weeks that I was pretty desperate to get out. After “The Murder of One,” I was pretty frustrated. It seemed the show was not only not going anywhere but also was displaying extreme signs of fatigue–dangerous ground for an energetic, youth-focused show like this. Most problematic, perhaps, is that I began to doubt the authority of the show’s writers.

I’m really intrigued by the relationship of Julie Plec with her audience. I don’t following all the ‘shipping sites, and I rarely track the conversations with Plec on Twitter. But I have nevertheless heard about fans utter frustration with her refusal to deliver the couple they want. Whether you root for Stelena or Delena, the investment placed in these pairings can be tantamount.

I’m not really a “fan” in certain senses. I look forward to the show every week, but my emotional investment is lacking. Whether I’m watching the hotness of Elena and Stefan or the comparable hotness of Elena and Damon, I enjoy all forms of hotness. That said, Elena and Stefan haven’t been hot for a very long time, and this is a problem.

The thing that Damon (Somerhalder) offers for fans is extreme charisma and rocket fire chemistry with Elena (Dobrev). It isn’t that I don’t think Stefan (Wesley) can offer some pretty loin-driven appeal, but they show’s attention hasn’t really been there since the first time Elena and Stefan had sex (which was a pretty spicy scene, btw).

I’m focusing on sex because that’s the energy that drives this show. Sex is not all there is between either couple, but in the world of #TVD, the passion ratings can send viewers into the stratosphere with ease. Perhaps this is why I look to Delena–the writers seem more attentive to a rather careful nurturing of their mutual attraction, while Stefan gets stuck with the pain, struggle, and silence of a long-term relationship in crisis.

I’m getting into all of this for two reasons. First, I had a long conversation with a Stelena fan the other day on Twitter (you can see that here) and second, I was rather horrified by something in last night’s episode.  During that conversation with fellow Media Studies scholar, Kristen Warner (@kaydubya), I was reminded that for some fans, the depiction of a couple can symbolize more than some characters in a TV show.  Rather, the pairing can convey larger meanings that more fully justify the viewer’s investment.  Kristen and I were not simply debating which guy was better for Elena–we were also trying to define the territory of romance  on TV, and our framing was feminist.

The pitfalls are many for depictions of love on TV–there’s the trap of the “sex is dangerous” territory, or the world-consuming narratives of romantic love that frequently issue a binary–life can be possible only through the desperate need of another person.  Sometimes TV makes a love relationship seem inevitable, or even as if the characters have no choice.  Nothing infuriates a feminist more than the suggestion that women do not have full control over our minds or our bodies.  Elena has remained a remarkably well-written character.  She is articulate and quite self-aware of the absurdity of her situation–in love with two vampires.  She approaches these relationships with a curiosity that fascinates me.

The reasons fans engage with either couple as shippers can indicate a good deal about their own investment in the (feminist) politics of hetero-normative relationships (I presume there are shippers for non-hetero pairings, and that’s something I should probably look into).  A general disclaimer is in order–selecting either vampire as a life partner is likely unwise–pretty much comes along with a death wish since true life-long love with a vampire exists only if you, too, are a vampire.  But beyond that, a choice for Stefan is a win for honor, maturity, sincerity, and deep commitment.  A choice for Damon, on the other hand, is a win for daring, chemistry, complexity, and redemption. As the writers have developed the pairings, Stefan is security, and Damon is passion.  Certainly, this is a false dichotomy, but it is an easy way to read the text.  As a Delena fan, I can admit that Stefan is the wiser choice.  That doesn’t mean I want to see Elena, a character on a TV show, make the wiser choice.  Instead, I sort of crave the drama of the Damon choice.  Even though I expect in the end she’ll end up with Stefan.

I could debate the wisdom of shipping for any couple, since basing your pleasure in a show on a relationship beyond your control places you in the debt of the show’s writers.  And that’s where Plec’s comments last night come in.  I’m going to go ahead and quote the whole thing to demonstrate how seemingly partisan is her statement–and then consider how her comments are worse than partisan.  In fact, they say very little and mostly exist to confirm that her view of this show is all about her.

Rose, a relatively minor character who came into the show to help the audience see Damon as a good guy (apparently), appears again since there is no true loss on this show (for real, are the writers trying to remove ALL STAKES for the series?  Once being a vampire is COMPLETELY AWESOME ALL THE TIME, and once death is not final, you’ve sort of removed most of the urgency for a show about a young woman fighting to remain human).  Anyhew, Rose appears in a car for no apparent reason and tells Jeremy, Elena’s brother, that he shouldn’t be so upset about the Damon/Elena make-out session from ten minutes prior in the episode:

Don’t tell them I’m here.  They had a fight.  I know you want to stop it, protect her from it.  But you’re young.  You don’t see what I see.  It’s not just that she  makes him a better person, and she does, but he changes her, too.  Damon challenges her, surprises her, he makes her question her life, beliefs.  Stefan is different.  His love is pure.  He’ll always be good for her.  Damon is either the best thing for her or the worst.

Read the above again, only add “dear audience” at the top.  Plec basically spoke directly to her audience through Rose–asserting the wisdom of her experience against the relative naiveté of her young audience.  The fact that she begins the speech by silencing Jeremy demonstrates to what extent she does not want to  hear from her audience on this issue.  Most egregious, though, is the capper on the speech.  Damon is either the best or the worst?  Apparently, that is something for Plec to decide.

I’m normally a fan of authorial agency–I watch particular shows, like Buffy, because I admire the skill and finesse of the writers.  I am interested to see where they take the story, and generally, I am content to go along for the ride.  But Plec has apparently been feeling either extremely threatened or extremely arrogant because she is no longer letting the text speak for itself.

Art only comes to mean through engagement with an audience.  That audience may include a host of people, from critics, to viewers, to the show’s creators.  But it is impossible–and unwise–for an author to direct reading of a text.  It limits the possibilities.  It suggests the text operates only on one level–the level intended by the author.  It is such an old school, bull shit approach that Plec is taking here: be quiet, audience, and I’ll tell you how to read this show.

I cry foul to that.  I’m been suspicious about the writers utter manipulation of their audience–and their characters–without enough attention to the show’s needs.  For some reason, the writers seem to love Klaus (that will be the subject of another rant, I promise).  But each time they alter the rules to allow Klaus to remain on the program, they not only undermine the consistency of the program’s mythology, but they also undermine the integrity of their characters.

Look, the stuff between Elena and Damon was super hot last night.  When Elena stared at Damon, desperately trying to understand her desire for him.  When his hand lightly touched hers, sending shock waves through her body (only on TV can a move like that mean so much).  When they both issue small moans as they kiss.  Incredible. Somerhalder tweeted about it some weeks back when he shot it, saying he filmed a scene that will make some people really happy and other people really upset.  That’s fine.  It is okay to make some viewers upset if it supports the long term needs of the story.  But do not tell the viewers how to feel. Trust that we know how to read a text, that we have reasons for our affinities and our upset, and that what we want from the series is a good ride.  Not a lecture from mother.

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