[Spoilers below for the series finale]
The mistake too many TV shows make in crafting their series finale is in trying to be something they’re not. This is understandable. Television, by its most traditional definition, is meant to be infinitely open-ended. It’s meant to last for five seasons or more with only temporary endings to punctuate between episodes and seasons.
An ending, by its very nature, does not look like a beginning or middle. It has responsibilities all its own. The Vampire Diaries, which wrapped its eighth and final season up last night on The CW, was itself to the very end: messy, plot-churning, and emotionally resonant.
With series finales, TV shows are asked to do something they have never done before: properly end the story. The results are often, –forgive the pun — middling. The Vampire Diaries managed to beat the odds by following a few simple rules…
1) If you’re not a plot-driven show, don’t make your finale plot-centric.
One mistake many TV shows make is an attempt to wrap up every single lingering mystery or dangling plot thread in their season finales. (See: London Spy or Battlestar Galactica, both of which prioritized trying to wrap up their convoluted plots over giving their characters satisfying emotional resolutions).
This may be one instance that The Vampire Diaries’ ridiculously complicated plot actually works in the show’s favor. The idea of wrapping up eight seasons of doppelgangers, other realm mythology, and ghostly shenanigans is laughable. There was no way this show was going to tie that up in a neat little bow, so why not focus on what it has always done best?
Most people cite The Vampire Diaries’ most impressive attribute as its ability to churn through plot, but, for me, its strength has always been its commitment to character-driven melodrama.
Since the pilot, The Vampire Diaries has taken its characters and their angst 100% seriously. On a show that has seen more betrayals, forgiveness, broken friendships, renewed friendships, etc. than a Shakespearian drama, it has never lost track. And neither have its viewers. If you’re still watching this show in Season 8, then you are in it for the long haul. You remember every tear. (And there have been so many tears. This show’s real superpower is making people cry).
So, yeah, though plot was as important as ever to move this fast-paced story along, did anyone really care about the mechanics of the hellfire or the Mystic Falls bell or how exactly Bonnie could burn hell? No. We care about the emotional speeches and the conflicted allegiances and Katherine’s quips. Which brings me to my next point…
2) Know what you are best at and double down on that.
If you don’t have a plot to worry too much about, then what is there? Well, if you’re very lucky and have worked very hard like The Vampire Diaries has, you have a rich web of interpersonal relationships you spent eight seasons nurturing.
Too many shows concentrate on the dynamics that fit into trope-y boxes. The bromance, the romance, the father-son dynamic, the best friends, etc. The Vampire Diaries has always gone above and beyond when it comes to character dynamics, letting us know how even the weirdest, least-traditional couplings feel about one another.
The relationship between Alaric and Elena, for example, has never fit into an easily defined box. The two are family, but not in any traditionally recognized way. But that didn’t stop The Vampire Diaries from nurturing and remembering their relationship and, in the series finale, when Alaric tells Caroline to abandon Elena and Damon in Mystic Falls to save herself, that moment is burdened with so much more than a simple Leave Your Best Friend to Die in Order to Save Yourself.
Caroline may be the mother of his children and the woman he unrequitedly loves (which is super creepy, by the way, given that she was very recently his high school student), but Elena is his family, too. Damon has been one of his best friends. Nothing is simple when it comes to the tangled web of character relationships that The Vampire Diaries weaves, and I mean that as a compliment.
When Stefan dies then, it is tragic. It’s not fair. It means he will never see his brother or Caroline again (at least in this life), but he does get to apparently spend eternity with best friend Lexi. For any hardcore Steroline or Stelena shipper out there, this might not make you feel particularly better, but for many viewers, it gives Stefan a happy ending of sorts.
No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of plot sense that Stefan would have to sacrifice himself for Katherine to die and for hell to burn, but it makes some emotional sense because this show has always been about two brothers and their codependent, destructive, self-sacrificing, all-encompassing love for one another. In the end, Stefan chose to sacrifice himself for his big brother. Damon probably didn’t deserve it, but it’s what he got. And Stefan gets to hang out with his super fun best friend until Damon shows up in eternity. As far as endings go, that’s not exactly a sad one.
Besides, you know what else The Vampire Diaries has always been great at? Finding new ways to cheat death. In the show’s final installment, we learn that no one really disappears from existence. They just become ghost stalkers, creepily watching over their loved ones until such time as their loved ones die and they can all live happily ever after in eternity together. It’s a nice though, and one that gets us to see Damon and Stefan reunited in The Vampire Diaries’ final scene ever.