Vampire Diaries – season 1, episodes 1-3
Through some quirk of technology, we lost the original posts for our first three conversations on The Vampire Diaries, season 1. Here they are as one post for those how like to go all the way back to beginnings!
OK, let’s just talk about how much angsty teenage vampire promise The Vampire Diaries has! One episode in, having never read the books, and I’m willing to bet it’ll drive lusty, forlorn, brooding circles around Twilight.
First, teenage vampires with fangs – thank you, L.J. Smith. Vampires are still a cover for downright teenage lust and the danger of overcooked emotions, but at least they suck blood. If you need vampires to get your allegory across, at least they should pose some significant danger. Not sure what to make of the demon eyes and mottled face – too much of a stand-in for other bodily embarrassments of teenage masculinity? The dark, dangerous, “I will hurl you against the roof” brother pitted against the sensitive, reserved, “I like to journal” brother could either grow old quick or be a wonderful dramatization of the conflicted longings of all doe-eyed teenage girls (maybe like the two sides of Angel in Buffy externalized?).
And I can’t get much of a pulse on Elena. The “she looks just like my dead long-lost Civil War love” is kind of creepy and so far we haven’t seen much to demonstrate what sustained individuality she can maintain. I read on-line somewhere that in the books Elena is supposed to be snotty and self-absorbed before she meets Stefan and that the reader loves to hate her before she comes to love her. I wonder what it says that the books were written in the early ‘90s and that by 2009 we can’t have anything but a slightly wounded, lonesome, orphaned heroine? Forget a vampire slayer, could we even handle a self-confident, untraumatized, hold-her-own girl? I think we get closer with Sookie from True Blood (especially in the books), but even she is an orphan who loses her only parental figure early into the series.
Which brings me to parentlessness in general. I get it: teenage dramas are exactly supposed to navigate the world just prior to adulthood and full adult responsibility, but full of adult drama, tension, and decisions. Adults – parents and teachers – form a backdrop that provides the boundaries that allow the world to function without collapsing into external chaos that mirrors that within. All that said, did you find the complete absence of adults (besides a teacher who is totally emasculated by the centuries old vampire?) kind of disturbing? Aunt Jenna is a perfect example: she barely looks older than Elena (and, um, she’s a graduate student?!) and she is play-acting her guardian role self-consciously. The only adult we really see is Stefan’s relative (great, great nephew or something), but give the whole immortal life power imbalance, there is no real authority there. In fact, the teenage vampires usurp all the adult power so far. I remember your earlier dismay at the age/power imbalance between Bella and Edward in Twilight and can’t wait to hear what you think.
All this said, who doesn’t love watching a vampire hold his own at a teen kegger? I’d stick around and get another drink.
Well, I’m glad you see such potential in this show; I can’t say I’m really feeling it yet. But yes, thank God for vampires who are actually threatening! I loved the opening sequence allusion to so many ghost stories: the happy couple driving down the dark deserted road, so much in love, so happy…so about to die. Between that, and our first meeting with Stefan involving some guidance-counselor mind-control, we had a good reminder that even teenage vampires are more supernaturally dangerous than they are broody pacifists.
I like your point about the absence of adults in these teenagers’ lives. That absence is such an interesting theme in so many of the tv shows I love. I think I first noticed it with Claire in Six Feet Under – the character Alan Ball describes as his favourite. Her father dead and her mother totally self-absorbed, she is so often left to her own devices. Then there’s Becca Moody in Californication who at various times pieces together a traditional family, only to consistently be the center that holds it all together. Dylan in the original 90210 is another example – his position made possible by a massive inheritance. And of course so many of those kids from Dawson’s Creek, who seem to be the precursors for these Vampire Diaries kids…fast talkers with uber-verbal angst and lives lived almost devoid of real and helpful adult influence.
But in most of these cases, the power doesn’t need to be stripped from parental or adult figures; rather, those adults have failed (or died) in some way, and that’s what undermines their power. That’s what forces the kids to grow up too soon. We have that theme here with orphan Elena, but your point that this show also involves intentional stripping of adult power intrigues me. I mean, that teacher was so mean and snotty to the kids! It was so annoyingly obvious that the character was being set up for a fall. And why would two high school students need a panicked grad student to make breakfast for them? Last time I checked, a 17 year old could toast toast.
So like you say, in the end this type of theme is a performance of a particular kind of teenage angst. Teens face that moment when the adult generation who is supposed to lead them to adulthood fails them; that moment when they are forced into what feels like a premature independence. And so, as both adolescent and adult, the teenage vampire savior figure allows the teenager to feel a hope rising from within her own generation. And so it’s not just about lust and angst and brooding, although it is, of course, about all those things. But it’s also about seeking someone or something that can help us grow up, move forward, come into what we are supposed to be. The teenage vampire allows us the desire for our leader to come from our own ranks rather from the ranks of those who came before us without losing the wisdom of an older generation precisely because he is both.
That being said, this power relation is also what makes me tired of how all these fun new vampire shows have a female lead being led by a male vampire – why doesn’t a shy, confused, yet super sexy, prematurely adult teenage boy ever start a new year at school to find a super sexy female vamp in his chemistry class?
But I’m staying open-minded here. The word on the street is that this show gets better. And how can it not? It’s got the promise of a psychic best friend, a sexy older brother, a lexicon of fun new phrases to use and a potentially great soundtrack (loved the use of the Placebo remake of Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ in the wistful love diary scene!).
Love another ghost story beginning! Blood dripping from the tree onto the tent – that one terrified me when I was a camping teen. And the ‘blood Mary’ evoking mirror scenes…I like them turning all these ghost and ax-murderer type stories into vampire stories!
So, this one seemed to be all about the male relationships to me: Stefan and Damon working out their brother stuff (did Stefan shouting, “Why, so we can be brothers again?” to Damon’s, “I want you to remember who you are,” remind you of Dexter and his brother’s relationship at the end of season 1?); Stefan and Matt doing their territorial thing over Elena; Jeremy and Tyler doing their territorial thing over Vicki, and poor Matt trying to protect his sister from all these guys. At some point, the girls in the show began to look like moveable pieces – characters flitting from male-protector to male danger to male protector without a moment to catch their own breath in between.
With Stefan and Damon’s fight being over feeding, it got me thinking of one way in which this series might be compared to Twilight and True Blood. In Twilight, where Edward doesn’t feed on Bella, there is a similar type of male-definition of female characters. Bella often gets defined somewhere between Edward and Jacob. But with True Blood, where feeding (on each other) becomes a significant part of their sexual relationship, Sookie receives a power to move and function in vampire worlds that doesn’t require turning into a vampire herself. Sure, she still requires protection at times, but I wonder if the feeding aspect of her relationship with Bill shifts the power dynamics more in her favour – somewhat counter-intuitively to what we might expect.
One last thing – still tracking the disempowered adults: Why on earth would Aunt Jenna, trying to look like a “responsible adult” wear a semi-backless dress (more in the style of Joan Holloway than June Cleaver) to a parent-teacher conference? And again, why are these high school teachers such meanies? Who really talks to someone like that?!
I want to pick up the point you make about vampires who feed and those who don’t and the humans who are fed on. There has been a huge push toward the existentially vexed vampire and the vampire who tries to hang on to some semblance of their humanity while struggling against murderous bloodlust for sometime. But the general rule of this internal struggle is a zero-sum game: you either feed off humans and kill them/give into your dark vampiric nature. Or you refrain from feeding off them entirely. This all or nothing approach leaves us with an extreme dualism and a sense that what it means to be a vampire, as opposed to a human, is to exert excruciating and practically impossible levels of self-control or to abandon oneself to (evil) nature entirely. Both Twilight and The Vampire Diaries buy into this dualism whole hog. Though at least Twilight plays with the idea that this kind of self-control is gradually learned, and that mistakes can be made without a complete capitulation to the darkness (and remember, Bella doesn’t struggle nearly as much as expected once she is turned and it is credited to her general self-control as a human and her preparation – suggesting that a virtuous human life can make the transition to a vampiric state). True Blood and the novels by Charlaine Harris are unique in subverting this dualism – vampires can feed off of humans without losing themselves in orgiastic violence. And you are so right that this changes the human/vampire power dynamic in profound ways. Not to mention, humans feed off of vampires in that world, which gives the humans, especially our heroine Sookie, a completely different level of agency. But we can talk more about that in a True Blood conversation.
What do you think of the premise that not drinking human blood makes Stefan weaker than Damon? It makes perfect sense given standard vampire lore, but it means his self-restraint has an added sacrificial dimension that sort of made me wish he would just go steal a few pints from the blood bank. I couldn’t help but compare this (again) to Twilight where not only does the “vegetarian” lifestyle not weaken the Cullens, it is even hinted that it makes them, if not stronger, at least clearer of mind and purpose (kind of like Daniel and his friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s court?).
I agree that this episode was really a parade of male posturing and wasn’t nearly as delightful in an angsty, glorious way as the first one was for me. I am holding out for when Elena learns that Stefan is a vampire. At least once she knows she will have to respond, and perhaps we will see her own agency in relationship to the supernatural world that opens up before her (the trailer for next week gave me some hope that she will find out soon).
By the way, have you found it strange that the show has gone out of its way to acknowledge the standard “vampire markers” – they can’t cross the threshold until they are invited; they can hypnotize people; they have super senses and are super fast and super strong – but they haven’t even alluded to how it is that these vampires can parade around in broad daylight? Do they ever sleep?
Episode 3 really took off for me! Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the consideration of all adults in Mystic Falls to completely abscond from responsibility toward their young charges so as to allow teenage girls to have violent overnight guests and private dinner parties and midnight tête-à-têtes. The only consistent adult presence, Mr. Tanner (who was really just an overgrown high school boy jockeying for position like the Taylors of the world), was even conveniently killed in a display of Damon’s complete inhumanity. Perfect. Now the kids have full reign of the town and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
An interesting theme began to emerge with this episode: the angst of individuality. All the exchanges between Stefan and Elena about being loners or joiners? And Stefan’s remark upon learning that Bonnie’s ancestors were witches: “Salem witches were stunning examples of non-conformity and individualism” (thank you Emerson, to whom Damon slyly compares Stefan when reading his journal). Isn’t this what most what teenage drama is really about: do I belong? Am I just part of the herd? How do I distinguish myself without being a loner or loser? (come on, we all wrote about it in our journals or bad English class “I am a mystery” poems). By dramatizing the eternal angst of the American teen, even serious life trauma (the death of parents, divorce, being attacked by a supernatural creature) is subordinated to the internal angst of self-identity and belonging.
The question is, who’s got it right? Damon, who is nothing if not self-reliant? Or Stefan, who is all “ra-ra team spirit”? Sure, our sympathies are supposed to lie with Stefan, but who doesn’t feel a little of that longing to be beyond good and evil when they see Damon exercise his super power? (interestingly, we can see reverse parallels in the women these brothers choose to consort with: Damon with Caroline the conformer and Stefan with Elena the loner).
So much more to say – the vicarious thrill of watching Stefan try to reign in his super strength on the football field to fit in with the boys (so Clark Kent of him), the unleashing of Caroline’s unguarded bitchiness under Damon’s influence, the building hints that all is not normal with the Salvatore brothers – but I will hold off and wait to hear from you, after all, it isn’t always good to be a loner.
I absolutely agree; Vampire Diaries really came to life for me last night! While still waffling last week, I believe I may be wholly committed to this show now. This ongoing failure/absence/death of adult characters continues to intrigue as it continues to make room for the kids to grow into their own adult roles. I mean, did you ever have such classy, adult-free dinner parties when you were a teen? Maybe I’d get pizza with a boyfriend, but never set a table with a carefully prepared meal and matching glasses for a weeknight, non-anniversary related meal!
And while Mr. Tanner’s death offered that revelation of Damon’s inhumanity, he was also the character we as the audience were forced to hate. In fact, in the grand scheme of fantasy drama, Damon’s murder of him seemed to be less of an utterly different act than Stefan’s repeated, brutal humiliations of him in history class. Instead the murder was an extreme point on a sliding scale or slippery slope of the ways in which these two vampire-boys seek to demonstrate their particular modes of power. Both want to destroy this adult figure, cut him down; Damon just takes it exponentially further than Stefan.
And while I’m with you on finding the joiner vs. loner, participation vs. self-reliance arc interesting, it’s Bonnie’s paradox that attracts my attention most. Should she trust her gut, intuitive, somewhat psychic instinct in regards to Stefan? Or should she trust the more socialized, ‘he’s a nice guy with whom I shared a meal’ feeling more? I imagine we’ll see her torn between the two as the series progresses, both as a revelation of her own internal turmoil coming to terms with her gift (interesting parallel to True Blood’s Sookie Stackhouse, perhaps?), and as a truly external performance of Stefan’s own internal angst, as well as the oscillating danger and safety in which Elena finds herself.
Oh yes, so much more to say: like how much more so I enjoy Caroline’s character in this strange mode of enslavement/liberation she’s experiencing and the thrill of watching Elena slap Damon when he tries to manipulate her into seduction. Two modes of power made possible by the intervention of the brothers. Like you say, Caroline’s brainwashing lets her inner bitchiness out. I’m even more intrigued by how that pendant frees Elena to act with loyalty. In different senses, both experience those forms of control as liberation, and I’m excited to see how such power dynamics develop.
Ok, that’s it for now. I’m travelling today and need to hit the road. Have a great weekend!