The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Elena Has To Die

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Hey Kathryn,

So first, I’m bummed to say that I missed the first 13 minutes of this episode! Please fill me in on what I missed! I’m visiting my family in Canada, and I got confused about the time difference. But as I settled in with my mum’s husband to watch, and began trying to explain to him what was going on, I was struck by what an incredibly complex show this is. Plotting out the history of each supernatural figure, the complex relationships between each character, the things we don’tknow, the things we do, and the things we’re still trying to figure out, who we trust and who we don’t…by the time I was done, he was hooked and my mum (who had been ignoring the whole saga while playing Bejeweled on my ipad) was complaining that she didn’t want to have to watch another “Vampire Show” because her hubby got tricked into it by her daughter.

And it got me thinking: is this show complex in an interesting, insightful, character driven way, or is it complex like a soap opera spinning around in circles? And I think the reason I love it is because it’s some combo of the two. The complexity has genuine moments of uniqueness. It’s not just the same people sinking in and out of comas in repetitive love triangles (Stefan/Damon/Elena aside). There are genuine moments of unique connectivity between characters, interesting spins put on to traditional vampire lore, and narratives that manage to maintain a sense of mystery without being annoying (really, what is an Original? I’m intrigued to know, but not frustrated that I don’t).  But then there’s also this fabulous melodrama to the whole thing, long lingering looks and, yes, a single (but enduring, rather than oscillating) love triangle.

But enough of this Vampire Diary love-fest, and on to the episode itself. If last week’s theme was trust, this week’s felt, to me, like torture – literally.  Multiple narratives bore this theme – from Damon’s neck brace, to Bonnie’s spiritual/magical/psychological torture of Luka, to Tyler’s holding and shooting of Stefan (which was, thank God, truncated by his conscience). We’ve talked about this before – the show revels in cinching up a body and doing damage to it (shirtless Stefan to panting Caroline). And I go back and forth on whether or not I think this is an interesting commentary on American politics of the last ten years, or whether it’s just blatant shock value. And I think it’s somewhere between the two.

It’s not political commentary, but the were’s throw away line tonight – “I learned this from a torture porn flick” – made me think it’s more a cultural commentary on how captivated we are by sexualized violence, and in this current time, by sexualized violence in an extreme, tortured way. Just like teenage sex (something the CW revels in – given the new VD ad-campaign which, to me, is actually a little disgusting), torture pushes the envelope. It’s so campy – it tells us what it’s doing as it does it. THIS IS TORTURE PORN. And by naming it as such, it kind of ceases to be it. The naming of it forces us to look at what it is about us that makes us want to watch. And in that we become the torturer, not the guy being tortured. We get convicted, and the scene disrupts us. Perhaps that’s not what VD is going for – but it helps me get through those scenes!

We had a little unfolding of the narrative tonight – although I had a hard time remembering what we already knew and what we didn’t. I thought we knew Elena had to die – woops! But I’m curious about Luka’s sister…even more so, I’m intrigued by the fact that we finally have some insight into why all witches are African American. It seems that parallel to the human chattel slave system, there was (and IS!) a supernatural chattel slave system – and that the two are somehow connected. But how did Luka’s sister end up enslaved by Klaus? And will they develop this idea of Elena vs. Luka’s sister – who deserves to live? Can we trust Elijah? And what is this rivalry between Klaus and Elijah?

And still, what is an original???

Oh, and what is with that secret closet with the Gilbert vampire fighting tools? That was left lingering and I, for one, am longing for more Gilbert folklore along with the vampire kind.

So I’m loving that Bonnie and Jer have finally hooked it up! I know it’s clichéd, but I’m a sucker for the girl being shocked at the guy’s kissing skills! And the little face he gave her right before he kissed…adorable! It was a lovely moment.

It also made me realize one more time how left out of everything Matt is. As I explained all the characters to my mum’s husband, I realized outside of the clueless parentals, Jer and Matt are the only non-supes, but at least Jer knows what is going on. Matt is so innocent and clueless…we’ve asked again and again when he is going to learn what’s going on. But I wondered tonight if that’s the wrong question. I’m starting to wonder now if we should be asking what function he manages to perform in the narrative with his cluelessness. Is he us? Is he a constant reminder that he’s the only character we can truly relate to? Is he somehow an anchor in a way we haven’t even managed to recognize yet?

Ok, can’t wait to hear what you thought, and what I missed!
xoxo,
Natalie

—-
Dear Natalie,

Thanks for setting up a great conversation – we were definitely thinking many of the same things last night! Starting with my own thoughts about the complex, interconnected, soap opery nature of the show. I’ve kind of sucked my husband into watching with me, even though he says it makes him feel like he just ate a bag of snickers (kind of delicious and addictive in the moment, but it makes you feel sick and sugery afterward). Where the show is most unbearable is when it is most like its predecesor, Dawson’s Creek (both created by Kevin Williamson). Don’t get me wrong, DC was also totally addictive (though I never watched the whole series) and capable of plumbing the depths of the American middle class teenage soul. But as much as both of these shows seem to show us what it feels like to be a teenager in a certain social location, they also create what it means. How many perfectly good, fumbling, awkward, temporary teenage romances have been spoiled because they don’t look like Stefan and Elena on the dock at her parent’s lake house? And while we are on it, OMG, what universe is this where teenage couples in suburban Virginia retire to lake houses to drink wine and have sex with full awareness and support from “parental” guardians?! That’s the point, though, right? It’s a fantasy. These teenage dramas create an idea of what it is like to be grown up and they give millions of American girls (and some guys) scripts to follow as they try to figure out their own romances. It is also why these shows are often avidly watched by older women too – because the truth is that no romance really looks like Stefan and Elena on the dock. Who talks like that? Since you brought up the topic of torture porn (and more on that in a second), these teenage dramas can also function like a kind of relationship/emotional porn. Like the completely false, misogynistic, violent assumptions about women that teenage boys can form watching sexual porn – sometimes affecting their ideas, attitudes, and behavior about and toward women quite explicitly, always affecting it implicitly – teenage girls (and their middle aged moms) can form completely unrealistic, false, and even pernicious ideas about romance from these dramas. The fantasy that there is some universe where hot men exists to cater to the emotional whims of women without any of the real back and forth growing up it takes to try to love an equal can be a dangerous illusion when it comes to real life as well.

But Vampire Diaries gets off the hook, at least somewhat, for me, because it is not just a teenage soap opera. It is a supernatural teenage drama with some hefty horror motifs thrown in to boot, making it just complicated enough to make me feel somewhat justified by how excited I am when it is Thursday each week. I am not entirely sure where the 13 minute mark left us last night (since I had to erase the episode to make room for new shows), but I am pretty sure you missed Elijah and Damon’s face-to-face confrontation. Damon finds out that Elijah is posing as a historian again and has invited himself to the local historical society’s high tea. He tags along and naturally Elijah knows he is being called out. They retire to a quiet study in the mayor’s house (let us pause and appreciate how convenient these studies always are) and Damon asks Elijah what his end game is. No surprise that Elijah refuses to say. Damon gets all tough and predatory, but with seemingly no effort at all, Elijah pins him to a wall and sticks a pencil in his neck, telling him that he will live so long as he is useful to Elijah, so he better be useful and keep Elena safe. This was probably the most significant thing you missed, other than Uncle John threatening Alaric that he would tell Jenna all about Alaric’s lying (hence the growing pain and distance between Jenna and Alaric to be explored in coming weeks).

One has to ask, then, the pressing question: what the hell is up with Damon’s neck? Why did everyone want to torture him this week by stabbing his neck? Poetic justice for all his lethal biting? Of course, the larger question that you raise is what is up with all this torture? I agree with you that there is a definite torture porn theme going on. What seems essential to me about the torture on this show is that it always happens to the supes who we know will heal at super fast speed. We haven’t seen a human get tortured (unless you count Katherine holding Jer hostage and slowly drinking him dry, which is definitely some kind of torture). The stakes are considerably lower when we know that whatever happens our hero will survive the particular act. Though this also means the torture can be so much more graphic and horrible. One moment in that torture porn necklace and a human would be dead for, but Damon can take it again and again. Jules can threaten to shoot him point blank in the chest with scatter shot and while it would presumably be excruciatingly painful, it wouldn’t do Damon in. Likewise with Caroline and Stefan each being shot repeatedly at point blank range. The violence can be so much more extreme because short of a few very specific actions (stake through the heart, heart ripped out of the chest) it is hard to kill a werewolf or a vampire through torture alone.

Using the supernatural advantage to raise the violence bar seems partially just to exploit the show’s horror flick motifs. In a horror movie death alone is not enough – it has to be a superlative, gratuitous death of the most horrible kind. Since this is not a horror show, per se, you can’t have your good humans succumb to such excess, but you can play with the same themes using torture and supernatural healing properties. On the other hand, I wonder if excess in this area is just another mirror for excess in other areas of the show. Just like the supernatural transformations of Caroline and Tyler allow the show to blow up the usual angst of teenage life on a super scale, so the torture of supernatural characters allows the show to blow up the emotional stakes of the show. Then again, I also think you are right that it is just part of a larger phenomenon that has made torture more acceptable to watch. The more we get used to seeing “normal” torture, the more graphic it has to get to prove to us how bad it really is.

I’m going on way too long this week, but before I sign off, just to clarify the new thing we learned this week was that Elijah is only keeping Elena safe so that he can sacrifice her as part of his plan to take down Klaus. The big question has been, does Elijah have Elena’s well-begin in mind? And the answer is a definitive NO. We also learn that Elena suspected as much and didn’t seem to care. The next big question will be, it seems to me, what will Elena do? Will she at least try to fight instead of (and I have to agree with Stefan on this one) tragically playing the martyr?

Final point: totally agree about Jer and Bonnie! Yes, yes, yes!

Kathryn

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