Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder/The CW
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What does it mean to be human? The Vampire Diaries has dabbled with themes both human and monster over the years, often coming up with somewhat muddled conclusions when comparing the two. Much of this has to do with the concept of a vampire’s humanity switch, a sort-of magic emotional switch a vampire can turn on and off in order to avoid feeling human side of themselves and going full vampire. What’s always been a bit unsettling about the idea of this switch is the thought that to be human is equivalent to being humane, which has always seemed like a bit of a simplification—especially when the flipping of the humanity switch just seemed to give vampires more personality and a penchant for murder. Where does the line actually exist between where a human ends and a vampire begins?

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When Caroline flipped her humanity switch in order to save herself from the grief of her mother dying, it really felt like an opportunity for The Vampire Diaries to tell a different story about vampires and humanity. After all, Caroline has a singular energy on the show; she’s the one who found herself after becoming a vampire, rather than being tortured by it. Her stint without humanity started out fascinating, when she laid out a plan for exactly how her humanity-free year would go as precisely as she would plan a Mystic Falls society gathering. Watching her lose control with Stefan was fun at first, but quickly became a bit too much like everyone else’s humanity-free antics—and if there’s one thing Caroline Forbes isn’t, it’s like everyone else.

This is why the decision to give her back her humanity so quickly works for me. There wasn’t much of anything else we could have learned by watching Caroline tear through the country on a murder spree (as much fun as watching that would be). No, the pathos now is in watching Caroline finally come to terms with her mother’s death and all she has lost. One of my biggest complaints during Liz’s illness was that Caroline was weirdly uninvolved with Liz, spending all her time with Stefan. By turning her humanity off, we didn’t even get to see her react, which makes that loss seem all the more profound when Caroline burns the last letter her mother ever wrote her and now will never know what it says. I cried for the first time over Liz’s death in that moment along with Caroline, as she finally allows herself to feel again. Which again brings me back to the question: What does humanity mean in this context? Is it Caroline feeling for her mother? Or is it her finally resisting her urge to give in to the vampire urges that compel her to kill? The show still isn’t quite clear on these things, leaving more questions than answers.

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Also thinking about humanity this week are Elena and Damon, as the writers move closer to Elena taking the cure. It’s a bit unfortunate that the show has basically already done this exact same cure storyline, because hitting the almost identical beats as in season four is a bit tiresome. Sure, Elena and Damon have a much stronger relationship now, but it still boils down to the same essential question: Can Damon deal with the fact that a human Elena and a vampire Damon will never work out? Damon seems to think this is the case, so he keeps the cure hidden from Elena until it is outed by a distraught Lily when Damon can’t get the ascendant in order to bring back Lily’s “family” of witchpire monsters. Honestly, Elena takes this news far better than I expected her to which is a nice moment of maturity in their relationship, a maturity that’s echoed by Damon when he says he will take the cure along with Elena so they can be human together. This story might be paralleling what happened in season four, but this is a very different decision from Damon, that is for sure.

For my money, the best part of this episode is Bonnie. If season six is remembered for anything, it will be remembered for evolving Bonnie Bennett into a character who finally looks out for herself, stands up for herself, and refuses to lay down and die for everyone around her at every opportunity. Bonnie spent months in a prison world—first with Damon, then with Kai, then alone—and this experience actually changed her, which isn’t always something that happens in the TVD universe. Bonnie refusing to help Damon even when she knows it will cause Elena to lose the cure is a fantastic, earned bit of selfishness; Bonnie reading Damon like a book and sarcastically offering to give up her safety so Damon can give Elena the cure—a cure she damn well knows Damon isn’t going to give Elena—is a wonderful culmination of all the work the show did to establish their tight relationship, because of course Bonnie knows Damon isn’t going to take her up on her offer. Bonnie has been weirdly sidelined to being in scenes with only one character at a time lately (and usually that character is Damon) but at least the writing when she is on the screen is better than anything the character has gotten in six seasons, and Kat Graham is knocking every scene out of the park.

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Going into the home stretch of the season we have Caroline who now has her humanity (and therefore is inconsolably sad), Bonnie who is in pure survival mode and determined not to die again for all of these fools, and Elena and Damon who are ready to take the cure together and live happily ever after as actual humans. Oh, and Lily just became a Ripper again because she can’t get her “family” back. It’s not quite clear yet how all of these threads will come together, but the themes of human vs. monster are coming through loud and clear. Now The Vampire Diaries just needs to figure out exactly what that means.

Stray observations:

  • Stefan, you are terrible at pretending to have your humanity switch turned off. Act like you’ve been to this rodeo before and have sex with the damn girl you’re trying to help if she wants to.
  • Enzo’s scenes with Lily were the first time I haven’t been annoyed by him in ages. I still don’t quite get why he’s marooned in stories where he doesn’t interact with anyone, but at least this is better than his Sarah nonsense.
  • Jo and Alaric are planning their wedding. They’re cute and I’m bored. I can’t believe they brought Matt Davis back for this.
  • Damon should never be allowed to hide things. Did he learn nothing from the soapstone?
  • From my notes: “Candice Accola, good at crying.”
  • This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: He took off his shirt. That was nice? Poor Matty needs something to do, writers.
  • Damon: “You’re making me Matt Donovan in your fantasy?”
  • Damon: “I think the PC term is witchpire.”

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