Elena Gilbert is important.
The show might be called The Vampire Diaries, but from the very beginning it was really about human Elena. She was our entry point into this crazy vampire world; for three seasons, our human tether grounding the supernatural insanity around her; our brave heroine who would rather sacrifice herself than allow her friends to get hurt. For a while, her doppelgänger blood was even the fulcrum around which the entire plot of the show pivoted, during what was the best creative stretch of the entire series to date. She was a teenage girl who was broken by the death of her parents and then put herself back together; was strong when she easily could have been weak.
She is important.
When Elena became a vampire in the season three finale, I mourned human Elena like she was a separate character who died, a character I deeply loved. Vampire Elena had a lot to live up to, and despite the turn being a brave storytelling choice that took the show on a far more adult path, vampire Elena ever quite managed to live up to the incredible standard human Elena set. Still, once the news hit earlier this spring that Nina Dobrev was leaving the show, my first reaction was: “How?” How does The Vampire Diaries say goodbye to its main character; its most important story driver; its intrepid heroine (even if some of that early sparkle is inevitably diminished by now)?
The answer is that they throw her a celebration. A celebration of her time on the show, and a celebration of the life Elena lived, the memories she made, and the relationships she is leaving behind. Turning Elena human by giving her the cure was the first (and most important) step in this celebration. By giving Elena back the humanity she desperately always wanted the show is essentially letting her go out on her own terms, to live the life she never thought she would be able to have once she was turned into a vampire. The tricky part was how the writers would get away with this. The solution they come up with is one of the more ingenious plot twists of the series, and a great way to say goodbye in a way that is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful at the same time.
When Kai reappeared—literally—at Jo and Alaric’s wedding in the previous episode, he didn’t just kill Jo and her unborn babies. No, he had a secondary goal: To get revenge on Bonnie for trapping him back in the 1903 prison world. His plan is diabolical TVD at its finest and proof that Kai was one of the better villains of the entire series. In short, he put a spell on Elena forcing her to stay in a Sleeping Beauty-like stasis that will last as long as Bonnie is alive. It’s a fantastically evil plan because it relies on his knowledge of all of the relationships in play here—and he’s pretty sure Damon will kill Bonnie to save Elena, losing his friend and the love of his life at the same time, when Bonnie dies and Elena never forgives him for doing the deed.
Where Kai makes a fatal error, however, is his evil brain doesn’t quite have the capacity to see all of the emotional history in play here. If he did, he’d know that Damon would be willing to wait lifetimes to be with Elena, allowing Bonnie to live a natural life and death. Kai pays for this error in the most gruesome way, as Damon literally hits his head right off his body like a tee-ball on a post. (Did we know Damon could do that, and if so why wasn’t he doing that all the time?) So alas, we say goodbye to Kai, and we say goodbye to Elena, but this moment is the perfect end cap on the friendship story between Damon and Bonnie that the show began in the season premiere. The best part is that amidst all of these endings, it feels like just the start of the friendship between the two.
Perhaps the best part of this episode is how it managed to balance the sheer insanity of Kai and the wedding with the smaller emotional moments of Elena’s departure. For the first 40 minutes, the action is split fairly judiciously between traditional TVD mania and Elena’s individual goodbyes to all her friends. It’s never quite revealed what is actually going on in Elena’s scenes, just that they are obviously somehow her final moments. Once Kai is dispatched the scenes are revealed to be everyone lining up to merge into Elena’s thoughts and say their goodbyes, and every single one is treated with a sense of history and respect.
For the final 20 emotional minutes, these goodbyes take precedence. Bonnie gets to hear Elena thank her for all of her sacrifices over the years, then say it’s her time to sacrifice something for Bonnie, right before they have Bonnie float some feathers in a callback to season one. Matt gets a pep talk about his future on Wickery Bridge, as Elena gives him a nudge toward following his dream to be a cop. Alaric gets a few kind words encouraging him and comforting him after his loss, in the same setting where Alaric trained Elena in the woods. Stefan gets a return to the scene in “The Last Day” when Elena told him she never wanted to become a vampire, and gets ultimate closure on their love story while giving it the respect and sense of history it deserves. Tyler gets a scene setting up his departure where Elena tells him to embrace the wolf and find himself. Finally, the episode ends on Elena and Damon, promising to see each other someday and dancing off into the night, and everything about it feels perfect and right.
What makes Elena’s exit from the show feel so special is that she didn’t die, breaking everyone’s hearts in the process. She didn’t choose to leave for some reason that didn’t make any sense. She’s alive. She’s waiting. She will get the life she wants—it will just have to wait a while. As she tells Bonnie: “We’ll both get everything we want. We just can’t have it at the same time.” For a girl who was literally defined by loss from her first moments on the show and experienced loss over and over again throughout, this feels like the most appropriate type of happy ending: Happy, yes, but tinged with a bittersweet sadness at the same time. No matter what The Vampire Diaries looks like going forward without her, Elena Gilbert got the ending she deserved.
And that is important.
- Thank you, Nina Dobrev, for six seasons. You were always a pleasure to watch—many times, a revelation.
- I feel a bit bad for Tyler and Michael Trevino that his exit is inevitably overshadowed here. Still, Tyler went out on a great note, helping save Alaric from Kai. He also ends on a tragic note, having to take Liv’s life in order to save himself. Not sure the show has ever done anything so twisted and tragic, but it totally worked.
- We got rid of the entire Gemini Coven (good riddance) but now the Heretics are here. I didn’t suspect they’d be a next-season villain when they were first introduced, that’s for sure.
- That cliffhanger. Is it the future? Have the Heretics ruined everything? Is Damon Batman now? WHAT IS HAPPENING?
- TY WEREWOLF KAI IS A VAMPIRE. Best text of all time?
- Stefan and Caroline are definitely happening next season. Stefan’s speech to Caroline at the end of the episode was quite good, at least.
- Perhaps sadder than losing Elena is knowing we’ll truly never see Katherine Pierce again. I held out hope that you were somehow alive (or at least undead somewhere) until the very end, Queen Katherine.
- All of Alaric’s wives and girlfriends end up dead (or shipped off to Alaska). Watching him put a gun to his head and pull the trigger was brutal but understandable. How does he come back from the loss of his wife and unborn children?
- This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: Matt Donovan crying on Wickery Bridge. Case closed.