From its very beginning, The Vampire Diaries was obsessed with the idea of good and bad. Stefan was the “good” brother, Damon the “bad,” and the show then used those loose definitions to springboard eight seasons of stories that either confirmed or subverted those initial character sketches. Eventually, especially in the show’s final season, it deepened the idea to encompass the brothers’ quest for redemption, and that’s where things got a bit trickier.
The problem with focusing on the theme redemption for a cast of characters who are, at their very base characteristic, mass murderers is an intensely difficult high wire to balance a story on, and it never quite felt like the writers got a firm grasp on how to make it work. From season to season—and hell, sometimes episode to episode—one Salvatore brother was painted as the worst evil while the other was a saint, only to have the roles quickly reversed, while Elena sat in the middle as the fulcrum the two brothers’ morality balanced upon. Once Nina Dobrev left the show and Elena wasn’t there for them to orbit around, the whole thing basically fell apart.
But telling stories of confused morality and redemption isn’t necessarily what the show did best even at its peak storytelling capability, which is one of the reasons that the later seasons—which used those themes as almost a crutch—were never as strong as the show at its early-season heights. What The Vampire Diaries did best was to churn story, building a practically unparalleled streak of “holy shit” moments that lasted almost two and a half seasons before ultimately collapsing under its own weight of success. Season two is genre storytelling at its best, with constant twists and turns, great villains, and plenty of surprise stabbings to keep things interesting. The most important thing season two did, though, was up the emotional stakes with the characters in a way that assured they would be cared about long after the dizzying story speed had finally mellowed into something more sedate, paving the way for the audience to make it through some of the rougher later seasons.
Which brings us to the series finale, which takes the last two seasons of middling villains, confusing mythology, and repetitive, confused redemption stories and manages to craft them into an ending that both respects those floundering journeys and also wraps them into a package that gives each character emotional closure. The season that preceded it was certainly a mixed bag of ideas, featuring a lot of pure nonsense peppered with a few genuinely great moments, but most of those things don’t matter here, and that feels like it’s by design. Sure, the mythology of the season with Cade and the Sirens and the MacGuffin bell are all there in the background, but how the show got here isn’t nearly as important as what the characters do to fix everything in the end, which feels like the exact right choice for a series finale. In a choice between having a story I never cared about make sense or giving the characters I’ve loved for years a poignant, emotional send-off, poignancy will win every time.
Take Cade and his convoluted, season-long quest to use the Salvatore brothers to do his bidding. As is revealed in the finale, it was actually Katherine controlling Cade all along, making the whole story have an emotional tether to reality. Does it make sense? Not totally. Is it too late to make that story worth it? Probably, but in the context of this finale and getting to see Katherine work her wonderful, evil ways again, it at least works in the context of this episode.
Bringing Katherine back also allowed the show to have the brothers sacrifice themselves for each other one last time in order to finally defeat her, which feels like a fitting bookend. The second it appears that Damon is going to be the one to sacrifice himself for Stefan it’s obvious the final twist will be that Stefan will be the one sacrificing himself instead, and in the end, that feels right. Stefan killing Enzo was his final horrible thing, possibly the worst act he ever committed and one he admittedly didn’t know how to recover from. Sacrificing himself so Damon and Elena can have a long, happy life together is his self-given penance (even if it does mean one final act of cruelty in abandoning Caroline forever, right after their wedding day).
For a show that was very wrapped up in stories of romantic love throughout its run, interestingly the finale eschewed those stories as the most important for two of its main characters. Both Bonnie and Caroline ended the series having lost their true loves—and, thankfully, both seemed largely at peace with where their life ended up. Bonnie ended the series by saving Mystic Falls and her friends one last time (by regaining her magic, uh, somehow, that whole thing was unclear) and calling upon her ancestors in a powerful scene, then decided to travel and embrace her life and be happy without Enzo. Caroline started a boarding school for supernatural kids, which is honestly totally strange but at least feels like an active, purposeful life not spent solely mourning Stefan.
But what the characters did with the rest of their lives was quickly overshadowed by the show’s final idea, the idea that most important thing in this universe is to be reunited with those you love at the end once you die. To live the best life you can and then find peace with them, forever. When Stefan died, he got to say goodbye to Elena and then teamed up with Lexi, in a wrenchingly sweet surprise. Elena gets her whole family back, including her parents, Jenna, and Uncle Father John.
As for the final scene, The Vampire Diaries got it exactly right. As much as the series was about monsters and mayhem and love triangles, as much as Elena was important to the show, at its heart it was always a story about two brothers who were tragically, permanently tied to each other via a series of both horrible and wonderful events. For them to find peace in the end once Damon dies, finally reunited and together, feels right, no matter what stories of confused morality and redemption the show told about them along the way. “Hello, brother.” Goodbye, The Vampire Diaries.