Love, Cake, and Vampires: A Guest Post by Alexis Hall

After interviewing Alexis Hall about his novel Glitterland, I asked if he’d be interested in guest posting here from time to time, and he agreed. I’m excited to present his first post — an outpouring of love for The Vampire Diaries, complete with a typology of love triangles and a last-minute plot twist!


Let me begin with a confession: I love The Vampire Diaries. I genuinely, passionately, my favourite thing on TV, maybe in the universe, love it. I tried to enjoy it in a cool, ironic way but from the moment bad boy vampire Damon rocked up in season one and actually murdered an innocent schoolgirl, I was like “hell to the yeah, this show has balls.” I can’t actually remember anything that’s ever happened in it ever, but that’s largely because so much happens. It’s the sort of show that leaves you sitting on the sofa, exhausted with incident and the dawning realisation that you’re still on episode four. I should probably mention here that I’ve not read the books, which I know this makes me kind of philistine, particular since, as I understand it, fans of the novels consider think the TV series of a travesty. So with my travesty hat on, I’m going to rave about how awesome the show is.


The centrepiece of The Vampire Diaries is something that seems, on the surface, to be Ye Olde Standard Teenage Love Triangle, consisting of our kind, noble heroine, Elena, and the two hot vampire brothers who want to bang her. There’s Stefan, the good one, who initially kept a diary but I think they stopped that when they realised it made him come across like a fourteen year old girl. Like most morally upright vampires, his hobbies include feeling bad and looking sad. Then there’s his brother, Damon, who is a sociopathic, mass-murdering, sexually promiscuous party boy with all the good lines. He also has literally one facial expression but he’s played by Ian Somerhalder so who’s counting.

-tvd-the-vampire-diaries-23701902-1680-1050Usually, I have no patience for love triangles. It’s kind of like watching someone standing in a cake shop, faffing endlessly over strawberry gateau or chocolate tart. In short, a lot of angst and woe over a non-problem with a very simple solution: honey, they’re both great, just pick one.

And I will confess that, by the end of season three, I was starting to lose patience with TVD. The love triangle was all dithery and the plot had gone more than usually tendriltastic. There was something with original vampires, and a white ash stake, and hybrids, and doppelgangers and, oh lord, I really have no idea. But the season ended, as is traditional for The Vampire Diaries, with somebody trying to do something for which it was somehow necessary to eat, kill or ritually sacrifice Elena and, yeah, she died.

But, y’know, only technically.

the-vampire-diaries-elena-damon-stefan-the-vampire-diaries-32662016-2560-1600So, spoiler, season four has kicked off with Elena being a vampire and my enthusiasm for the show is back in full force. Including, shockingly, my commitment to this bloody love triangle because, for the first time, I truly realised just how superlatively messed up and awesome it is. How fascinating its dynamics and how well-articulated its central conceit. The plot details are hazy to me but at the end of season three, there was one of those implausible “can only save one person” scenarios and Elena tells Stefan to save her best friend, Uninspiringly Human Matt. And Stefan does, so Elena snuffs it and then becomes a vampire, which is not something she ever wanted. The first episode of season four is largely taken up with people angsting about this. Including Stefan, who’s all like “oh no, how can you love me, I totally let you die, that’s not a good trait in a partner.” To which Elena replies that she loves him because he’s always respected her choices.

And I was like: omg, that’s amazing. He does respect her choices. He has respected her choices solidly for sixty six hours of television. That’s more choices than I’ve respected in my entire life.

One of the problems I tend to find in long-running TV shows is that relationships get established and then taken for granted.  In the first few seasons of Buffy, for example, Buffy and Willow used to hang out together, and talk to each other all the damn time.  But by season five they’re people who vaguely know each other and happen to have intersecting plot arcs, and yet the show still insists they’re deep, personal friends, and it’s, frankly, annoying. Friends don’t let friends go evil.  Anyway, The Vampire Diaries sort of suffered from a similar problem in that Stefan and Elena fall for each other in about the first three episodes of season one and from then on its all so focused on “oh no, somebody is trying to kill Elena again” and “oh no, I’ve reverted to my previous amoral, serial-killing self” and “oh no, maybe she should be with Damon actually” that it’s remarkably easy to forget that these are two people in love who are basically just trying to be together.

But season four reminded me. And reminded me hard. There’s a really sweet scene with Stefan and Elena sitting on a rooftop as the sun sets and they’re just having a conversation.  And you remember: these are two genuinely decent, moral people who are separately a little bit sad, a little bit grieving, but find happiness in each other.

And also: he respects her choices.

Later that episode Damon storms in to deploy his one facial expression. And he ends up having a passionate conversation with Elena where he basically tells her that he would have saved her life, whatever else was at stake, because he’s just that damn selfish. Because he loves her enough to be selfish for her. Because he loves her so much he would put her safety above everything in the universe Including her own wishes.

And that was when I just about exploded. You see, the love triangle in The Vampire Diaries isn’t simply a question of what cake Elena should eat, it’s an exploration of the entire nature of cake itself. Because, actually, both Stefan and Damon are right here. Stefan’s love is right because love can’t exist without respect. Because love must sometimes be selfless, and heedless of pain. Stefan lets Elena die because he loves her more than he fears the pain of losing her. But Damon cannot bear to lose her. Because love must also sometimes be selfish, and sometimes be greedy. And, let’s face it, there’s something profoundly powerful about the idea of a love that defies morality and rejects kindness.

And, for me, this works as a love triangle (or a love shape of some kind) because there isn’t actually an answer. In some ways, there isn’t even a question. At the risk of sounding of overly categorical I’d say there are basically two types of love triangle in fiction, which you might call operational and symbolic. Operational love triangles are just literally about which guy the heroine winds up with (Twilight or True Blood being the obvious examples). But in a symbolic love triangle, the guys represent larger questions facing the heroine, either about her life or the sort of person she wants to be. It’s not really a romance by any stretch of the imagination but the classic example is The Phantom of Opera where poor Christine is essentially forced to choose between giving up a career or giving up any semblance of selfhood (or, y’know, bonking someone who isn’t composed of death from head to foot). The Vampire Diaries strikes me as particularly interesting, firstly because I read it as symbolic rather operational, and secondly because it’s actually almost reflecting on itself. It’s not about which hot guy Elena should be with, it’s about how you choose to love, and what that choice means.

So we’ve kind of left the cake metaphor behind since the opposing attitudes to love and loving represented by Stefan and Damon have differences than run far deeper than strawberry versus chocolate.

I think the other difference between D/E/S and most love triangles I’ve seen in in this kind of show, is that Damon has a relevance which goes beyond introducing artificial uncertainty into Elena and Stefan’s relationship. In fact, for a story built around a central love triangle The Vampire Diaries spends remarkably little time asking you to seriously consider the possibility that Elena could actually be with Damon.  Instead, he acts as a counterpoint and juxtaposition to Stefan, and the choices he makes in his relationship with Elena, and the comparison doesn’t always come out in Stefan’s favour. I mean, Elena literally died because she was with Stefan, rather than Damon.  This doesn’t undermine the validity of Elena and Stefan’s love, but I think what’s unusual about the arc is that reinforces this relationship by challenging it. Damon isn’t a straw man alternative, like Jacob in Twilight, and he’s not another stop on the merry-go-round like Eric in True Blood, he’s specifically someone Elena could have chosen to be with and didn’t, and so his role in the series is to explore the consequences of that choice.

In a sense, Elena’s story is as much about not being with Damon as it is about being with Stefan. And I think that’s, I dunno, pretty cool?

Disclaimer: okay, so anybody who watches The Vampire Diaries is probably thinking something along the lines of “oh you poor man, you are about to get your parade rained on quite hard.” So, yeah, turns out, spoiler, Elena gets together with Damon in season four, completely undermining my whole article. But, you know something, I don’t care. One of the things I find kind of fascinating about long-running TV is the way there’s an extent to which it exists only fluidly and is saying basically whatever you think it’s saying at the time that you’re watching it. So wherever The Vampire Diaries is going, and whatever it thinks it is saying, I would still like to celebrate the one brief shining moment when I thought there was an interesting love triangle on TV.  Thank you.

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18 Responses to Love, Cake, and Vampires: A Guest Post by Alexis Hall

  1. Corina says:

    Oh, but it’s *still* an interesting love triangle. Season 4 keeps exploring all the issues you point out tangled up with weird (and uncomfortable) issues of consent. I don’t think you’re reading something into the show that the show doesn’t intend. There are so many things I love about The Vampire Diaries, but one of them is that it’s willing to let Elena change and explore the consequences of those changes on all of their relationships.

    • AJH says:

      Oh, that’s awesome to know.

      I’ve only just started season four because I watch television very very slowly, but I’m actually really loving the way it’s unfolding. I think I should probably hate Elena since she’s seems to be such a standard YA heroine (complete with her two dudes) except I completely adore her. I can’t tell if it’s the charisma and conviction of the actress or the fact that Elena is a genuinely good person, but I just find her really admirable. Also I know Dead Parents is kind of standard YA heroine accessory but for some reason Elena’s grief has always had a sense of reality to me, like it’s some dark cornerstone of who she is, even though she’s also perfectly functional, and capable of leading a fulfilling and happy life. But watching her natural compassion battle with vampire instincts is so heartbreaking and interesting.

      *cough* *squee* *cough*

      • Erin Satie says:

        I think a lot of this is down to Nina Dobrev’s acting. Because Elena is a ‘type’ I find easy to dislike, and Elena is a character that I have rooted for consistently from episode one. Dobrev plays it just right.

        • AJH says:

          Yes, I went through a stage of reading a lot of YA and that “type” of heroine tends to annoy me too. I’ve no idea how Dobrev does it but I genuinely like and respect Elena. Also in season four she’s playing Elena / Elena-the-vampire / Elena-the-vampire-with-her-emotions-switched-off and Katherine. And somehow all these portrayals are recognisably different.

          My hat. It is so off right now.

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    I’ve never seen TVD, but I like this piece because it made me think about the function of love triangles, and how they’re pretty much always about the person at the middle of them. “Who will s/he choose?” becomes a question about what that person values, who they are. And the long-running love triangles we get on TV have the potential to become a vehicle for exploring bigger questions about life and choice that reflect on that character, which is pretty cool. I haven’t traditionally been a big fan of love triangles, but I think they mostly fail for me when they become static and seem to actively prevent growth in the heroine. The classic example of this for me is the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich, which I enjoyed for quite a long while but eventually had to quit reading because Stephanie never made up her mind about Ranger or Joe, not one teeny tiny iota. They were men-as-cake, and she faffed about endlessly, but she didn’t change or grow in any way.

    Also, I like what you say at the end about TV. I’ve been trying to write a serial novel in “episodes,” and it’s crazy-difficult trying to create something that has an overall arc and all these tinier arcs inside it. It’s soothing to think of it as being that fluid — each episode as being interpreted and interpretable at the moment it’s released in an almost endless number of ways, and that being a good thing, actually.

    • AJH says:

      Yes, I’m the same about love triangles. They normally really frustrate because they just feel so meaningless and artificial. If they’re symbolic, rather than operational (just to use my own terminology like it’s a real thing instead of something I totally made up) I tend to be more interested because it’s a bit less strawberry versus chocolate. Except usually I find the text (text in the broad sense) has some notion of a “right” answer, and maybe I’m a contrary reader but it’s not usually what I think is the “right” answer.

      Although, completely randomly and tangently, Phantom is weirdly interesting to me, partially because of the extremity of the love triangle but also because so many read against the grain of it, and root for Eric, despite the fact it would be clearly awful if Christine ended up with the Phantom. He is like 40 years older than her, mad and … you know … *composed of death from head to foot.* That, to me, is a deal-breaker, no matter how sexy your genius.

      The thing about TVD (and I don’t know if you have time in your life for teenage vampires but, if you do, they’re my favourites) as Corina says above is that it’s a very … evolving show. Nobody gets to stay static, even characters like Tyler Lockwood, who starts off as this by-numbers jock and has ended up one of my favourite characters in there, or Caroline, who starts off insecure blonde victim-type but ends up this tremendously self-assured and kick arse vampire. I adore her.

      I haven’t read the Stephanie Plum books, but I’ve been told they’re fun at least in the beginning. They’re on my list ;) Like everything else in the world. But I’m totally with you on the problems of static characters – I think an endless love-triangle is sort of the opposite of instant gratification. Infinitely deferred gratification. Which is just not gratifying, y’know?

      I think – I hope – that evolving and fluid space of interpretation and exploration is something that most people enjoy about serialised, err, media. I think it feels like temporary worlds that allow for this wonderful sense of engagement and even to a degree, ownership, because until the serial sends and the door closes, there really is just is this endless playground for your thoughts and responses. I think, basically, what where I was going with that ramble was: that’s awesome :)

  3. Tara says:

    I no longer watch TVD because they got rid of Tyler and thus my preferred ship Caroline/Tyler and let the Originals run amok and take over the show, but… while I seldom have patience for Elena’s endless “faffing,” I really liked that they set up that dichotomy of why Stefan would not have saved her and why Damon would have because it was entirely born of character. It was so logical. Of course that’s what Stefan would do, and of course that’s what Damon would do. Too often shows bend their characters into pretzels to move the plot forward and it was very satisfying that this major source of conflict and change was so very in keeping with the boys’ personalities.

    • AJH says:

      You just broken my heart. It is there, lying on the floor, in pieces? No Tyler??!! What?!! But … but … he was one of my very favourite characters, I loved his development from this stereotypical jock, through pain and self-discovery, to worthy partner for the deeply wonderful Caroline.

      In some ways, I’m quite forgiving of the pretzelling for TVD, partly because I just like the show and when you like something you forgive things that would otherwise drive you up the wall, but also because there is so much plot, so much incident and change, that I just like how much *stuff* happens.

      Unless that stuff is getting rid of Tyler, in which case I’ll be having a tantrum.

      I didn’t find Elena too faffy, actually. She’s pretty committed to Stefan at least for three seasons and although Damon hangs around looking all “or you could have this”, I never really got the sense she was seriously considering it :)

      • Asta says:

        I saw this post linked on Twitter and am so glad I did. Disclaimer: I have always been and always shall be a Damon/Elena shipper, but I very much agree with your analysis of the Stefan/Elena relationship and Damon’s place in it (at the time ;). For the most part, I feel the show has done a really great job in terms of character development and maintaining existing relationships while building new ones. If I have any criticism, it’s that the show runs, at times, at too fast a speed with it’s storylines. Or that Damon and Klaus’s actions are too easily forgiven.

        But the reason I decided to chime in is that Tyler has not been gotten rid of. I don’t wish to spoil you anymore than you have been, but even when he’s not on screen in late S4, Tyler is still a presence and he will be back in S5. A new promo photo was released today and he was there along with the rest of the cast. :)

        • AJH says:

          I personally like Damon more than I like Stefan, but I think the good, sober, moral vampire is, in general, a thankless role and I think they’ve managed to make him a genuinely decent person, despite the fact his has to do all the brooding and being a killjoy stuff. But I’d totally be with Damon ;) As you say, however, I think what TVD does really well is make both choices completely valid and interesting.

          Also the more I watch season four, the more I am into Elena/Damon. I loved the scene where Stefan admits he finds it hard to love Elena now she’s not the pure, sweet girl he fell in love with. And Damon doesn’t care. I think that’s so powerful – especially because in a lot of the YA I’ve read there is this slightly fetishisy undertone (heh ,or overtone) about the “nice” girl and the dark supernatural monster type. Also it’s sort of reversed the dynamic of the triangle.

          So … eeee :)

          I am so happy to hear Tyler is back. Currently they appear to be trying to sell me on Caroline / Klaus which I’m not buying at all. I liked it as this weird little spark but not as an actual thing.

          I also totally agree about the speed – I like the fact it’s a show in which stuff Happens TM but sometimes it’s so full of happenings I lose sense of the emotional underpinnings – like when I forgot why Stefan and Elena were dating. I’m really ambivalent on Klaus. I like the actor, he sells it really well, but his behaviour seems completely arbitrary and I think the show can’t decide whether we’re meant to be loving to hate him or hating to love him or … something?

          • Erin Satie says:

            I rooted for Damon in spite of myself for most of the early seasons (the first three? They all blur together a bit).

            One of the things that impressed me was the way that the death dilemma managed to flip my loyalties. It was the first time I really GOT Stefan.

            I also thought that Damon’s enthusiasm for Vampire Elena versus Stefan’s determination to change her back was interesting…until the big twist, at which point I actually stopped watching.

            What really bothers me is that there’s an easy solution to the triangle. Stefan/Elena/Damon really ought to set up as a threesome. Stefan and Damon like to live with one another, are close, and have a habit of falling in love with the same woman. Elena loves them both. They could stop all the angsting and just get on with playing house.

            But the program isn’t going to offer that as a possibility, and that’s really frustrating.

  4. Sofia Harper says:

    My DD wanted TVD for her birthday. So we ended up watching seasons 2-4 in a massive, brain-melting binge. I could shower you in details of all the plots points. But, I rather write a personal ode to Damon. lol

    As for love triangles, they annoy me, because you’re right. It’s cake. It works for TVD because it’s not who she should choose, it’s why does she choose. Stefan was absolutely perfect for her in seasons 1 and 2. The thing is he was dating a girl who suffered from grief. She needed soft and kind and an abundance of love who would respect her choices even if they were dumb as hell. Everyone should experience that kind of love when they are in that space.

    The problem for me is that Elena started to become a different person the more choices she had to make that lived in a gray area. Stefan never challenged her. Not really. He never dug deep into her beliefs and questioned them. He never pushed her to be more than the girl who grieved for her loved ones. Three seasons of her life always being on the line and it takes Alaric to step up to teach her how to really defend herself. Maybe she was just too busy trying to turn it into a make-out session with Stefan. Don’t know, don’t too much care but for me that’s telling.

    Now, Damon. Sigh. He’s an anti-hero and I admit I have a soft spot for them. Spike, anyone? Pretty much someone plans to kill Elena and he makes a plan to end them. She tells him it’s wrong and they fight about it. On both an intellectual and emotional level they push each other so Elena is a little more bad and Damon is a little more good. It never feels like you’re watching paint dry. They have fun together and this last component is why that relationship works better for me.

    Stefan was always scared to have fun because he could turn into a ripper. So much of who he is could never be shared because he’s scared. Elena had to live in that same scared place with him. That delusional place that says all vampires should drink from bags or bunnies because they will kill all the innocents. They lived a lie throughout their relationship because she never saw the fun, the drinking from the tap that didn’t end in death, she never experienced life. Only a sheltered one. She barely got to see his true, darker and ugly self before the relationship imploded. When she showed her true and ugly self he wanted out. (Ok. Damon jumped on that bandwagon after Elena became eval, but that was a special circumstance.)

    Yup, Damon is seriously flawed, but I feel that relationship can change with Elena’s personal growth. She’s 18. She has so much more life to live. Or undead life to live. If you’re going to literally spend the rest of eternity with someone that’s the smart choice for me. Now, the fact that I’ve thought that much about why and what speaks to how well the writers gave both romances nuance. Damn them. I can’t wait for season 5.

    • AJH says:

      Brain-melting binge describes pretty perfectly my intake of TVD :) I’m in the UK so I get the seasons late, but as soon as they’re out on DVD, we buy and avidly consume. Three has been the one I’ve felt most dubious about, I think, but I still enjoyed the living heck out of it.

      Also I think your reading of Stefan/Elena is dead right and, perhaps, part of the reason I was struggling with season three (as well as the deeply confusing Originals plot) was because the show was deliberately and quite consciously hinting at the limitations of their relationship and I was totally failing to get the hint. Retrospectively, having seen a bit more of the arc of season four, it makes a lot of sense.

      I’ve got a bit further into season four and I’m starting to see exactly what you mean about Damon and Elena. I think it’s easier (he generalises wildly) to depict push/pull relationships and make them feel exciting, which was I was always impressed that Stefan/Elena felt so legitimate, but, as you say, the fact that Damon is able to be there while Elena changes and Stefan can’t do that is really really important. I also liked the way it’s sort of untangling the implicit virtue/vice dynamic between the YA heroine and the supernatural monster she’s dating.

      Also, God, yes Damon is fun ;) That, to me, is a big plus in any potential partner.

      I can’t wait to see season four unfold.

      • Sofia Harper says:

        I think you’re going to enjoy it immensely. Elena finally gets to be bad and not Elena playing as Katherine. Oh, she is truly eval. I loved it.

        I once tried to write out why I loved the anti-hero/heroine dynamic but it’s one of those things that’s hard to pin down. But, at the core I think it has everything to do with they can play the good guy and when they make that choice things get really interesting. Being the anti-hero/heroine means living in the gray area and I feel that’s when the fascinating things really begin.

        Sidenote: I live in the US, but I watch the full season on DVD. My daughter will call for me to watch some great Damon moment, but for the most part I miss the season while it’s playing. Watching a show like that you an see the full arc without interruption. I think season 4 is way more cogent. Season 3 felt like set up for 4 and giving the actors what they’ve been asking for. In short, Season 3 makes more sense once you watch 4. All the plot threads are played out.

        Anyway, I have edits and have avoided them long enough.

  5. Fascinating. I haven’t watched this but I might.

    • AJH says:

      It is a lot of fun, and contains many pretty people. And I’ve always found it surprisingly (that sounds condescending – I mean surprising to me) complex and self-aware.

      Well, apart from their tendency to kill women by the truckload :/ But it’s a high body count show in general I think.

  6. AJH says:

    Whoops, I’ve broken Wonko’s threading with my inability to shut the hell up.

    But this @Erin, regarding Stefan, Damon and 3somes ;)

    Now I am worried about the twist… When I fall out of love with shows, I fall hard.

    I have always secretly rooted for Damon, too, my loyalties have been all over the place in season four. Stefan won me over with his choice-respectingness but then watching him freak out because Elena wasn’t the nice virtuous girl he fell in love with really lost him my vote.

    But currently Stefan and Damon seem to be bickering about which Elena is better for them under cover of trying to find the “real” Elena so I’m peeved at both of them.

    “Oh for God’s sake, stop whinging and just be poly” is another of my problems with love triangles – operational type love-triangles, anyway, where it’s just a matter of making a darn decision. I never got why Sookie didn’t have all of them, for example, instead of operating a ludicrous “one in one out” queue system like she’s an over-hyped nightclub. I don’t have any moral or aesthetic preferences for mono over poly relationships, but with TVD, I always felt “have both” wasn’t the right answer for Elena, especially considering the representative/symoblic aspects of Stefan and Damon.

    (Like BUFFY, one of the things I find most engaging about TVD is the way it talks about growing up type issues through the medium of … vampires :) )

    • Erin Satie says:

      The twist where we find out why Elena is so into Damon? Let me know when you get there.

      Speaking of Elena not being the nice virtuous girl anymore: it strikes me that we just had a conversation up-thread about how straight-up wonderful Vanilla Elena really is. Stefan loved her for herself (& her moral center) & maybe it’s wrong to blame him for falling out of love with Vampire Elena.

      The qualities he most valued did vanish, and they were the qualities that drew me to her as well so…

      They both have a point, Stefan and Damon. Valid ones.

      As for the “have both” thing–I think setting up the choice between Stefan & Damon is a great piece of plotting, because it’s fun but also a real dilemma. For all the reasons you pointed out.

      On the other hand, from a practical standpoint: the choice doesn’t amount to much beyond “which brother does she have sex with” because, functionally, they both ACT like boyfriends. They are both deeply involved in her choices and struggles. In the example you cited above, about Stefan letting her die & Damon forcing her to live, it’s not like Damon thought (and it’s been a LONG time since I watched, so I could be forgetting…) “Oh, well, *I* am not her boyfriend so I guess this is Stefan’s call.” He just didn’t have the opportunity to do things his way. Literally, the only thing that Damon doesn’t get from his proximity to Elena is sex. And validation and self-esteem (which is fine, sort of, because his angst is delicious).

      I actually disagree a little bit about Sookie, too. I have to say, I was never surprised about which way Sookie went in the end because I’ve read Charlaine Harris’ other series (the Shakespeare series is REALLY good, btw) & a Charlaine Harris heroine always ultimately picks the Nice Guy. She might have a fling (or several, in Sookie’s case) along the way, but the Exciting, Thrilling Guy is never the right answer.

      Harris heroines always go for the guy who’s going to nourish them, support them, offer peace. Sometimes (the Teagarden series) that guy is bright and shiny and famous; sometimes (the Shakespeare series) he’s the strong and silent type. But ultimately, they don’t create relationships that are full of friction.

      A Charlaine Harris heroine would, for example, definitely end up with Stefan.