Ahead of ‘The Vampire Diaries’ Series Finale, Co-Creator Julie Plec Talks Loss and Redemption

‘The Vampire Diaries’ airs its series finale March 10.
‘The Vampire Diaries’ airs its series finale March 10.

Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the March 10, 1997, premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yahoo TV is celebrating “Why Genre Shows Matter” and the history of how these shows have tackled universal themes (such as how much high school sucks) and broader social issues.

It’s fitting that The Vampire Diaries bids viewers farewell after eight seasons on the CW on the same day that TV fans are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s premiere. Not because of that shared word in their titles or their passionate shipper wars, but because both shows knew the power of an epic (or sudden) goodbye in a world where superstrength and immortality are possible.

Before she makes us reach for the tissues again with tonight’s two-hour series finale event (a retrospective followed by the episode itself), Vampire Diaries co-creator Julie Plec spoke with Yahoo TV about the storylines closest to her heart.

Related: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: Joss Whedon Looks Back — And Forward

Yahoo TV: Early in the series’ run, you told me that you believed the most successful moments in the show were ones that were rooted in very primal human emotional instincts — and that’s why they hit viewers in the gut. What do you think a fantasy show like The Vampire Diaries allowed you to do with these kind of issues that perhaps a traditional drama wouldn’t?
Julie Plec: Interestingly enough, I think that it’s less about what a traditional drama can or can’t do, and more about how difficult it is to get a traditional drama on the air. We all grew up with those shows that had “very special episodes.” Perfect example — what happened on This is Us [with William’s death]. The one-hour family drama, or teen drama, or whatever drama can tackle really important issues, but it’s the hardest programming to get on the air and then keep on the air, just in terms of ratings and audience tune-in. If you throw a vampire into the mix, or an alien, or a zombie, or a witch, suddenly the genre supports the longevity of the show a little bit more in the eyes of whoever makes those decisions and potentially also the audience.

I should be clear that I speak for myself; I’m not making a blanket statement about the industry. I just always say, “If I could do Party of Five and My So-Called Life my entire career, nothing would make me happier.” But there’s such an incredible series of obstacles to getting excitement about those kinds of shows. Whereas if I go in and pitch a vampire show, which is basically telling the same stories I would tell if I was doing Party of Five, then people get excited.

Related: ‘Black Mirror,’ ‘Westworld,’ and 13 Other Genre Shows That Are Tackling Issues Well

You do have to do a balancing act with tone when you’re a genre show. Is there anything that you found to be a particular challenge over the years? What was your operating principle?
We stuck very much with death and loss as our single thematic element. Kevin [Williamson, the show’s co-creator] answered questions a lot in the first season about Tyler Lockwood as a werewolf: “Would you ever consider making Tyler Lockwood gay?” He said, “I’ve told the teen coming-out story [on Dawson’s Creek]. And the werewolf allegory version of it is almost so on the nose. If I’m going to tell another coming-out story, or another story about a gay teenager, I’m gonna do it in ways it’s never been done before.” You want to resist the easy path, just because it seems so obvious, so that you’re still challenging yourself to tell the issue-based or topical stories in the most fresh, new, inclusive, and inventive ways you can.

Why is loss the issue you’re most proud of tackling with the show?
Here’s the thing. I think that we said a lot that this is a show about love and loss. And those are two extremely universal things that everybody on this planet goes through at one point in their lives. They, with luck, fall deeply in love at least once. Unfortunately, over the course of a lifetime, they experience loss more times than anyone could hope. It’s very difficult for people to express themselves emotionally to deal with those emotions. In the phases of managing and moving on from grief, it’s a very complicated journey. A show that tackles issues of loss and grief, like what we do, is just another tool out there in the universe to let you sit and have a good cry, or to see something about your own experience in this fiction.

The show’s handling of the loss of parents, in particular, has been so moving over the years, whether it’s been the brief flashback to Elena’s parents drowning, the episodes devoted to Caroline’s parents’ passing, or — still one of my all-time favorite moments — the reunion of Pearl and Anna. Was there anything you felt strongly about conveying through those moments?
Honestly, without thinking about it too deeply, hope. I think the thing that we kept landing on again and again, whether it be via the Other Side, which was sort of a temporary afterlife, or via our question of does peace exist — is there any such thing as peace? — is this idea of hope that in death there is a beauty and a longevity of the spirit. Some people turn to church for that kind of message; I turn to watching yummy sad vampire deaths.

The concept of friendship has been an important one on the show, too. I always think back to Stefan arranging for Elena and Bonnie to “slumber it” at Caroline’s in Season 2 when he knew she needed them. What did you want to say about friendships with the show?
It’s funny, because one of the things I loved most about Buffy, and one of the things that was important that we get right as well, is the sense of the power of everlasting friendship. The bond of your support group. That life is about more than just the cute boy in the high school hallway. That women, specifically, can have unbreakable bonds and be there to support each other instead of knock each other down. Buffy did that so incredibly well, with its Scooby gang. For us, the show is a love story. It is about a love triangle, and so our burden that we took on with incredible passion was, how can we build incredible friendships between these young women so that each of them individually might be, certainly, a role model to each other, if not also collectively a role model to young women who watch the show?

Related: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: 20 Genre Show Producers Pay Tribute

Nina Dobrev as Elena in the series finale. (Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW)
Nina Dobrev as Elena in the series finale. (Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW)

The show also had to deal with the issue of whether you should change to be with someone — whether you should change so you can deserve someone. That seems to be Damon’s story throughout the series.
I could divide my Gemini personality into two brains: One brain would write the feminist dissertation on why Elena Gilbert is a queen, and the other would write a scathing, annihilating perspective on why a girl falling for the bad boy and changing him for the better is the worst message you could send to young women in this journey. I can’t say that we can be held up cleanly across the feminist spectrum. But what we did tell was a story about love, and how love and the strength and the power of eternal love — whether it be metaphoric or in this case literal — can provide a foundation for strength and humanity and compassion in a way for people that have a hard time being compassionate. And so if the love of another person can open one’s eyes to the beauty of a compassionate life, then that is a win.

Paul Wesley as Stefan and Ian Somerhalder as Damon in the series finale. (Photo: Annette Brown/The CW)
Paul Wesley as Stefan and Ian Somerhalder as Damon in the series finale. (Photo: Annette Brown/The CW)

Stefan’s journey seems to have been largely about the idea that forgiving oneself can be the hardest thing to do on a quest of redemption. What is the heart of his arc in the series to you?
It’s the idea of redemption. You could pare it back to an addiction metaphor and a recovery metaphor — the idea that it’s not just about apologizing for what you’ve done in the past, it’s about living our amends each day moving forward. And that ultimately, the universal message there is we are all flawed beings. We have all had our moments of weakness, or our moments where we lack grace. The best thing we can do as human beings is move forward and do better on a daily basis in hopes that we might find our own redemption by just being better people.

Last question: When you and Kevin sat down to write the finale, what was important to you to feel emotionally, as the creators, and what did you want to leave the audience with?
I never thought of it like this, but given the theme that we’re talking about, and this idea of acceptance and being able to say goodbye when you’re dealing with the loss of something, it’s closure. We set out to bring closure to the series, to each of the characters, to each of the relationships — to really give the audience a sense of a final goodbye. I think it will make you sob a few buckets. It’s pretty beautiful. Pretty sad, but beautiful.

The Vampire Diaries series finale airs March 10 at 8 p.m. on the CW.

Read more from Yahoo TV’s “Why Genre Shows Matter”: