I have a confession to make: I am an EXTREME fan of the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” I discovered it on Netflix the summer after my college graduation when I was trying (and failing) to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life, and I watched the first 2 seasons in a month. This may not sound like an extreme Netflix binge, but for someone who rarely watches television, that is a lot of TV consumption! I’m now up to the latest season, and the celebrated 100th episode in which the infamous Katherine Pierce is dying. And it was in this episode that I really ask myself what makes a person good or bad? The major love triangle of the show is between the heroine Elena Gilbert (a human at the beginning of the series) and the two Salvatore brothers, Stefan and Damon. Putting aside all the “fated doppelgänger” rhetoric and which “team” I’m a member of, what I find really interesting about this series is the characterization of the Salvatore Brothers.
From the beginning Stefan is considered the “good brother,” he doesn’t drink human blood (at least not from the vein), he wants to protect Elena from the dangers of Mystic Falls, and he fills the classic “knight-in-shining-armor” coming-to-the-rescue male role. His older brother, Damon, on the other hand, is the “bad brother” from his very first scene in which is heartlessly murders a young couple on a rural road. This dynamic of “good versus bad” continues throughout the series. Both brothers love Elena but they enact their love in different ways. Stefan always considers what will make Elena happy while Damon will do anything to keep Elena alive. This means that Damon commits many more acts of murder, torture, and angry destruction for the sake of Elena’s safety than does Stefan. But does this make Damon the “evil” brother?
As the series progresses we learn that Stefan has, in fact, murdered far more innocent humans in cold blood than even Damon because of his past as “The Ripper.” When Stefan turns off his humanity, all he wants is blood. This is his vampiric metaphor for having an acute addiction. Addictions are diseases that you carry with you your whole life. Being an alcoholic or a Ripper can’t just be “cured,” you can never have a beer again if you want to stay sober nor can Stefan drink from the vein if he wants to keep his humanity. Once this new dimension of Stefan is established, the two brothers are on a more equal playing field, and their characterization in the show begs the question: “which evil is worse?” A barely controllable addiction or a compulsive need to have control even if it means pain and murder?
Damon consistently labels himself as the bad brother, while Stefan bounces back and forth between caring boyfriend and cold-blooded killer. I would suggest that we can learn something from these two brothers. Neither one is fully good nor totally evil. When they accept their faults and strive for a better future, they are more “human.” When they accept defeat and “turn off” their humanity, they fail to be the best versions of themselves. Life isn’t about a righteous journey in which you never make mistakes. It’s about failing and getting back up. Only when one of the Salvatore brothers gives up by turning off his humanity does he become the “bad brother,” and as such, we are not truly “bad people” unless we completely give up on ourselves. No matter our faults, no matter our mistakes, no matter how horrifying our sins, as long as we believe and strive for betterment in ourselves, we will always find a way to be human. Not good. Not evil. But the glorious amalgam of the two that is humanity as we learn more about who we are every day.