The Vampire Diaries is going out with a bang.
Although the CW drama arguably peaked in Season 3 thanks to the addicting charisma and complicated family dynamics of the Mikaelson family -- characters who were so great, they rightfully got their own spin-off, The Originals -- The Vampire Diaries' final season is quickly making the case that it's one of the show's best.
Picking up a few months after the end of Season 7, which found Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and Enzo (Michael Malarkey) falling under the control of Sybil (Nathalie Kelley), the current season expertly balances unexplored territory (sirens! the devil! an actual Hell!) with a comforting return to the show's origins: just a group of friends struggling to figure out how their expectations for their lives can match up to reality, without that pesky supernatural world getting in the way.
Rather than introduce a horde of new villains for our heroes to fight with (both in Mystic Falls and for precious TVD screentime), this season, the show smartly chose to give us only three new faces -- Sybil, her sister Seline (Kristen Gutoskie) and the devil himself, Cade (Wolé Parks) -- all of whom serve a far greater purpose than simply driving the plot to a bloody final showdown. Each of their antagonistic agendas specifically relies on exploiting our heroes' inner-most struggles. That means that rather than fight the Big Bads to just save lives, the Mystic Falls Gang's fight against the Sirens and Cade became explicitly about how far each of them is willing to go in order to achieve their dreams -- and what their truest dreams really are.
Through their service to Cade, Damon and Stefan (Paul Wesley) have had to confront their past mistakes and destructive instincts like never before. The notions of redemption and forgiveness are no longer abstract, nebulous concepts, but have been crystallized through the very real prospect of facing eternal damnation as punishment for their sins. This shift in perspective turns Damon and Stefan's need for acceptance and growth into a problem with a tangible solution, potentially giving them the opportunity to finally achieve closure on issues that have haunted them for centuries.
And by introducing Matt's (Zach Roerig) dad, the show has helped the perennial odd human out feel like a crucial part of the Mystic Falls Gang again. This season revealed Matt's own family history is linked with that of the Sirens -- a mythology-centric connection that has previously been reserved for the Salvatore, Bennett and Gilbert families. This has allowed the show to explore Matt's insecurities about feeling like an outsider with new depth and urgency, helping highlight the underlying heartbeat of humanity that has always kept this world grounded.
It's a smart move for a show that appeared to be spiraling away from its founding appeal for a few seasons. "It's almost like we've been chasing a high for the last five, six years," Somerhalder told TVGuide.com last March. "Do you remember when Elena (Nina Dobrev) ran to the Salvator house and asked Stefan, 'What are you? What the f--- are you?' And he says, 'A vampire.' Do you remember how big that moment was? It was huge. And now, we have to kill six or eight people, blow up three cars and a house to get that same emotion."
For the majority of its run, TVD relied on love triangles and will-they-won't-they relationships to help keep the emotional drama running high. But now that all the couples appear to be decided, the show has moved beyond those plot devices and is mining the hardships of relationships in whole new ways. Bonnie (Kat Graham) and Enzo are facing questions about which is more important: love or immortality? Caroline's (Candice King) patience and capacity for forgiveness are being tested as she chases her happy ending with Stefan, all the while juggling her duty to protect her children. And Damon's struggling to reclaim the best part of himself -- not because Elena expects him to be a better man, but because he's learning to do it for himself.
This is all territory the show has flirted with before, but knowing it's the end of the road has given The Vampire Diaries' eighth season a renewed sense of focus and the freedom to finally bring all of its long gestating storylines to conclusions, from the fated June wedding to Damon finally achieving redemption.
After eight seasons of buildup, it's incredibly satisfying to watch TVD finally begin to pay off these storylines -- even though the show's renewed energy is a double-edged sword, making it that much harder for fans to say goodbye when the series ends in March. But with so many shows staying on long past their expiration date, it's truly a testament to creator Julie Plec and her team of writers that they've managed to defy the odds and make TVD still feel fresh after nearly a decade on the air. And isn't that all viewers can really ask for? (Well, a Delena reunion and a Steroline wedding wouldn't hurt either.)
And so, whether or not our heroes get their happy endings, TVD fans can at least rest easy knowing we'll get ours: a proper and worthy goodbye.
The Vampire Diaries airs Fridays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)