The Vampire Diaries premiered on The CW in the fall of 2009, right at the height of Hollywood's vampire craze. Its early success helped the young network to establish itself in a time of transition, as a number of the shows airing alongside it that first year were still holdovers from the late WB. The supernatural drama would eventually outlast its fanged brethren and go on to become a reliable anchor for the network's lineup.
Now, with eight seasons, too many doppelgängers to count and approximately 1,000 snapped necks under its belt, the series about the Brothers Salvatore and the woman they both loved is coming to and end. As the show's sure-to-be emotional series finale (Friday, March 10 at the special time of 9/8c) approaches and we prepare to say goodbye to Mystic Falls, we're remembering that early success and just why the show was so special.
"Seasons 1 and 2, there was so much mystery, which is why everyone watched the show," Paul Wesley recently told reporters at a press screening. "[The fans] were like 'What's going to happen? What's going to happen? What's going to happen?' Those stories eventually run their course... As far as the show is concerned, Season 1 and 2, as a whole, was probably the most interesting just because it [was] so new."
"You have to realize Season 1 and 2 literally almost killed [co-creators] Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec," added Ian Somerhalder. "I would talk to them, I would have a question and I would call them and then they would call me back and it was like 7 in the morning Atlanta time and I'm driving to set and I'm like, isn't it 4 a.m. in LA? Where are you? 'We're still in the office. We're writing.' They would leave the office sometimes as the sun was coming up only to go home and nap and come back and keep writing."
The care and devotion that Williamson, Plec and the entire Vampire Diaries writing staff put into that work not only showed that year, it paid off in big, big ways. The second season was the show at its very best as it hurtled through plot and upped the dramatic stakes in new, exciting and sometimes devastating ways. All this was balanced by effective emotional growth for a number of characters, most notably Somerhalder's Damon, as the love triangle between the brothers and Nina Dobrev's Elena Gilbert reached its true peak. Meanwhile, the introduction of everyone's favorite villain Katherine Pierce (also Dobrev) and the Original vampire family helped to develop the show's complex mythology and later even expand its reach as the spin-off The Originals.
Basically, the success of Season 2 was the confluence of many factors, so let's break it down.
Damon Salvatore Evolved Into a Truly Great Character
If you haven't had the opportunity to revisit Season 2 recently, you might be surprised to discover there was a time when Damon Salvatore was more than just smarmy charm, an eyebrow waggle and a well-placed smirk. Over the course of the show's second season, the one-time antagonist went through tremendous emotional growth — as much as someone who's reluctant to change can, anyway — as he fell more in love with Elena and wanted to be the type of man she could love in return.
What's most interesting about Damon's personal arc though — and this stays true more or less true throughout the entire series — is the fact he remained the same person even as he made progress and began to let people in. An inherently selfish, dangerous and impulsive human being, Damon regularly made decisions without regards to the possible consequences — like when he forced Elena to drink his blood so she'd survive Klaus' (Joseph Morgan) sacrifice near the end of the season — but his objective and reasoning was understandable and if you were to squint, maybe even kind of noble, albeit in a twisted way.
The truth is, Damon would do anything to save the people he loved and to hell with everyone else. Time and again he attempted to do right by Elena, even if it meant compelling her to forget his confession of love because his brother was the better man, even if it meant allowing her to think that Bonnie (Kat Graham) really died during her battle with AlariKlaus (Matt Davis). Bottom line, he was willing to do whatever it took to keep her alive and a Damon who cared about someone other than himself was something we'd never really seen before. But although Elena was the obvious catalyst for this change in him, it didn't end with her. Even though the time Rose (Lauren Cohan) spent with Damon was relatively short, she had an enormous influence on him and her death from a werewolf bite affected him in ways he wasn't willing to admit. His mercy killing — while giving her a happy dream of her home — was one of the first times we really saw the caring man he was behind the snark and venom.
Of course, none of this actually makes Damon a good person — fans will always try to find ways to rationalize the evil things he's done, which is ridiculous — but it's because of the strength of Somerhalder's performance, which is truly exceptional in Season 2, and the compassion he shows when he thinks people aren't looking that we want to root for him no matter what crimes he's guilty of committing. It certainly helps that Somerhalder can deliver almost any line and make it swoonworthy, but it's the depths of Damon's personal struggles to reconcile the person he is with the person he thinks Elena wants him to be — which eventually leads to the confession that he wants to be human more than anything in the world — that made him the star of the show's best season.
The Love Triangle Emerged as a Driving Force
As the antihero to Stefan's more traditional hero (this was before we were treated to the dangerously fun world of Ripper Stefan), Damon had more to prove in order to be worthy of Elena, while his little brother really just had a lot to lose. Eventually the push and pull of the show's central love triangle would wear out its welcome, but in Season 2 (and even extending into Season 3) it was the show's bread and butter. The major seasonal arcs involving Katherine and the arrival of the Originals wrapped around instantly iconic and incredibly romantic moments meant to leave fans breathless. And it worked. It was at this time that it still felt — if you ignored the conventional beats of television love triangles and just immersed yourself in the story — like both Salvatores were real contenders for Elena's heart.
Though Elena dated Stefan exclusively throughout the season (with a minor fake breakup and then a more real, but very short breakup), viewers were treated to moving moments involving the elder Salvatore that Elena was not privy to (or that she couldn't remember), which had the natural effect of dividing fans into two camps: Stelena vs. Delena. One day, when we're all dead, our descendants will still be arguing about which brother was the right one for Elena. That is how deeply fans have come to feel about these fictional characters. Maybe that's a little sad or maybe it's a sign at how effective the storytelling could be.
The Stakes Were Never Higher
Season 2 upped the ante in every way possible. Not only were the Originals the first truly terrifying antagonists, but Season 2 proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that truly no one was safe, killing off several main characters and forever changing several more.
But a high body count was unavoidable once Season 2 introduced the Sun and the Moon Curse, a spell which demanded the deaths of Elena, a vampire and a werewolf to break. Because of the curse, it pushed the Mystic Falls gang into a corner where they were forced to make the hardest choices they'd faced yet — weighing one friend's life against another's, deciding who had the right to sacrifice themselves and how much they were willing to forgive an action if it was done with good intentions.
The important role this curse played in Season 2 cannot be understated. That's why when we learned that the Sun and the Moon Curse wasn't actually real, we were understandably floored. And yet, we didn't feel betrayed. The speed with which Season 2 burned through plot — all of which was intricately connected and purposeful — made for such a dizzying ride that when the truth was revealed, it didn't feel like a cheap plot twist, but an inevitable progression.
But while things were happening a mile-a-minute in Mystic Falls (Elijah's the enemy! No, he's an ally! Enemy! Ally! Etc.), the show slowly built up suspense surrounding the reveal of the true Big Bad, Klaus, who didn't appear onscreen until Episode 19. By holding off on introducing Klaus, it built him up into a thing of legend, making him that much more dangerous and exciting.
This two-pronged approach — slow suspense mixed with fast-paced, life or death drama — transformed The Vampire Diaries from just another teen vampire soap into a force to be reckoned with, and one of the most addicting seasons of television we've ever watched.
Katherine Was a Goddamn Queen
Despite only appearing in flashbacks until the Season 1 finale, Katherine had a strong presence throughout The Vampire Diaries freshmen season. But it wasn't until Season 2 that we actually got to know the woman who inspired the Brothers Salvatore to take the leap to vampirism — and to be honest, we totally understand the appeal. Unlike Elena, whose wide-eyed innocence inspired everyone to throw their own lives down to protect hers, Katherine was a fiercely independent, manipulative — and slightly genius — survivor who didn't rely on anyone for anything.
Katherine burst onto the scene in Season 2 in particularly spectacular fashion, cutting off John's (David Anders) fingers and stabbing him in the gut. She followed up that bloody entrance by then forcing poor, doomed Jenna (Sara Canning) to also stab herself in the gut in the very next episode! Oh, and don't forget when she turned Caroline (Candice King) into a frickin' vampire! This bitch was ruthless!
But don't hate the player. Hate the game. And one thing Season 2 excelled at was exploring how Katherine became the woman she is today, digging into her traumatic history that led her to become a vampire and go on the run for centuries — a lifestyle which effectively isolated her from anything resembling trust or happiness.
By integrating Katherine into the modern-day storyline in Mystic Falls, The Vampire Diaries not only provided an interesting new wrinkle in the central love triangle, but also gave us one of the show's best characters, villain or not. The only things predictable about Katherine were that she was always one step ahead of everyone else and she knew how to deliver a great one-liner. Beyond that, Katherine continually kept us guessing (particularly when it came to her relationships with Stefan and Damon), which gave The Vampire Diaries a frenetic energy that was thrilling to watch.
The Originals Changed the Game Forever
Depending on who you ask, either Damon or the Originals are considered the Vampire Diaries' greatest export, but it's impossible to deny the importance of the latter and the role they would eventually come to play within the series' overarching mythology. Once the Mikaelsons were spun off into their own series after Season 4, The Vampire Diaries obviously struggled to find worthy adversaries who could rival or even top the complex dynamics the Originals' presence in Mystic Falls had brought to the series (do not even bring up the word doppelgänger), which makes their introduction in the show's second season all the more significant.
From the moment we first met Elijah (Daniel Gillies) in "Rose," the Original family surprised viewers as shaky alliances were built and broken — sometimes within the same episode — as the show plumbed their depths to reveal their wants and fears. In Season 2 the newness of both Elijah and Klaus (Claire Holt's Rebekah and the rest of the family would be introduced in Season 3) meant anything was possible.
One of the series' most iconic moments was when Elijah pulled the wooden post from his chest thus revealing Original vampires couldn't be killed — at least not by standard staking practices — while Klaus' ruthlessness and hybrid nature made him not just dangerous but also damn near invincible. As we learned more about these characters — they could compel other vampires, a dagger dipped in the ash of the white oak tree could take them out of commission — the more terrifying they became and the more we wanted to know. Their presence within the story of Mystic Falls forever changed the very foundation of The Vampire Diaries.
It Made Tyler and Caroline Into Crucial Players
The Vampire Diaries has always struggled at successfully integrating characters who aren't aware of the supernatural into the show, which is why Caroline and Tyler (Michael Trevino) barely rose above the archetypes of ditzy blond and athlete bully during the show's first season. But oddly enough, becoming a vampire and werewolf humanized both Caroline and Tyler, who then underwent some of the most impressive character transformations in the show's history.
Having learned about vampires and werewolves, Caroline and Tyler were finally allowed to be active participants in the show's main storylines in Season 2, turning them into crucial players rather than mere foils or bystanders. But more importantly, Caroline and Tyler's journeys were the first time the show truly explored the heart-wrenching struggles of leaving your human life behind and facing a lifetime of deadly urges beyond your control. Caroline's issues with her mother (Marguerite MacIntyre) were particularly moving, with the pair struggling to trust each other in the wake of her transformation. And Tyler's search to find his place in the world — one that included very few people like him — broke our goddamn hearts.
But Caroline and Tyler found strength in each other during these trying times, and eventually they learned to find that same strength in themselves. So while Season 2 will always be remembered as the birth of Steroline, it should also get credit for turning Caroline and Tyler into characters worth rooting for (and ones who had quite the epic love story of their own).
The Vampire Diaries series finale airs Friday, March 10 at 9/8c on The CW.