The news that Nina Dobrev is departing The Vampire Diaries at the end of its current sixth season blew a small hole in the internet on Monday evening, raising questions about the show's future and whether or not it should even have one. The aging drama is no longer The CW's highest-rated series, but it's still a reliable performer for the network, has experienced a creative resurgence in Season 6, and has already been renewed for Season 7. It's just that, well, how do you continue The Vampire Diaries without Elena Gilbert?
Early fan reaction to Dobrev's impending exit was divided, with some folks celebrating as if Elena was the wicked witch of Mystic Falls and Dorothy had just thrown water on her. Others blamed executive producer Julie Plec, which has become something of a common refrain whenever something doesn't go their way. And still others vowed to quit watching the series altogether. A few people are convinced that The Vampire Diaries will employ the same body-swapping approach used by its spin-off The Originals to keep the character of Rebekah around after Claire Holt announced she was leaving the series, allowing new actors to take over the preexisting role, Doctor Who-style. But after nearly six full seasons with Dobrev in the role of Elena, could anyone else possibly fill her shoes?
Dobrev has owned the character of Elena, as well as the three other characters who share her face. Hiring another actress to take her place would be insulting to both the actress and to The Vampire Diaries' longtime fans. But the show's recent reintroduction of the cure storyline in "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" presents a possible way out, as the writers could cure Elena's vampirism and kill her or cure her vampirism and compel her away from Mystic Falls. The first option seems more likely, since Elena's only "family" is in Mystic Falls and she's not going to join Jeremy in his vampire-hunting endeavors. But the point is, there's really no reason for the series to have brought back one of its most-hated past storylines unless it's going to come into play for Elena later on.
When it debuted in 2009, The Vampire Diaries—which is based on L.J. Smith's book series of the same name—felt like little more than The CW trying to capitalize on the success of Twilight, a poorly written cautionary tale about all the reasons young women should not date the creepy vampire men who spy on them while they sleep. But the series quickly shed the label of "Twilight knock-off" thanks to its rapid pace and engaging stories about love, the importance of family, and how our present-day choices supersede our past mistakes to define us and make us who we are. The soapy love triangle fueled a great chunk of the action without weighing things down, plot twists normally reserved for season finales happened every few episodes, formerly one-dimensional villains became multi-layered antiheroes, beloved characters were killed off left and right, and The Vampire Diaries began to ping on the radars of viewers beyond the show's teenage girl demographic.
Over time, some of the series' shine wore off and poorly executed storylines involving the aforementioned cure and the doppelgangers rolled in; by Season 5, even the central love triangle had lost its luster. And while Season 6 has turned things around quite a bit, much of the credit for that belongs to Chris Wood's charismatic performance as the villainous Kai Parker and the writers' decision to dial back the emphasis on Elena's love life. However, even with a shift in focus, I'm not sure The Vampire Diaries can sustain itself without the woman most recognizable for putting it on the map.
Of course, it's not impossible for a TV series to press on without its original lead—The X-Files went on without David Duchovny and The Office squeaked out a few final seasons without Steve Carell—but in hindsight, most fans would probably advise against following in their footsteps. The X-Files sans Mulder was a poor imitation of its former self, and The Office felt aimless without Michael Scott to hold it together. One Tree Hill managed to survive for years without Chad Michael Murray, but if we're being honest, Lucas Scott was far and away the least interesting person on that show by the time he left, and his departure might have actually been a blessing. A Mystic Falls without Elena Gilbert is much more difficult to imagine.
The Vampire Diaries is still very much about Elena, even if she's often the show's most infuriating character. There was a time when I would've argued that the series didn't need Dobrev. I would've declared that the relationship between Damon and Stefan Salvatore was its greatest asset, and that Elena existed solely to bring the once-estranged siblings back together. But that was several seasons ago, before The Vampire Diaries began to really concentrate its attention on Elena's family and romantic entanglements. And it's possible that, for as much as I still believe in and personally love the Salvatore brothers' bond, and for as much as I agree with those who claim the love triangle is responsible for for the series' flaws, too much has happened for that argument to still hold up. The Vampire Diaries is Elena's story now, and I'm not sure it can exist without her—even for just one more season—without also becoming a shadow of its former self (not to be confused with shadow-self).
What do you think? Can the series survive without Dobrev?