Best of the Decade: The Vampire Diaries delivered a perfect love triangle in its third season
There's a reason we've seen so many love triangles on television. The classic storytelling device is a surefire way to drum up drama in any situation. It taps into a fandom's desire to root for something, to feel competitive about something. If shipping was born out of fans wanting a particular love story, why not give them two and make them choose? Well, because it can get complicated. For as often as we see love triangles on television series, they don't always work.
Love triangles are a high-wire act. The two relationships needs to feel different enough, though both must feel valid. You have to give each couple their moments without making the central person's preference obvious. And most of all, it has to feel right when that central person finally chooses someone. Audiences should be able to look back at the story and understand that decision. (They might not like it, but it should make sense.)
So yeah, love triangles are fun. Will Joey choose Dawson or Pacey? Will Rory choose Jess or Dean? It's a way to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. But when handled correctly, it should be about more than suspense. It should be about great storytelling. And when The Vampire Diaries premiered its third season in 2011, it delivered on all the promises of a love triangle.
After two years of establishing the love story of Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), the teenager as familiar with loss as she was with homework, and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), the undead man who brought her back to life, it was time for Stefan to step out of the picture for a bit. (He left town with Klaus as part of a deal to save his brother's life.) Enter Damon (Ian Somerhalder), Stefan's older brother. The show had already established Damon's undeniable connection with his brother's girl, and through the experience of trying to track down Stefan, Elena and Damon grew closer. But again, high-wire act. Elena, the selfless human who put those she loved before herself, couldn't suddenly fall head over heels for the selfish, impulsive vampire who once snapped her brother's neck. But what she could do was slowly start to see other sides to Damon, all the while trying to get Stefan back.
The groundwork was laid as early as episode 2, when Damon told Elena, "When I drag my brother from the edge and deliver him back to you, I want you to remember the things you felt while he was gone." The key words being "while he was gone." Stefan's absence was crucial to building the love triangle: If she felt things for Damon while Stefan was gone, what would it mean when he returned? By pairing the story of Damon's redemption with that of Stefan's downfall as Klaus (Joseph Morgan) forced him to drink human blood and turn off his humanity, Elena's relationship with the brothers was flipped on its head. She found herself once again paired with the "good Salvatore brother" — only this time, it was Damon.
And once that bond with Damon was set, Stefan started to make his way back into the picture.
If we're talking about the balance needed in a love triangle, TVD's third season could walk a tightrope. Just as Damon started to win Elena over, Stefan proved that she shouldn't give up on him. Damon made Elena jealous by flirting with another girl in one scene, Stefan caught her when she fell in the next. We're not talking about epic, sweeping romantic moments. We're talking about a look here, a touch of the knee there. Because the show was calculated and incredibly subtle in both building the relationship of Damon and Elena and rebuilding the relationship of Stefan and Elena. You have to be when your season contains 22 episodes. Damon and Elena didn't share a kiss until episode 11 of the season. Stefan and Elena, the love story upon which the show had been built in its first two years, did not kiss until the season finale. Let's say that one more time: The show managed to get through 21 episodes without its core couple so much as kissing, and yet Stefan and Elena's love never felt like it was gone. It coursed through the show with the same electricity it always had, as the thing that propelled each of them forward.
It should be stated that the show was able to survive on an entire season of almost-moments in large part due to the chemistry between the actors. Not every show could get away with a look between two people holding as much weight as Stefan and Elena in a closet in Chicago or Damon and Elena in his bathroom after the bonfire. But thanks to that chemistry, the show didn't need multiple make-outs and big speeches to make the love triangle feel real.
And by never having Elena waver in her love for Stefan, despite her feelings for Damon, she remained likable as the heroine of the story. At no point did she forget Stefan in favor of her new relationship with Damon. She struggled with both, all season long. As she told Stefan in episode 18, "I never stopped loving you." And with that love as the foundation of the triangle, she remained relatable in her emotional struggles, which allowed viewers to become invested in both possible outcomes and guaranteed that no matter which brother she chose, fans would follow that love story.
Somehow, The Vampire Diaries managed to build a new love story without destroying the one that launched its series. And furthermore, it found a way to make Damon feel like a viable candidate, despite Elena's unfaltering love of Stefan, which meant viewers went into the season 3 finale genuinely not knowing which brother Elena would choose. After all, her options were very different. As Rose (Lauren Cohan) told Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen) in episode 19, "[Stefan's] love is pure; he'll always be good for her. Damon is either the best thing for her or the worst." So the question became: Is Damon currently the best thing for her? Or the worst?
It all built to the second half of the season finale, when Elena had to make a decision because she believed both brothers were hours away from dying. She had to choose which one got the goodbye. And ultimately, she chose Stefan. Because, as she told Damon, "No matter what I feel for you, I never unfell for him," a line that acknowledged her feelings for both brothers and allowed viewers to understand her decision. (And just to make sure the Delena shippers didn't lose hope, the writers threw in a flashback that revealed that Damon and Elena actually met first.)
In its third season, TVD told a beautifully balanced, perfectly paced story about a human girl torn between two very different vampire brothers. And in the end, she made her choice. As she'd later claim, it was the best choice she ever made, and for viewers, it was one of the best love triangles TV had ever seen.