Last night's episode of Vampire Diaries asks a pretty simple question: Why can Damon be forgiven over and over, for being a serial-killer and bad friend, when Katherine is beyond forgiveness? The answer seems to be: moral relativism is sexy, dammit.
It's worth remembering that Vampire Diaries started out as a show with a very strong moral framework. Stefan was good because he didn't kill humans, or even feed on human blood. Damon was evil because he did kill humans, without much compunction.
Over time, though, we all fell in love with Damon's sarcastic smirk and big blue eyes. And meanwhile, Stefan's uprightness was recontextualized as a sign that he couldn't handle human blood because there was something wrong with him.
And now that we're in the fifth season, almost everybody has been a monster at one point or another — Elena's killed an innocent waitress, and masterminded the deaths of thousands of vampires in one instant. Who's innocent at this point? Caroline, maybe. Matt, I guess. That Adam guy.
In any case, here's a brief summary of last night's episode, followed by some of the questions I have: Damon escapes his cell using a bullet trick that I'm not sure would work and tries and fails to use Adam as leverage to rescue Elena, only to run into his old cellmate Enzo. Eventually Stefan rescues Elena, while being moderately dickish to Katherine, who wants one last chance at love before she dies — and then Katherine decides to take her daughter up on her offer of survival by possessing someone else's body.
The crux of the episode is that Stefan can't forgive Katherine for 147 years of evil deeds (to be fair, most of that time he thought Katherine was entombed or dead). While Elena can forgive Damon for the latest revelations, including the fact that he killed almost Adam's entire family for generations and abandoned his cellmate Enzo to die. Why is Damon forgiveable but not Katherine? Umm... reasons.
Anyway, here are some questions:
1) Is it even possible for this show to have a villain any more? It was vaguely surprising a few episodes back, when the show's "Big Bad" Silas unceremoniously snuffed it. Apparently for good? In any case, now we're back to a status where everybody's more or less the same level of bad.
There's a villain in Dr. Wes, the mad-scientist guy — but the reveal that Elena's sainted father did the same stuff and their work saves innocent people sort of blunts Dr. Wes' villainy. Plus Dr. Wes is right — the world would be a better place if all the vampires killed each other and stopped murdering humans. Even if you see Dr. Wes as the baddie, though, he's not much of an evil mastermind. He's already been outsmarted six times, and the season is only half over.
Maybe there's no room for a real villain on this show, because by definition such a person would have to be more evil than the other characters. And maybe that's no longer possible.
2) Is it possible to replace good and evil with other values, such as loyalty? You know, at various points this show has tried to pose an alternative value system to conventional morality, based on standing by your family or friends. So even if Elena is a mass murderer, she will do anything for Jeremy, Bonnie, Caroline and the Salvatores.
That breaks down when there are conflicts within the group — like when Elena kills Jesse to save Damon, but Caroline had a thing for Jesse. It also breaks down when Elena is a flake, like when she gets psychic premonitions that Stefan is in a bank vault in a quarry and ignores them because she's busy canoodling.
But most of all, it fails Kant's Categorical Imperative: act only according to a maxim that you would like to be a universal law (that everybody else follows). If everybody followed Elena's moral dictum of only caring about the well-being of a handful of people, you'd get a post-apocalyptic nightmare in no time. Mystic Falls would become The Road if everyone followed Elena's example.
3) Do social institutions exist only to be destroyed? Most of us behave in a moral fashion not because we have any kind of moral core (ha) but because we fear getting caught and thrown in prison.
In Vampire Diaries, authority figures generally don't last that long — we've seen multiple mayors die, and pretty much all the members of the secret council of Mystic Falls have snuffed it. Sheriff Forbes is miraculously alive, but she's so co-opted that people talk about her like some kind of servant. "Oh, I'll get Sheriff Forbes to clean that up. Oh, let's get Sheriff Forbes to bring pizza over. We'll give her a $5 for her trouble." Etc. The secret society that runs the Augustine experiments seems like a pathetic shadow of its 1950s self, which Damon already slaughtered. Not to mention that nobody has parents any more, or any kind of older relatives who could offer moral censure or advice.
Meanwhile, on The Originals, the entire city government of New Orleans has already bitten the dust. Probably just the first of many civic massacres on that show.
The problem with strong social institutions, of course, is that they probably won't approve of people palling around with serial killers — so if we're going to sympathize with Damon, we're going to wind up rooting for the dissolution or undermining of every form of government or authority in the world. Over time, though, you're going to end up with a world that feels less and less real — because social institutions are a key form of world-building, and because it's not clear what's keeping people from open cannibalism on the streets of Mystic Falls at this point.
4) So why is Damon better than Katherine? I think it has to do with individualism, maybe. Vampires are the ultimate individualists because they're powerful enough to do what they want, and because their quasi-immortality ensures the survival of the individual rather than of a family or community. Sure, we see vampires living in "nests" sometimes — but the interesting vampires are usually individuals, or even loners.
Katherine is depicted as a bad individualist — she only ever cares about herself, we're told over and over. She has thrown the people in her life under the bus, but also she's perfectly happy to be running on her own for years at a time. If Katherine hadn't been cursed with mortality, she wouldn't be giving any of these suckers a second thought, probably not even Stefan.
Damon is an individualist, too, but at least during the time we've known him he's seemed to care about a tiny handful of people (following Elena's dictum), and he has loyalty to his family and friends. Within a very small radius. Damon is a good individualist where Katherine is a bad individualist — because they're both happy to be selfish, but Damon also wears his heart on his sleeve and has emotional weaknesses.
So there you have it: the absolute moral core of Vampire Diaries: It comes down to feels.