Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
The CW’s The Vampire Diaries may be most frequently remembered for the seemingly eternal love triangle that drove the bulk of its eight-season run, but the series had plenty of strengths that had nothing to do with whether Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) would ultimately choose to be with Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) or his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder). Its breakneck pacing mixed with a willingness to commit to some truly wild—and often wildly ridiculous—plot twists, and a diverse array of entertaining characters, all helped to make the series better than it had any right to be.
But for all that The Vampire Diaries often came across as a teen soap starring hot immortals of various magical stripes, the show also wrestled with surprisingly complex moral and ethical questions, about issues ranging from free will to our understanding of the binary concept of good and evil. After all, both its male leads were technically mass murderers, and yet we were still not only expected to believe in the possibility of their redemption but to also not really care that much if and when they failed to live up to the promise of their better angels.
This is why the fact that Katherine Pierce (Nina Dobrev), who was one of the only Vampire Diaries antiheroines, wasn’t allowed anything like peace at the end of her story is so frustrating. Damon got the girl, Stefan got a hero’s death, even Original vampire Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) got a spinoff and a family of his own. Katherine… literally got dragged to Hell. Not only is this a terrible ending for one of the series’ best characters, but it’s also a twist that carries more than a whiff of misogyny along with it. Because while it’s true that Katherine committed many crimes, it’s not clear she did anything all that much worse than the men who this show continually encouraged us to not just forgive, but actively root for.
Essentially chaos in human form, Katherine was one of the most complex and layered characters The Vampire Diaries ever created. Smart and incredibly cruel, frequently vulnerable and entirely unpredictable, any episode in which she appeared was guaranteed to be a wild ride. Yet, her story was also a strangely sympathetic one that often carried real emotional weight. From her centuries-long emotional entanglement with the Salvatore brothers to the discovery of her long-lost daughter Nadia (Olga Fonda), Katherine felt things deeply and fully; it was her love of life and everything to do with it that was a big reason she fought so hard to hold on to it.
Yes, technically, Katherine was clearly always meant to be a major Vampire Diaries villain. And, on paper, she was. She killed a lot of people, betrayed a whole bunch more, and engaged in some casual possession, compulsion, and body-snatching along the way. She stole Elena’s life (and even her body!) on more than one occasion, repeatedly manipulated Stefan and Damon emotionally, and used or took advantage of virtually anyone she came across over the course of her long immortality. Entire seasons’ worth of troubles for our protagonists were essentially masterminded by Katherine—even from beyond the grave!
But though she was a character who repeatedly committed monstrous acts, she did them all for the most human and understandable of reasons: Self-preservation. Elena’s direct ancestor and physical lookalike, Katherine spent the better part of 500 years with one single goal in mind: surviving, no matter what it took. And it’s hard not to respect and even kind of love her for that, especially when she did it all with such flair and style.
A consummate survivor, Katherine’s single-minded determination to live is one of her most appealing—and sympathetic—character traits. She’ll do whatever she has to in order to protect herself. And really, can you blame her after everything she’s been through? Born a witch, Katherine is also the second known Petrova Doppelganger, part of a line of slightly supernatural humans with a long, vaguely nonsensical connection to the pair of original beings who basically created vampires in the first place. Her magical genealogy means that her blood could be used in all kinds of bizarre and powerful rituals, including breaking the hybrid curse that bound the powers of Original vampire Klaus. And she’s essentially spent hundreds of years being persecuted and punished for a genetic trait she never asked for or wanted in the first place. (And that truly, hasn’t been of much benefit to her!)
Over the course of her long life, Katherine has had her illegitimate child taken from her, watched as her family was slaughtered, and was for years on the run from Klaus and the seemingly endless horde of immortals and semi-magical beings who either wanted to hand her over to him or claim her magical blood for their own purposes. She’s forced to become human again against her will, tries to kill herself rather than face an accelerated death from old age, finally finds her long-lost daughter, and then has to watch her die. Katherine goes through it, is what I’m saying, and it seems deeply unfair that the show still apparently views her as the only character who deserves to be truly punished for all eternity, simply because she dared to fight for herself.
Yes, Katherine has many flaws and has demonstrably done terrible things to many. So have Damon and Stefan, yet the show frequently trips over itself to find reasons to excuse or explain away their choices. Why is she judged and found wanting so many times more than either of them? Would her story have gone differently if she was a man? Or if she had a sister to sacrifice herself for? We’ll never know. But while the revelation that, even in death, Katherine is managing to pull the strings of Hell itself is a fun—and, honestly, fully in character—twist, The Vampire Diaries ends by hinting that she will never know the peace granted to many of her enemies or former friends. And she deserves better than that.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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