What Character Arc? – Why Damon’s Transformation into a Human Was a Betrayal

 

Damon Salvatore is perhaps one of the most beloved characters in “The Vampire Diaries.” And this isn’t surprising. He’s funny, he’s beautiful, he’s alluring, he’s mysterious, he’s kind of a bad boy (alright, a lot of a bad boy) and yet he’s ultimately sympathetic, so long as you forget about all the killing. So it’s no surprise that the writers wanted to give him a happy ending (rather than risk a fan revolt). Yet in the end a character is made or broken by the conflicts at the heart of their psychology, not whether they get a happy ending or not. Hamlet isn’t one of the best characters in human history because he lived happily ever after (spoiler, he doesn’t), he’s one of the best characters because the conflicts at the centre of him are interesting, complex, powerful and relatable. And yet on this front the ending Damon Salvatore receives is sorely lacking. How dare I say such a thing about your beloved, black-haired sugar plum? Allow me to explain…

The Man Behind the Hair

When we first meet Damon Salvatore there’s little doubt about who and what he is. He strolls in wearing the blackest of leather jackets, sporting a smile so nefarious Angelus would blush, taunting our tortured protagonist with his greatest weaknesses and with all kinds of nefarious little schemes under his sleeve. This guy is a villain. No doubt about it. But even this early on it was clear, if you paid attention, that Damon Salvatore was more than that.

Though he himself says at that time he’s motivated by hate, by desire to make his brother’s life miserable, in episode two of the first season he has a little slip up. In a moment of anger he instead reveals a hint about what his real motives are. When Damon is trying to get Stefan to feed off of Vicki on the roof of The Mystic Grill, Stefan asks “That’s what this is about? You wanna expose me?” and Damon’s answer… well, it’s rather enlightening. Damon says “No, I want you to remember who you are.

Now, why is this so enlightening? Because it lifts the tip of the veil on what Damon Salvatore believes it means to be a vampire. To Damon being a vampire means feeding on human blood. It means killing without remorse. It means compelling people to do whatever you want without regard for their wishes. In short, it means being a bad, bad boy.

How to be a Blood Sucker 101

In fact, he says as much when in season 2. When he compels a girl named Jessica in the middle of the road and then gives her a rather lengthy monologue which the poor girl has to spend her last moments suffering through. Most importantly, while he considers whether he’s going to kill her, he says “This is who I am, Jessica.” And later, in response to her begging him not to kill her, goes further and even says “But I have to, Jessica. Because I’m not human.” This is because, to him, being a vampire means killing her.

Damon wishes to believe that being a vampire means a license to do all of those bad things. It means that killing and torturing and compelling is normal. It’s what you should do. And, ever-so-conveniently, this worldview allows Damon to pawn off all of that pesky guilt he feels for his bad behaviour. He just attributes all his bad behaviour to being a vampire and “poof” it goes away. He doesn’t have to take the blame for it himself. It’s a win-win! Except for all the dead innocents… and Vicki Donovan… and Stefan’s life… and, quite importantly for this article, Damon’s own psychological well-being.

What Hercules Said

Being the biggest ever Delena fan you might ask, lips pouty and eyes livid; “Why the hell does that mean he wouldn’t be able to become human and live happily ever after with Elena, you asshole?” Because him being a vampire isn’t actually what causes him to do bad things, he’s the reason for his bad behaviour. And because, deep inside, Damon doesn’t believe he can stop acting badly. What do I mean with this? Let’s just have a look at his history.

Where's the "dying inside" meme when you need it.

Damon, once again reprimanded by his father.

As you may well recall, Damon Salvatore did not have the happiest of childhoods. In fact the relationship between him and his father makes the relationship between Luke and Vader seem like the epitome of fatherhood. Most importantly for this article, his father saw Damon as rather a bit of a disappointment. And he didn’t hesitate pointing out to Damon how he failed to meet his expectations. In fact one of the first times we see Damon interact with his father in “Children of the Damned” he does this. His father says to Stefan, while Damon is standing right there, that “I’m not sure your brother understands the importance of duty.”

It seems to me that, despite putting up a brave face, Damon was heavily impacted by this. Not just this particular event, but hearing the same thing over and over again. About how he’s unreliable and doomed to disappoint people. And so Damon began to believe that this was just part of who he was. That he would inevitably disappoint those who cared about him. A fact that tormented him. Damon’s clumsy attempts to reunite with his brother over their 150 year life as vampires probably didn’t help this. As every time Damon eventually did something to disappoint Stefan.

So, convinced that he could do nothing to change this, that he would always disappoint his loved ones, Damon came up with a solution equaled in its simplicity, only by its horrible implications: He would simply choose to act badly. He would intentionally take on the role of the villain. This way he would never have to fear disappointing someone ever again. In his own words from the “Heart of Darkness” episode “When people see good, they expect good.” But, he likely reasoned, if I don’t let people see my good side then people won’t expect anything from me and I can’t disappoint them. And so, suddenly, he would never have to fear disappointing anyone ever again.

But of course, there’s an inherent problem with that. Namely, if he acts like a complete piece of shit then… well, he might start feeling bad about that instead. Succesfully avoiding feeling bad about one thing only to feel bad about something else would be rather pointless. So instead he attributes his bad behaviour to something else. To being a vampire. This way he gets the best of both worlds. He doesn’t risk disappointing anyone and he doesn’t have to feel guilty about murdering and maiming people. This is what Katherine taught him, after all. That predatory behaviour like feeding, killing, compelling and toying with humans was all just a-okay. Like hopping on over to the supermarket or having a nice bike ride. Only with murder.

Becoming Human

As is now hopefully obvious, this internal conflict would not be helped by just becoming human. In fact, becoming human would only have made it worse. If Damon becomes human then he no longer has an excuse for his bad behaviour. He’s back to behaving badly and feeling badly about it, possibly even slipping into depression, or trying to behave well and taking the risk that he doesn’t live up to other peoples’ expectations. Neither of these options would seem very desireable to him. Just ask Jessica what happened last time he tried to live up to someone’s expectations. Oh… wait.

They could’ve handled this a completely different way (also known as competently). In a way that he could have hoped to become human while not risking either of those two outcomes: through character development.  By him learning to take responsibility for his actions. By admitting that he didn’t do bad things because he was a vampire, he did bad things to cope with his own flaws. With his own fears. By not just owning this fact but trying to make up for it. And secondly by getting over the source of his bad behaviour. By learning that he can behave well. That he can live up to people’s expectations. Only then could he have lived a happy human life with Elena. But none of this ever happens.

When he finally decides to take the cure to be human with Elena, none of this is brought up at all. He just takes the cure and it’s implied that they live happily ever after. But that isn’t life. That isn’t how people work. People don’t just live happily ever after because they found a girl, no matter how much of a magical honey pot her vagina is. People don’t turn over a new leaf on a whim. Change only comes with great personal effort. It only comes when you overcome your demons. So, is him becoming human and living out his life with Elena a happy ending? Only if you ignore everything we know about him.

So when you rewatch the moment at the end of season 8 when Elena and Damon walk into the sunset, maybe you won’t imagine their happy life together. But confront the reality that Damon’s future with Elena would likely be one of alcoholism, abuse and perhaps even jail.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The Vampire Diaries belongs to the CW and Alloy Entertainment.

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