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[SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED TONIGHT'S EPISODE OF "THE VAMPIRE DIARIES," DO NOT CONTINUE]
Much of the action on the sophomore season of the CW hit "The Vampire Diaries" has been the impending arrival of Klaus (played by Joseph Morgan) but now that the seemingly un-killable Original Vampire (who also happens to have a bit of werewolf in him) has arrived things have really started heating up, as evident in tonight's episode, "The Last Day." The episode, written by Andrew Chambliss and Brian Young, definitely had its share of shockers - Elena (Nina Dobrev) drank the blood of Damon (Ian Somerhalder), werewolf Tyler (Michael Trevino) returned and we found out that Elena's aunt, Jenna (Sara Canning), had been turned into a vampire and is intended to be sacrificed in Klaus's master plan.
Imagine being able to watch the episode and then talk directly to one of the creators and Executive Producers, as our Jim Halterman did yesterday when he was invited to a press screening of "The Last Day" and Q&A with co-creator Julie Plec, Trevino, Morgan, Kat Graham (who plays Bonnie), Steven R. McQueen (Jeremy) and Daniel Gillies (Elijah). How do the writers deal with killing off regular characters and facing backlash? In the midst of all the vampires and werewolves, how challenging is it to keep romance a staple in the show? And what is going to come of Damon, whose journey - and life - may come to an end due to the bite of the werewolf he received in tonight's episode?
One of the biggest game-changing moments tonight came early on when Damon, in an effort to keep Elena safe from Klaus's sacrifice ritual, forced her to drink his blood, making her ripe to become a vampire and, thus, immortal. Does Plec and the writers worry that Damon will ever go too far for the audience to forgive him? "I think the interesting thing about Damon, which is complicated for us as writers, is the lengths to which people will forgive him. That was never more clear than when he snapped Jeremy's neck [earlier this season]." However, as Plec further explained in terms of Damon, "this is his base lesson to learn that you can love someone with all the power in your soul but you still have to remember who they are and what they want and we talked about it like turning off the life support on a coma patient or loved one. What were their instructions in brain death? Do you keep them on life support because you can't say goodbye or do you give them their wish? That's the difference right now between Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon is that Stefan sees those things and sees that love."
The brotherly rivalry doesn't end with the Salvatores, however, since Elijah and Klaus were recently revealed to be siblings. Asked if they felt they mirrored Damon and Stefan's relationship, Gillies shared, "I think it's interesting because in the beginning Joseph and I were trying to figure out which one we were. 'Am I more like Damon or...?' We couldn't really figure out which one and actually we're sort of a combination of both things. We both have our identity and those relationships mirror each other but it's too difficult to say." Morgan added that he is a fan of the flashback episodes because of the new dimension it gives to the relationship of the brothers. "What was interesting," the newest addition to the cast said, "is to play in the 1400s. We had to play a different hierarchy going on between [Klaus and Elijah] than when we meet again in modern day. There will be a different dynamic between us."
One favorite character that has been missing for several episodes returned tonight as Tyler was summoned back to Mystic Falls in a plan orchestrated by Klaus, who needs to sacrifice a werewolf during the ritual. Admittedly, Trevino said his alter ego has changed a bit since the last time viewers saw him. "I spoke with Julie and said it was like he went through the army and now he's an army ranger and had gone through this boot camp. I wanted to switch up something different in him but subtle [and] with this episode especially in dealing with the shock of his mother and then running into Caroline and then finding out who Klaus is and what's going on and that he's going to die...it does come off in this episode that he's very subdued and introverted about everything."
One actor who's elated over the direction her character has taken this season is Kat Graham. "Julie and Kevin wrote the season so beautifully and wrote Bonnie's storyline so amazing. They gave her such a vulnerable perspective with everything and had her show her weaknesses and showed her strength and I'm really happy with how she's turned out and you got to see some of her family and a relationship."
With so many fan favorites amongst the cast, Plec had to take a moment to address the rumors circulating on the web about exactly who and how many cast members may reach their demise by the end of the season. "We said in the beginning that it's a vampire show and in vampire shows the stakes are high and the death count has to match that because [if] you guys don't believe that the consequences are life and death then we're not doing our job. Unfortunately we've set into motion - fortunately for our characters - this ritual which needs a lot of sacrificial elements so if that ritual happens and when it happens and how it happens and if it goes off without a hitch...there will be a lot of loss of life."
That said, Plec explained that any decision to off a character does not come lightly. "It's the pain of having to let go of somebody in the family because it has nothing to do with the job they've done or who they are. It has to do with story and it's a very, very painful decision to have to make for the family." She and the other writers are very well aware, though, that not everyone is going to love every choice that they make. "We hope that the audience trusts our decisions as storytellers to make those right decisions and there will be decisions that are not popular always."
And what of the decision to finally let Matt (Zach Roerig) and Jenna realize that vampires, werewolves and witches have been living right under their noses for a long time? "We wanted to play on the audience's expectations of who's going to find out first," explained Plec, "and make the audience sort of feel like we were going one way and then surprise them by hitting the other one first and then juxtapose each of their individual reactions against each other. The thing I love the most about Matt's reaction is that [vampire] Caroline (Candice Accola) had this sort of naive, sweet Caroline-y belief that everything would be okay once the truth came out and that they loved each other and love would prevail but it goes so horribly awry." As for Jenna finally finding out, the answer was much simpler. "Poor Jenna," Plec said. "It was just time for her to know!"
In the midst of the dark side of "The Vampire Diaries," one primary staple of the series is romance and the efforts to keep that component balanced with the life and death of it all. "Some people are like 'Ack, enough with the kiss [and] get back to the blood and the guts!'" laughed Plec. "But I think that's why this show works is because it can deliver all of that and just when you're in your most intense genre moment and you're unpeeling the onion layers of the mythology...you can have a human moment." A perfect example of a key human moment came in tonight's episode when Stefan and Elena have some quiet time to talk about her becoming a vampire. "I love this between Stefan and Elena," Plec said, "because when we started the show, the similarities to 'Twilight' were so extreme and this was our way of closing the book on that chapter of similarities. For Elena to say 'I've never even wanted this for a minute because I'm still a kid and I still have choices to make in my life, choices that I wanted to make...' I love that about Elena. I think that's just so beautiful and was happy to let her have this introspection when the choice has already been made for her."
Plec also admitted that the sun and moon curse was always a rouse and talked about the rushed reveal that played out in the narrative. "We ran out of time," she explained. "We had to reveal it all at once. We wanted to be a little more delicate about it because we were so proud of ourselves that we had always known that it was a bait-and-switch. Then we got to episode 19 and we were like 'Crap, there's a lot of information for this thing and I hope the surprise still seems real and not like a cheat!'"
On crafting the number of nail biting moments in a typical "Vampire Diaries" episode, Plec admitted, "It's hard! You know, because there's a fine line between a cliffhanger that shocks and awes and a cliffhanger that manipulates...there are six acts and a teaser so every four and a half minutes you're supposed to be turning the story and doing something to surprise the audience and leave them hanging. So it's not just what happens at the end of the episode. It's what happens all the way through and it's a balance every day in that writers' room that we're remaining honest with our storytelling in the midst of really needing to give something a POW. Usually we make it."
And, speaking of cliffhangers, what is to come in the next two episodes that wrap up the season? "You're seeing the next episode take place over the rest of the night," Plec teased, "and it is Klaus's attempt at executing the sacrifice ritual to break the curse and the part that Jenna is meant to play in that and what everyone else has to do to try to keep her from being the vampire that Klaus sacrifices." And, as for Damon, desperately in love with Elena but now having her hate him, "he needs to seek her forgiveness for what he did and he does try to seek her forgiveness and he desperately wants it and, as we've seen, he now has a reason with the werewolf bite. 'I can't die with you hating me.' That's really what the finale is about."
"The Vampire Diaries" airs Thursdays at 8:00/7:00c on the CW.