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s3 promo, Elena

100 ships: Elena Gilbert and her marvellously morally dubious moral compass; I ship it

Posted on 2013.03.14 at 21:18
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1. Elena Gilbert and her marvellously morally dubious moral compass; I ship it

The first point of contention is that, as much as Elena has changed as a person (and then as a vampire) since the beginning of the series, I don’t think Elena’s moral compass has actually transformed much. It has always been people she cares about first, people of Mystic Falls (including herself) second and everyone else last. It’s just that before season one she hasn’t been in a situation where these distinctions are something she has to prioritise or that have such a drastic effect on lives. I do like the twisted nature of her moral compass but also how realistic it is as most people would put their loved ones above others. There’s also the important point of her being seventeen/eighteen and I think in a way having a different view of the world, she recognises the consequences on the wider world but doesn’t acknowledge them.

This involves the whole out of sight out of mind, denial thing; the force of this is strong in this one. I believe for Elena her denial and moral compass are intermingled aspects of herself that are co-dependent on each other (but more on that later). It’s natural to worry more about the people in your surroundings than the people starving/being massacred on the opposite side of the world, if we constantly thought about all the suffering we wouldn’t be able to function, so we focus it. But there’s also another kind of denial that people often go into, the human mind is known to fill in gaps automatically, find patterns automatically, automatically dismiss things that don’t seem to fit into their world view of another person, this is how people can be convinced that the person they love didn’t do that horrible thing; it doesn’t make sense and they didn’t see it happen so it must not be true.
There’s also the emotional reaction to someone doing something to someone you care about as opposed to someone you don’t. If there’s an emotional connection to the situation the view of the perpetrator will most likely be different, on an emotional level.

These all affect Elena’s behaviour, but there is a very stark contrast between the things that happen within Mystic Falls and outside of it.

The first time it’s obvious is in ‘The sacrifice’ and the episodes after. Elena is clearly more than willing to give herself over to be sacrificed if it means her family and loved ones stay safe. But completely disregards the other members of the sacrifice; the werewolf and the vampire, which is an intriguing insight not only into her moral compass but also into her level of denial. The others who will be sacrificed don’t exist to her. Not even a thought seems to be given, Elena is in her mind doing what is right and sacrificing herself for the sake of her loved ones, others who may get hurt/killed don’t matter, the greater power Klaus will have, and destruction he will reap on the world, almost seems to not matter either; but the plan is to kill him so maybe not so.

Elena is in denial about the possibility of her loved ones getting hurt as well, she is so convinced in her belief that if she does the right thing everything will be okay. If she holds up her end of the bargain, Klaus will hold up his end too; don’t forget this is a bargain they haven’t actually made but an implied covenant based around the concept of Isobel telling Klaus that Elena wouldn’t run to make sure her friends don’t get hurt. But perhaps she’s assuming that Klaus holds deals and honour in high regard the same way his brother does. Whatever she’s thinking she seems to deliberately overlook (because Elena is much too smart and perceptive to not have noticed) that all of the vampires and werewolves available are actually her friends and loved ones.

Her ‘breaking the hybrid curse’ plan makes it clear that these morally dubious decisions happened, not just because she’s a vampire, but long before that. If that’s not enough of a statement of her moral inclinations, she actually says it explicitly to Damon and I love this because it’s Elena’s moral compass wrapped up in one line;
“You can’t do these things Damon; not anymore; not around me!”
Here she clearly makes the distinction between things that happen around her and things that don’t. She’s not asking him to stop, she’s asking him to not do it around her, so it doesn’t affect her; so it doesn’t exist to her. 

Here’s another starker example of Elena’s moral compass and denial. At the beginning of season three Stefan has been spending his summer running up and down the East coast murdering people, physically ripping them apart. Elena knows this but only responds with sympathy, with love, with entreaties that she can help him. In her mind he’s not bad, he can’t be, that doesn’t fit into her view of him; he must’ve been forced by Klaus; or the things he did must’ve been exaggerated. She doesn’t accept that this part of who Stefan is exists as an actual part and not just an illness to be expunged. The people he killed weren’t in Mystic Falls; they don’t exist, they don’t matter. Then at Bonnie’s mother’s house Stefan doesn’t kill anyone, he doesn’t even really hurt anyone, he just forcefully compels Jamie to leave. But here Stefan’s actions are taking place in front of Elena and she can’t deny or ignore them. Now Elena’s response is “I don’t think you realise how bad you’ve gotten”.

It’s not just about the unknown strangers not mattering, but more importantly the immense, compassionate, empathetic love she has for her loved ones being the reason she puts them above everyone else. That’s where her certainty with decisions comes from. Her willingness to sacrifice herself on many occasions demonstrates this; she doesn’t pause in 2x10 when saying the doppelganger is ready to hand herself over, resurrects a possibly dangerous Elijah rather than let Bonnie put herself at risk etc. The massive importance her family and friends have to her is very significant, she is someone who loves and cares strongly and that’s why, the more danger her loved ones are placed in the more she’s willing to do to protect them and the more atrocious the crime against them seems.

As the arc of Elena and her moral compass is pushed to a new level by the increase in danger towards her brother Jeremy, an important comparison can be made. In season three Elena says to Esther; if you kill all these vampires you will be the same as Klaus. This is referring to the vampires she cares about though; it’s before they know who sired their line. It is a terrible crime because it’s happening to her vampires, her people, her loved ones. But when it comes to Kol and the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of vampires outside of Mystic Falls, of course there’s no question in her mind that her brother comes first. There’s something to be said for that brutal certainty. But it’s also that those other vampires don’t really exist to Elena. She never hesitates or doubts or seems anyway remorseful as she tells of her plan to kill Kol and so many others as a result, because for Elena the protection of the closest person to her, the only family she has left, is paramount, and thus is above all the right thing.

Elena’s denial and Elena’s moral compass feed on each other and allow each other to exist. Elena’s stance of loved ones above others is an ordinary human one, but taken to extremes, because the situations in her life live in extremes. Her moral compass dictates that something is right or wrong and this allows her to be in denial about the truth of the matter. At the same time her denial helps her to make peace with her moral compass which will with all the compassion she possesses champion the safety of her loved ones and ignore all collateral in the way of doing so. So it’s fitting that her denial breaks and the line for her moral compass breaks at the same time.

For the shows portrayal of this final breaking spiral, the two big Elena episodes 4x06 and 4x15 are inextricably linked together. The first parallel is with the aftermath of Jeremy’s temporary death in 4x06 alongside the aftermath of his permanent death in 4x15. Both obviously sources of guilt for Elena, as with the first she killed him and the second they were looking for the cure for her when it happened. This leads into the second parallel with Elena cracking under the influence of the hunter’s curse and Elena cracking under the weight of all the loss; both times are about her grief, not just for Jeremy but every loved one she has lost.

In 4x06 it’s revealed that Elena thinks she’s ‘maybe worse’ than Katherine. This is possibly a reference to Katherine successfully following her own code of ‘better you die than I’, whereas Elena has in a way failed to live by her own moral code; she has failed to die for her loved ones, so many of those she would give her life for are dead and here she is, still alive. Elena’s subconscious as ‘Katherine’ talks about Elena getting worse and worse, but maybe it’s also about how much worse it has all gotten already. It’s about her being a vampire, but it’s also about her being herself. And Katherine goes on to talk about the things Elena did as a human, the lives she cost, (Sheila, Abby, etc.) even as she was willing to sacrifice herself, bringing the point home more about the ‘kills’, not just the ones when she was a vampire.

Later in the episode at Wickery Bridge her subconscious manifests as Elena’s mother and says ‘This bridge is where your life should’ve ended, not just once but twice.’ The fact that not only is the first time (when she was human, but before all the supernatural mess) mentioned but also that it’s her mother saying it suggests that Elena at least in part believes she should’ve died on Wickery Bridge that first time, then there would be no doppelganger, she would’ve died and all those lives would’ve been saved. ‘It’s the right thing to do you know it is’ her ‘mother’ says because she’s already supposed to be dead, this is an integral part of her moral compass; her life above her loved ones. It’s a long list of losses and deaths she’s possibly blaming herself for; including Miranda, Grayson, Jenna, John, Alaric, Sheila dying and Abby, Caroline and Tyler becoming vampires (maybe Isobel and Vicki too), and this links in with 4x15 and the theme of culmination of loss that’s depicted wonderfully with lines such as ‘there’s no more room in the Gilbert family plot’.    

So  we come to 4x15, Elena’s brother is dead and here her denial is shown in all its glory, where before it may’ve been a subtle shadow of a thing, here it’s screaming from the tree tops. Elena always carries on, Elena is always fine. They’re sitting around a table with Bonnie arguing about how she will bring Jeremy back to life. And this is Elena’s line; she cannot hold her denial in check anymore; Jeremy is dead. This is the ultimate failure; she is alive and Jeremy is dead. She snaps into ‘being fine’ mode, they need a cover story right, need to burn the house down with him inside it, actions so manic and raw and ridiculous, it’s clear she’s spiralling and yet she says it in such a no nonsense tone and it actually makes sense again. Confounding all her irrationality with rationality, it’s brilliant. Also Jeremy is not going to be just another ‘animal attack’. This is Elena stating she’s not in denial but she’s doing what she always does and pretending to be fine, except this time things are so much worse so her pretending to be fine is taken to extremes.

Then we get this amazing line;

“Alaric's not here to drink it, I mean, unless you guys are willing to bring back every supernatural creature on the Other Side to get him back. [to Damon] Would you? I know you want your drinking buddy back. Would you, Damon? Because I wouldn't. I don't know, I mean, does that make me a bad person? I-- I have no idea.”

I love that this is the line for Elena. No she wouldn’t bring back every supernatural being to bring him back, she asks Damon about wanting his drinking buddy back, again linking back to this also being an accumulation of loss, but it’s also still mainly about Jeremy. I love Elena wondering whether it makes her a bad person that she won’t bring back all the monsters to bring back Jeremy, because that’s the crux of her moral compass; do whatever it takes to save her loved ones, Jeremy is the most cherished of loved ones, and if she’s not willing to do whatever it takes, what sort of person is she. It contrasts with just two episodes earlier she was willing to let countless numbers of vampires die to protect Jeremy without a second thought and in her mind that was right, but this is too much. It’s a glorious end, with this moral line being drawn, happening in the same moment her denial ends; at the realisation that yes, Jeremy is dead, everyone is dead, and she can’t bring back all the supernatural dead creatures, can’t let Bonnie destroy herself by killing twelve people. Her denial is gone and the surety aligned with her moral compass of right is gone. So who is she now but someone left with just her guilt and grief. 


bleodswean at 2013-03-14 23:48 (UTC) (Link)
*stands on chair, applauding wildly, tears off shirt, waves it over head*


Or at least yes to YOU and I so hope that Plec and Co. are on the same page you are on, or at least reading out of the same book, even the same library! I worry, the skeptic in me, about some meta. Here's the thing, and I know it stings, we are discussing a tv series in the same way we discuss, say Gothic Romance novels....and outside the obvious differences, the most important ones are: tv is written by a group of writers not a single artist, and tv is very rarely arced from the first episode to the last episode whereas most novels are plotted from beginning through middling to ending or find their path in the process and the writer gets to return to the beginning for continuity whereas the tv writers don't. You can't undo what's been done, right? And when focus groups are polled and throwaway characters like Caroline and Klaus are found to be HUGELY empathetic...sometimes that causes moral issues which otherwise would not have been a problem in the original storyline....

So, accepting that discussing Catherine Earnshaw is not the same exercise as discussing Elena Gilbert....

I love what you've done here. I love what you're intimating about Elena's breakthrough into stepping up to a new moral ground. This needed to happen.

I wrote an Elijah ficlet about Elena's mindset back in S2....because my take on the character was very much the same as yours here - I felt she was hugely flawed BECAUSE of her parents' death and the fact that she should have died...in that accident but was saved by supernatural forces, however she didn't know that at the time and her moral compass got seriously broken after her parents' death AS WOULD ANY fifteen year old's compass!!!! Nothing unusual in that except for the fact that within a few months of the fatal accident Elena's world takes a serious sidestep in the supernatural and coupling the already immoral life of the supernatural with her broken morality....and we got three amazing seasons out of her psychic breakdown.

I think an interesting aspect of Shane's original exposition is that Silas will bring back the dead...and yet none of the characters is leaping for joy over that. Not all of them know it....but before it became clear that it would only be supernatural dead....it was a conundrum as to what someone like Elena would do if she could resurrect her parents and aunt and mother and father....and townspeople....

I want the show to be strong enough to carry water. I really do. I hope that your theories here hold fast and that we can see Elena slip the mantle of severely psychically wounded teenager and find a new skin....

Edited at 2013-03-14 11:48 pm (UTC)
swirlsofblue at 2013-03-15 12:49 (UTC) (Link)

Thank you so much for the compliments :).

Yeah, I fully accept that characterisation on a tv show will be affected by all those things, I'm usually cool with characters taking a completely different direction than I think they would, as long as it's done in a way that makes sense. And yeah I so hope that whatever they do with Elena it actually works with her characterisation so far.

YES; this is something not brought up enough; the way the supernatural entering Elena's life at that time compounded the effect of her parents death.

I think the reason no one was at all excited about Silas being able to bring people back was partly because they didn't believe Shane; knew he was up to something, wanted to raise Silas and would say anything to make that happen. Also I don't think any of team Mystic Falls was planning to raise him, but it would've been an interesting choice for Elena, but I doubt she would've believed Silas was likely to just raise the people she wanted to be.

It's an important stepping stone for Elena now, I just hope they don't back-pedal.
blackcanine at 2013-03-16 20:17 (UTC) (Link)
Your take on Elena is spot on. I've always been a fan of Elena's character, and her moral compass, though questionable, has always been pretty realistic.

What made her character not work for me so well this season is that while she's never cared about people outside her circle, she's always been willing to sacrifice herself for her loved ones, which somehow balances the fact that she (much like Damon) doesn't stop to think much about collateral damage.

In season four, however, self-sacrificing Elena is gone. Everyone is looking for the cure FOR her and yet she doesn't step into the quest until she helps Jeremy kill Kol, twelve episodes into the season. She saw what the hunter's mark did to Connor and yet she agreed to let Damon train her brother to become a killing machine (not before making sure he wouldn't kill her or any of her vampire friends, of course). Seasons 1-3 Elena would've never agreed to that (as Matt rightly pointed out).

And then Stefan manages to stop Elena from killing Rebekah with some whine about all the nameless vampires that would die with her, but mere episodes later she does exactly that with Kol. It didn't bother me that she killed Kol, but that the argument had worked to stop her from killing Rebekah, because it wasn't consistent.

I don't mind her moral compass, since I don't think any of us has a perfect compass, but I like it better when the show actually acknowledges it exists, like when they killed Chris and Tyler made sure they knew that had been wrong.

Some times when I read metas like this that perfectly explain a character's arc so well, I wonder if the writers are that aware of how they're building the arc or if that's what us, the audience, see when we piece together what we're given. I really hope it's the former, but sometimes I wonder.

It certainly would be great to see Elena openly questioning all she's stood for over the past coouple of seasons.

I think somewhere near the end of the season we'll see some of that. Her questioning her actions as a human, as a vampire and as a humanity-free vampire and come to a conclusion of who she is now. Since her parents died she's said plenty of times "the girl who I was (before they died, before I turned, before Jeremy died, five minutes ago) is dead". She's been trying to build a comprehensive image of who she is and hasn't yet succeeded. I really hope the resolution of her humanity-free arc serves as a catalyst for the answer to that question.
swirlsofblue at 2013-03-16 20:56 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, glad you thought it was spot on :)

You make some very good and intriguing points. I think possibly they've shown Elena's self-sacrificial side less because it has also been clouded with issues with the sire bond; I still think what they've done with the sire bond is a bit of a mess, even though it had its moments. Possibly because Elena self-sacrificing wouldn't make Damon happy. I don't know, it's a bit of a mess.

I think the difference with staking Rebekah and staking Kol does show an aspect of Elena's morality because she backs down with Rebekah, showing she cares about all those lives, and then with Kol, because of the Rebekah bit we know she cares about all those lives but still places them below the life of Jeremy.

Oh, yes, I loved that Tyler bit so much for exactly that reason. They do sometimes need a character to play the un-skewed moral compass to show just how off-kilter the others have gotten.

I really hope at least some of the writers are aware of what they're doing with characterisation. I'd like to hope they'd do something that makes sense even if they go in an odd direction. I enjoy most tvd characterisation though, so I think it will be okay.

Yeah, I so agree it would be awesome if they had Elena form an understanding of her new self and acknowledge that answer.
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