When news broke on April 6 that Nina Dobrev would be leaving The Vampire Diaries — The CW's ratings-crushing, bloodsucking drama she's starred on since it launched in 2009 — fans were shocked.
But the show's executive producer Julie Plec was not.
Dobrev had called Plec in January with the heartbreaking news that she would not be renewing her contract for Season 7. And as sad as Plec was to see the actor she called her "little sister" go, she was excited to rise to the storytelling challenge. Plec devised a very intricate exit for Dobrev's character, the newly human again Elena Gilbert. Instead of killing Elena off (as many feared) or simply having the character leave Mystic Falls (as many assumed), this season's big bad — witch-vampire hybrid Kai Parker (Chris Wood) — bound Elena's life force to that of her best friend and witch Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham). In short, as long as Bonnie is alive, Elena will lie comatose (she's now resting comfortably inside the Salvatore family crypt).
But while Elena gets the best sleep of her life, those who remain in Mystic Falls — Bonnie, Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola), Matt Donovan (Zach Roerig), Alaric Saltzman (Matthew Davis), and Enzo (Michael Malarkey) — are facing a literal nightmare as the finale's closing moment revealed a destroyed and deserted town square. Was that a flash-forward? A dream? Something entirely new?
That's one of the questions Julie Plec answered when she recently sat down with BuzzFeed News to discuss Dobrev's last episode, what her departure means for Season 7, the finale's crazy cliffhanger, and much, much more.
There was an awareness in the industry that Nina Dobrev's Vampire Diaries contract was for six seasons. As her boss, clearly you were aware of this looming deadline, but when did you know she wouldn't be returning for Season 7?
Julie Plec: I would say the 100%, it's definitely not happening, was January. I remember getting the phone call.
What was your reaction?
JP: There's definitely a bittersweet quality attached to it, because it's really hard when you get six years deep into a series to separate the creative and the personal and the emotional and the friendship and the character and the actress. Everything starts to blur into one entity instead of six different entities. The sadness attached to it was: This is a girl I've watched grow up. She's like my little sister. She started when she was 20 and I remember her 21st birthday in Vegas. I've seen her go through so much in her life and now it's done. So I was definitely sad about that.
Creatively, after six years on the show, any big hurdle that comes your way is a challenge that can be a little bit thrilling. I never would have wished this big of a challenge on us, necessarily, but you sit in the [writers] room for six years, you service the same characters again and again, you're trying to find new and different ways to tell the stories of your show. So when someone throws a huge, massive hurdle at you, instead of being like, Grrr, this is too hard; you're like, Oh, sweet, bring it on! Because it keeps your brain sharp. It was something we'd been talking about for quite some time, so we were prepared. But emotionally, it was a bit of a bummer.
Did Nina ask for any scene to be her last scene?
JP: No. Unfortunately, due to weather in Atlanta and cast availability, you don't really get those choices. The way it did work out, funnily enough, was that her last scene was a reshoot of close-ups between Elena and Damon in their final moment of the show. So, it actually worked out that way and it was beautiful.
What was her last day on set like?
JP: It was doubly emotional because it was Michael Trevino's [who played Tyler Lockwood] last day too. But we had fun with it. People were exchanging gifts, we attacked Trevino with a giant werewolf cake, and we attacked Nina with a kiddie pool filled with whipped cream and streamers and confetti. We found a way to celebrate it. Apparently, two days prior, the day they filmed the feather scene, I got a text from the set from the acting coach saying, "You are so glad you're not here because you would be dying. You'd be so upset and sad." Everyone was crying; the actors were crying, half the crew was crying. The scene itself was so beautiful, but it all kind of hit the girls at the same moment, I think, that this was the end for the six years. They were sobbing. Apparently it was a great day for Kleenex.
Watching that scene with Nina and Kat and Candice, it felt like we were seeing real tears.
JP: The tears were real. The tears were so real that they got to the point where they couldn't stop crying and the scene starting having diminishing returns. I'm glad I wasn't there because I get very emotional with these things and would have been a mess in the corner. But from everything I heard, it was a really powerful moment for the girls.
Was this always how you envisioned writing Elena off the show, knowing it was a possibility?
JP: I knew — and the writers pretended to agree with me whether they did or not — that there was no chance in hell we would kill Elena. Absolutely not. I think Nina, in her own way, would have liked to die because we do epic deaths on this show and it's a great way to go out, but it just didn't feel right. It would have felt really sour to kill Elena Gilbert, who, incidentally, has already died once. We also didn't know how our characters could move forward with any kind of levity — Damon specifically — if that were to happen. So that was off the table.
So then it became, How do we make the exit feel permanent? Everyone comes back to life on this show. It sort of feels like any choice you make could be undone pretty quickly — so we didn't want the audience to cling on to false hope that Elena would show up in Episode 3 of Season 7. We really had to come up with a scenario that felt as permanent as possible that didn't kill her, that was emotional, and that would allow our characters to get on with their lives in such a way that there was still some hope for the future. We started talking about, what we call, a "Sleeping Beauty spell." We started talking about it last summer when we were breaking the season in the event that Nina decided not to come back for Season 7. We had 10 different scenarios, one of which took us into Season 7. If she did agree to stay, we had a pitch where it could have lasted a whole half season — all the trials and tribulations the Salvatore brothers had to go through in order to break the sleeping spell only to get to the last one where it's revealed they have to kill Bonnie Bennett. And then them realizing Elena would never let that happen and blah blah blah.
Any plan we had always revolved around this sleeping spell, but in January, when the news became final, this became our season finale. Everything led up to this. All year long I think we assumed the season would end on the cliffhanger from Episode 21 and then play the rest of it out over the course of Season 7, but it was like, Nope, we're doing it all now. Which turned out great. It would have been fun to explore over next season, but I think it delivers really powerfully as it is now.
Since Elena is in a coma as long as Bonnie is alive, does Kat Graham have the best job security on this show now?
JP: Yes, she does. (laughs) Kat has grown into a very special actress. When she started, she was so green. She didn't know what a mark was. She had barely spent any time in front of a camera. Over the years, she's trained, she's studied, she's very dedicated and intensely prepared, and you can see that in the performance she's given over the course of the show. There reached a point early this season with Damon and Bonnie where their chemistry was so fun and they were so hilarious as friends, and we all looked at each other and realized this character has become as valuable as anybody else. So to then be able to cement her value into the plot was an extra little gift.
In retrospect, it feels like the writers made very intentional choices all season long in regards to the amount of screen time allocated to Nina. I don't want to say Elena was pushed to the background because that's clearly not the case, but I feel like you gave Bonnie and Caroline specifically huge moments to take the lead in ways they've never had before. Did you feel like you wanted to bump up their storylines knowing they could, in Season 7, become your female leads?
JP: A little bit yes, a lot of no. Bonnie's storyline just facilitated that — and you could ask 10 people and five of them would say Bonnie had no storyline this season and the other five would say she had the biggest storyline this season. But because she was with Damon and then left alone, there was a lot of tension, conflict, incident, and emotion attached to her storyline.
And this was the year that we knew we wanted to finally start paying off the Stefan-Caroline tease that we'd been secretly working on for many years. Also, to test the boundaries of Caroline's character. After Klaus [Joseph Morgan] left, she kind of took a little bit of a backseat, so we really wanted to dig deep into her character: We gave her mom cancer, had her turn her humanity off, let her relationship with Stefan get delivered on — at least temporarily.
Elena's story was very much about trying to allow Damon and Elena be happy. That was always her journey for this season. There's not a lot of incident to that, so by definition, she did seem to take a little bit of a backseat, but really the whole season was about her, there was just less "Let's save Elena" jeopardy — that is what makes a character feel like they're in the forefront of an ensemble.
Stefan telling Caroline that he needed Damon more than he needed Elena seemed like kind of a major admission. Why was it important to have that particular moment in this episode?
JP: That was my most important scene in the finale. It's so funny, everything I write now, I wonder, Who is going to yell at me about this? I knew I was going to get killed for that scene, but I didn't care. I have said again and again and again that the most powerful love story on this show, the team I 'ship the hardest, is Team Salvatore. Yes, I loved Stefan and Elena together. I really did. I thought they had a deeply powerful, beautiful relationship. And I also loved Damon and Elena together because I loved watching it build over time, and I love what it meant to Damon as a character to have that epic fairy tale that so many people connected to.
But when all is said and done, the story I love the most is the one between Stefan and Damon, and I do believe that is always the heart of the show. And for Stefan to have proper closure with Elena, for the audience to have proper closure with Elena and Stefan, for us as writers to have proper closure in reminding ourselves about the power of that a little bit… there were a lot of reasons for that scene. But, for me, that girl was allegedly the love of his life and he's losing her too and wanting for Caroline to say, "Are you going to be OK?" And for him to say, "Yeah, I think I will be because I think she came into my life for a reason, and I think that reason is to remind me that my relationship with my brother is my constant." For better or worse.
Speaking of epic finale moments, there is the scene where Damon says to Elena, "How do I prepare to spend 60 years without you?" Given that, can romance no longer be a part of his storyline on this show?
JP: There is a line in the script where Elena says to Damon, "I want you to be happy," but there was a line that said, "You waited for Katherine [also played by Dobrev] and lived your life, so don't stop your life while you wait for me." But we cut it for time and because it was too far. Put it this way: Damon is not falling out of love anytime soon. He's not going to look at another girl sideways anytime soon. And I think there's a lot of fun to be had with Damon, the hottest vampire in town, being like, Ladies, back off. I'm a taken man. I think there's as much fun to be had in him avoiding women as there is in him indulging in women. I think we'll honor their pledge for the future.
Logistically, you've got Paul, Ian, Candice, Kat. You've got… I'm assuming Matt Davis will be back… Although, wait. I'm super mad about what you did to Jo (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe).
JP: Oh my god. I know, I know. It's the worst. We were like, This is bad. This is terrible. When I pitched it to Matt Davis, he was like, That is so mean. That is awful. My best friend was like, You killed her babies?!? It's bad and we know how rough it is, but it had to happen. … Ain't no doubt about who your big bad of the season is when this episode ends.
The show always brings in new characters every season, but do you think you'll bring in a new series regular to fill the vacancy of Nina's exit?
JP: We have a ton of material to work with. We have a very gifted ensemble. There are still plenty of stories to tell between them. We also have these heretics who we've spent all this time learning about how nasty they are. There are a handful of them, so when we come back next season, they have not scattered to the winds; they are sticking together, and they are messy, and they are mean, and they are hilarious and perverse and chaos-makers and trouble and all those things. They kind of remind me of the Original family a little bit, just in that they all have their own distinct personalities, they all have their own ability to be just completely disgusting creatures, but they're interestingly and fascinatingly relatable as well. I would think that any gaps or need for new characters would be filled via them — more than getting another cute girl with long brown hair.
So, Victoria Justice won't be popping up on the show anytime soon?
JP: (laughs) Yeah, a lot of people have tweeted that at me. "No one will notice!" But, like, trust me, they will.
Can we assume that this time jump or whatever we saw at the end of the finale was a result of the heretics?
JP: I think it's a good assumption. It's metaphorically, Where is everyone in their life without Elena Gilbert? And, literally, it's, What has happened to this town in her absence? As we saw, the heretics made their appearance at the end of the episode, so if I were putting money on why Mystic Falls is suddenly abandoned, I would pin the blame on them.
Is that time jump where Season 7 will begin, or is it a flash-forward you'll return to over the course of Season 7?
JP: It's a flash-forward we are going to explain, return to, and, also, move beyond. Next season plays with time jumps a little bit. We're going to have some fun with living in flash-forwards and also in the present.
Can you say how far in the future that particular time jump is?
JP: Um...no. Because we haven't written it yet.
Is it years or months?
JP: That particular flash-forward I can't explain because there's a trick attached to it. But the flash-forwards for next season, we're talking at least a couple of years in the future.
I guess that's the benefit of having a cast of characters that aren't supposed to age.
JP: Yeah, no kidding.
How are you feeling about the stories you've begun to break for next year?
JP: We feel great. We've got not just the first half of the season marked out, but we have sort of the big mythology for the full season and a launching point for Season 8. To have that already is really thrilling and it let us go on our very brief vacations with a little bit of clear heads and light hearts. I think that the beauty of this show is you have the Salvatore brothers who are so powerful, you have Caroline Forbes who is an epic character, and Bonnie Bennett, and Alaric Saltzman, and Matt Donovan, and Enzo… He needs a last name, I'm realizing. But there are a lot of stories to tell, a lot of relationship dynamics to play out, and a lot of mystery to build.
We're very excited about the season, and I think the actors specifically are really jazzed that it's going to be a season based in tension, suspense, some vampire drama, some folklore, some mystery, and not just built around a love triangle. That certainly started to wear out its welcome amongst the actors and the writers. There's only so much of that you can write before you start to feel like you're getting a little stale. Given the choice, I'm sure we'd all prefer to have Nina still on the show, but if there is an upside to this situation, it is the freedom to break away from that paradigm and spread our wings a little bit.
Have you begun to plan the end of The Vampire Diaries, or are you hoping there will be a 10th season and an 11th season and so on?
JP: I think that's a loaded question because there are so many things attached to it. I've always said that as long as there are good stories to tell, this is a show that can continue because people love these characters and love the stories and we have a big crew-family that loves their jobs. As long as it feels fresh and not like a burden or a struggle, there's no reason not to continue.
There are certainly many fans who would argue that there are a million reasons not to continue now that Elena's gone, but that's their opinion, and mine is different. If people stop watching because they don't like the show without Elena, or they don't like it without another character that may leave eventually, then we'll all reassess, because I also don't want to go out limping. Everyone is going to have their say about the creative strength of the show moving forward, but as long as we feel like what we're doing is good and our bosses feel like we're doing good work and the feedback we get from fans is that we're doing good work, then there's no reason to stop doing good work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.