Wednesday, April 7, 2010

You're dead, dude. Get over it.

“You’re dead, dude. Get over it.”
Or Damon’s search for his purpose in life

At first glance, Damon Salvatore seems like the coolest dude in the neighborhood. At a second glance he is revealed to be a merciless, violent predator with no regard for human life. Only at the third glance, one can begin to understand his motivation. For one hundred and forty-five years he has been wandering the planet; he is immortal, he has no friends and he hates his closest relative, his brother. He used to love a woman, but she is gone; he used to have a life and a purpose, but he lost them both. What is stopping him from finding new meaning in life and what could help him find it again? And could he ever become more than a senseless jerk and a heartless killer?


Glancing at Damon Salvatore’s un-life, one could say: what could he want more? He’s young, in his twenties, “ridiculously hot” as Jenna describes him (Children of the Damned, 1.13), powerful and extremely smart. Oh, yes, and there’s that other thing – he’s immortal. He has it all, in short. So why is he such a conflicting personality, why is he so bored and angry? Why can’t he, after a hundred and forty-five years, move on and try to adapt to the new circumstances like Stefan who is well adapted and trying to be good and normal?

The biggest problem, it seems, is that Damon is still trying to find meaning in his un-life, after more than a century. “Man, unlike the animals, has no instincts to tell him what he must do.” (Frankl 1994 8) And Damon has all the symptoms (boredom, penchant for unnecessary violence, scheming, drinking, girls) that point toward existential vacuum or even the beginnings of noogenic neurosis. Existential vacuum is a state caused by man’s unsuccessful search for meaning which causes their life to feel empty. The person suffering from meaninglessness tries to fill the void with drugs, alcohol, food, violence or other excessive physical activity. Perhaps Damon’s animal-like instincts for a while after he was turned guided him, but once he regained his ‘humanity’ and intelligence, he was again lost. The only solution for him is finding meaning. After a hundred and fifty years, that can be quite a task. And for Damon, the problems started, surprisingly not with his death, but with his immortality.

Logotherapy is a psychotherapeutic theory developed by Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist. He didn’t believe that the origin of man’s dissatisfaction with life was in his environment, upbringing, or genes. Frankl attempted to show people how to search for meaning within themselves, or as Sartre says of man, “he himself will have made what he will be.” (Sartre) The meaning, for Frankl, or for existentialists for that matter, is not in God or any other greater force, it is within man. So the meaning cannot be taught or prescribed, it’s different for every person and it changes constantly.(i)

From the flashbacks we got so far, Damon didn’t seem to have any problems with finding meaning in his life prior to his death. Perhaps he seems to be showing signs of unconformity or even immaturity for his age – Stefan often acts more mature and once we even see him mediate between Damon and his father when they fight over Damon deserting the army (Children of the Damned 1.13). But Damon’s life was far from empty, he had plans for the future. He was a man “who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future.” (Sartre) Nothing attests more firmly that a man found his purpose in life than his planning for the future. In Damon’s case, a future with Katherine, as a vampire.

Then, two events caused his loss of meaning and the consequent hundred-and-forty-five-year long search. First was the loss of Katherine. Any loss of a loved person is accompanied with extreme grief. Damon’s loss was that much greater because he blamed his beloved younger brother for it. He considered Stefan’s deed a treason of their friendship and of their love for the same woman. The second event was Damon’s own death and his subsequent resurrection as an undead vampire.

In fact, this second one could possibly be more devastating for his search of purpose than the loss of his love. Death, in terms of existential psychology, is a gift to human kind. It makes us face our mortality, it sets us a deadline, if you wish, makes us aware that we don’t have much time and that we have to hurry if we want to achieve any kind of self-realization. It drives us on towards personal growth, it gives us a reason to live, forces us to find meaning and to be grateful for the things, people, and relationships we have in life. Death and “all strokes of fate, suffering and even the greatest losses that we have to suffer (…), all of these are gifts. (…) This is a chance for us to grow spiritually.” (Kübler-Ross 27)(ii) All this is taken away from Damon when he dies and then becomes immortal. His deadline (pun not intended) is lifted, he suddenly seems to be free. He has all the time in the world to do whatever he wants.

The problem emerges when one doesn’t know what they want – like Damon. He’s hurt, feels betrayed, he’s lost in a new world he knows almost nothing about, he is isolated. Although we haven’t seen any scenes from the brothers’ lives right after they were turned, I’d bet Stefan was far quicker to get into the swing of things and move on. He’s more practical and mature than his older brother, while Damon is volatile, unstable and, although this will probably seem opposite to what we’ve seen on the show so far, I dare say he’s more emotional than Stefan.

Since the moment he was turned, very few things have changed for Damon in the century and a half that he spent following Stefan around and trying to make his life miserable. He drowned his sorrow in booze, women and their blood. He acted out by committing gratuitous and excessively violent acts, by a general disregard for the sacredness of human life and human feelings. He cared for nothing and no one. This, according to Frankl, is a symptom of existential vacuum, the absence of meaning in one’s life. “The frustration of the existential need for meaningful goals will give rise to aggression, addiction, depression and suicidality.” (Viktor Frankl institute) It’s worth noting here, that Damon’s efforts at making Stefan’s life miserable were perhaps not simply an attempt to pay Stefan back for his treason, but could well have been done in order to get his brother to kill him and thus save him the suffering he was experiencing. (In 162 Candles, 1.8, for example, after stabbing Damon with a stake, Stefan says, “You saved my life, I’m sparing yours.”)

Boredom, too, is a symptom. “People nowadays live in existential vacuum and one of the most conspicuous signs of it in our society is boredom.” (Frankl 1994 44) Damon is so bored, he turns Vicki so she could entertain him for awhile. (Haunted, 1.7) He has all the time in the world to do what he wants, but it seems he doesn’t want to do anything at all.

Furthermore, while Damon was still a human, the society was guided by an extensive set of values. But through the decades after his death and particularly in the second half of the 20th century, society has lost its direction, values have become all but derelict. “In recent years, no conventions, tradition or values tell man what he should do; often he doesn’t even know what he wants to do.” (Frankl 1994 77) Therefore, Damon doesn’t even have these general guidelines to rely upon in the already familiar situations. Moreover, “it is conscience that finds the meaning in each particular situation.” (Frankl 1994 78) Unfortunately, Damon’s conscience is numb, buried under the heap of bodies he left behind.

As Frankl suggests, there are three ways in which we can find meaning in life. This is either by doing a deed or creating something; by experiencing a value such as the beauty of nature, art, human relations, a specific person (in Damon’s case his love for Katherine), or by finding meaning in suffering. After Katherine’s death, Damon’s sorrow and pain were probably very real. “When faced with (…) loss, the most powerful forms of attachment behaviour are activated in an attempt to reinstate the relationship.” (Behavioural Neurotherapy Clinic) In other words, after the loss of a beloved person the mourning process starts. Every person experiencing grief reacts in a different way and expresses the emotions differently, but all go through approximately the same stages of recovery. And although Damon’s recovery is hindered by his social and emotional isolation (from his brother because he resents him, and from the rest of the society because as a vampire he cannot assimilate) and by his emotions for Katherine that apparently become even stronger for vampires than they were when they were mortals (“Anything you felt before would be magnified now.” This is how Damon explains Logan Fell’s strong emotions for Jenna in The Turning Point, 1.10), his mourning process cannot last for decades.

Therefore, while Damon could find his purpose in suffering, this is possible only when the suffering is inevitable and the two other options are not available. And while Damon knows how to wallow in sorrow (and he looks very hot while doing it, if I may add), the normal and healthy response of mourning can only last for a certain period of time. For a hundred and forty-five years? Not very likely.

Apart from the newly absent deadline that his immortality removed, the second reason for Damon’s existential crisis is his isolation. “He can not be anything (in the sense that we say that someone is witty or nasty or jealous) unless others recognize it as such. In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. The other is indispensable to my own existence, as well as to my knowledge about myself.” (Sartre) Damon, although following Stefan around and repeatedly punishing him for his betrayal, has emotionally isolated himself from his younger brother. He numbs himself to Stefan’s opinions, pleas, advice or admonitions, because Stefan hurt him before and he must make sure that he cannot hurt him again. He can achieve that only by not repeating the mistake of trusting him.(iii)

In addition to that, Damon is now also a new and different being in the old world. He cannot assimilate, in fact, he is forced to move every few years in order to stay undetected since people would soon notice that he doesn’t age. This effectively isolates him from the society since he cannot form any long-term relationships, and social isolation can have substantial deleterious effects. These effects are twofold in Damon’s case.

A prolonged lack of social stimuli, or in other words of the feedback that we get from the people surrounding us, can lead to anxiety and aggressive behavior, further intensified in Damon by his existential frustration. Society functions as our mirror, it shows us who we are and often forces us to amend our ways when we step over the line. But with that mirror removed, we only have our own, very subjective opinion of ourselves; here are no rules, no sanctions, no response to our behavior even when it is unacceptable, wrong or violent. Damon can kill anyone he likes, who is going to stop him? After decades of isolation, he no longer has an objective sense of himself, he’s the king of his own twisted world. He is extremely powerful, inventive and immortal and his adversaries are mere humans. He thinks he does not need to take responsibility for his actions because no one demands it of him, not even his numbed conscience.

On the other hand, Damon’s isolation also adds to his existential crisis. “He can not be anything unless others recognize it as such,” says Sartre. And also, “man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” (Sartre) If a man is what his actions are, that suggests that he is nothing unless his actions are recognized by others. Damon’s actions mostly go unnoticed because he is emotionally (and to a certain extent socially) isolated. He doesn’t get a proper response to his actions, therefore they seem unrealized and he feels unfulfilled. He lacks purpose; his life is empty.

Damon finds himself stuck in a rut. He lost everything with the loss of Katherine, besides, he has already fulfilled his life’s purpose before his death and finds himself lost after his resurrection. Now that he is un-dead, he feels no motivation to find a new meaning because there is no looming death on the horizon to force him to hurry with his plans. His isolation and the hedonistic life style he became addicted to are major obstacles on his way to self-actualization. Furthermore, Damon’s sense of humor, too, acts as a barrier between himself and the world. “Humor allows man to create perspective, to put distance between himself and whatever may confront him.” (Frankl 1994 96) Although Viktor Frankl understands humor as a helpful tool in man’s search for meaning, Damon is using it to set up a wall that cannot be breached by others.

Another of Damon’s mistakes is also that he seeks happiness: “Why do you get a happy ending and I don’t?” (Fool Me Once, 1.14) Frankl says, “Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue (…) as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a course greater than oneself”. (Frankl 2000 xiv) Damon could only gain happiness by first finding his purpose in something else; reaching a goal should be the reason to feel happy. Instead, he is pursuing pleasure as such by engaging in casual sexual relationships. According to him, he did a college campus two decades ago, he also seduces Caroline, chats up Mrs. Lockwood and Mrs. Donovan, and tries to unsuccessfully seduce Elena in Friday Night Bites (1.3) and several times afterwards. But his very intention to gain happiness prevents him from reaching it because happiness or pleasure as such cannot be a man’s purpose, they can only be a byproduct of him attaining a goal.

Similarly as the will to pleasure, the will to power is also just a substitute for the will to meaning. Damon seeks power by drinking human blood that gives him his vampire abilities, abilities that Stefan lacks because he’s drinking animal blood. A good illustration of Damon seeking power over Stefan is the scene on the roof with Vicki in Friday Night Bites. He compels Vicki to tell people that it was Stefan who bit her. With this he is trying to force Stefan to drink her blood (so he would get the power) so he could rectify what Damon did. But Stefan refuses to play his game. Despite himself, Damon seems to be impressed with Stefan’s decision. The same way he exerts his power over Zach by using his physical strength, or by using compulsion over Caroline, Vicki and others. And he tries to manipulate Elena to turn her against Stefan by telling Caroline that Stefan did horrible things to get Katherine to love him instead of Damon, knowing very well that Caroline would not be able to keep that to herself and would tell Bonnie who would tell Elena. (Family Ties 1.4)

All this is done because Damon is experiencing existential frustration, i.e. he can’t find a sense of purpose. By now you are probably wondering how I could forget his love for Katherine. After all, she was the whole meaning of his life before he died, he was willing to defy his father because of her and even willing to let her turn him into a vampire just so he could stay with her. And yes, finding her again and bringing her back to the un-dead is the essence of his “diabolical master plan” and “diabolical plan, the sequel”. Even Elena says, “You know I really think that Damon believes that everything he’s done, every move that he’s made, he’s done it for love. It’s twisted, but kind of sad.” (Children of the Damned 1.13)

But how real are his feelings for Katherine after more than a century? Perhaps his need to get her back is just a fake sense of purpose for him, a goal he has set himself to keep himself occupied, to give him a reason to live and to survive the endless and lonely decades ahead of him without going insane. So instead of seeking the real meaning of his life and moving on, he’s hung up on Katherine, craving her return and investing his efforts in devising a plan to get her back.

This view of the situation can be supported by several events from the show. In Lost Girls, 1.6, Damon admits to Vicki, “I’ve been in love. It’s painful, pointless and overrated.” In History Repeating (1.9) Stefan realizes that Damon’s plan to bring Katherine back “isn’t about love, is it? This is about revenge.” Another indicator is Damon’s description of Katherine to Elena, “She was beautiful, a lot like you in that department. She was also very complicated, and selfish, at times not very kind, but very sexy and seductive.” (Friday Night Bites, 1.3) His words express a very lucid assessment of her character, it seems he is not deceiving himself about her nature, instead, he openly admits that she was complicated, selfish and at times unkind. The only positive features that he mentions are her sexiness and seductiveness – both referring to the more superficial traits rather than her deeper personality characteristics. All this points more to Damon having been infatuated with Katherine, rather than really loving her.

On the other hand, we witnessed several instances that prove the contrary. When we see the flashback of Katherine being captured by the townsfolk in Children of the Damned (1.13), Damon’s heartbreak is evident. Similarly, when he discovers that she is not in the tomb under the old church (Fool Me Once, 1.14) and later in the same episode when Anna tells him that she saw Katherine in Chicago in 1983 and that Katherine knew where he was but didn’t care. Afterwards, he’s drowning his pain in drink and girls for days, but keeps saying he’s fine. So his feelings for Katherine are confused and confusing at best, but that is partly due to the ongoing story arc of this season.

In addition to all this ambiguity about his emotions for Katherine, he has also begun showing signs that he is warming up to Elena. In the same scene as above, he says to Elena, “I like you, you know how to laugh.” (Friday Night Bites, 1.3) A few scenes later, he tries to kiss her. She slaps him and says she’s not Katherine. That, it seems, does not deter or repel him (as it would if he believed that she could substitute Katherine), instead he seems more determined than before to get her as is hinted at in the next episode when he suddenly decides to stay in Mystic Falls. “I’ve decided to stay a while. I’m just having way too much fun here with you (Stefan) and Elena.” (Family Ties, 1.4)

His interest in Elena can, to a certain extent, be explained with her rejection of him. She is unlike any other girl he has ever met because he can’t manipulate her. She seems oblivious to his male charms and Stefan made sure she wears her vervain necklace at all times to prevent Damon from compelling her (although we will see later on that he is reluctant to use compulsion on her anyway). Elena is far from easy to get and that creates tension in Damon. This tension represents the discrepancy between what one is (or has) and what one wants to be (or have). In short, this tension alludes to emerging traces of purpose in Damon’s life.

Despite Damon threatening to kill Elena in Friday Night Bites, Stefan says he knows he won’t do it “because deep down inside there’s a part of you that feels for (Elena). I was worried that you had no humanity left inside of you, that you may have actually become the monster that you pretend to be …” (Friday Night Bites 1.3) And then Stefan taunts him further, “No, you’re not (going to kill me). You’ve had lifetimes to do it and yet, here I am. I’m still alive.” If Damon had any intention of really killing him, this goading would probably be enough to push him over the edge and finally do it. But he doesn’t hurt Stefan or Elena, instead he attacks Mr. Tanner because he has to prove to himself that he is still as indifferent as ever. His killing the football coach does not show that Damon is indeed the monster that he pretends to be, if anything, it shows that he is again starting to feel, as is proven at the end of the episode when we see him caressing Elena’s cheek while she sleeps.

His lashing out at people around him shows that he is getting insecure and vulnerable again after long decades. And he finds his only defense in violence because now he cannot distance himself from the others anymore, he needs the others to distance themselves from him. The proof that the meaning of his violent behavior now is different can be inferred from the fact that he occasionally balances it out by doing something good. In Haunted, 1.7, when Elena blames him for Vicki’s death, he says, “You confuse me for someone with remorse.” Despite that, he helps Elena’s brother Jeremy at the end of the episode and erases his memory of Vicki’s death in order to take away his suffering.

An even more important indicator of his growing affection for Elena is his hurt when she lies to him in Children of the Damned (1.13). “You had me fooled,” he says to Elena and his disappointment is genuine and clear. Elena recognizes this in the very telling scene in Fool Me Once (1.14):

Elena: I was protecting the people I love, Damon. But so were you, in your own twisted way. And as hard as it is to figure, we’re all on the same side, after the same thing.
Damon: Not interested.
Elena: Yes you are, because you were willing to work with us yesterday.
Damon: Fool me once, shame on you.
Elena: Okay, when we were in Atlanta, why didn’t you use your compulsion on me?
Damon: Who’s to say I didn’t?
Elena: You didn’t. I know you didn’t. But you could have. You and I, we have something. An understanding. And I know that my betrayal hurt you, different from how it is with you and Stefan. But I am promising you this now, I will help you get Katherine back.
Damon: I wish I could believe you.
Elena: Ask me if I’m lying now. (Elena removes her vervain necklace that prevents him from compelling her)
(…)
Damon: I didn’t compel you in Atlanta because we were having fun. I wanted it to be real. I’m trusting you. Don’t make me regret it.

This scene reveals a lot about Damon and about his relationship with Elena. After one hundred and forty-five years he has finally found someone he wants to trust. Why wants? Because he trusted her before when she told him he can believe Stefan that he would help him get Katherine. But Stefan betrayed him. Despite that, Damon is again trusting Elena, although he knows from experience that she is untrustworthy. It could be said that his trust is blind. He wants his relationship with Elena to be real and true, that is why he is also reluctant to use compulsion on her.

Since I’m discussing trust, it should be noted that Damon’s name is highly ironic in this context. Stefan says of Damon, “Trust isn’t something that comes naturally to him.” (Children of the Damned, 1.13) This is in turn hypocritical and revealing; the first, because Damon has trust issue because of Stefan’s betrayal that ended in Katherine’s death, the second because it shows Damon to be the exact opposite of the Damon from the legend that symbolizes loyalty and friendship (and from which the name Damon derives). In a story, reported by Aristoxenus, Damon and Pythias were friends. When Pythias was sentenced to death, he asked his captor, Dyonisius, to let him go home to say goodbye and arrange his things, and Damon took his spot as a hostage until Pythias returned. When the time of the execution came, Dyonisius was ready to execute Damon because Pythius hasn’t returned yet. But he came just in time, explaining he had to escape from pirates and swim to the shore to return in time to save Damon. Dyonisius was so impressed he spared both of their lives. (Wikipedia)

It would seem that Damon Salvatore needs Elena to be his Pythias. He cannot trust Stefan again (yet), because he learned the hard way that he is not to be trusted. His brother’s betrayal ended in Katherine’s death and Damon has not yet gotten over that. But with Elena, he could have a new start. She reminds him of Katherine just enough to create the feeling of closeness, and she’s different from Katherine in the most important aspects of her personality – instead of selfish, manipulating and unkind, Elena is altruistic, caring, sincere and warm. Damon trusting Elena could establish his first true relationship in his life after Katherine, and thus help him find his purpose again.

Another factor that sobers Damon is Stefan’s attempt at killing him in You’re Undead To Me (1.5). In the past, both have threatened to kill the other, but it all came to nothing. In You’re Undead To Me, though, Stefan’s attempt at neutralizing Damon seems very serious; he captures him after he weakened him with vervain, and he keeps him locked in the cellar where Damon can’t get any blood. Stefan’s determination is obvious. He tells Caroline that Damon is not coming back. However, he does not count on Damon’s powers of compulsion being strong enough to call Caroline to help him. Damon is able to escape, but he gets a new realization from the whole affair – he is not as immortal as he would like to think.

It took Damon a very long time to come to terms with the past and to look ahead into the future. In fact, it took him almost three times as long as an average human being has to figure it out. But it is precisely because he has an unlimited lifetime that caused him to search for so long. For awhile after he was turned, his animal-like instincts probably guided him through life. But once his ‘humanity’ re-emerged, he began to feel empty. I suspect he substituted a real purpose in life with a fake sense of purpose in trying to bring Katherine back. Several factors point to his love for her not being real, but the coming episodes have yet to reveal more about that.

Meeting Elena seems to be the turning point for Damon. Her reluctance to succumb to his male charms and her necklace that prevents his compulsion from working on her are making her a difficult, almost unreachable target. He is not used to being opposed or denied. Therefore, the dynamic with Elena is creating a sense of tension in him, a pull towards a new goal – winning Elena. Perhaps this will wake him from him numbness now that he can sense a purpose in the distance, and force him to engage with life as he says it himself, “You have to engage. You can’t just sit there and wait for life to come to you. You have to go get it.” (Friday Night Bites, 1.3) It’s high time he listened to his own advice. But then again, he has hundreds of years to do it.


Resources

Behavioural Neurotherapy Clinic http://www.adhd.com.au/grief.htm, 2.4.2010

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Human Emotions.

Viktor Frankl Institute, http://www.viktorfrankl.org/e/logotherapy.html, 1.4.2010

Frankl, Viktor Emil, Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Frankl, Viktor Emil, The Will to Meaning. Celje: Mohorjeva družba, 1994.

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damon_and_Pythias, 2.4.2010

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Life After Death. Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, 1998.

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(i) There's a slight difference between logotherapy and existentialism in this regard. Frankl claimed that meanings cannot be invented, rather, they already exist we only have to search for them. Sartre maintains, however, that we create meaning.
(ii) All quotes from Kübler-Ross and Frankl 1994 were translated by me.
(iii) I will discuss trust to a greater detail later on.

14 comments:

  1. this is amazing! what an insightful, thoughtful, well-written and thoroughly researched essay! bravo!

    came across it through Julie Plec's twitter.

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  2. Wow! Amazing essay! I would have never thought to write an essay about this topic, but Damon is truly an interesting character (and totally hot).

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  3. Fantastic post! Totally bookmarking for future reference. :)

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  4. One tip. Don't use Wikipedia in the reference section.

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  5. Amazing! And veery long..

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  6. Great essay! You are spot on at to with Damon have acted the way he has! What I like most is this part: "It would seem that Damon Salvatore needs Elena to be his Pythias" that's the way I see them! Damon can start trusting some else, someone he can cares, like a friend; Elena can help him find peace with Stefan and with himself. If he fall for her that would only mean do the same all over again and lose himself again. Just saying, making fall IN LOVE with Helena would only be repeating the same vicious cycle.

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  7. Awesome essay! I may have to start watching this now. ;-)

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  8. Thanks everyone for your nice comments.

    @Christine, Thanks. It's one of my favourite shows at the moment. As you probably guessed Damon is my favourite character because he's the most complex (so far). You should give it a try. :-)

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  9. I think it is a very insightful essey in analyzing damon's character through a very deep perspective .

    Personally I only watch the show to see how this complex exquisite character "Damon" develops through the show . I read the books and i think the show have shown a clearer and deeper perspective of this unforgettable character, that keeps surprising us with its attitude !

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  10. Thank you, very insightful essay for the character I like most in the TV show and the books.

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  11. Great essay, it totally understands Damon! He too is my favourite character both in the books and in the show (adding in this case the supreme awesomeness of Ian Somerhalder)

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  12. @ Diana Somerhalder knows how to play Damon, huh? He's outstanding in this role. I need to get the books too, to see if I like that Damon equally.

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  13. I think you will, even though I do agree that the show's Damon is more layered, more human at times maybe... Ian was able to capture him beautifully, all the while showing his conflicts, his growth as a person, his growing love for Elena and a somewhat improvement of the relationship with his brother, his hidden vulnerability... It's a perfect match between a character and an actor, in my opinion...

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  14. Ian totally OWNS the role of Damon and is the primary reason I watch the show, he's an awesome actor and seriously HOT !!

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