In The Vampire Diaries series finale, Elena Gilbert and Damon Salvatore wound up living a long and happy life together - but show creators Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson's original ending changed after Nina Dobrev left the show. The Vampire Diaries ran for eight seasons and spawned two spin-offs, The Originals and Legacies. Each season centered around a new threat to Mystic Falls and its supernatural and human residents, but the driving force behind the show's rabid fandom was the love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Damon and Stefan Salvatore. Years later, "Stelena" fans still have strong feelings about Elena choosing Damon.
In the Vampire Diaries pilot, Elena and Stefan met and instantly fell in love, but their romance faced endless obstacles, including Elena's burgeoning attraction for the elder Salvatore. During the season 4 finale, Elena broke Stefan's heart by declaring her love for Damon. Just a little over a month before the season 6 finale, Dobrev announced on Instagram that she would not be returning for season 7."I always knew I wanted Elena's story to be a six-season adventure, and within those six years, I got the journey of a lifetime." The show explained Elena's absence by putting her in a mystical coma. Dobrev returned for the finale, reprising her roles as Elena and Katherine Pierce (Dobrev played all five Petrova doppelgangers.) Stefan injected his brother with the Cure and sacrificed himself to save Mystic Falls and everyone he loved, and Damon got mortality and the girl.
In an interview with EW, Plec revealed she and Williamson had decided how to end the series during season 2. Damon and Stefan would sacrifice themselves for Elena and reside on the Other Side watching Elena live her mortal life, possibly with her childhood sweetheart, Matt Donovan. Plec hoped to reignite the Elena-Damon-Stefan love triangle, figuring out a way for the bittersweet friendship between Elena and Stefan to evolve into something more. Plec felt Dobrev's exit "sealed the romantic contract" between Damon and Elena. Plec told EW:
"In that moment, to me, the show ceased to be about a love triangle and became a show about the power of these brothers and their love for each other. And so there was no way in hell I was killing both of them and leaving neither of them with the happy ending. It just was never going to happen.”
It's certainly difficult to imagine how the show's creators could have clung steadfastly to Elena - who was adamant about people not sacrificing themselves for her - losing the two greatest loves of her life without severe audience backlash.
The Vampire Diaries season 7 focused heavily on Damon trying to be a good friend and brother in Elena's absence. Season 8 had both Salvatore brothers facing the repercussions of their violent pasts by introducing the character of Cade, aka "the Devil." The themes of retribution, redemption, and forgiveness were the final season's driving forces. The Vampire Diaries strayed far from its roots in the two seasons following Nina Dobrev's departure. Stefan and Caroline Forbes fell in love, but their romance lacked the passion and angst that Stefan had with Elena. If Elena had remained in the picture, the much-beloved Caroline-Klaus Mikaelson pairing might have gained more traction despite the character getting a spin-off set in New Orleans.
Even though Stefan's death devastated many fans, it brought the Salvatore brothers' story full circle. It was Stefan who forced Damon to become a vampire, which effectively turned him into a monster. Stefan's mission throughout The Vampire Diaries was to mend their fractured relationship, earn Damon's forgiveness, and give back everything he took away. Both Salvatore brothers still got to be heroes and save the people they loved. Instead of languishing on the Other Side as ghosts per William and Plec's original plan (Shakespearean in its tragic outcome), Stefan found peace, and Damon lives on thanks to Legacies' Easter eggs.