It’s always been easy to dismiss Vampire Diaries, CW’s supernatural, soapy, teen romance. Early previews painted it as a Twilight ripoff centered around its photogenic cast brooding and…well, not doing much else. Early buzz did little to allay those fears. Yet, the series emerged as one of television’s most enjoyable supernatural suspense shows. Initially centered an all-too-familiar vampire love triangle featuring two vampire brothers (Paul Wesley as the “good” brother, Stefan; Ian Somerhalder as the “evil” brother, Damon) and Elena, the human object of their affections (Nina Dobrev), the series evolved to include werewolves, dopplegangers, hybrids, and ancient entities. It may have been marketed as tv’s answer to Bella, Edward, and Jacob, but it owed more to another teen vampire saga: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. It reveled in heightened melodrama, but it did it incredible well. On paper, there’s no reason the series should work, but for a few seasons, Vampire Diaries was one of television’s most entertaining guilty pleasures.
Much of the Vampire Diaries’ success stems from its willingness to fly though storylines. Plot strands that would have taken up an entire season on Buffy or the more-adult (but narratively far closer to an R-rated Twilight) True Blood, would be introduced and dispatched in a few episodes. While the CW’s other horror-based series, Supernatural, might have its characters keep secrets from each other for half a season, any secret introduced on Vampire Diaries would be revealed by the next week. The series seemed to be run by a hyper-active kid who knew a story and just couldn’t wait to get to tell you the good stuff.
Series that fly at the breakneck pace that makes up Vampire Diaries are all but destined to burn out and now in its Eighth, final season, no one talks about the show as they once did. However, it had a strong run of 4-5 seasons, depending upon who you ask (For the record, I’d say the first three seasons are fantastic, Four succeeds in fits & starts, and the back half of Season Five gave me unmet hopes for Season 6). Given its breakneck pace and proclivity to end each episode on a cliffhanger, the series was practically made to be binged in breathless, desperate to see what’s next fashion. In fact, I bought First Season on DVD, watched it until I had to go to class, then left said class early in order to continue watching.
Since the series is wrapping this year, it seems fitting to look back at the episodes that reminded us what made it so compelling. Picking perfect, individual episodes of Vampire Diaries is a tricky proposition, since the show doesn’t know the meaning of the word “standalone,” but if these ten episodes don’t get you into the series, then it’s just not for you.
10) “Hell is Other People” (Season 7, Episode 10)
Even though he started as the series antagonist, Damon became the show’s lynchpin, adding an appropriate blend of snark and sentiment whenever required. Here, he finds himself trapped in a Groundhog Day-like time loop, forced to relive one of his worst memories in an infinite cycle. Being Damon, his attempts to escape skew towards carnage, and the episode has a lot of fun watching him murder his way through the past. Later seasons of Vampire Diaries may not have the flawless pacing and twists of earlier seasons, but this episode proves they were still capable of the hitting sporadic highs.
9) “Founder’s Day” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Even though the series had built itself around episode cliffhangers, no one was prepared for the twists in the Season One finale. Minor characters die and future plots are teased, but it’s the final closing moments that give “Founder’s Day” it’s punch, leaving multiple characters in jeopardy and a character reveal that left viewer’s jaws on the floor. “Hello, John. Goodbye John.” Who wasn’t ready for Season Two right there and then?
8) “Klaus” (Season 2, Episode 19)
Season Two of Vampire Diaries may be one of those “desert island seasons” of television, one of those collections you could come back to time and time again. The major thrust of Season 2 involved the “Sun and Moon curse,” purported to allow vampires to walk in the sun and prevent werewolves from transforming and both sides’ quests to make it happen. “Klaus” utilizes the gutsy strategy of tuning that narrative upside down with just a few episodes left in the season. In addition, the episode adds new shadings to Elijah (the charismatic Daniel Gillies), a character who had previously only existed as an adversary and finally introduces us to the titular “big bad.” Eventually, Klaus (Joseph Morgan, turning self-pity and snark into art forms) and Elijah became such dominating forces that they were sent to their own spin-off, The Originals. Here, though, they serve as a further reminder that the series wasn’t afraid of narrative risks.
7) “American Gothic” (Season 4, Episode 18)
Season Four is not one the show’s strongest. It’s weakened by a less than compelling villain, but this episode remains absolutely stellar. Elena spirals following a devastating loss (I’m being vague here. Spoilers and all.), teams up with a former antagonist and calamity ensues. You spend a fair bit of time in this particular stretch of Vampire Diaries wondering whether the series will take a potentially-alienating risk with one of its leads, and this is the episode in which it answers that question with a resounding “yes.”
6) “Masquerade” (Season 2, Episode 7)
There may be nothing Vampire Diaries characters love more than creating a plan, except maybe a party. I mean, these guys throw a party at the drop of a hat. There’s also nothing viewers love more than watching those plans go spectacularly awry. Watching the cast attempt to thwart ruthless vampire, Katherine (Also Nina Dobrev) and her plan to activate the Sun and Moon curse is the kind of twisty plotting Vampire Diaries once did so well. The less you know going in, the better. I’ll leave it at that.
5) “500 Years of Solitude” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Celebrating 100 episodes is a milestone for a series, and Vampire Diaries decided to treat the episode as both a love letter for its fans and a setup for the season’s next arc. Katherine is dying and the rest of the characters gather to remember every terrible act she committed against them and celebrate her passing. Damon forces her to remember her worst moments (Vampire powers. They’re complicated.), but it’s Stefan who can’t bring himself to hate her, despite everything she’s done. He reminds her (and the audience) that Katherine was once just a girl who lost everything and did what she had to in order to survive. As this episode demonstrates, the helpless girl is gone but the need to survive is still there.
4) “Miss Mystic Falls” (Season 1, Episode 19)
I’m sure Vampire Diaries did better episodes than this one. I know there are better twists during the show’s run, but lists are totally subjective, and when my show obsession was at its peak, this was the episode I went back to the most. Stefan was a likable enough character, but he could be a bit bland during Season one. The series added some shading to him by giving him an addiction to human blood that turned him into a ruthless addict, and this is the episode in which that addiction was allowed to run wild. This is the episode in which Elena proved she was the best girlfriend a vampire could have, and in which the chemistry between Damon and Elena began to simmer. The episode allows its central, romantic lead to take some fairly dark turns. There are several points in which he’s about to do something terrible, you assume someone will show up and intervene, but no one does. Of course, Stefan does recover, but this episode takes his addiction and the resulting guilt seriously.
3) “The Departed” (Season 3, Episode 22)
So much of television features characters that don’t really ever change. Sure, alliances may shift, but the basics remain stagnant. There’s a tendency to revert characters back to status quo. Vampire Diaries, on the other hand, has no problem landing mind-blowing shakeups to its core cast. Three seasons in, you knew there was a chance some character could die or some relationship may disintegrate, but it seemed pretty safe to assume that the central vampire-human-vampire love triangle would remain the series’ central narrative focus. The Season 3 finale, however, turned that assumption on its head, resulting in one of those jaw-dropping moments in which prime era Vampire Diaries excelled.
2) “The Reckoning” (Season 3, Episode 5)
Speaking of altering major characters, “The Reckoning” is one of those Vampire Diaries episodes that feels like a season finale, but instead happens five episodes into a twenty-two episode season. The episode drops some major revelations, alters several characters, and features narrative threads that carry repercussions that reverberate for the next few seasons. If it’s rare for a series to fundamentally change one if its characters, it’s even less common for one episode to change nearly every major character.
1) “Sun Also Rises” (Season 2, Episode 21)
Season 2 is probably the height of Vampire Diaries’ breathless, break-neck storytelling, which is why nearly one-third of my list comes from Season 2. I could probably make a top ten of only Season 2 episodes, and it would be difficult to argue against any episode’s inclusion. Yet, Season 2’s penultimate episode is such a perfect example of the series’ tension-building, it’s hard to argue that any other episode ever topped it. It’s the culmination of the Sun and Moon curse, it features not one but two groups of siblings with complicated feelings towards one another, and a few brilliant plot developments. In fact, so much happens here, the actual season finale feels pretty anticlimactic. After all, how could it compare to an episode featuring both the deaths of major characters and schemes that go spectacularly awry. It’s a shame that a series that moves this fast isn’t sustainable for the long-term, but with episodes like these under its belt, it’s easy to remember why Vampire Diaries was so appealing.