If you’re like us, you started counting down the days until The Vampire Diaries Season 4 return months ago. For the record, it starts October 11 at 8:00 p.m. on The CW. In honor of the auspicious occasion, we’ll count down 10 must-watch episodes from the first three seasons. They’ll get you caught up to speed, in case you didn’t binge-watch the entire series over the summer. (We suppose there’s still time for that, though... )

*Careful, spoilers for everything ahead*

Credit: CW

10. Season 1, Episode 7, “Haunted”
What you need to know: Before this episode, TVD was kind of a “girl-meets-vampire” love story. It took Elena (Nina Dobrev) a while to catch on that her boyfriend, Stefan (Paul Wesley), and his dastardly brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder), are undead, yet she embraces the supernatural siblings pretty easily. But the girl’s got her own family drama: Her little brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen), is in love with a new and seriously unstable vampire named Vicki Donovan (Kayla Ewell). 

Why it’s a must-watch: This episode may not have made the cut if Elena weren’t headed to vampire town, but now that she is, it has some key plot points. It shows the transition process, in all its horrible, gory glory. It’s also a good reminder of what Ms. Gilbert is in for — and the dangers that go along with becoming a vampire. Plus, it’s October now, so it’s the perfect time for a Halloween episode.

9. Season 1, Episode 10, “The Turning Point”
What you need to know: Elena’s BFF Bonnie (Kat Graham) is a witch who doesn’t really like vampires. Mostly, she dislikes Damon and the way he compelled Caroline (Candice Accola) to wear scarves so he could use her neck as his personal blood supply. It’s OK, though, because the peppy blond is getting all flirty-flirt with Elena’s ex Matt (Zach Roerig), and cheerleaders and quarterbacks go together like peas and carrots. Also, Elena’s Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning) has terrible taste in men: Her ex Logan Fell was a jerk before he was a vampire. Complicating things is Katherine (Nina Dobrev), Elena’s vampire doppelganger, whom both Salvatore boys were in love with. In fact, Damon is still smitten and it leads him to bad life choices.

Why it’s a must-watch: Stefan and Elena have “The Talk” about their future, because, hello, immortal vampire plus 17-year-old, and the math doesn’t add up. Nevertheless, they share a pretty beautiful scene together, ruined, per usual, by Katherine. Plus, we get a whiff of Alaric’s (Matt Davis) badassness and a peek at the Lockwood family drama.  

8. Season 1, Episode 11, “Bloodlines”
What you need to know: If you watched Season 1, Episode 10, “Turning Point” (like we told you to!) you know Elena is a tailspin after finding out her boyfriend used to date her exact duplicate: Katherine Pierce. Before Stefan can tell her that he loves for more than her looks, Elena is in her car, getting into an accident. Also, Stefan is still smarting from the loss of his best gal pal, Lexie, whom Damon killed in Season 1, Episode 8, “162 Candles,” to show his allegiance to Sheriff Forbes. In the episode after that, Damon tried, and failed, to kill Bonnie. Finally, Jenna is a cool aunt but a pretty terrible guardian and often neglects to notice when Elena and Jeremy are in mortal danger.

Why it’s a much watch: “Here's to the man that broke my heart, crushed my soul, destroyed my life, and ruined any and all chances of happiness,” barmaster Bree says of Damon, after copiously kissing him on the mouth. The elder Salvatore has done worse to Elena — he tore her BFF’s throat out a few weeks ago, after all. And Damon will go on to do more to hurt Elena, but he makes her laugh in this episode, despite her terrible, horrible day. Therein lies the Damon dilemma. Additionally, we get some important insight into how Stefan and Elena really met.

Credit: CW

7. Season 2, Episode 1, “The Return”
What you need to know: Bear with us, but Elena wasn’t raised by her birth parents. Actually, her Uncle John Gilbert (David Anders) impregnated a 16-year-old girl named Isobel, who gave Elena to John’s brother and sister-in-law. Isobel went on to marry Alaric and got turned into a vampire by Damon. She’s also friends with Elena’s doppelganger, Katherine, who showed up at the Gilbert house in the Season 1 finale, made out with Damon (while pretending to be Elena), and cut off John’s fingers before stabbed him in the gut.

Also in the Season 1 finale, a bunch of vampires were rounded up by the Founder’s Council (the town’s oldest families who know about its supernatural elements and have meetings about how to kill vampires over tea), including Jeremy’s GF, Anna. Using a special device (which Bonnie was supposed to have used her witchy juju to disable but didn’t because she thought her Grams — who died helping the Salvatores — wouldn’t want her to), the Council gave everything supernatural within hearing distance a terrible headache. Here’s the thing: The gang’s agro friend Tyler (Michael Trevino) was affected! But he’s not a vampire! He drove Matt and Caroline off the road, and now blondie’s in the hospital. Jeremy was so upset over the death of his second vampire girlfriend that he drank some of Anna’s blood, took some pain meds, and tried to vampirize himself. Got all that?

Why it’s a much watch: Yes, it required much exposition, but Season 2 came roaring to life after some insane cliffhangers. Just like that, Katherine becomes the principal threat, and boy, is she a nasty piece of work. It’s lots of fun to watch her play twin swap with Elena’s friends and family. Plus, Damon does something that has an enormous impact on his relationship with Elena and still looms large in the minds of many fans. Oh, and Mason Lockwood (Taylor Kinney) is not to be missed.

6. Season 2, Episode 19, “Klaus”
What you need to know: Have you met Klaus (Joseph Morgan)? He’s an Original vampire — Original, as in, very, very old. He’s scary and powerful and has a list of bloodsuckers at his disposal, waiting to do his bidding. Another Original, Elijah (Daniel Gillies), is trying to keep Elena out of Klaus’s clutches. Unfortunately for everyone, Klaus has taken over Alaric’s body (subterfuge!) while nearly killing Bonnie in the process. (That girl almost-dies almost as much as Elena.)

Originals are as hard to kill as they come. You need a dagger dipped in the ash of white oak tree (very rare stuff), and even then, if you pull the dagger out, the vamp comes back to life. Elijah had been safely daggered for some time, but in the previous episode, Elena decided to unleash the beast. As for the Sun and Moon Curse, even though it’s discussed for episodes at length, um, you don’t really need to know anything about it.

Why it’s a must watch: Oh, the costumes! The period drama! This show is all about history repeating, and this episode illustrates that in spades. Plus, if you’re going to watch anything from Season 3, you have to be properly introduced to the Originals — what better way than when they’re wearing fabulous wigs? Tension between the brothers Salvatore reaches a boiling point, as their mutual love for Elena proves to be an untenable situation.

5. Season 2, Episode 20, “The Last Day”
What you need to know: After learning he’s a werewolf, kinda falling for Caroline, and then nearly letting a pack of his kind torture her to death, Tyler decided to take a break from Mystic Falls. He went to  commune with the Floridian nature with another werewolf named Jules. What about Matt? Well, when he learned that Caroline was a vampire, he kinda lost it and started spying on her at the request of her own mother, Sheriff Forbes. Oh, the betrayal!

Bonnie befriended a father-son warlock duo, Jonas and Luka Martin. They’re main objective was to “rescue” Greta, Luka’s sister, from Klaus. They failed, as they’re both dead and she was actually willingly working with the Original. Oh, and one more thing? Werewolf bites are fatal to vampires.

Why it’s a must watch: Some very important Elena moments happen in this episode that really highlight her whole character and belief system. Similarly, Stefan and Damon both view their responsibilities when it comes to Elena very differently, and that’s a fundamental conflict that’s at the heart of the show. It informs the way they feel about her, and the way she sees them.

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/The CW

4. Season 3, Episode 1, “The Birthday”
What you need to know: Everyone is dead. OK, not everyone. But Jenna and John are. In order to get access to his hybrid traits, Klaus killed Jenna and Elena, but thanks to some complicated linking spell that we still don’t understand, John sacrificed his life for his daughter’s. So, Elena is alive. Whew.
 
However, Damon nearly died from his werewolf bite, only to have it cured by Klaus’s blood. Oh, but before that, Elena kissed him. It was sweaty. In exchange for the elixir of life, Stefan had to agree to become the Ripper again — that’s Stefan’s alter ego who likes to tear his victims to shreds and listens to punk. (Just kidding about that last part.)
 
Klaus also double-crossed (and daggered) Elijah, who only wanted to get the mostly dead bodies of his siblings back. Let’s see. What else? Caroline found out what Matt and her mom were up to, and that kind of killed their relationship. But Bonnie and Jeremy are so in love that she brought him back to life after Sheriff Forbes accidentally shot him and now the little Gilbert can see ghosts.
 
Since then, an entire summer has passed.

Why it’s a must watch: Stefan as Ripper. It’s part of who he is, a part he’s always struggled to tamp down, but Klaus’s orders force him to embrace those inner demons. There will be blood this season! Amidst the chaos, everyone tries to be normal and do human things like have a birthday party with red Solo cups. In Stefan’s absence, Elena and Damon’s friendship has grown, and even if the wayward Ripper returns, the triangle’s dynamics are shifting. Beyond that, it sets up Klaus’s whole crazy plan for the season.


Credit: Bob Mahoney/The CW

3. Season 3, Episode 3, “The End of the Affair”
Tyler and Caroline gave into their supernatural lust and did the deed, but Mayor Lockwood didn’t think a vampire was good enough for her baby boy. So, she shot Caroline full of vervain, chained her up, and called her dad to deal with her. Realizing it was time to come clean, Tyler got naked transformed into a werewolf in front of his mom.
 
Stefan didn’t forget Elena’s birthday and gifted her with a silent phone call; she took this to mean that underneath the Ripper still (sort of) beats the heart of a good vampire. Then Elena attempted to go on a suicide mission to the wilds of Tennessee to save Stefan from Klaus, but Alaric and Damon tagged along. They didn’t succeed. The OV hadn’t perfected his hybrid recipe and ended up killing a bunch of werewolves when he tried to transform them. Meanwhile, Vicki and Anna sent Jeremy conflicting messages from the other side, and Matt tried to help Elena’s little brother get in touch with his dead sister.
 
Why it’s a must-watch: It’s a flashback episode, and Stefan’s hair is a thing of a beauty. The end. OK, there are more reasons, like the Ripper’s sick little games and Rebekah’s (Claire Holt) introduction, but it’s also a great example of how TVD makes its flashbacks matter. Sure, prohibition-era Chicago looks sumptuous and wickedly fun, but some very important information is revealed in these scenes.

2. Season 3, Episode 21, “Before Sunset”
What you need to know: Well, there’s a lot. Let’s sum up: Alaric is now an evil vampire; the Original witch, Esther (aka, Klaus and Rebekah’s mama), messed with his head every time he died while wearing his ring. Now he’s an Original. Speaking of moms, Bonnie found hers, who abandoned her all those years  ago. Damon turned her into a vampire.

But as far as poor parenting goes, Abbey has nothing on Esther. The Original witch wants to kill all her vampire children and needs an Original (aka, Alaric) to do it. The problem? If an Original dies, so do all the vamps they sired. That means Damon, Stefan, Caroline, and all the other vamps we know and love will die if Klaus is killed, since their bloodline can be traced back to him.

Klaus turned Tyler into a hybrid (using Elena’s blood, which is the secret ingredient) and fell for his girlfriend, Caroline. In order to escape Klaus’s sire bond (it’s like having a supernatural crush on the person who turned you), Tyler left Mystic Falls for a while. Mission accomplished — but the OV thinks his hybrid minion is still under his control.

Klaus also turned off Stefan’s humanity, and the Ripper became a real jerk. Then Damon and Elena kissed a couple times. Stefan shook off Kalus’s compulsion and became less Ripper-y.

Why it’s a must-watch: We’ve seen Bonnie do powerful spells before, but yikes, does she go over the top here. There are a lot of good moments, but let’s be honest: It’s all setting up for the next episode...

1. Season 3, Episode 22, “The Departed”
What you need to know: In case you forgot, Elena’s parents died in a car accident a few years ago, and she used to date Matt. Jeremy (who can see ghosts) isn’t really digging the whole supernatural aspects of his hometown anymore (except for Bonnie... witches are still cool). 

Now, Elena has two brothers to choose from. She feels feelings for both of them.

Why it’s a must-watch: This changes everything...

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