The best TV episodes of 2012: 'The Vampire Diaries' raises the stakes with 'Our Town'

tvd-caroline-birthday.jpgWhen choosing my favorite TV episodes of 2012, I knew that "The Vampire Diaries" would have to be represented. The show is enormously underrated -- yes, it's on The CW, and yes, it's about angsty teen vampires, but the performances and writing more than hold up to standards set by award-winning series like "Glee" and "True Blood."

But what was the best "Vampire Diaries" episode of 2012? There are some powerful scenes that stand out over the course of the year -- the Mystic Falls gang saying their goodbye to Alaric in "Do Not Go Gentle," Stefan looking shattered over Elena's body in "The Departed," the Japanese lantern catharsis coupled with Damon's heartbreaking "conversation" with Alaric in "Memorial." That's not to mention Klaus's chilling holiday massacre set to a classic Christmas soundtrack in "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

After consulting with my favorite expert, though, I settled on the Season 3 episode "Our Town" as one of my top television episodes of 2012. Written by Rebecca Sonnenshine and directed by Wendy Stanzler, the episode was a rare change of pace for "The Vampire Diaries." The first part of the third season hurtled through plot at a breakneck speed, but it wasn't until "Our Town" that the show took a well-earned moment to examine the emotional implication of the mayhem that had been inflicted on our favorite characters.

On her 18th birthday, Caroline comes to terms with the fact that, because she's now a vampire, a lot of her plans for her future had to be scrapped. There's only so long you can look 18 (okay, 23) in a town with a constant blood shortage without people becoming suspicious. The episode started off with a rare reprieve from the constant despair as her friends threw her a birthday party that was also a funeral. With all the tragedy surrounding them, it's important for the audience to remember that Caroline, Elena, Bonnie, and Matt -- and Tyler, sort of -- have known each other since childhood. They've got the kind of bond that only exists between people who saw each other through the awkward training-bra-and-braces phases, and as things become increasingly hopeless, that is something worth fighting for.

Candice Accola absolutely shined in this episode. Facing the inevitable end of her relationship with Tyler, Caroline was torn between making the painful adult choice to let him go, and clinging to him the way she might have done as a human. The alternating heartbreak and hope was beautifully played.

Perhaps the most well-crafted scene of the episode, however, was not about Tyler. As Caroline lay dying from Tyler's bite, Klaus showed up just in time to save her. The two characters hadn't interacted before, but the chemistry between them was immediate, undeniable, and a truly delightful surprise. After she spent the episode trying to come to terms with the downsides of being a vampire, Klaus is the first person to offer perks, and the promise of a life outside her Mystic Falls bubble. "Great cities, art, and music," he  teases. "Genuine beauty." Their connection essentially came out of nowhere, but this initial scene served as a foundation for a romance that is still sizzling with potential a year later.

tvd-our-town-stefan-elena.jpg"Our Town" wasn't necessarily easy to watch, but even the pain was oh so good. After half a season of watching Stefan ( Paul Wesley) devolve into a villain, driven by bloodlust, vengeance, and the weight of his own failure, this was the episode that delivered evil Stefan at his absolute worst. Wesley is never better than when he's playing up the power-hungry, manic, dangerous side of Stefan, and that's evidenced here as he twists himself into something almost unrecognizable to serve Stefan's darkest motives.

"To beat the villain, Damon, you have to be the better villain," Stefan tells his brother. He's a reckless, sloppy sort of monster, though. His one advantage in the Ultimate Villain Race is that he knows the weaknesses of our heroes, and he's ready to exploit them. If I'd ever doubted the writers' intent to make Stefan truly bad, those doubts vanished the instant he brought Elena to the site of her parents' death and violently threatened to kill her as leverage with Klaus. It was traumatic, terrifying, and some really fantastic television. "The Ripper" nickname wasn't hyperbolic after all. With nothing left to lose, Stefan was a true monster. Up until this point, everything Stefan has done has been for Elena's benefit. This is the moment where Stefan gets what he wants at Elena's expense, and a line is crossed.

Though "Our Town" doesn't focus on the love triangle as much as most episodes do, it gives us just enough of a tease to whet our appetites when Damon and Elena finally discuss their first mutual kiss. "It's right," Damon says. "It's just not right now." Now knowing where Damon and Elena would be a year later gives that tease added impact. At the time, it was just enough promise to convince us to leave a light on for Damon.

For me, the episode is defined by Elena's final scene with Matt. She's despairing a bit when he comes to meet her on Wickery Bridge, where her parents died. As the last remaining pure vestige of her life before she was orphaned and got caught up with the vampires, Matt essentially gives Elena permission to grow up and change. He assures her that by evolving, she's not letting him down, and by extension, not letting her parents down. They hold a quiet funeral for the child she once was, and after all they've been through, it's a moment that feels mature and earned, but somehow still light and innocent. She's allowed to want to be happy, and after the day she's had, that's incredibly valuable.

"Our Town" perfectly balanced suspense and horror with emotional payoff. It gave every character a turn to express themselves, reminded us that there was still a lot left to lose, and showcased absolutely brilliant performances from actors that deserve far more recognition than they get. The writing was both brave and restrained, and teed up some intriguing connections that would last long into the next season.

Oh, yeah... and it started off with Ian Somerhalder in the shower. Did I forget to mention that?

For a refresher, read my initial recap of "Our Town" or download it from iTunes to enjoy during your New Year's hangover. Here's hoping 2013 brings something even better!
Photo/Video credit: The CW