'The Vampire Diaries' recap: Elena needs Damon more than she knew, plus -- did Tyler cheat on Caroline?

tvd-403-ian-somerhalder-bring-it-on.jpgIs it just me, or does "The Vampire Diaries" feel like a whole new show this season? After the heavy melodrama we were dealt at the end of Season 3, with Alaric's death and Elena's choice looming, last week's Japanese lanterns almost gave our characters permission to breathe again. Of course, things aren't easy by any means, and there are still plenty of burdens to bear. But there's a certain refreshing lightness to the show right now.

Part of that is because things have been simplified to a degree. At this time last season, we were dealing with Klaus, the unknown factor of his family, the ghosts being manipulated by Esther, and Stefan's ripper side, which was a threat in itself. Right now, there's one key villain in Connor and one key mystery as we look for answers about Pastor Young and the council. The back-to-basics dynamic allows the writers to embrace the fact that these characters are teenagers and should, on occasion, be allowed to have teenager problems.

So here's what struck me as particularly worthy of discussion.

Vampire Elena is awesome. After three seasons of Elena's compassion and martyrdom, seeing her get legitimately angry was actually a huge relief. Those "heightened emotions" have actually made her more relatable and more fun. Watching her get drunk and have fun and experience real hate gave us something new, when we thought we'd already seen all sides of her.

Her comment that she never thought she was "capable of hate" reminded me of how annoying all that compassion could be, and her darker side is more than welcome to settle in. It's easier to invest in someone who is capable of darkness because there's a degree of unpredictability, which is immensely appealing as a viewer. Also -- it's kind of cool to see Nina Dobrev clearly having a blast, and using her yoga expertise to do a keg stand. Love it.

matt-rebekah-heart-removal-vampire-diaries.jpg Klaus sticks around. After Klaus' grand, dramatic exit in the season premiere, I think Tyler being targeted is a pretty flimsy excuse for our fave Original Hybrid to return to Mystic Falls. Sure, maybe he wants to keep his hybrids alive, but when Tyler conspired in Klaus's "death," he made it pretty clear that the sire bond is no longer there -- which means that he is no longer Klaus's little minion. If anything, I'd think Klaus would want Tyler alive -- he's the only creature in the world with strength comparable to Klaus's and no allegiance to him.

I struggle a lot with Klaus's place in the Mystic Falls world. I love Joseph Morgan, relish every moment he's on screen, and am really intrigued to see how the relationship between Klaus and Caroline unfolds -- mostly because I'm skeptical that it can work out. But keeping him in Mystic falls massively dilutes the power of his character, when he could be out commanding his hybrid army and exploring all those worldly treasures he's always dangling in front of Caroline.

Tyler and Hayley. First of all, I love Phoebe Tonkin. She's sharp and vibrant and sexy and fits right in to the "Vampire Diaries" landscape, and given what she told me about Hayley's background, she's going to bring a fresh element to the show. That said, I'm pretty conflicted about the possibility that Tyler may have cheated on Caroline. As I've made abundantly clear in my reviews over the years, Tyler's development has been one of the more compelling parts of the series for me. If we find out that Tyler and Hayley hooked up in the Appalachians, I'm going to need a lot of context to understand why he returned to his formerly douchey ways.

I'll believe that he was in an extraordinarily vulnerable state and that they connected on a deep level -- the way he connected with Caroline during his first transformations -- but I definitely need that to be expressed by the show. Hayley's story definitely seems to be a force that will ease the way for a possible Klaus and Caroline hookup right now, but I hope that we see a better, deeper reason for her being around than just as a plot device. In the meantime, though, I really like her swagger, and she and Tyler absolutely have chemistry. I'm also glad that Tyler's time away is going to be acknowledged. I thought it was going to be swept under the rug again.

The hunter's mark. In tonight's episode, we learned that Connor's disappearing tattoo marks him as one of "The Five" ... but we don't actually know what that means. When Klaus and Damon were about to kill him, he warned that there was another lined up to take his place -- and now we can assume that's Jeremy. What remains to be seen is why Klaus is so invested in keeping Connor alive, and how that relates to keeping Elena alive. The trouble now, of course, is that Connor is still active when all of our vamps think they're home free, and the town authorities think he's been eliminated. Everyone's guard is down now.

Matt's fake death. That. Was. Terrifying. Never do that to me again. show.

That motorcycle scene. Let's just say this was the cheesiest scene in the history of cheesiness and leave it at that, shall we? Don't get mad at me, Stelena fans -- I liked the intention behind it. But between the bad green screen, the unnecessary helmets, and the complete randomness of the motorcycle, it fell flat. Plus, all of that only served to make Stefan question their relationship and his ability to resist temptation around Awesome Vampire Elena. [ UPDATE: Exec. producer Julie Plec says it was not green screen, so I'll amend that and just say it all looked off.] Which brings me to...

ian-somerhalder-403-explosion-vampire-diareis.jpg Caroline and Stefan. LOVE THIS. Apologies for the capital letters, but there was a serious lack of Stefan and Caroline interaction in Season 3 after a powerful build-up in the second season, and I've been waiting for the payoff. Candice Accola and Paul Wesley have great chemistry together, and honestly, it's about time Stefan have a friend. I'll just say it: I wouldn't hate it at all if a romantic relationship developed between these two.

Remember when Pacey agreed to be there for Joey during a difficult time in her life and then it slowly and gorgeously evolved into the greatest love story ever told by Warner Bros. Television until Seth and Ryan ? Caroline can totally be Stefan's Pacey! Or something. (I know this will never happen. Caroline has enough love interests and Stefan's sexual orientation can best be described as "Elena." But a fan can dream.)

Is it Delena time yet? Look. It's a show about a love triangle, and Damon and Elena are going to give it the ol' college try eventually. So can it just happen now? All of the Damon-can-teach-Elena-to-be-a-better-vampire exposition is getting a little bit tired, and we're only three episodes into the season. It was hard to watch that scene in his bedroom this week, because at this point, she's just torturing him. There's no excuse for her lingering in his room while he stripped when she knows how he feels about her. There's really no excuse for her to be asking him for anything -- be it bourbon or a murder weapon -- when she knows how he feels about her. And yet, she does. It's got to come to a climax soon or she's going to continue to be inexcusable.

Luckily, next week's episode looks to be a turning point for that relationship, as Elena has finally accepted Damon's offer to guide her through the fun parts of being a vampire. (You'd think she'd have realized before now that he's always reliable, but we'll forgive her slowness now that she's finally enlightened.) I think a lot of fans' patience is about to pay off.

connectv-watercooler-carina-mackenzie.jpegYour turn! Obviously, this is a very simplified run-down of the episode, and there's lots more to talk about. I'm hosting a fun chat every Friday at 3 p.m. EST (noon PST) on ConnecTV, a fantastic new app that makes TV more social. You guys can ask me any questions you want and I'll share my opinions, plus scoop from the cast and crew on what's to come. In the meantime, I'm really hoping that we can hash it out in the comments section here, too, because I love hearing from you guys and I think these recaps are best served as forums for discussion.
Photo/Video credit: The CW