I’m not sure how it took me so long to figure this out, but tonight, it hit me like a ton of bricks: At its heart, The Vampire Diaries is a show all about family. Sure, it’s wrapped up in a twisty package of supernatural violence and constant plot machinations, all just shiny enough to distract from what is at its emotional core. This core, however, is what makes the shiny things work. Without it, shiny is just shiny, violence is just violence, and plot machinations may thrill but ultimately don’t mean anything. What’s happening in season three is so impressive because it feels like the show is only just now beginning to mine the depths of this emotional core, and yet it is already so strong. I can’t imagine how great it will be once the writers really dig deep.

Honestly, I admit I am feeling rather foolish because I should have made this family connection far sooner. Everything in Mystic Falls is wrapped up in families, down to the founding families that still play a big part in the modern town’s operation. Elena and Jeremy’s story, Caroline’s story, Tyler’s story, Bonnie’s story, and Damon and Stefan’s story can all be tracked back to their original roots, within their families. Bonnie’s not Bonnie without the legacy of witchcraft. Elena’s not Elena without the story of Isobel and the Petrova bloodline. And, certainly, Damon and Stefan aren’t Damon and Stefan without Katherine and the ugly way their father reacted to the whole mess so many years ago.

Now we’ve learned the story of the Original Family, which was far more affecting than any story about a group of vampires who don’t have the best of intentions toward our core characters has any right to be. Klaus has effectively been the show’s “Big Bad” since early season two, but for a good portion of the episode, the show actually managed to use his backstory to make the audience sympathize with him. Elijah, Klaus, and Rebekah’s backstory is fairly tragic, and their transition to vampirism takes on an even more fatalistic tone when it is revealed it was born out of desperation from their father and mother, who are simply attempting to save their remaining family from the werewolves that hunt them after their youngest child is killed.

Their father is where things get interesting, because their father is none other than the vampire vampire hunter, Mikael. Mikael was undoubtedly a horrible father, a violent man who favored Elijah and humiliated Klaus at every turn. This humiliation, along with the story of Mikael turning on their mother and ripping out her heart once he found out about Klaus resulting from her affair with a werewolf, is what makes Klaus sympathetic. This, along with the fabulous Rebekah’s unwavering loyalty, makes us want to believe in his potential salvation. This belief ends up being built on a lie, Rebekah’s entire lifetime of loyalty itself built on this lie, when Elena realizes it was Klaus, not Mikael, who killed their mother.

This is a story about horrible people, a story about people we shouldn’t really have any rooting interest in, and yet it manages to be quite the gut punch. Part of this was due to the elegant crafting of the reveal—Mikael is honestly a bastard, and it isn’t anything that seems too out of character from what we know—but most if it is due to how quickly Rebekah has developed as a character. Claire Holt has been a fantastic addition to the cast, and her pain upon learning the truth about her past was palpable and perfectly played. Now that she’s potentially on Elena’s side against Klaus, she should get plenty more chances to shine.

Although a large part of tonight’s episode focused on the Originals, the central family of this show will always be the Salvatores. It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a meaningful scene between Stefan and Damon, but tonight, we got them in spades, as the brothers had a whole subplot to themselves. From the first snarky line in the dungeon to Damon’s last kick in the ribs to Stefan, every bit of it was sheer perfection. With Stefan not the Stefan Damon is used to, all of their interactions become this delicate little dance of thinly veiled animosity and affection. Part of Damon truly wants the old Stefan back, but another part of him clearly enjoys this loose, fun version of his brother. Stefan, for all of his overblown protestations to the contrary, still cannot bear to see Damon hurt, as evidenced by his dilemma when Mikael shows up and threatens to rip Damon’s heart out if Stefan doesn’t give up Klaus’ location.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Stefan and Damon’s instinct to save the other no matter the circumstances informs everything they do as characters, and that was definitely the case tonight. That it all came after an episode of them bullshitting and drinking in a bar together, well, all the better for us. Even Elena knows she’s not the most important person in this love triangle, recognizing—in a very wonderful scene—that it will be Damon’s love to bring Stefan back from the brink, not hers. It’s a beautifully mature moment for Elena, one that’s been a long time coming in her constant quest to “save” Stefan.

So here’s where we are, with one episode left until January: Mikael is after Klaus, with Stefan promising to bring him back to Mystic Falls for him, while Rebekah knows the truth about her brother’s past and is potentially going to team up with Elena, Damon, and Alaric to defeat him as well. With everyone gunning for Klaus at the same time, something’s got to give. TVD would never allow anything in Mystic Falls to be so simple.

Stray observations:

  • This “Originals come to the New World 1,000 years ago” business is pretty historically wonky, so I am ignoring the implausibility. But why do they speak English? And draw their family history on cave walls? Ah, ignore, ignore, ignore!
  • You probably saw this observation coming, but… not enough Elijah! I’m worried we’re not going to see much of him in the future, as well, now that his Canadian series got picked up.
  • Flashback hair is the best hair.
  • No Caroline, Jeremy, Tyler, or Matt. Have I mentioned how much I love that they don’t use characters in stories where they aren’t needed? (Yes, I have.)
  • Note to self: Never play quarters with a vampire.
  • “Yeah, it’s the Lockwood diaries, Pictionary-style.”
  • “I now like to call him Papa Original.”
  • “We should all listen to Elena, right? I mean, her plans always work out so well, don’t they?”
  • “I think you’re going to be the one who saves him from himself. It won’t be because he loves me; it will be because he loves you.”