After over 30 significant deaths and approximately three shocking moments per episode, you would think that “The Vampire Diaries” would be starting to run out of ways to make its viewers say “did that really just happen?” But alas, the third season of the CW’s super-serialized vampire saga might just be the most twisty, risky season yet.

The Vampire Diaries

Season Finale
Thursdays at 8 p.m.
The CW

The season picks up after All-American, good guy vampire Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) is forced to tag along with hybrid vampire/werewolf Klaus (Joseph Morgan) in a bloody rampage along the east coast in exchange for brother Damon Salvatore’s (Ian Somerhalder) life. The hero-turned-villain trope is a supernatural staple, but no one expected the Ripper to stick around for much longer than a couple of episodes before he went skipping back to Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and killing nothing larger than a rabbit for bloody sustenance.

But the writers pushed evil Stefan to the edge and just when we thought he couldn’t possibly lose any more control, he did. In season two, Nina Dobrev and Matt Davis had to balance between playing two radically different characters, and this time Paul Wesley stepped up to the challenge, encapsulating the numb, hungry Ripper with such exactitude that the football-playing, sweetheart Stefan seemed like a distant dream.

Expectations were high coming into the season, as co-creators and writers Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec already proved in the show’s first two seasons that they could tackle layered character work and thrilling plot with ease. This time around, they revved everything up 10 notches, introducing an entire family of Original vampires, creating new alliances and tackling some of the most gripping, heart-staking arcs that would reduce even the most hardened of vampires to an emotional mess. We’ve fallen hard for these characters, for their complexities and imperfections — making the aforementioned ever-rising body count all the more significant. But a genre show too hesitant to let characters die lacks the urgency and depth of “The Vampire Diaries.”

The show has also stepped up its love-triangle game, because yes, it wouldn’t be a CW show without a complicated romantic saga, right? The standard love triangle setup goes something like this: Girl falls for good guy, but has a flirty will-they-won’t-they vibe with the resident bad boy and ultimately has to make a choice between nice (boring) and spice (evil). But “The Vampire Diaries” transforms this cliché into something much more compelling and honest. What happens when the hero becomes the villain and the brother who once was the show’s Big Bad becomes reliable and caring? Elena’s indecisiveness can be frustrating, but nowhere near as annoying as the other characters’ insistence that she has to choose a Salvatore brother … can’t she choose neither?

But the love triangle isn’t what’s at the heart of the show. It’s the other relationships that make the show and its characters so damn intricate: Alaric and Damon’s unlikely friendship, Klaus’s humanizing crush on Caroline, Elena and Matt’s long-lasting, platonic love for each other and the beautiful Salvatore brotherhood that is all at once unstable and eternal. Most of the main characters have one parent or less, and the Gilbert children have the worst luck when it comes to parental guardians staying alive, but the Mystic Falls family is one that transcends bloodlines.

Along with writing strong friendships and character dynamics, “The Vampire Diaries” has become known for its skill with flashback episodes, and the four major ones this year did not disappoint. We see the elaborate beginnings of the Original family, Stefan’s sordid past and friendship with Klaus and an innocent Damon seduced by the devilish Sage. These flashbacks show instead of telling, build the mythology for the show and take a glimpse into the characters’ pasts. They don’t press pause on the story — as TV flashback gimmicks tend to do — but rather give insight and info that propels the narrative forward.

And then in a series of dreams in the season finale, we get to see the last day Elena’s parents were alive — the day that catalyzed the series and brought the Salvatore brothers into Elena’s life. It’s a poignant and effective way of showing how these characters and their relationships with each other have changed and grown.

No one was prepared for that final revelation, the twist that changed everything. Williamson and Plec fearlessly took a premise-changing, story-shifting risk that will certainly be a challenge to follow through with. But with one of the best, multi-faceted dramatic ensembles on television and stirring, pace-perfect writing reminiscent of supernatural hall of famers like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Twin Peaks,” “The Vampire Diaries” has enough bite to keep on raising those stakes.

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