By Mandi Bierly
Updated May 05, 2011 at 05:57 PM EDT
Credit: Art Streiber/The CW

The sacrifice ritual is finally upon us, and no one is pretending that tonight’s game-changing episode of The Vampire Diaries (The CW, 8 p.m. ET) won’t have a body count. It was an emotional hour for the cast to shoot. “The big sacrifice is very tragic. A lot of people die, and it’s all people that we love and care about, and so when you’re on set filming it and you’re looking at these people in their eyes and you know that they’re dying, it’s like losing a family member for real,” Dobrev tells EW. As always, the cast had to find the light at the end of the tunnel. “The show is so dark, and dangerous, and scary, and there’s so much blood and death, we have to make ourselves laugh, we have to make sure that we have fun. During the sacrifice episode, we shot mostly nights, about an hour or hour and a half outside [Atlanta], so we would drive an hour and a half twice a day after working 16 hours a day for a week. We worked on a Saturday night as well. We were joking around saying, ‘If we have to work on Saturday night, we should be able to drink on Saturday night at work. We didn’t obviously,” she says, “but then on Sunday morning, when we wrapped at like 9 a.m., we all went out for brunch, which was basically like our dinner.” So mimosas all around? “We tried, but in Georgia there’s a law that you can’t drink before 12:30 on Sunday,” she says.

Speaking of tragedies, we asked Dobrev to tease tonight’s episode. Here’s what she told us:

Credit: Art Streiber/The CW

• John (David Anders) has been MIA because independent Elena’s been avoiding him despite their truce, and frankly, she’s had so much on her mind, she hasn’t even thought about keeping him in the loop. “We saw a lot of him this episode, and you’re gonna see him be as selfless as we’ve ever seen him,” she says. (RIP, John?)

• Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning), who’s in transition and will become a vampire if she drinks human blood, will go through hell either way. So will Elena. “Jenna will have to make the choice, and Elena will have to sit there and watch her go through this terrible thing. When you think about it, Jenna found out that vampires existed and then become one in, like, a day. And now she’s fighting all these different emotions because when you’re a vampire, all your senses are heightened — the feeling for love, and regret, and sadness, and pain,” Dobrev says. “The one thing Elena has been fighting so hard to achieve all season is to protect her friends and her family, and now she’s in this circumstance where she’s very vulnerable and helpless and she has to sit there like a spectator and watch those around her die knowing that she’s basically next.”

• By episode’s end, we will know one way or another whether Elena, who Damon (Ian Somerhalder) force-fed his blood last episode, will be turning into a vampire herself.

• Expect captive Katherine to play a role in the sacrifice… “She somehow surprises everyone,” Dobrev says. Vague, yes, but we’re pretty sure she meant “surprise” in a good way.

• Damon will hide his werewolf bite from Elena and Stefan (Paul Wesley). That sets up next week’s season finale, during which Damon’s dementia kicks in while Mystic Falls is hosting a screening of Gone With the Wind in the town square. “It’s a very, very interesting turn of events. Because Damon force-fed Elena his blood, and she was just so heartbroken by it, and so angry and upset, it’s almost like something finally clicked in his brain and he realized that he did something that was not right. It’s his final act of good grace — he doesn’t want to burden them with it. He’s already kind of written himself off, and he doesn’t want to make everyone around him suffer because of it. He just wants to go gracefully and try to redeem himself before he dies. It’s actually a really beautiful episode.” (Note to Damon fans: All she’s actually said there is that Damon thinks he’s dying. Let’s remember that Rose didn’t die from the werewolf bite, she died from Damon mercy staking her. Let’s also not forget that one myth — the curse of the sun and the moon — has been busted.)

Bonus burning questions:

• Last episode, Damon convinced Katherine to tell him where Klaus (Joseph Morgan) was holding Caroline (Candice Accola) and Tyler (Michael Trevino), because if Katherine loves Stefan, she wouldn’t want the ritual to happen as scheduled since it would mean spending eternity competing with vampire Elena for Stefan’s affection. Does Katherine really love Stefan, or is that just a lie she’s still selling? “There’s so many ways it can go, and nobody truly knows the answer to that except for [executive producers Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec], and they’re very ambiguous about it to even me,” she says. “But the way I play it, it’s your classic ‘I want what I can’t have’ syndrome. Damon was so available to Katherine for so long. He was like a little puppy dog. She liked playing with him, but she didn’t always keep him around. And Stefan almost represented what seemed like a solid ground in her so inconsistent world. She’s been running for 500 years, and he was sort of indifferent about her, and the fact that he’s fallen in love with someone else but he’s still being this good guy — Katherine at the end of the day had a family and loved her family, and like anyone, she wants to be loved and is looking for a family and to be accepted. I think she believes she loves Stefan, but I think it could change at any given time. Katherine loves herself more than anyone else. There may be people who she finds compatible, or endearing, or interesting, or playful, or flirtatious, and everyone will feed a different part of her existence for that moment in time, but ultimately, Katherine loves herself. Maybe one day, she will get to a point where she gets lonely, and she’s gonna want to find a greater purpose. Maybe she’ll have to hit bottom and completely shut down and lose everything to realize that she needs to have a greater fulfillment in life.”

• Fans are talking about chemistry between Elena and Elijah (Daniel Gillies). Should we be? “We can obviously tell that there was something between Elijah and Katherine, and there is now something sort of building between Elena and Elijah. Is it the same thing that’s been going on with every guy who’s encountered Elena after having survived Katherine?” Dobrev asks. (She has no answer.) “It’s funny,” she says. “Daniel Gillies is such a sweetheart, and he’s so amazing and so funny, and we’re really, really good friends, so we have a lot of fun on set. That kind of chemistry and friendship definitely can be caught on camera. I’m glad that it plays.”

• If we ever meet the person Katherine was a doppelganger of, what demand will Dobrev make when asked to play three roles? “I have no idea when that will happen,” she laughs. “The only thing I’d probably ask for is 12-hour turnarounds [between leaving the set at night and arriving in the morning] a few times a week. That would be my only request because that doesn’t happen all the time.”

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The Vampire Diaries

Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.

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