"Children of the Damned" (Season 1, Episode 13)
In an hour filled with flashbacks to 1864, Dobrev shined as both Katherine Pierce, the Salvatore seductress, and Elena Gilbert, the innocent high schooler who loved Stefan and showed Damon great compassion. Directly juxtaposing the two made it easy to forget that both characters were played by the same actress—nothing if not a testament to Dobrev’s ability.
"The Return" (Season 2, Episode 1)
The introduction of present-day Katherine Pierce—not to mention Katherine Pierce posing as Elena Gilbert—really gave Dobrev a chance to flex her acting muscles, playing with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between the characters. From Katherine’s walk to the tone of her voice, Dobrev brought a brand new character to the show without losing sight of Elena.
"Masquerade" (Season 2, Episode 7)
Katherine Pierce trapped in a room with both Salvatore brothers was the perfect setting to see who could out-manipulate whom. As a result, Dobrev got to have even more fun than usual with her unpredictable vixen. Pair that with Dobrev’s emotional panic when Damon trapped Katherine in the tomb, and fans were introduced to yet another side of yet another Dobrev-driven character.
"Katerina" (Season 2, Episode 9)
Putting Elena Gilbert and Katherine Pierce face-to-face, the writers gave Dobrev her greatest challenge yet. But this episode was about more than just the Elena-Katherine scenes. In an equally impressive feat, Dobrev had to pull off two highly emotional performances, one for each character, while making each one feel entirely its own. Between Katherine discovering her slaughtered family and Elena realizing that Klaus was coming for her, Dobrev made viewers cry … twice.
"The Last Dance" (Season 2, Episode 18)
In order to trick Klaus, Damon had Bonnie fake her own death. The twist? Elena wasn’t in on the plan. And the moment Elena thought she was watching her best friend die will forever be burned into viewers’ memories, thanks in large part to Dobrev’s heartbreaking performance.
"The Sun Also Rises" (Season 2, Episode 21)
Elena Gilbert was forced to watch as Klaus murdered her beloved Aunt Jenna, before she herself was sacrificed. But Elena didn’t crack. Instead, it was one of her strongest moments, as she acted as Jenna’s rock and then Stefan’s. Dobrev’s understated performance culminates with a tear-filled farewell to her aunt at the local cemetery.
"Our Town" (Season 3, Episode 11)
After struggling with a humanity-less Stefan, Elena Gilbert finally hit her wits’ end when Stefan, the man she loved, threatened to drive her off Wickery Bridge in an attempt to threaten Klaus. Yes, Stefan’s plan worked—but it came at the expense of traumatizing Elena, whose parents had died driving off the very same bridge. And the resulting confrontation between characters was both beautiful and devastating.
"Do Not Go Gentle" (Season 3, Episode 20)
At this point in the series, Elena was no stranger to losing loved ones. But letting go of her fourth parental figure—sixth, if you count her biological parents—came with a chance for a proper goodbye to Alaric. In addition, the episode featured important moments for the rekindling of Stefan and Elena’s relationship. Between the romantic chemistry she shared with Paul Wesley and the familial chemistry she shared with Matt Davis, Dobrev once again showed her range.
"The Departed" (Season 3, Episode 22)
As if Elena’s phone call to Damon wasn’t enough to make this a memorable hour, Dobrev had to go and school everyone on what it was to give a powerful performance … while underwater. The emotion that Dobrev could convey even beneath the surface made this arguably one of her greatest feats during her time on the show.
"Memorial" (Season 4, Episode 2)
Elena becoming a vampire gave Dobrev a whole new set of emotions to work with. And if her anxiety at not being able to keep down blood wasn’t bad enough to begin with, being trapped in a church with a vampire hunter and a friend who was bleeding out really stretched Elena thin. Most importantly, the viewer felt everything Elena was feeling, thanks to an almost-too-real performance by Dobrev.
"Stand By Me" (Season 4, Episode 15)
There seems to be a consensus among Vampire Diaries fans that there’s no topping Dobrev’s emotional performance after the death of Elena’s brother. Losing Jeremy was quite literally the worst thing that had ever happened to Elena—so bad that Elena wanted to burn down her own home as a result. And the breakdown that led to Elena switching her humanity off will always be one of the show’s—and Dobrev’s—greatest moments.
"She's Come Undone" (Season 4, Episode 21)
This hour featured three completely different performances from Dobrev: There was humanity-less Elena, Katherine Pierce, and then, after Matt’s temporary death, humanity-filled Elena. Basically, she made you laugh, cry, and possibly throw something all in the same episode.
"Death and the Maiden" (Season 5, Episode 7)
Just when we thought that playing two characters was difficult, Dobrev took on the role of Amara, a third Petrova doppelganger—or rather, the original doppelganger. Amara was crazy and skittish, Katherine was snarky and human, and Elena was sincere and supernatural. And somehow, Dobrev made their interactions feel seamless … and hilarious.
"500 Years of Solitude" (Season 5, Episode 11)
With Katherine Pierce lying on her deathbed, fans were treated to another side of the fiery Petrova doppelganger, culminating in a scene in which Stefan used his vampire mind tricks to go inside Katherine’s head and allow her to see her newborn baby for the first time. It was a beautiful moment … quickly followed by Katherine returning to her scheming self to take over Elena’s body (also played by Dobrev, of course).
"Home" (Season 5, Episode 22)
In the season five finale, Elena was forced to face an eternity without the man she loved, and she couldn’t fathom it. Dobrev gave a powerhouse performance as Elena crumbled at the thought of saying goodbye to Damon, begging him to come back to her. Basically, it was the sort of performance that could make you cry just thinking about it.