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May 11, 2012 at 09:14 AM EDT

You know what’s brilliant: The way producers had us talking about whether Elena would choose Stefan or Damon for months so none of us would see the finale’s real twist coming — ELENA IS GOING TO BE A VAMPIRE. Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson are like Patti Nyholm and Louis Canning, making us look here when we really should have been looking there. (Yes, I also watch The Good Wife.) But when you look back at the episode, after you finally stop repeating your shock-and-awe swear word of choice, you do see the buildup, why now is the right time for Elena to make the transition, and what kind of new layers and story lines it brings to the show. (If you don’t, read our postmortem with Plec here.) Let’s dig in.

We got more flashbacks than I was expecting, and they began with Elena waking up to Pink’s “So What” and acting like a happy, perfect teen who, let’s face it, we probably would have gotten bored with quickly — had she not been wearing a cheerleading uniform that belonged on a coed, not a high school student. Nina Dobrev talked to us this week about how she now fills out that uniform, the same one she wore in season 1, and the director definitely took advantage of it. Also, we learned 14-year-old Jeremy liked alone time in the morning.

When Elena woke up in present day, she was in the hospital. Of course calling 911 was the smart thing for Jeremy to do when he found her collapsed and bleeding from her nose. But the Salvatores, who were still on the road to dump Klaus into the Atlantic Ocean when they got Jeremy’s call, knew it wasn’t a safe place for her: They figured every Original would want her dead to save themselves from Alaric, and Alaric would want Elena with him so he could keep her alive and then kill her to commit suicide. Because Jeremy had been told Elena only had a slight concussion, he felt fine about sneaking her out of the hospital and taking her home, the one place Alaric can’t get to her. And that was good, because Alaric did pay Meredith a visit to tell her she had to release Elena into his custody because he’s her guardian; inform her that the Council now knows the truth about her, Sheriff Forbes, and Mayor Lockwood and wants their jobs; and also empty her stash of medicinal vampire blood. (Did that tip anyone off to Meredith having given Elena blood? Not me.) When they hung up with Jeremy, Damon told Stefan he appreciated him not being the dumbest brother in the world, which was a nice bonding beat before they had to decide who would stash Klaus’ body somewhere and who would return to protect Elena.

It was sweet to see how motherly Caroline, Tyler, and Matt were taking care of Elena as they brought her home. Elena was hungry, which Tyler said the boys would get on as soon as they made sure no one was lurking in the closets. Cute. There must be a lot of closets in that house, because Elena had enough time to fall asleep and flashback again to the day her parents died. Bonnie, also a cheerleader, was telling Elena and Matt how she’d psychically predicted that flare jeans would come back in style, and now she had a bad feeling about that night’s bonfire. Matt wanted Elena to come with him anyway, even though her parents had arranged a family night since Aunt Jenna was in town. When Matt walked away, he said “I love you,” but Elena didn’t. Bonnie told her she had to set him free if she just wasn’t that in to him anymore.

Elena woke up again in present day, and Matt was on Elena duty. She apologized for stringing him along when she should have figured out what she wanted and been honest about it. Now, she said, she’s making the same mistake with Stefan and Damon. She knows she has to let one of them go, but she doesn’t want to lose either of them. But which one should she set free? As if to answer Matt’s question, in walked Stefan. Point for Damon, I thought.

NEXT: Elijah is still our favorite Original

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