Last night's episode of Vampire Diaries was all bout people choosing to embrace evil — in many cases, for noble and unselfish reasons. But more than just another story about people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, this was a great look at the ways in which "villain" is just another role that people play, which is often totally cosmetic.
It's a pleasure to watch a television show that's at its creative peak. Spoilers ahead...
In many ways, the centerpiece of the episode was Damon's decision to throw himself under the bus and become the bad guy once again. The scenes between Damon and Stefan were a joy, as the two brothers find themselves on the same page for once — first trying to stop Elena from screwing everything up, then trying to save Elena from the results of her own silliness. And then there's that whole sequence where the brothers have a coin toss to decide which of them will kill Bonnie's mom and earn Elena's undying hatred.
(Of course, on this show, Elena's undying hatred generally lasts a few weeks, tops. She's already forgotten that Damon broke Jeremy's neck last season.)
The coin toss is meaningless in any case, because both brothers are on board with the "kill Bonnie's mom" plan — which morphs into a "turn Bonnie's mom into a vampire" plan in the end. Damon — who actually wins the coin toss — is actually volunteering to be the fall guy, but they're both being the bad guy in this instance.
And even though Stefan is falsely absolved from his role in vamping Abby, he's pretending to be the bad guy too — last week, he gave Elena a whole song and dance about how he can't let himself feel anything. He's still going on and on about wanting to be the bestest villain of them all, but meanwhile he's quit drinking human blood, ever since he almost drove Elena off a bridge a while back. The episode does a pretty decent job of hinting at Stefan's return to vegetarianism, without belaboring it, until the final reveal.
The reason why Stefan and Damon have to be dirtbags all over again is because Elena is being held hostage, yet again. (Side note: The idea that Klaus needs Elena alive, and the brothers both want her alive because they both love her, has given rise to some interesting twists — but it also makes her the natural hostage in almost every situation.) Elena is put in a deadly cave trap by Elijah, who sets up the pissy Rebekah to play the heavy, channeling her not-at-all-pretend desire to get revenge on Elena (with a tryst with Damon at the start of the episode serving as just the opening move.)
(Oh, and I enjoyed watching Rebekah's brothers slut-shaming her, because I'm a bad person.)
Elijah feels bad about hostageizing Elena, but it's not until later in the episode that he really starts to feel bad — he and his brothers finally confront their mother, Esther, who's close to being able to kill all her Original vampire kids. And she talks about spending a thousand years on the Other Side, watching her immortal children wreaking havoc and killing everyone in their paths. Even the supposedly "noble" Elijah has killed countless innocents — and hearing this, Elijah sees himself for what he really is. He didn't choose to be a vampire, but he made himself a monster. It's sort of a Sartrean notion of choice, in which you can't choose what you are, but you can choose how you act. (I'm thinking especially of the little-read Réflexions sur la question juive, in which Sartre asserts that Jewish people have a choice about how they express their Juidaism, and how much they choose to assimilate.)
In any case, Elijah's realization that he has already chosen to be a monster comes at roughly the same time as Damon's conscious choice to be the bad guy again — and they're both framed as realizations that "monster" and "bad guy" are roles that people play rather than something one is by nature. It's perhaps the closest thing there is to a central tenet of this series, which has never had a villain that it didn't humanize and turn into an occasional ally.
Oh, and meanwhile — Caroline is forced to play a weird role too, that of "hard to get" seductress, who leads Klaus on so that Alaric and Meredith can dagger Kol (thus stopping Elijah and Rebekah from hurting their hostage Elena.) Watching Caroline try to lead Klaus on is actually painful — I was cringing in my seat — because she genuinely wants nothing to do with the man who ordered Tyler to bite her not long ago. Having her turn that sincere aversion into a fake, flirty coyness is kind of awful — and hilarious. Poor Klaus actually does seem kind of puppyish in his zeal to win her over by acting interested in her and what she really wants from undeath — and he's genuinely crushed when he figures out what's going on. At the end of the episode, we see him moping and burning his many sketches of the radiant Caroline.
The episode ends with a couple of kickers:
1) Rebekah discovers there's another magical white-ash tree someplace, which means all the Originals could still be killed.
2) Now that Meredith has been written off as a suspect in the amnesia-stabbing murders, Alaric of course discovers tons of evidence that she's actually guilty. She finds him looking at her Seekrit Files of Evil and shoots him — because apparently she, too, has chosen the role of bad guy.