Kat Graham, Ian Somerhalder (The CW)

Another episode of season seven, another hour where it feels like The Vampire Diaries is leaning into all the wrong things about the story so far. “Age Of Innocence” desperately wants to feel like “classic” TVD, full of flashbacks, long-lost love stories, and double-crosses, but it misses the mark on the main thing that made those “classic” episodes work: The relationships between the characters.

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Take the biggest chunk of the episode, which was focused on Heretic Valerie and her past with Stefan. As fun as it always is to see dorky flashback Stefan and his puffy flashback hair, there is literally nothing that can make this story interesting, no matter how hard the show tries. TVD totally exhausted all of the true love stories it can tell with Stefan already—first with Elena, then with Katherine—so introducing yet another character who was supposedly so important to Stefan’s past feels a bit anti-climactic. It’s especially galling because Valerie’s story is so incredibly similar to Katherine’s (so much so that Caroline basically lampshades it) and yet Valerie is nowhere near as interesting as Katherine was on her worst day. It’s almost uncomfortable how much time the show spends setting up Stefan’s first time with Valerie, bathing it in soft lighting and a gorgeous song on the soundtrack, only to have the scene feel so very inessential in the end.

The thing about Valerie’s story with Stefan is that it feels like it exists only to set up the eventual arrival of another villain for the show, Julian. Julian is Lily’s long-lost love, and of course he is an evil sadist. When Valerie disobeys Lily’s orders to stay away from Stefan and instead finds herself knocked up with Stefan’s baby, Julian teaches her a lesson by beating her until she loses the baby. In an actual clever moment, the story does neatly take care of two things at once: It shows just how afraid Valerie is of Julian (and so we should be, too) and it explains the story of how Valerie became the first Heretic when she tried to kill herself with Lily’s blood in her system.

The most galling thing about the Valerie story, though, is what it does to Caroline’s character. The flashbacks come about because Valerie tells Caroline all about her past with Stefan, and Caroline has the strange audacity to be both threatened and annoyed by this shared past. It’s like she expects that now that Valerie is back Stefan will just want to dump her and run right back into Valerie’s arms, even though 150 years (and at least one other great love) have passed. It honestly makes Caroline look stupid and weak, and it is maddening. Not giving Stefan and Caroline a smooth road to being a true couple is fine, but giving them obstacles as flimsy as this is frustrating.

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Fun does exist in this episode, and it comes almost exclusively at the hands of Damon, Bonnie, and Alaric’s road trip to South Carolina to round up Lily’s one stray Heretic. This threesome is easily the most natural, compelling, and functional thing about season seven so far, so the decision to have this be the background story in every episode while something (anything) else is in the foreground is a bit baffling. They find missing Heretic Oscar hilariously drunk and loving his time away from Lily. Bonnie asks Oscar to siphon the Phoenix Stone magic visions out of her head, but the second Oscar sees the visions, he realizes they have the stone and freaks out, forcing Damon to do what they came to do anyway: Take Oscar hostage to use him as a trade for Elena’s missing coffin.

It’s at this point when the two stories come together fully and it feels like the episode finally clicks, at least momentarily. Once Oscar is back near Mystic Falls, Valerie tracks him down and asks if he accomplished what Lily wanted him to in South Carolina. Did he find Julian? When Oscar says yes, Valerie immediately kills him to prevent him from telling Lily where Julian is and bringing him back into everyone’s lives. It’s a tragic moment for Valerie, and Elizabeth Blackmore does a great job of making Valerie’s desperation in that moment palpable. This action also adds an additional plot wrinkle, in that there’s no way Lily is going to believe anyone but Damon killed Oscar, and she is sure to retaliate. This is the type of “classic” TVD moment that the rest of the episode tries and fails to deliver.

Finally, there’s Alaric and his quest to bring Jo back to life. He’s in so deep that he’s now dragging Bonnie in, who correctly identifies that the Phoenix Stone is all about necromancy and warns Alaric to stay far away. Instead, Alaric asks Bonnie for her help in bringing Jo back. Alaric really isn’t asking the most important question here, which is what would Jo want? Would she want to be brought back to life, only to be forced to then mourn her dead child? Would she want to potentially be a monster? Alaric only sees what happened to him in the past, not what could be happening to Jo in the present. It’s this kind of short-sightedness that leads to the most devastating stories, so bring on the pain, I guess?

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Stray observations:

  • This week’s future scene featured Tyler in a suit and Stefan torching his car and walking away dramatically. I vote for 50% more future scenes and 50% less Heretic scenes.
  • Did Damon, Bonnie, and Alaric just leave Oscar all alone? Because nothing unexpected ever happens to ruin plans when they aren’t paying attention on this show, ever!
  • Last week Lily was a monster who hated her kids. This week she sent people to spy on them to make sure they were handling her death well 150 years ago. I prefer the hateful, uncaring version Lily, honestly. It’s less boring.
  • I have questions about Oscar’s background. So he lived in the States at the time of the Civil War? Was he a first generation American? Did he come from somewhere else? I’m all for diverse casting but this feels…complicated.
  • This Week, In Matt Donovan Is The Best: [footage not found]
  • “Does agreeing to go mean you put on pants?”
  • “It’s kind of like The Notebook, except you two never reconnect and he forgets about you.”

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