Teressa Liane (left), Candice King/The CW

Two episodes into The Vampire Diaries’ seventh season, and Nina Dobrev’s departure remains the most interesting thing about the show. The premiere was all about setting the stage for what looked to be a big structural departure for the series, and while it wasn’t the smoothest episode it painted an intriguing picture for the season to come. That intrigue gets deflated a bit in “Never Let Me Go,” which is still steeped in the shadow of Elena’s departure and ends up feeling a lot more like an imitation of TVD past than an exciting step forward. It’s certainly not an outright bad episode, but it’s far too familiar for its own good.

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The biggest thing holding the show back is Lily and her Heretics, which feel a lot more like a retread of past villains than they did in the premiere. Part of the issue is that while we are told they are worthy of the extra caution being given them, what we see are villains not that much different than those who have come before. The big difference is Lily is Damon and Stefan’s mother, something that would land a lot better if their relationship was allowed to build up at all last season before Lily turned into a pure antagonist. Now any extra pain Stefan or Damon might get from the fact that their mother is their biggest enemy is completely irrelevant, and she ends up as nothing more than a plain old villain. It’s a great opportunity, wasted.

This probably wouldn’t matter if Lily and the Heretics were more charismatic. The Originals (and especially Klaus) overstayed their welcome, but their characters and the actors portraying them were so charismatic that you could forgive a lot, simply because they were fun to watch. So far, Lily and the Heretics aren’t nearly as interesting, especially because the bonds—and rivalries—between them are still so thinly sketched. It isn’t as bad a situation as the Travelers last season, but it’s certainly not where they should be considering the amount of screen time they’ve had so far. The most frustrating Heretic so far might be Valerie, who seemed like a fun, snarky counterpoint to the banality of the lesbian couple, right until it was revealed that she probably has a long-held torch for Stefan, which she’s had since 1853. We’ve already had this character, and her name was Katherine. Anyone you try to cast in her wake is going to pale in comparison, so it’s probably not a good idea to try.

All complaints aside, this isn’t a badly constructed episode at all, hitting all of the familiar beats we’ve come to associate with the show. This familiarity, though, is precisely what bogs down a lot of the fun. Of course Damon killing Malcolm was going to come back to bite them, of course Stefan would blame Damon (even though you will never convince me Damon and Bonnie aren’t right about wanting to kill the Heretics), of course they would somehow use Bonnie’s magic and Matt’s ability to be the world’s worst person at saying no to do it, and of course all of it would come back to bite them when Lily somehow got the upper hand. It’s all Introduction to TVD, and by now the show can do an episode like this in its sleep.

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The kicker is that even though Elena is gone, she’s still the lynchpin of all of the action. The easiest way for Lily to get what she wants is to hurt Elena, which she does by stealing her coffin and telling Damon she won’t return it until Damon leaves town for good. She does the same thing to Stefan, kidnapping Caroline as retaliation for Malcolm’s death. She pits the brothers against each other by hurting the women in their lives, which is disturbing in that she does it, and also that it totally works. The Salvatore brothers are nothing if not predictable. Where it takes the necessary plot twist to set up the battles to come is when Damon and Stefan realize Lily is trying to pit them against each other, and decide they won’t fall for the same tricks she played on them when they were children. This is the type of rich backstory the show should be mining from having Stefan and Damon’s mother as the villain for the season, so although it comes far too late in this episode to make it work here, it could mean good things for the war to come.

Although this episode is immensely frustrating because of the squandered potential, there is still a lot of good here. The best thing about the season continues to be Bonnie and Damon’s easy, believable friendship, which we learn here works even when they only talk on the phone. Alaric’s quest to bring Jo back to life is very creepy, but it’s at least nice to see Alaric getting a story of his very own again (even if it is stranding him in scenes mostly by himself). The award for the thing I’m enjoying the most that might actually turn out to be awful in the end, however, is once again the future framework scenes. Seeing Caroline as a competent news producer with a fiancé who is definitely not Stefan is goofy and ridiculous, and exactly the fun, weird thing this season needs. The closer the show gets to that and the further away from the same-old, same-old of the Heretics, the better it will be.

Stray observations

  • By far the dumbest thing happening right now is that Stefan and Caroline can’t touch each other because of magic.
  • The open was a pure Blair Witch Project/found footage horror film rip-off, but it was at least entertaining. Lampshading the Blair Witch connection helped.
  • Is Enzo in love with Lily or something? If so: A world of no. You’d think it would be hard to make Enzo a worse character, but that would do it.
  • The most hilarious thing about vampires in this mythology is that their biggest enemy is paperwork. I just can’t imagine there isn’t some other way to get around the whole deed complication, especially in a world where people die and come back to life 100 times.
  • What is this crazy Phoenix Stone going to bring upon poor Alaric’s head? The fact that Bonnie is still affected by it when not touching it is not a good sign. Also not a good sign: That “x” mark that keeps appearing, first on Stefan in the future, then on the mute Heretic, and now in Bonnie’s visions.

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