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This season of The Vampire Diaries is officially trying to give us whiplash, because “I Went To The Woods” could not be more different than last week’s disaster, both in regards to tone and quality. Sure, the whole emotional underpinning of the two episodes are built on the same shaky house of cards, but this episode manages to be both visually and emotionally engaging, which go a long way toward making up for the previous episode’s mistakes.

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The episode opens on a disorienting experience where Stefan wakes up and immediately saves a group of people from dying in a bush crash, and then doesn’t seem to quite fit where he finds himself. This leads him to believe he’s stuck in a phoenix stone hell loop where he is forced to save people over and over again, but some still end up dying. What’s actually happening is that Nora and Mary Louise’s fiery crash destroyed the phoenix stone for good, and now all of the souls are free again and settling into the nearest dead body, like a really grim game of soul Boggle. Stefan ends up in the human body of a fugitive and the subject of a manhunt, and spends most of the hour struggling with navigating how to escape to safer places while being human and not supernatural. It’s a very simple device done very well, letting the struggle mostly play in satisfying “show, not tell” terms as Stefan spends most of the hour alone, struggling in silence like only Stefan Salvatore can.

Meanwhile, Rayna tips Valerie off to the soul swap and thus Damon ends up with a Stefan that is very much not Stefan, which leads to a classic The Vampire Diaries plot where Damon has to find Stefan and get him in proximity of his actual body (currently being occupied by an unknown probably evil vampire), all why snarky insults and dialogue fly. It’s nothing new, but it’s fun simply for the fact that Paul Wesley loves playing against the Stefan type, and he makes the most of his time as Not Stefan here. Of course, Damon fails as Not Stefan takes off, leaving him with half of his mission incomplete. Oh, and of course Not Stefan is a serial killer who preys on fraternity and sorority members, and slips away from Damon only to walk right into a giant frat party. What could go wrong?

Where the episode doesn’t quite connect are the places where the plotting and emotion require the rest of the season before it to set it up properly in order to land. The story of the second half of this season is wrapped up in the divide between Stefan and Damon, and how Stefan believes Damon is a selfish ass who he can’t rely on. While there will always be at least a grain of truth to this—Damon’s beginning on the show proves this—leaning on this so hard so quickly has been an emotional minefield for the show as of late, simply because it feels false. No matter how many times Valerie tells Damon he’s selfish, or Stefan says it, or even Damon says it about himself, it never fully clicks in the back of my mind, simply because Damon hasn’t been only that for so long that it feels wrong.

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There is a beautiful sequence in this episode where Damon searches for Stefan, with them talking on the phone as Stefan’s human body starts breaking down. It’s shot almost like a dreamy romantic movie, with the two brothers getting closer and closer to each other while finally talking through all of their distrust of each other. It culminates with Stefan admitting he doesn’t believe Damon will save him—even though literally all Damon has ever done is try to save him, and all he does is try to save Damon, it’s like their whole thing—and Damon uses that anger and frustration to keep Stefan going until he Damon can find him. On the surface it’s poignant and meaningful, and it’s well acted and beautifully written and shot, and yet it still pings that thing in the back of my mind that says it’s wrong. Damon is a selfish pain in the ass and Stefan is a hero and a martyr, these are their roles, these have been their roles in every iteration of how we’ve seen the Salvatore brothers (except those moments where Stefan is a Ripper and Damon tries over and over again to bring him back, which I guess the show has completely forgotten) but there’s never been a time where it’s been in doubt that these brothers would do whatever necessary to save each other. To truly sell that Stefan believed his brother wouldn’t save him, the show simply needed to do more setup in order to make that emotion land. As it stands, it doesn’t feel developed enough to anchor this story, no matter how well the actual emotional climax of the story is executed in this episode.

Despite these underlying problems, this was an enjoyable episode of The Vampire Diaries, which feels like a minor miracle after last week’s missteps. Whether this was one bright blip in a bumpy road or the beginning of something more consistently enjoyable will depend on where the show goes from here, especially how it handles the evolution of Damon and Stefan’s story. They have seven seasons of character development to draw from; now it’s time to remember at least some of that.

Stray observations

  • Kat Graham is leaving the show after the end of next season. We’re at the point where I can’t imagine how the show continues without her, at least in any sort of meaningful way.
  • This episode was directed by Julie Plec, and much like her previous directing effort (“Let Her Go”) was visually arresting and full of great, emotional performances. She really added a lot here, at a time where adding a lot was desperately needed.
  • How are we supposed to care about Matt’s pain when we never got to see any of his pain, and he won’t even talk about it with anyone? The show is just making Matt seem like a giant asshole right now, honestly.
  • I can’t believe I missed the so obvious Thelma and Mary Louise joke last week. Thank goodness Damon is here to correct my mistakes.
  • So Ric fell in love with Caroline and Caroline basically just sticks around for the kids. Ric’s love life is forever a disaster.

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