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The Vampire Diaries has a Mystic Falls problem

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A big focus of season seven of The Vampire Diaries is the town of Mystic Falls itself. Since the premiere, it has been almost a character in the narrative, first terrorized by the Heretics and then used as a bargaining chip in the fight with them, essentially turning it into a barren, abandoned wasteland. Now Mystic Falls is being besieged yet again, this time as Julian turns it into some sort of scene out of vampire Roadhouse, with only Matt Donovan there to defend the town’s honor.

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The question about this sudden focus on Mystic Falls after all these years is what does this town mean, exactly, to the show? Early in the show’s run, the town had an actual personality with a rich history that the show used to create story and deepen character connections. This hasn’t been the case in quite a while, however, with the town morphing more into a place that mostly just causes everyone misery. Which leads to the question: What is Mystic Falls to these characters, and why are they so determined to remain in its orbit? Stefan and Damon have had ties to the city for over 100 years, but what keeps drawing them back there, besides each other? Matt Donovan, who has nothing there but miserable memories and vampires he mostly only tolerates, spends his days engaging in an increasingly futile war to return it to a somewhat normal state, uselessly trapping and killing Julian’s vampires one at a time when there are a whole army of other vampires, ready to take their place.

But why? Why is Matt so committed to this cause? Why does everyone keep hanging around this miserable place? The obvious answer is that this is a TV show, and blowing up its setting isn’t realistic. Around the edges, though, there are characters who are finally questioning the idea of sticking around this crazy town, and this in turn feels like them questioning why the show itself is holding on to the idea of Mystic Falls as its center. As Tyler reveals to Matt in this episode, getting out of Mystic Falls was the best thing he could have done for himself. As Alaric tells Caroline, he can’t raise his children in a place that is literally surrounded by danger and death. And yet, Matt still risks his life daily to ensure that some part of Mystic Falls still survives, and when he meets an outsider who only knows the cover stories for why Mystic Falls was evacuated, Matt seems devastated by their insinuation that the town is being left to die.

It’s in these moments—moments where Alaric and Tyler (Tyler, of all people!) seem like the only characters on the show with any sense—that it’s easy to remember just how different TVD is in season seven than it was in its early seasons. The good thing about “Things We Lost In The Fire” is that, despite the increasing realization that the show itself has a Mystic Falls problem, the episode itself feels a lot more like TVD than most of the entire first half of season seven did. Like last week, the episode is focused on the Salvatore brothers and their relationship, and like last week, that refocusing does wonders for the show’s narrative heft. The departure of Elena always seemed like a great chance to give the brothers some great storylines together, but until the story with the phoenix stone, their overall story in season seven felt mostly like a lost opportunity. Thank goodness these past two episodes came along.

The crux of Damon and Stefan’s stories here are how the phoenix stone seems to affect them now that they are resurrected just as much—if not more—than it did when they were trapped inside of it. The goal of the stone is to return them to their essential selves, and it haunts them with unshakeable visions, not stopping until it gets what it wants. For Stefan, it wants him to shed his ties to Damon because he can’t be happy if his brother is around him. For Damon, it wants him to shed his last ties to Elena and drop his humanity altogether, taking him back to his more pure, evil self. Damon spends the episode rife with visions of his Confederate soldier friend Henry, who ultimately tricks him into torching Elena’s coffin in order to rid her from his life for good. Stefan spends the episode trying to save Damon, ultimately rejecting the very premise the phoenix stone sets out for him. The two end up on what look like divergent paths on this journey; Stefan, rejecting the idea that he would be better off without Damon, and Damon reeling over killing Elena and teetering over to the dark side, all while lying to Stefan about what’s really going on.

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Those are simplistic explanations, but thankfully the episode itself handles the brothers’ separate journeys to those conclusions surprisingly gracefully. Stefan as the savior and martyr and Damon as the evil sinner is not a new concept for the show, but returning to those archetypes in the wake of Elena’s departure could be, if handled well. Most of all, it’s just nice to see these two involved in a story that revolves around them and their relationship with each other, rather than some external force.

The only strange thing is how the phoenix stone is so convinced that the fundamental cores of Stefan and Damon’s characters are stuck in season one, like the last seven seasons of character growth haven’t existed. Stefan might have been better off without Damon before he came back to Mystic Falls in season one, but everything since then only shows how much stronger they are together. Damon might have been evil before, but he’s come a long way since then—and not just because he fell in love with Elena. Wherever this phoenix stone story takes them, the show should take care to mind the very character development that got Stefan and Damon to this point in the first place.

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Stray observations

  • Meanwhile, Caroline had a baby shower for Alaric. It was ridiculous (blindfolded diaper challenge!) but also kind of sweet and fun, and felt like something old Caroline would do.
  • Three years from now, Matt is working with the huntress and trying to track down Stefan. Okay.
  • Chances Damon actually torched Elena’s coffin and not some dummy coffin? Zero. Less than zero. Like… no way.
  • Why is Nora still around? Why is Bonnie being nice to Nora? Why why why?
  • Damon trying to revive Matt first was strange to me. He barely tolerates Matt’s existence.
  • The last two episodes have been pretty strong, and they have one thing in common: No Enzo, no Valerie, and only the briefest appearances by Julian and Nora. As long as the focus remains on the core cast and not the new additions, the show still has some life in it left.
  • Did Bonnie and Matt match on Tinder? Why the heck are they using Tinder in Mystic Falls? Are they looking to hook up with some of Julian’s vampires?
  • This Week, In Matt Donovan Is The Best: What is even going on with Matt these days? I’m happy it looks like he’s getting a story but it’s kind of a mess right now. Drinking and driving is kind of the worst, Matt Donovan.
  • “Wait, you skipped a bunch of stuff.” I enjoyed this meta moment examining the Salvatore brother dynamic.
  • “You guys gotta be kidding me. This is still my house.” Tyler was pretty great in this episode.
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