After an entertaining two-episode detour to delve deep into the psyches of Damon and Stefan Salvatore, The Vampire Diaries is back in mostly-plot mode again. The good news is that the show has shed some of the story albatross that was dragging it down in the first half of season seven. The bad news is that it’s unclear if what remains of this season’s plot is as interesting as the previous, non-plot-based two episodes were.

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The best thing about the episode is something that I’m not sure was actually its intention: It made me believe that Elena really, truly could be dead. This likely wasn’t the intention because we were supposed to believe she was dead last week, when Damon torched her coffin. But over the years TVD has brought so many people back from the dead and reversed so many seemingly permanent plot points that it’s hard to believe anything is permanent these days. My disbelief that the show would actually kill Elena muted much of the emotional impact of last week’s episode; this episode managed to make me accept that even if I don’t think it’s real (because I just don’t believe this show is ever killing Elena, no matter the status of Nina Dobrev’s interest in reappearing on the show in the future) I can at least accept the emotions of the characters, who do believe it’s real. This is essentially the key tenet of what any show is trying to do—make you believe something that isn’t real.

The episode pulls this off because it leans on the show’s most important relationship to make it land: The brother bond between Damon and Stefan. Damon’s downward spiral into old habits (like lying in wait in the middle of the road, trolling for a motorist to kill) isn’t all that interesting, simply because it’s something we’ve seen time and time again. Damon embarking on what amounts to a suicide mission to visit Julian also doesn’t quite land, mostly because Julian’s “bad guy” trappings are so trite. (No more supernatural bad guys with fight clubs, okay?) What works is what’s always worked about TVD, and that’s Stefan and Damon doing whatever it takes to save each other. This time it’s Stefan’s turn, and the moment that the emotions of Damon’s story finally snap into place is the moment when Stefan shows up and begs him to stop trying to get himself killed. When Damon finally confesses to Stefan that he killed Elena, and Stefan beats him up and then breaks down, Elena’s death finally feels like it means something.

Best of all, though, is that this moment of emotional connection means that someone finally gets the stones to kill Julian correctly. The history of TVD is littered with our heroes’ horrible plans to kill the bad guys, but Stefan finally gets a good one here: He has Valerie cloak them so Julian’s cronies can’t come to his rescue, then he catches Julian off guard and stakes him right through the heart. It’s satisfying, but also frustrating because that was simple as hell. Couldn’t Stefan and Damon figured this out a while ago and saved their mother from having to kill herself in an attempt to be rid of him?

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The rest of the episode’s stories are far more plot-based, and the plot of season seven remains a mixed bag. On one hand, the show seems to have somewhat figured out that in order to use the Heretics correctly, they need to be integrated with the core cast members instead of on an island by themselves. On the other hand, we really are stuck with the Nora and Mary Louise love story, aren’t we?

While I’m still not sure if Bonnie and Nora’s newfound friendship makes total sense, the two characters and actresses have quickly developed a really nice, friendly chemistry that helps shake some of the weirdness of them becoming chummy so quickly. Their story this week pulls Mary Louise in, as the three go searching for the vampire huntress who they believe is sending them postcards marked with an “X,” which is huntress code for “I’m going to kill you.” When they find her, she’s old and tied up in a psychiatric hospital, and knows nothing about sending any postcards. No, the person who actually sent the postcards was Enzo, and he did it so he could kill the huntress and therefore reincarnate her as a younger version of herself. This is one of those “Sure, okay?” plots that surely have at least ten more wrinkles the audience isn’t privy to yet, but as it stands here it makes no sense. The last time we saw Enzo he was being captured by some sort of shadowy cabal of humans. Is he doing their bidding? Or something completely different?

Speaking of different, Matt made a friend! Yes, the cop who arrested him last week looks to be more of a regular presence, as she figures out something is weird about Matt and Mystic Falls, follows him there, and ends up learning that vampires exist. Even though it’s fairly clear this is likely the woman Matt talks about losing in the flash forwards, it’s still nice to see Matt make a new friend, especially one that doesn’t seem to weirded out by the fact that he basically hunts vampires for a living—even if she’s smart enough to tell him he should run far, far away before he ends up dead. Oh Penny, the irony.

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Stray observations

  • Three years in the future, the plot is moving at a snail’s pace. Seriously, about five minutes of actual time has elapsed in those flash forwards throughout this entire season. Now that the huntress exists in both timelines? Speed it up.
  • Stefan’s breakdown in the car was a nice reminder that yes, Stefan and Elena did have a very important relationship on this show once. Hooray for shows remembering their own history.
  • Who is Damon’s mystery woman?
  • Alaric’s babies are feeding off of Caroline’s vampire magic, and in the process they are killing her. Gee, why does that sound so familiar? And why are Caroline’s baby plots so terrible? I am looking forward to future, non-baby-related things.
  • So…where’s Tyler? Last time we saw him he was smooshed on the ground. A mention that he’s not dead would be nice.
  • This Week, In Matt Donovan Is The Best: Matt made a friend! Also, Matt finally answered the question I’ve had for ages about why he sticks around Mystic Falls. His explanation that it’s basically all he has is insane, and insanely sad. Poor Matt.

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