Candice Accola and Paul Wesley

What does a Bennett witch have to do to get a spotlight episode around here? On its surface, “The Day I Tried To Live” is all about Bonnie—it’s her birthday, after all—and yet it ends up feeling more like it’s about everything around Bonnie instead. In a season that finally figured out how to write for the character, it’s a bit of a disappointment to still feel like we’re waiting for the big badass Bonnie payoff that seems to have been promised.

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So yes, it’s Bonnie’s birthday, and she’s still stuck alone in 1994, listening to some questionable ‘90s music and slowly driving herself insane. Meanwhile, Elena is determined to throw a birthday party in Bonnie’s honor even if she can’t be there. This is a nice sentiment, albeit one that might be a little strange outside of Mystic Falls, but for these characters having a party for your friend who is stuck in an alternative time dimension is just another Thursday night. Things get off track when Kai shows up, full of Luke’s empathy and looking for a way to find Jo so he can apologize for all of the pain he’s caused her. The twist that the merge caused Kai to absorb some of Luke’s characteristics is a good one, especially because it gives the writers a way to soften Kai a bit without losing his essential, give-no-fucks evilness. The Kai that has Luke’s empathy can care enough about things to recognize that helping Bonnie get free of her 1994 hellscape might be a worthy thing to do, and Damon and Elena smartly and stealthily use Kai’s newfound pockets of empathy to their advantage.

This is where the episode turns from being about Bonnie to being about the gang trying to save Bonnie, which has both its good and its bad moments. Kai using his magic to drop everyone into the 1994 world as ghosts is good for some haunting visuals and a few zany Patrick Swayze jokes, but ultimately feels like the show stalling until it can get to the story it really wants to tell: Bonnie saving herself. Giving the mission a built-in time constraint by using Bonnie and Damon’s suicide pact is smart, but the execution feels more like the show going through the motions than creating something truly dynamic. This is the type of sequence The Vampire Diaries used to pull off flawlessly on a regular basis—season two in particular is practically a master class in how to churn small bits of plot but still make them feel essential and consistently exciting—but in its current state, it feels like a ghost of those more successful past attempts. Part of this is because Kai and Liv’s showdown is supremely uninteresting. Part is that Jeremy is the main person driving Bonnie’s rescue, and the Jeremy/Bonnie bond has always felt tenuous at best. But the most important part is that it just doesn’t feel worthy of the work the show has done to make Bonnie a vital character again.

Bonnie’s evolution in season six is notable because it’s not actually an evolution of the character at all; this is essentially the same Bonnie that’s always been there, with the same personality and the same strengths and weaknesses. What’s different is that the writers have finally given Bonnie a story that fees like it is completely about her—not her powers, not her family legacy, not what she can do for other people—so Bonnie finally feels like a fully realized character. The scenes with her and Damon in 1994 were truly the first time in the entire series Bonnie was allowed to just be, and in the process the writers realized there was a person hiding where a plot mechanism used to be. Suddenly all of Bonnie’s actions had an identifiable, purposeful connection to her as a character and she just made sense. It didn’t hurt that Bonnie and Damon’s chemistry as sort-of enemies who become reluctant friends was a fun journey to take for both of them (and Damon continuing to miss her now that he’s back is a nice nod to their very real friendship). This evolution continues in this episode, with her attempting to kill herself before she realizes she wants to keep fighting and live, but it’s such a small runner in what feels like an episode stuffed with other things. At least by the end of the episode it seems she has a plan—with Damon’s help, naturally—and she’s ready to save herself. I can’t wait.

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As for the rest of the episode beyond Bonnie, it continued the tendency of the last few episodes to feel a bit disjointed and oddly paced. The biggest story is Stefan and Caroline and their slow march toward an obvious coupling. At least here there were some really nice scenes between Candice Accola and Paul Wesley where it felt like there was an actual connection between the two, rather than Caroline giving Stefan big speeches. The moment where Stefan helped Caroline snap out of her funk by goading her to beat him up was especially nice (and perfectly Stefan), as was their more tender moment when Caroline finally allows all of her stress over her mother’s heath get the best of her. And there was an almost-kiss, for those of you who are into that kind of thing.

Overall, this was a stronger episode than last week but still feels like the show doesn’t quite know what to do now that Kai is in Mystic Falls, Bonnie is close to being back, and now there’s no obvious threat to deal with. Maybe Kai can go to a shaman or something for an empathy removal?

Stray observations:

  • Elena and Damon are together now, for what sounds like is for good. Please let them be together for good, so we can stop having to hear endless discussions about the status of their relationship every week.
  • So Enzo’s plan is to corrupt Sarah Salvatore in order to break Stefan’s heart as a punishment for Stefan keeping Sarah’s existence from Damon. Okay, Enzo. Sure thing. You seem like a chill guy with good ideas.
  • Jeremy is going to apply to art school? I hope Elena goes and compels some admissions officers to let him in because he hasn’t gone to high school in like three years.
  • Tyler is apparently done with Liv. Maybe Tyler and Liv can go to art school with Jeremy? Just an idea.
  • This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: He somehow manages to put up with Enzo’s ridiculousness without putting his fingers in his ears and yelling “LA LA LA LA” every time Enzo talks.
  • “So I Googled ‘How to process pain’….” Kai’s quick grasp of modern technology is inspiring.

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