“I Went to the Woods” seems like the title of a Thoreau essay, or a MFA student’s pretentious creative non-fiction piece. Instead “I Went to the Woods” is the title of #717 of The Vampire Diaries, an attempted mournful reflection on mortality and regrets that spins in circles. The crushed phoenix stone released the souls of the trapped, and, like Jo before, the spirits took the closest fresh corpse. Stefan got an addict’s corpse named Marty, and a nameless serial killer got Stefan’s corpse. Stefan, upon waking up, thought he was trapped in a hell loop. His world had the trappings of the hell loop. He tried to save cheerleaders trapped in a burning bus. The officers told him about his addiction and control issues. Stefan put together the psyche of it all, but the twist was it wasn’t a hell loop.
Season seven, though, is the hell loop. Stories from past seasons have repeated. The brothers’ issues this season have repeated. The story advanced three years into the future. Prior to the slow, slow, slow marriage of the two timelines, it worked as a hook. It was a bold way of showing that the show can go on without Nina Dobrev. The hook worked, but it took months to move past the Heretics, Lily, and Julian. After tea and cakes and ices the writers had not the strength to force the moment to its crisis. The crisis becomes another loop of filler.
Last season after Liz died, Caroline turned her switch off, which led to an aside and distraction during the roughest part of a traditional network season: the period between winter sweeps and the final five or six episodes of the season. The “two” Stefans affords the show an opportunity to halt the narrative while giving the illusion of things happening. It’s a different way of doing the ‘switch is off’ story. The gang needed to bring Caroline back before she lost her humanity for good last season. Stefan as the human Marty needs his body before his temporary human body dies forever. Caroline would kill more each day the gang failed, and the new nameless serial killer will slaughter frat and sorority houses.
The emotional crux of the episode involves a dying Stefan telling Damon all about how Damon failed him throughout his life. The brothers recalled playing hide-and-go-seek as boys. Why? Stefan knew Damon wouldn’t find him. Damon did. White light, angel-like, filled the frame when Damon found his brother after a conversation that captured the essence of their complicated brotherhood. Damon kept Stefan alive and walking through a blizzard in 12 degree temperatures, a circumstance Stefan blamed on Damon after Damon bailed on taking the scar, and made worse by Damon’s choice to take a nap until Elena woke up. Stefan gave into death at the moment he felt sure Damon wouldn’t save his life. At that moment, Damon saved his life. How many times will the writers tell this story? They’re the true soul mates of the show. Still, Stefan told him he has a long way to go before he forgives Damon. Audible sigh.
This episode looks beautiful. It has a quaintness to it, and an all-around different vibe, similar to Damon’s hell loop episode in late January, but it leans on what doesn’t work. It’s all style and no substance. And there are a lot of holes in Stefan’s heroic journey to death. Marty, the Army veteran now driving buses and addicted to alcohol, drank and then drove the bus of cheerleaders into a car, causing the bus to burst into flames. Stefan fled the scene as Marty. The county launched a massive manhunt. National news picked up the story. The police decided not to search for Marty in the blizzard because nature would do the work of killing him for them. He drank and drove, caused an accident, showed signs of concussive amnesia, and the police decide he’s a monster deserving of a horrible death caused by fierce cold and hellacious withdrawal—after saving several people from the burning bus. The story was written to reflect the essence of Stefan as an uncontrollable addict who doesn’t deserve mercy or help from the outside world but who can count on his brother when he can’t count on the world. But, whoa, the beats of the story are a mess.
The freed vampires from the stone represented the worst of the worst, Rayna said, but the woman that found Jo’s body was nice. Anyway, the broken stone’s no different from line separating the other side from Mystic Falls dissolving in season five (or was it season four?). Stefan and Damon are among the worst of the worst of vampires, objectively. Valerie’s reasoning for putting Stefan before killing all the bad vamps that escaped--“He’s my boyfriend”—is another way of communicating that the only thing that separates Damon and Stefan from the escaped serial killers is the audience likes them. Julic Plec openly admires Joss’ vampire shows but she never borrowed from it the genuine mournful self-reflection of ANGEL’s final season wherein Spike and Angel accept they don’t deserve a pass for the horrible crimes they committed without souls. TVD never comes close to that kind of character writing. It’s stuck at a superficial and artificial illusion of retrospection and self-reflection. TVD’s stuck. It’s a loop.
-Valerie and Alaric worked together. Valerie told him she roots for his relationship with Caroline because she wants to continue being with Stefan. Alaric wants the same. Yes. Caroline’s in hiding with the girls.
-I liked that the abandoned cabin in the woods got CNN. Did I really like it? No. How else might one make a snarky comment about it, though? It’s like Borat’s ‘Not!’ joke.
-Damon played Matt Donovan amongst the search party. I assume that’ll get back to Matt. Damon led an entire party astray. Matt hates Stefan with all his heart. Next week a pissed off Matt will probably find Stefan, threaten him, make those scowl faces at him, and do nothing in the end. Stefan will explain what really happened to Penny.
-Neil Reynolds wrote the teleplay. Story by credits went to him and Julie Plec. Julie Plec directed.