The race to save Stefan is on when he wakes up in a human body
Credit: Annette Brown/The CW
Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…

When it was announced that Nina Dobrev was going to leave The Vampire Diaries, the show’s saving grace was that her absence, as much as it would hurt, would allow the show to refocus on the Salvatore brothers. Because no matter how much you love an epic romance, the brothers have always been the heart of the show. Their relationship, however, has always had its flaws. And its biggest flaw? The fact that both Damon and Stefan seem to put Damon first. And as a result, Stefan has suffered time and time again.

That’s not to say Stefan’s perfect. As Ian Somerhalder recently pointed out, Damon’s in this mess because his brother forced his vampire life on him. And then there was that whole Ripper Stefan thing. However, no one can argue the fact that Damon makes selfish, impulsive decisions that hurt Stefan. And most recently, he hesitated to take Stefan’s scar, which resulted in Stefan being trapped in the Phoenix Stone when Nora and Mary Louise destroyed it.

And that’s where we start the episode, with Stefan being the one who’s lying in the middle of the road for a change. Stefan wakes up at the scene of a car accident to discover a school bus on fire. Snapping into hero mode, Stefan busts into the bus and saves a few cheerleaders. The key word here is that he only saves a few. But Stefan can’t figure out what the lesson is in this hellscape. When the EMT shows him his I.D., which says his name is Marty Hammond, Stefan grows impatient. So he’s an alcoholic? Is that a metaphor for his bloodlust?

Spoiler: It’s not. After Valerie leaves Damon behind and finds Rayna, she discovers that when the stone was destroyed, every soul within it escaped. And because Rayna burns the bodies of her victims, that means that vampire souls are inhabiting random corpses, both vampire and human, all over the world. As for Stefan, he could be anywhere. He could be anyone.

Specifically, he’s in Arkansas and his name is, unfortunately, Marty. After Stefan finds himself handcuffed by the cops for driving the bus and causing the accident because he was drunk, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Needless to say, he’s not a fan of what he sees — which kind of looked like flashback Klaus’ long hair for a second. So with that, Stefan takes off into the woods, still handcuffed, now on the run.

Meanwhile, Damon’s under the impression that Valerie took Stefan’s body when he finds his brother on the side of the road. At first, Damon simply thinks Stefan has lost his memory — which gives me major flashbacks to Damon not realizing Katherine was Katherine and not Elena in season 2 — so he gives him his journal to refresh his memory. (Does Damon just keep that thing in his car?) So while new Stefan reads about “day 57 of being pissed off at my garbage heap of a brother,” Matt calls Alaric.

It seems Matt thought it would be a good idea to send Valerie and Rayna to Ric’s doorstep, despite the fact that Ric is getting married in a month — where is Caroline, by the way? — and wants nothing to do with this supernatural nonsense. However, when Valerie plays the Caroline card (read: she’d care if Stefan died), Ric has no choice but to help. Rayna might be more concerned with hunting down some of the most evil vampires of the past 200 years, but Valerie quickly makes it clear that Stefan is their top priority.

Speaking of Stefan, he’s currently enjoying the perks of being human and undergoing withdrawal, which includes vomiting. Luckily, he finds a cabin in the woods where he’s able to break his hand and sort of free himself from the cuffs. He then duct tapes his hand? Poor Stef is so disoriented he thinks duct tape will help. Watching the local news, he realizes that he’s Marty Hammond, a known drunk. So if the incoming blizzard doesn’t kill him, his detox might.

Meanwhile, Damon takes new Stefan to a diner and finally realizes something’s off when Stefan starts drinking the waitress’ blood and furthermore, can do so without ripping her head off. Calling Alaric, Damon is updated on the situation. But Ric also has (more) bad news: When a vampire inhabited Jo, her body broke down. If Stefan’s in a human body, Ric estimates they have three days to find him.

But thanks to Ric’s avid news watching and expert note-taking, they’re closer than they think. Valerie uses magic to channel Rayna’s visions and see bits and pieces of where Stefan is. And when a few of the details overlap with a news story, they realize that he’s in the body of poor Marty.

Back in Arkansas, Stefan is hot-wiring a truck and enjoying the irony of being trapped in the body of an addict. He reveals that he had started to enjoy the idea that he’d die when Rayna did. Having an expiration date was about as close to being human as he was ever going to get. But now? Well now he remembers how much being a human sucks.

NEXT: Damon’s … the new Matt Donovan?

In Damon’s car, new Stefan is putting on his best Stefan impression, complete with an “I love you, brother,” but Damon calls him out on the crap. New Stefan — whom I love, by the way — is a bit bummed that his cover is blown, but he’s even more amused with the fact that Stefan really hates Damon. At least according to his journal (from what year?).

Damon warns him that “that hair requires a tremendous amount of maintenance,” but new Stefan is only concerned with how long it will take them to get to Memphis. Damon’s best line? “Please tell me your name was Elvis. That would explain a lot.”

New Stefan is entertained, but he has places to be. So, utilizing a trick that vampires really don’t use enough, he flies out of the car window. Damon immediately updates Valerie and Ric, and they agree to track Stefan’s body while Damon goes to Arkansas to save his brother. But when Rayna realizes which vampire has inhabited Stefan, she snaps Valerie’s neck and hits the road, determined to kill whomever it is.

In Arkansas, Stefan’s bad luck continues when he runs out of gas and the only other person within miles of him just so happens to be the type of person who listens to news on their radio. Honestly, who does that?! But when she hears about the male fugitive on the loose, she freaks out and drives off.

The good news? Damon has made it to Arkansas and is at the police station posing as none other than “Deputy Matt Donovan.” Hey, at least they could still call him Matty Blue Blue.

Compelling the officers, Damon learns that they’re planning to let the weather do their job. Translation: These cops suck and are going to let Marty freeze to death.

And you know what? Their plan is kind of working because Stefan is currently shivering inside Marty’s truck. And when he hallucinates Damon, he realizes that he’s reached the delirium phase of withdrawal and his time is running out. Falling out of the truck thanks to another vomiting episode, Stefan remains outside, sitting in the blizzard and seemingly resigning to his fate.

However, when the woman who saw him on the road makes it to the police station, Damon compels her to lie to the cops about Stefan’s location. And when she tells him that she dropped her phone, Damon calls it.

Stefan hears the phone ringing in the snow and finally gets to talk to his brother. Damon tells him to start walking even though he can’t feel his legs. “Get up,” he tells his younger brother. “This is not how you are going to die, Stefan Salvatore.” And yet, Stefan kind of enjoys the irony of him dying alone in the wilderness in the frozen corpse of an alcoholic murderer.

WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.

“You suck at playing hero, brother,” Stefan tells Damon. Damon’s response? He’s not used to Stefan being “such a damsel in distress.” With a little time on their hands, Stefan decides to list all the ways in which this is Damon’s fault. “You bailed on me when you decided you’d rather live in a coffin than own up to your mistakes,” Stefan tells him.

Damon tries to defend his decision by claiming that he was preventing himself from making more mistakes, but Stefan doesn’t understand why that’s so difficult for him. And no, Elena is not an excuse. Not when Damon lived 160 years before he even met her. As Stefan tells his brother, when he woke up in a stranger’s body, his first instinct was to save the people in the bus. “Where are your instincts, Damon? What does the voice in your head say?”

NEXT: Damon to the rescue

Realizing that Stefan needs to hear him say it, Damon admits what they both know: “I’m selfish. I’m angry. I’m impatient.” He continues: “Until I met Elena, I wasn’t interested in doing the right thing for anybody.”

Stefan adds “your brother included,” and Damon concurs. But with this conversation, Stefan’s anger grows. So as Damon tells him, “Then get up and come kick my ass yourself.” In that moment, fueled by his anger, Stefan gets up and starts walking when he asks his brother, “Wanna know why this is so hard? Because eventually I’m not gonna be able to go on and when that happens, I don’t believe you’ll be there.”

Let’s just sit here a moment and let the weight of that last line really sink in. How heartbreaking is it that after all these years, Stefan truly doesn’t believe that his brother will save him? Because years of Damon’s decisions have forced him to realize that he’s not his brother’s top priority? But just as heartbreaking as it is for Stefan to say, Damon has to hear it. And we’re not even done with this conversation yet…

When Damon asks about the worst part of being human, Stefan admits he’d really love to be able to compel people right about now. When Damon mentions playing by the rules, Stefan brings up how they used to play hide-and-seek as kids. Damon claims Stefan cheated by hiding in their father’s office — where they weren’t allowed — and in this moment, Damon admits he wouldn’t go in there to find Stefan because he was scared to break the rules. But he wasn’t scared for himself. He was scared that their father would punish Stefan. And when Damon asks why Stefan would bring that up now, he says, “Because you’re never gonna find me,” before he collapses to the ground.

And moments later, in a beautiful shot, Damon comes to his brother’s rescue.

By the time Stefan wakes up in the car, Damon feeds him some stolen donuts — which brings Stefan a sort of ecstacy that only comes from human hunger — before asking if all’s forgiven. But as Stefan tells him, “Not by a long shot.” Oh, and about that nose bleed, Stef? You’ve got 48 hours to get back in the right body.

And while we’re talking about his right body, Valerie and Ric follow it to Memphis where the two of them have a very honest conversation about Stefan and Caroline. Valerie says she never fooled herself into thinking she and Stefan were in it for the long haul, but Ric put a ring on it. And yet, Ric knows that Caroline said yes because it made sense for the kids. So Stefan coming back could mess up his life. His response: “So what?” Ric’s been through it all, guys. Did you expect him to be fazed?

That conversation is put on hold, however, when they track new Stefan to a fraternity in Memphis and Ric remembers an old tale about a serial killer in the 1880s. He targeted sororities and fraternities, where he’d force victims to murder each other. And when no one would believe their story, it would drive the survivors mad. They never caught the murderer.

Well, considering new Stefan just trapped everyone inside a frat party, I’d say he’s there for more than just some jungle juice.

Altogether, this episode was definitely my favorite of the season. Watching Stefan come to terms with everything and then finally voice his pain has been seven years in the making, and both Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder played that scene so perfectly. It wasn’t overly dramatic. It was emotional, but it was also factual. And somehow, they made it have impact even though it was over the phone, which is also a credit to the writing and Julie Plec’s directing. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch that scene at least five more times.

What did you think of the hour? Hit the comments with your thoughts or find me on Twitter @samhighfill.

And be sure to check out Julie Plec’s blog about directing this episode and the rain scene that got cut.

Episode Recaps

Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…
The Vampire Diaries

Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.

  • TV Show