[This is a review of The Vampire Diaries season 7, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]

As far as season premiers go, this episode certainly had it’s work cut out for it. After six seasons as the girl at the center of the love triangle that was The Vampire Diaries, Nina Dobrev has left the building, and taken her character Elena Gilbert with her. The shadow of Elena looms large, though, as the series’ diary conceit is now comprised of the other characters writing journal entries specifically to her.

In a rather unique way to remove a major character, Elena was put into a slumber like Sleeping Beauty, only she won’t wake until her best friend Bonnie (Kat Graham) dies. It’s a curse put on them as revenge by the Salvatore matriarch, Lily (Annie Wersching). And so, we enter a new era on The Vampire Diaries.

Luckily, it kind of became the Salvatore brothers show rather early on, and so long as Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and Stefan (Paul Wesley) are still lingering around Mystic Falls, the show can go on. I actually think Elena was becoming one of the least interesting characters on the show. Other than existing as someone for the brothers to take turns loving, or as the girl who just keeps losing all the people she loves and cares about, Elena didn’t seem to have much of a proactive role on the show. That made it easier to say goodbye to her, and actually opened an interesting door for the future of the show. If Elena was important because of how everyone else on the show felt about her, then her absence pushes everyone dramatically in new directions.

the vampire diaries 151008 caroline The Vampire Diaries Season 7 Premiere: After Elena, or the Battle for Mystic Falls

Of course, the most dramatic turn comes from Damon, who gave up being a completely evil bastard for her. Sure, he still has his edge, but he’s a far cry from the Damon Elena first met in season 1. For one thing, that Damon would have made Bonnie vampire chow, as soon as he heard about the curse and someone would have had to stop him. Now, however, he hesitates three seconds to save her. He thinks about having Elena back and then he thinks about Bonnie being his best friend. Every time Bonnie’s life is in danger, Damon will have to struggle through three seconds of torture as he chooses to save her life and further delay his reunion with his one true love. As curses go, this is a pretty good one.

As I was thinking about how this season would progress without Elena as the female lead, I realized that I’d already kind of fallen in love with her de facto replacement. Caroline (Candice King née Accola) is perhaps the most unlikely character to have become star-worthy on The Vampire Diaries, considering her beginnings as a self-absorbed brat. But as soon as she got turned, suddenly so much more depth came out of her. Here was a character the writers were clearly passionate about, and a lot of that can be attributed to King’s performance in the role. She’s like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very dark show. Even Elena was mired in darkness much of the time.

Scarlett Byrne Candice Accolla in The Vampire Diaries Season 7 Episode 1 The Vampire Diaries Season 7 Premiere: After Elena, or the Battle for Mystic Falls

Caroline’s eternal optimism looks to be sorely tested this season, though. Still mourning the loss of her mother, she must now face off against Lily’s family of “Heretics.” Lily essentially abandoned her own children for these magic-wielding vampire monsters. And by the close of this hour, the lines had been drawn in the sand. Lily and her chosen “family” are easily the most dangerous foes faced by the gang since Klaus and his siblings left for the Big Easy. And she’s already accomplished something even Klaus and company couldn’t: victory.

Matt followed through on Elena’s dreams for him by becoming a police officer. But thanks to a failed attempt to kill the Heretics, he became the only surviving member of his graduating class when Lily’s “children” slaughtered everyone else there, including the new sheriff. And so, to stop the bloodshed and ensure the residents of Mystic Falls will make it to another day, the town was lost.

A story was faked that the air in town was tainted and compulsion cleared out anyone who was resistant to go. And just like that, the tag from the season six finale was upon us. While that looked like some kid of post-apocalyptic future Mystic Falls being watched over by Damon, it was instead Mystic Falls of the too-near future, given up to Lily. She even got to move into the mansion.

the vampire diaries 151008 lily The Vampire Diaries Season 7 Premiere: After Elena, or the Battle for Mystic Falls

Damon missed most of this, as he was on a drunken bender with Alaric and Bonnie around the world. Only Alaric was faking the whole time, as he pursues a way to bring back the bride he lost in the season 6 finale. Damon and Bonnie returned to a very different status quo, so they took matters into their own hands by killing one of the “heretics.”

It’s clear the writers and creators have a strong vision for where this show goes from here. I think the journal entries to Elena are an effective way to keep her spirit an important part of the show — as Damon continues to wait for her — while still moving the narrative forward without her. No insult to Dobrev, but she wasn’t missed at all in this opening hour. It’s a testament to the ensemble nature of The Vampire Diaries that it could weather a major character loss so well.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, we got a tease three years down the road. Someone is hunting Stefan and apparently Damon has given up on waiting for Elena and had himself coffined until she came to life. It’s an interesting storytelling technique, as we don’t know who’s hunting them. But even more than that, this show could very well still be on the air in three years (look at Supernatural). Will it come to this point, or can the future be changed?

The Vampires Diaries continues next Thursday with “Never Let Me Go” @8pm on The CW. Check out a preview below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBZfMy6RjNM

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