I know some of us gave up on this show a while ago, but The Vampire Diaries is back in fighting form this season. This week’s episode is proof of that.

Spoilers for The Vampire Diaries episode “Never Let Me Go” ahead.

I may pick on Elena Gilbert, but I want to be clear I loved the actress Nina Dobrev, and her portrayal of Katharine and the various doppelgängers. It’s only the character of Elena, with her relentlessly do-gooder instincts, that wore thin after six seasons. Every other Vampire Diaries character went through hell and back and evolved—Elena, even during the seasons when she was a vampire, was still positioned as the show’s true moral compass. Now, with Dobrev’s departure from the show, the other characters are getting more time to shine, and it’s a lot of fun.

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This week’s episode wasn’t hugely complex, nor did it involve any major decapitations. Instead it felt like a solid, classic Vampire Diaries caper, with Caroline held captive/tortured by the Heretics in the Salvatore House, and Stefan and Damon unable to enter to save her because their mother Lily is in charge of the deed. Lily is a strange nightmare of a mother, favoring her Heretic brood over her flesh-and-vampire sons. Bonnie stepped into the spotlight, and now seems like everyone’s go-to lady, serving as Damon, Alaric, and Matt’s confidant.

Elsewhere in greater Mystic Falls, Alaric is still obsessed with the idea of bringing his nearly-wife Jo back from beyond the grave. He has a mystical prop, the Phoenix stone, to help him out, but when Bonnie gives it a magical once-over she gets nasty visions and decides the thing is full of evil. Yikes. Alaric is supposed to drop it in a vat of acid, but surprise—he doesn’t follow through. Later he tries it out on Heretic Malcolm’s corpse in the morgue, and the stone appears to reanimate him when it’s in contact with his flesh. Could Zombie Jo be back next week?

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Matt—he’s a cop now, but I like to call him Ranger Matt—is having a tough time. He’s the only human left other than Alaric, and unlike Alaric hasn’t completely lost his marbles. Matt spends his days driving around Mystic Falls, trying to keep it safe. He nearly almost saves two trespassing teens in the episode’s homage-to-the Blair Witch Project opener, but the Heretics are much too strong. Also speaking of humans, Elena still matters even when she’s off the show, of course—Lily has her posse steal Elena’s ensorcelled coffin, thereby sending Damon into an angst spiral. But both Stefan and Damon by episode’s end vow to take on their mother rather than be controlled by her, and get their ladies back.

What was so cool about this episode is that it felt like everyone had equal screen time and their own personal compelling plot and motivations. We got to see some less-usual interactions, like Alaric and Bonnie, and a return of a well-loved team—Damon and Stefan, outsmarting evil their mother together. Enzo revealed some romantic feelings where Lily was concerned, which is rather Oedipal but may bring him out of the background. Even Matt had more to do in this episode than all of last season.

As I predicted last time, hints about the Heretics’ past started to emerge, and make them more interesting. Mary Louise was from a poor family who once persecuted her, and ended up on the street. Nora’s family hated her, too. Beau and Valerie knew each other, then lost and found each other, for reasons we’ll surely learn. But the most interesting revelation was saved for the end, when Nora gives the still-captured Caroline an old diary Stefan wrote in the 1800s. He writes of meeting Valerie back then, and it sounds like they had a relationship. Oh, and to make matters more interesting for Caroline/Stefan shippers, Valerie has cursed Caroline’s skin to make it burn like vervain.

Considering the info dumps and various threads of “Never Let Me Go,” the episode was fun, full of sarcasm, quips and some of the scares that made us like The Vampire Diaries in the first place. This episode also felt grown-up, with all of the staple characters assured of who they are and not caught in any never-ending love-triangles (for now). Everyone has leveled up.

I’m still extremely into the “three years in the future” episode openers and closers. This week, we saw Caroline as a busy TV show producer. An assistant tells Caroline her fiancé called, and says they need to go to Mystic Falls; Caroline reveals that they can never go back to Mystic Falls again.

Hopes that the fiancé is Stefan are dashed in the closer, when Caroline says she never wants to hear the name Stefan Salvatore ever again. Then she and the assistant get shot with stakes—hunted by the same person who was after Damon and Stefan in New York? And what could have made Caroline and Stefan fall out so completely? I love these tantalizing glimpses of The Vampire Diaries’ future, and I hope they’ll be able to merge the storylines convincingly as the season progresses.

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As for Elena, it looks like we’ll be just fine if she stays asleep for the next 60 years or so.