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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series - The Woman In The Woods - Review

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This week, it's time for the reveal of the cast list. But more importantly: it's Newbie Initiation Campout Night! Time to for things get spooky!

Leo Rising

We pick up with the reveal of the cast list, as Gina wakes a sleeping Kourtney to announce that they're playing Anna and Elsa. They both go look at the list together, and it's adorable to see how excited they are about getting the lead for the first time since they've known each other. Ricky is also excited about his leading role, but Carlos feels disappointed that he's once again been cast as an inanimate object. And then Ashlyn enters the scene, in what feels like a very out of character manner. While I understand that playing Belle rightfully gave her confidence a boost, the amount of confidence she has here feels like an unnatural progression from where we left her in the season 2 finale. Gina later on makes a remark about Ashlyn acting out of character, but this initial moment shouldn't have felt that way, and it's a shame that it does.

Ashlyn's confidence takes a hit when she finds out she's part of the ensemble of Frozen. While she tries to play it off, it's clear it bothers her. Throughout the episode, she tries to work through that disappointment, only to find out that she got her birth chart wrong too. It ends up being a full on identity crisis. Initially, she refuses to even consider that Maddox could be right about her being a Leo Rising. But when EJ confirms that Maddox was correct, Ashlyn has no choice but to accept it. She goes out into the forest, asking the stars who she is. Eventually, she stumbles upon the barn and finds a piano. She takes that as a sign to work through her feelings through song, and once again delivers an incredibly strong performance with a powerful original song. While I felt like it was a little sudden for Ashlyn to suddenly feel so much more positive about her identity crisis, I did really enjoy watching this performance.

Ashlyn's scenes with Gina and Maddox were some of the highlights for me. I adore Ashlyn and Gina's sister relationship, so I'm here for any episode that gives that some focus. Gina knows her so well at this point, so it felt only right that she was the one to tell Ashlyn the truth about her attitude, no matter how hard it was for Ashlyn to hear it. As for Maddox, I'm enjoying watching the tension between the two of them. It's mostly on Ashlyn's side, but that's what makes it interesting to watch to me. I really wanna know why she feels like she needs to push back against Maddox, and I look forward to the moment Ashlyn starts unpacking that.


The Director And The Lead

 As always, I wanna talk about EJ and Gina's arcs in this episode. And unfortunately, I once again have very mixed feelings about it. EJ visits Gina at the Honeycomb to give her flowers and congratulate her on getting the lead. It's a heartwarming moment and feels very in line with how EJ kept praising her last season. They sit down as Gina gushes about what getting the lead means to her. As much as I rooted for her to get the lead this season, this is where the show starts to lose me a little. Because in season 1, Gina acts like she's played many leads before and can't relate to Nini having been an understudy at camp. It comes as a total shock to Gina when she's not cast as Gabriella. While Gina has made comments about faking her confidence before, the show has never told us that Gina hasn't gotten a leading role before coming to East High. Her reaction to not getting Gabriella also wouldn't make much sense if it was just another instance of Gina being "almost in the spotlight but not quite." So why does Gina suddenly tell EJ that, for years, she felt like she had to be okay with being "just enough"? Sure, she didn't get the lead in the past two seasons. But that was one schoolyear. Is this a case of the writers forgetting how much time their previous seasons covered, or is this a retcon? Either way, I'm not a fan of the inconsistency here.

As Gina excitedly talks about playing Anna, it becomes clear that EJ's mind is drifting elsewhere. When Gina asks him about it, he comes clean about all the pressure he's feeling. Which is understandable, given that he had no choice in becoming the director and now has less than two weeks to direct a show that will be filmed and aired in multiple countries. On top of that, his friends and girlfriend are all starring in it. What 18-year-old wouldn't be paralyzed under the pressure? 

Oddly enough, despite Gina just having talked about how much getting the lead means to her, she's not happy about EJ having to spend the night preparing for the read-through. While it's understandable that she wanted to have fun with her boyfriend during newbie initiation, it feels out of character for her to call this something that's important to EJ, rather than something that's important to all of them. Whether or not he's prepared to run their first rehearsal on camera impacts all of them. If Gina sees this as her potential big break, as the show keeps telling us, I find it odd that she's not more adament about EJ indeed having to prepare the scripts or offering to help him out. It's a weird contradiction, which just makes this whole conflict between them feel unnatural as the episode progresses. I could've understood Gina being upset if EJ had chosen to direct the musical and now found himself in over his head, but that's not the case. So instead, it feels like conflict for the sake of conflict. If the writers want to make a point about their priorities slowly diverging, I believe they made a big mistake by not letting EJ drive his own arc. Instead of him making an active choice that tells us about his wants and ambitions, all these things just happen to him. He didn't choose to direct Frozen or play Sven, but now he has no other choice. Unlike Gina, who chose what role she wanted to audition for and who chose to focus on having fun this summer.

My frustration with this conflict and the contradictions in Gina's motivations aside, I did enjoy watching her and Ricky hang out. I may not be a fan of the show pushing a potential romance between them, but their banter was fun to watch in the first season and it was nice to see them return to that. While I still think more steps need to be taken to address what went down between them last season, this does feel like a step in the right direction. Especially since it's been quite some time since Ricky has hung out with his friends like this. But before I move on to Ricky, I just wanna give a shout out to Matt Cornett for a great solo this episode. I do hope he'll eventually get a solo that's actually about EJ's own arc, but I really liked The Ballad of Susan Fine and felt like it was a good fit for his voice. More of this, please!

The Woman In The Woods

When it comes to Ricky, it's really enjoyable to see him so carefree and relaxed. And more importantly: so focused on his friends, rather than on romance. He struggled with that in previous seasons, so this feels like a good step forward. One of my favourite parts of this season has been Ricky's budding friendship with Jet. Ricky puts in quite a bit of effort to try and get Jet to open up more, and this is paying off. Like last episode, Jet very much reminded me of Ricky this week, though not in a good way. To fit in and/or impress Ricky, Jet starts to make jokes during Maddox's ghost story. It's very reminiscent of the way Ricky behaved in 2x06. 

While these jokes may have worked for Ricky and the other campers, it clearly upsets Maddox, as Jet's jokes ruin her story. She leaves, and he finally realises that he's gone too far. He ruined something she was clearly looking forward to. So he goes to apologise to her. He finds her taking down the shrine she built earlier for this night. It's here that that show reveals more about Jet and Maddox's backstory and the complexity of their relationship. Jet is clearly the troubled sibling between the two, but that doesn't mean Maddox has it easy. I like that the writers chose to show how difficult Jet's issues are on Maddox, and how she sought an escape from that at camp, only to have it follow there too. It explains why she wasn't happy to see him audition for the musical, as that's yet another place where she now can't escape from her home issues. It's a compelling new dynamic that I'm excited to see more of.

Lastly, I quickly want to talk a little about Carlos. Because what was the point of the cliffhanger of the previous episode? Carlos got caught, but we didn't find out what he tried to change and he got no consequences for his actions. So what exactly did that scene in the previous episode achieve? Unless the show intends on circling back to this, it all feels very unnecessary. EJ asked in the recap of this episode if it's too late to start over. And honestly, I'm wondering the same thing about season 3.  


What did you think of The Woman In The Woods? Let us know in the comments!

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