The Wildcats celebrate Halloween early as they face their fears and the spirit of Susan Fine on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series 3×03, “The Woman in the Woods.” This episode elicits the universal appeal of a spooky-themed Disney Channel Original Movie with the whip-smart humor HSMTMTS continues to sharpen.
“The Woman in the Woods” delivers terrific and long-awaited musical performances that lean into the Camp Rock vibes that Camp Shallow Lake encourages through its Newbie Night. It does so while pulling on loose threads from HSMTMTS‘ past and furthering character-driven arcs Season 3 introduced.
The episode’s inciting incident is the Frozen cast list with a few notable surprises, including how quickly HSMTMTS reveals Carlos tried to recast the production. That point could have spiraled into a more comedic or dramatic beat later in the season. Instead, it’s a non-starter because “The Woman in the Woods” has bigger concerns.
Before it dives into the angst and drama, HSMTMTS lets Gina and Kourtney lean into the joy of their casting as Anna and Elsa, respectively. It’s sweet for the friends to have a beat to themselves, especially because (like Ashlyn but for different reasons, of course) Gina and Kourtney struggle with seeing themselves as the lead in the musical.
HSMTMTS strikes a chord with the heartfelt scene — amplified by its humorous undertone. Dara Reneé flexes her comedic chops the entire episode, and she starts the second that Gina sings Kourtney awake with the big news.
Reneé’s performance gets funnier the farther Kourtney goes into the woods and the more scenes she shares with Frankie A. Rodriguez‘s Carlos. They’re not the only ones in the finest of comedic forms in “The Woman in the Woods.”
Julia Lester is hilarious and a little unnerving — in the best way — as Ashlyn reckons with her identity crisis. HSMTMTS leans into its meta sense of humor with a nod to its literal ensemble when Ashlyn learns she will be a member of Frozen‘s ensemble. Additionally, Ashlyn’s confessional with the astrology book is a great bit of physical comedy.
Ultimately, this cast is firing on all cylinders on the comedic front, but it doesn’t hold back on the dramatic one, either. This episode dials up the tension between Ashlyn and Maddox, puts more weight on EJ’s shoulders, and revisits old haunts with Ricky and Gina.
HSMTMTS finds heart in Ashlyn’s battle with the stars and herself. On a lesser show, this storyline could read as half-hearted or less engaging compared to the romantic drama that the show has let brew for multiple seasons. However, “The Woman in the Woods” gives the narrative legs through Lester’s performance and the non-linear story at its core.
Ashlyn’s arc of self-acceptance (and that of the other Wildcats) is as integral to the show as the shifting love triangles have become.
So, it’s heartening that HSMTMTS doesn’t pretend Ashlyn getting the role of Belle makes Ashlyn’s insecurities disappear. Instead, it uses her different casting in Frozen as the catalyst to explore that self-doubt on a musical level. Ashlyn Caswell gets the music video treatment in “The Woman in the Woods,” and it’s spectacular.
Like Ricky’s “Finally Free” pairs well with last season’s “Let You Go,” Ashlyn’s “Rising” does wonders as a companion song to Season 1’s “Wondering.” It’s also reminiscent of Camp Rock‘s “This Is Me.”
“Rising” gives Ashlyn a new perspective on herself and provides the audience with the view that she and Maddox aren’t as different as they seem. It’s no coincidence that Ricky tells Ashlyn she’s the woman in the woods before it cuts to Jet telling Maddox the same.
There’s an invisible string pulling Ashlyn and Maddox together. It will be interesting to see how HSMTMTS deals with the fallout of their interactions and personal revelations during “The Woman in the Woods.”
The revelation that Maddox and Jet are related isn’t shocking since HSMTMTS sprinkles in details (primarily via Saylor Bell Curda‘s performance) that they have a history. However, their connection retroactively makes those interactions more loaded. Furthermore, from a narrative standpoint, it makes their different stories more intriguing.
Jet sharing his story first puts the audience (and Ricky) firmly in his corner, only to complicate that stance when Maddox shares her point of view. Like Ashlyn states, there’s always something new to learn. Nevertheless, it’s a propulsive storytelling move that catapults both characters into the rest of the season, which is nearly halfway over.
Furthermore, the audience being privy to Jet and Maddox’s conversation makes us active participants in the show, pairing nicely with the mockumentary style. No matter how invasive that storytelling style can be, HSMTMTS finds ways to make space for its characters that feel private and personal.
For example, it feels like EJ and Gina are the only two people in the Honeycomb when they sit in the bay window after he brings her flowers. That is a testament to Angela Tortu‘s direction and Sofia Wylie and Matt Cornett‘s endearing chemistry. Those quiet moments for Portwell emphasize how well they know each other.
This couple keeps finding ways to show up for each other even when it’s hard. HSMTMTS never lets us doubt that, as it pulls Gina’s justified disappointment to the forefront when EJ’s workload keeps him from the Camp Shallow Lake fun. In fairness, he joins the campfire long enough for Matt Cornett to get his first solo since “A Billion Sorrys.”
“The Ballad of Susan Fine” lets Cornett’s voice shine more, and it proves that EJ is the king of fun songs that should be on repeat. Plus, it suggests more songs are in EJ’s future this season that will tie closer to his arc. But, even then, EJ’s guitar and the campfire ask fans to beg for Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam‘s “This Is Our Song” before the season’s end.
Similarly, there will surely be more “awkward” Rina in HSMTMTS‘ Season 3, even though this episode posits a world in which Ricky and Gina may be able to start over — for the most part. After all, by the end of “The Woman in the Woods,” they are still walking in the same direction after they say goodbye, and that interaction feels chock-full of symbolism.
“The Woman in the Woods” could be the push Ricky needs to confront his feelings for Gina that were present in Season 1 — if that’s where this story is going. If love is an open door and Rina is meant to be, their time will come. Meanwhile, Ricky and Gina need to do more than finish each other’s sentences to prove it’s already time to let Portwell go.
Other Fabulous Moments:
- Ashlyn saying she will stockpile photos of EJ as Sven is the kind of Caswell cousins content I need.
- Well, EJ remembering the exact time Ashlyn was born is also great.
- Gina giving herself permission to be excited about being cast as Anna warms my heart.
- Why did Ricky wander out into the woods on his own in the first place?
- Ricky is really leaning into this summer of fun, and I love that for him.
- Ricky coming to EJ to look for the shrine is something so personal to me.
- Let Ricky and EJ be best friends!
- Everything about the Finer Things Club is pure gold.
- Similarly, everything Kourtney says in the woods is pure gold.
- Gabriel Mann‘s score getting a slightly scary undertone is so good.
- The trio of Ashlyn, Gina, and Ricky screaming at each other in pure fear is a top-tier HSMTMTS moment.
What did you think of HSMTMTS 3×03, “The Woman in the Woods?” Let us know in the comments below!
New episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premiere Wednesdays on Disney+!