Welcome back! By now we know that hell isn’t a Phoenix Stone; it’s a hiatus without TVD. When we last left them, Damon and Stefan’s spirits were both trapped in the Phoenix Stone — and we only know where Damon is: on the front lines of the Civil War. Things can only get worse before they get better, so onward we go.
We open on the same scene we last saw: cannons and gunfire. Damon’s intestines bursting out of his shirt — gross. Glimpses of flashback hair — hot.
Damon sees Lily in the distance. It’s unclear if he knows where he is or what is happening to him — and then he sees a friend trapped beneath a carriage. (Henry, the tomb vampire! Nice throwback!)
After rescuing Henry and escaping the battlefield, Damon wakes up. “Welcome back, hero. You’ve been out for a while,” Henry says. Damon reads a letter from Stefan and decides he needs to visit him. Damon’s commander cuts him a deal: bring back the two deserters some Union sympathizers are hiding in a nearby farmhouse and you’ll get your leave. When he and Henry reach the farmhouse, Damon reminds the skeptical lady in the doorway (who is definitely not hiding deserters based on how scared she looks) that it’s against the law to refuse shelter to Confederate soldiers. They go inside and find a young girl and an older woman preparing dinner.
The deserters burst out of a false wall and raise their guns. Shots are fired between them, killing everyone in the house—except one person, in the basement. Damon goes downstairs, expecting to find one more deserter, and is confronted by his mother instead.
“Hell is being raked over the coals for something I haven’t thought about in 150 years?” Damon asks. Apparently he thought hell would be different. He’s right; I definitely thought Damon’s version of hell would have Elena in it, in some impenetrable fortress that he couldn’t reach.
The next thing we know, Lily shoots him — and he wakes up in a circle of candles, with Bonnie leaning over him. “Damon, you’ve been dead for three months.” Bonnie explains: she’s been trying to rescue Damon from the stone, but the spell the heretics used to rescue Julian took all three of them. With just her, it’s been draining her resources.
It gets worse. “You’re telling me my brother is still stuck in here and you brought me back first?” But there’s some good rationale here: They were afraid that if they brought Stefan back first and left Damon in the stone too long, he’d come back murderous — intent on killing Bonnie so he could reunite with Elena. All fair points, considering Damon’s tendency to snap necks when he gets miffed.
Not only is Stefan’s spirit still stuck in limbo, but Julian stole his body, and as Caroline lovingly reminds us, if he scorches it, they can’t get him back. Things have changed in Mystic Falls: Caroline is pregnant, Bonnie looks like she hasn’t slept in months … and Matt is still the only cop. So yeah, everything is falling apart.
Julian and Damon have a lovely chat, in which Julian says he suffered for over a century in the stone, killing Lily every day. Damon experienced trauma, but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as that. “You resisted,” Julian says. Resisted what? I wonder … as Julian lights Stefan’s gasoline-doused body on fire, killing him.
And when Damon suddenly wakes up once more, back in civil war-garb, I realize: Inception! None of it was real! He’s still in the stone, doomed to repeat this same day over and over again, until he gets something right. And knowing Damon, that something probably has to do with his avoidance of his mother’s death.
When he and Henry reach the farmhouse for the second time, Damon tries a different tactic, summoning all the women to the tableside before approaching the deserters. It doesn’t work; they end up shooting him in the back. When he wakes up on Bonnie’s table, he thinks it’s the same: Julian has stolen Stefan’s body and he has to go rescue him …
“Please don’t hold it against her that Caroline pulled me back first,” Stefan says, entering the room. (We don’t, because Steroline forever.) For once, Stefan doesn’t want to chat about his feelings — he wants to get drunk. (This is how Damon was supposed to realize his brother was a hallucination; Stefan, not wanting to talk about feelings? Never.)
But when Damon confesses that nothing that happened in the stone really got to him, Stefan changes. “You didn’t feel anything? The part with the innocent people bleeding out over the farmhouse floorboards, that did nothing to you?”
Damon gets the picture: Stefan isn’t real, and with a heartsnatch, he hits the reset button.
But take three goes a bit differently because we finally learn the truth: Our Scooby Gang did pull Stefan out of the stone first, because it was easy. For some reason, they can’t reunite Damon’s soul with his body. He is, as Julian said earlier, resisting something.
“I submitted to the kind of suffering that just breaks you,” Stefan says, of his time in the stone. “Knowing Damon, he’ll do anything to avoid that kind of pain.”
Stefan’s right: in the next few takes of Damon’s Adventure in Hell, we see him sink deeper and deeper into the emotional pit we found him in in season one. “This was the first time I had blood on my hands,” he says, walking to the farmhouse a third time. We know it won’t be the last.
He orders the women onto the porch, but the deserters have a grenade. Reset. He tells the deserters to throw out the grenade first before they surrender their guns — but the women take Henry hostage, holding a knife to his throat. Reset. “Does the offer still stand if I bring them back dead?” he asks his commander. He kills the deserters, but grandma lodges a bullet into his chest. Reset.
By take seven, Damon hasn’t flipped a switch, but he doesn’t have to — there’s no humanity left to kill. He deserts the confederacy, determined to skip the farmhouse completely and just do what he wanted to do in the first place: find his brother. He throws a lit grenade at Henry and sets off. (Alas, poor Henry, things didn’t end so well for you in the correct timeline, either.)
But by now, Damon should realize that hell doesn’t follow rules: despite walking for god knows how long, he still finds himself in front of the very farmhouse he’s trying to bypass. Lily is there, as is Stefan, in full-on flashback hair. And so is Elena, in the coffin. All the reminders of the things Damon can’t save, no matter how hard he tries.
“I wonder if Elena will even recognize you when you wake up?” Stefan sneers, taunting his brother with the truth. Who is Damon without Elena by his side, acting as his literal moral compass? Without her, he immediately resorts to who he truly is inside: a killer.
With the blood of the deserters above dripping down his face, Stefan asks his brother what he really wanted in those moments he watched them die, but we already know the answer. “I wanted my mother,” Damon admits. That’s the core of it: his mother abandoned him, starting the pattern of women in Damon’s life that he could never really trust, fearing that they’d always leave him in the end … because if his mother left, that means Damon was bad from the beginning.
Back on the battlefield, Lily is now the one trapped beneath the carriage. As she’s dying, Damon admits that the real reason he hates her is because she could have come back, and she didn’t — and the real reason he hates himself, which is that he never had the chance to make things right between them. “Give me a chance to let you love me, okay?”
Through my tears, I see Lily die. Again. And this time it means so much more, because Damon finally wants to help her.
When Damon wakes up, surrounded by Stefan and their friends — questioning whether it’s actually real as much as I am — his worst fears come true. “We weren’t done,” he says. It’s not Elena he’s talking about, like they feared, but his mother. He wants her back. Stefan tries to reassure him that what happened wasn’t real, but that’s the last thing Damon wants to hear.
“I know it wasn’t real,” Damon insists, snapping Stefan’s neck, stabbing Caroline in the chest, punching Matt, and hurtling Bonnie against the wall. His grip doesn’t break. Bonnie struggles.
She crumples to the floor, a trail of blood behind her. And nothing happens. No reset. Damon, standing amidst the ruins of bodies, once again, as the screen cut to black.
Hats off to everyone for TVD’s first concept episode — what a doozy. Extra props to maestro Ian Somerhalder, who carried the episode and showed us once again that he is more than just a pair of beautiful blue eyes. (Plus 500.)
Until next week, when we find out if Bonnie survived and whether Damon can recover from yet another murderous outburst — I’ll be on twitter @Talkativetara!