[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the incredibly emotional series finale of The Vampire Diaries. Read at your own risk and keep tissues handy!]
The Vampire Diaries has given us so much over the years -- so much joy, so much heartbreak, so much drama and so much love -- and so it's no surprise that the series finale was both a gut-punch and an incredibly uplifting story about how love can make anything possible -- even redemption. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
"I Was Feeling Epic" begins exactly where the penultimate episode ended off: With Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) hovering between life and death after using her magic to help save herself and the twins from the explosion Vicki (Kayla Ewell) set off. Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Caroline (Candice King) are doing everything they can to save her, but Bonnie has never been one to do anything she doesn't want to do. The only way Bonnie will survive this is if she chooses to survive.
While Stefan pounds her chest and Caroline force-feeds her vampire blood, Bonnie awakens in a beautiful forest where Elena (Nina Dobrev) lays sleeping on a very comfy looking white bed. As Bonnie approaches, Elena wakes up and the duo have a happy reunion before Elena realizes what this means for her dear friend. Angry that Bonnie would die so young, Elena begs her friend to live and grow old, but Bonnie doesn't want to hear it. She insists she's ready and that Elena shouldn't feel too sad, because her death means she can be with Enzo (Michael Malarkey). But as happy as it would make Enzo to spend eternity with Bonnie, he knows it isn't her time and takes her hand to lead her back to life.
Meanwhile, Damon (Ian Somerhalder) rushes over to the bell tower to stop Vicki from ringing the Maxwell Bell twelve times, thus trying to stop her from demolishing Mystic Falls and everyone in it in a wave of hellfire. Matt (Zach Roerig) follows Damon, but since he only has human speed and not super-fast vampire speed, ol' Matty Blue Eyes arrives just in time to see Damon throw his dearly missed sister out the window.
However, seeing that she's already dead, Vicki just pops right back up and strolls back into the tower, where she has no time for Matt's weepy reunion tears. She tells her brother to leave town and save himself, because that's what exactly what she's doing. If she follows Katherine's (Dobrev) orders and rings the bell every five minutes until 10 p.m., she won't have to go back to Hell. She'll just get to disappear.
Unsure how to talk his sister of it, Matt quickly activates the evacuation protocol ("Gas leak. Yeah, again.") while Stefan and Damon return to the Salvatore house to figure out their next move. But all thoughts of stopping Katherine briefly leave their mind when they walk in to find Elena's coffin empty. Reasoning that the brief time Bonnie's heart stopped might have been enough to break the spell, Damon and Stefan are understandably thrilled when they find a very confused Elena in their house. However, all it takes is one quick hug between Damon and his alleged OTP for him to realize this isn't Elena at all.
Yup, raise your hand if you saw this one coming! It was Katherine, Mystic Falls and now also Hell's HBIC.
Katherine quickly reveals something else we all could have guessed, in addition to something that was quite the pleasant surprise: She stashed Elena's body somewhere to ensure she would die in the hellfire (obviously) and she was actually the one who sent Cade after the Salvatores in the first place (ooh, twist!).
Not willing to suffer through more of her gloating, Stefan stabs Katherine with the bone dagger they used to destroy Cade and goes to find Elena's body, which is barely even hidden in the high school boiler room. But of course, nothing is as simple as that. Before Bonnie trapped him in another '90s prison world, Katherine had Kai place a spell on the boiler room that trapped Elena inside. And that dagger? Yeah, apparently it sends Katherine to Hell, but it can't keep her there.
When a newly-returned Katherine finds Damon again, she doesn't waste any time before bragging more about her ingenious plan and how happy she'll be to watch everyone die. But Damon sees right through her and says that the only reason Katherine's doing this is because she's jealous that both Stefan and Damon will always choose Elena over her. Not new to the game, Katherine hits back with the retort that would hurt Damon the most, telling him that, in the end, Elena will ultimately choose Stefan because he's the better man. And after that low blow, Damon sends her right back down to Hell.
Rather than going on her honeymoon or enjoying any newlywed bliss, Caroline finds herself packing up her most precious belongings and sending her children off with Bonnie and Alaric (Matt Davis) to the Armory. But instead of going with them, Caroline decides to stay behind and help Stefan -- a decision Ric is none too pleased with. "I don't need to remind you what it's like to lose your mother," Ric threatens. "Don't make me have to tell those girls you died because you put somebody else before them." But Caroline insists she'll get herself to safety before the clock strikes ten and a grumpy Ric leaves without her.
Care finds Stefan at the high school where they go over their next moves. But with no way to get Elena out of the boiler room, they realize the situation is direr than ever because not only are they potentially poised to lose Elena, they also might lose Damon since he would never leave her in Mystic Falls to die alone. So with no other option, Stefan tells Caroline to get to safety while he tries to talk Damon into leaving with him. Caroline gives her husband a tearful goodbye, as the pair say I love you and kiss farewell in a way that gave me that horrible sinking sensation that something terrible is about to happen. (And I was right.)
Back at the Armory, a clearly upset Ric tries to explain to Bonnie that it's not that he doesn't care about Elena or Damon. He just is trying to be a good father. "I don't want to fail them, but I can't fail my daughters," he pleads. And that's when Bonnie realizes that Ric might not have to fail anyone. He might actually be the key to saving them all since the plan he had been working on to destroy Hell was only missing one ingredient -- an ingredient they were about to have access to in spades: mystical energy (aka the same energy produced by hellfire).
Knowing just how risky this plan is, Bonnie reaches out to the only person who is as willing as she is to sacrifice everything: Stefan. And as if diverting the trail of hellfire back into Hell wasn't tricky enough, Bonnie explains that the only way this plan works is if Katherine is in Hell at the same time. That means someone (read: Stefan) will need to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Katherine is stabbed with the dagger at just the right time.
When Katherine returns once more, she finds Damon and continues to gloat because apparently she has nothing better to do before the end of the world. But once again, Katherine gets knocked down a peg or two when Damon reveals his plan to kill himself (and her) to save the city. But then in walks Stefan with his hero hair, telling Damon he needs to leave the martyrdom to him.
The two go back-and-forth about who needs redemption more, the amount of blood they've spilled over the years and the need to take responsibility for their actions, etc. etc. But then Stefan pulls out his trump card: He's only mortal, whereas Damon has a literal eternity ahead of himself to spend with Elena. "Which means a lot less without you," a teary-eyed Damon fights back.
"Do you think I want this?" Stefan asks his brother. "I just got married. My wife is out there waiting for me to come home to her. But in the nearly two centuries since I made you become a vampire, I have fought to turn you into the man who deserves the happiness that's out there right now. Let me do this for you," he concludes. "Let me do this for me."
But just when you think Damon is going to listen to Stefan, he compels him to leave and not stop walking until his death breaks the compulsion. "Because I am the big brother. I'm sorry I wasn't better at it until now," Damon says before Stefan begins to walk away.
Of course, no one told poor Caroline the plan until she was already in the car with Alaric and the twins driving far, far away. Ric, who couldn't predict Damon would compel Stefan to leave, then has the horrible responsibility of telling Caroline her husband has decided to sacrifice himself to save the world. Devastated and in shock, Caroline makes him stop the car so she can make one last phone call to Stefan, telling him that she understands why he's doing this and that she will love him forever.
With only minutes until Hell is literally unleashed on Earth, Matt and his father show up at the bell tower to get one last look at Vicki. At this, Vicki finally softens a little and shows her family that the girl they knew is still in there. Unfortunately, that tender moment doesn't stop her from ringing the bell a twelfth and final time.
As the fire spreads through the tunnels and towards the Armory, Bonnie is ready for it and uses all of her power to hold it back. But when her nose begins to bleed, Bonnie is only empowered further, shouting at the hellfire that it can't have her because it isn't her time. Happy to see his love finally ready to fight for her life, Enzo joins her before showing Bonnie that she doesn't have to face this alone. Grams (Jasmine Guy) and the rest of the Bennett witches arrive and help Bonnie send the hellfire straight back to where it came from. After only a second to enjoy the indescribable feeling that comes with saving the world, Bonnie collapses alone on the Armory floor.
So wait, you're probably wondering, does that mean Damon really did die with Katherine?
Well, let's take a little detour shall we, back to the halls of the high school where a (once again) very confused Elena is wandering around, unsure of what she's doing there or why. But no, Elena isn't suddenly awake because stopping the Hellfire killed Bonnie. She's there to say goodbye to one of the true loves of her life -- but it isn't Damon. It's Stefan.
You see, Stefan has been around long enough to know to take vervain after he became human, so he only faked being compelled long enough to fool Damon and find a syringe on an abandoned ambulance. With a needle filled with his blood on-hand, Stefan snuck up on Damon in the tunnels and gave him the Cure so that Damon would have no choice but to let Stefan be the one to die alongside Katherine. As the hellfire approached them, Stefan chose a few very appropriate final words: "Burn in Hell" to Katherine, and "Goodbye brother" to Damon.
Back in the high school/limbo, Stefan explains that tonight he saw a side of Damon he hadn't seen since their childhood, and that he wanted Elena to get to know that Damon. "He's the better man. He's the right man," Stefan declares. But before the pair say their final farewell, Stefan gives Elena a message, but we'll get to that later...
Now, it's time to see what the afterlife actually looks like. And you know what, it's not too bad! Once Stefan leaves Elena and walks out of the high school, he's greeted by Lexi (Arielle Kebbel), who embraces her old friend as the music swells and we realize that this whole death thing might not be the bleakly tragic ending we had imagined.
And if you're still concerned about Bonnie, don't worry. Not only did she make a complete recovery after her collapse; she managed to finally figure out how to break Kai's spell on Elena, enabling her to wake up and enjoy her life with a now-human Damon. But this happy reunion is tinged with grief, as the pair goes to find Damon and Caroline at Stefan's grave.
But from the darkness comes the light, and when Damon and Caroline exit Stefan's tomb, they're greeted by Elena, who passionately kisses Damon and passes on Stefan's message to Caroline: "Tell Caroline, I heard her and I will love her forever too." (BRB, endlessly sobbing at how beautiful their love is.)
Caroline then leaves a Mystic Falls snow globe keychain on Stefan's grave and Damon leaves his daylight ring (See above, re: SOBS) before the whole gang walks off together to start the rest of their lives.
For Matt, that means continuing his good work as sheriff, considering a run for mayor and receiving a bench in his honor while Vicki and Tyler (Michael Trevino) happily watch over him from the afterlife. For Bonnie, that means living her life to the fullest and traveling the world, while Enzo continues watching over her, but now unseen. Alaric, who's watched over by Jo (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), and Caroline, who's watched over by her mother (Marguerite MacIntyre), decide to open up the Salvatore Boarding School for the Young and Gifted in Stefan's honor. And since starting a school is such hard work, they call upon some of their dear friends for help staffing it, including Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen)!!! Caroline also gets a little -- OK, a lot -- of financial help from Klaus, who sends a $3 million dollar check and a note that makes it clear his offer to wait for her still stands. And as if the Klaroline fans weren't dying enough already, Alaric's voiceover teases that Caroline's letter from Klaus is just "the beginning of another story."
As for Elena, she went away for med school (and married Damon based on the massive rock on her finger), but decided to return home to Mystic Falls after graduation. As she details in her final diary entry, written outside the Salvatore tomb, Elena explains that Mystic Falls was where she always wanted to grow old -- and that's exactly what she did.
Although Damon continued to worry he'd never see Stefan again or find peace, The Vampire Diaries wasn't about to end without confirming both Salvatores finally found their salvation. In the closing sequence, Elena and Damon walk down the street together, but it soon becomes clear this isn't your average stroll when Damon disappears and Elena turns around to find Jenna (Sara Canning), her parents and John (David Anders) waiting for her in a beautiful visualization of how the people you love are always with you.
But as emotional as seeing that family reunion was, nothing could have prepared us for when Stefan opens the door to the Salvatore house and finds his brother waiting for him. "Hello brother," Damon says, before the two embrace once again.
Now that's how you end a series finale! Because while The Vampire Diaries started off as a love triangle between two vampire brothers and a human girl, it became so much more than that. And closing out with Stefan and Damon, together and at peace for maybe the first time in their (after)lives, was the perfect way to say goodbye.