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TV

The Vampire Diaries prepares for an epic, tear-filled final bow

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ELENA GILBERT’S CRYING. Standing in the Mystic Falls cemetery where she’s said many goodbyes — and even a few hellos — Elena’s surrounded by everyone she loves. Well, almost everyone. One person is missing. Did we forget to mention that this is a funeral?

It’s a sunny January day in Atlanta as the Vampire Diaries cast films its last group scene in the woods. In between takes, there’s laughter and excited whispers about who’s in town for the upcoming wrap party, but when showrunner Julie Plec, the director of the show’s final hour, calls “Action,” an emotional fog sets in. This is a goodbye — and it’s a big one. “We wanted to go big, emotionally, with the action, and with the spectacular of it,” says Plec, who co-wrote the episode with co-creator Kevin Williamson. “We were absolutely feeling epic.”

When The Vampire Diaries premiered on The CW in 2009, it found itself smack in the middle of the vampire craze. With the success of both Twilight and True Blood, this was network television’s chance to see if fans still thirsted for blood, and when the Vampire Diaries pilot attracted the largest audience of any series premiere in CW history at that time, all signs pointed to yes. “I remember being in Vancouver with Ian [Somerhalder],” Zach Roerig, who plays Matt, says of filming the pilot. “In the hair and makeup trailer, Ian’s like, ‘Hey, kid, get ready for the ride of your life.’” Somerhalder adds: “Twilight was very much the zeitgeist of pop culture. There was just that sense that the market desired this genre. This material was going to work.”

RELATED: The 20 Best Episodes of ‘The Vampire Diaries’

The Vampire Diaries took what fans loved about the genre — suspense, shocking twists, forbidden romance — and, to borrow from the show, heightened everything. Out of loss, it built an epic love story between one girl and two brothers, the likes of which launched some of television’s most passionate shippers. Eight years later, many fans remain firmly Team Delena or Team Stelena, or have dedicated themselves to another ship entirely. But the one thing everyone can agree on: The show can’t end without Elena Gilbert.

And it won’t. Dobrev, who left the show when her contract expired at the end of season 6, has returned to give a proper farewell to the unflinchingly selfless Petrova doppelgänger. (The finale airs March 10.) “The nostalgia is insane,” Dobrev says of being back on set. “I keep getting triggered by moments: a piece of wardrobe, a person’s voice, a crew member’s laugh. It’s like a trip down memory lane, and I have so many beautiful memories of the six years that I spent here. I’m really glad that I got to be a part of it.”

Back at the cemetery, the emotional fog is replaced by a literal one. This is Mystic Falls, after all. And in an instant, heartbreak seamlessly turns into romance when one of the show’s main couples share a passionate kiss. Watching the kiss unfold, Plec gets within an inch of the monitor. “I want to see that tear,” she announces, prolonging the scene until she gets the perfect blend of romance and tragedy that has become the show’s signature over the years. The moment that tear falls, she calls “Cut.”

Bob Mahoney/The CW

JULIE PLEC’S CRYING. Sitting in the middle of the town square, Plec watches as two longtime characters walk off the screen for the final time. “That was so good,” she says through her tears as she makes a note of the take. That one’s a keeper.

For Plec, her emotional roller coaster started three years ago when the show hit its 100th episode and she realized that, unlike the vampires she’d created, it wasn’t immortal. “I would cry just thinking about what that would feel like,” she says. “So the minute we started talking about this as the last year, everything made me emotional, because closure is so powerful both in life and in fiction. Each goodbye is real.”

And those goodbyes are starting now. With less than two weeks left shooting the finale, Plec just announced the first “series wrap” on Michael Trevino, whose Tyler is one of many returning faces in the finale. He and Plec exchange I love yous and one last hug before she returns to her director’s chair, and he heads to wardrobe to quite literally step out of Tyler’s shoes for the last time.

“It’s this very interesting melancholy,” Paul Wesley says of the feeling on set. “I did Stefan’s final scene with Elena. It was strangely emotional for me.” Wesley pauses as if coming to terms with what he’s about to say in this very instant. “You’re saying goodbye to this time and this moment. The two of us are never going to be playing these characters ever again, and these were really important characters in television for eight years.”

They’ve been important characters both on television and in the personal lives of everyone involved. All the cast members, when asked about their time on the series, share a similar sentiment: They grew up here. It changed them, or in some cases, healed them. “We all started this show, almost all of us, in the midst of some sort of life turmoil, whatever it may have been,” says Roerig. “And somehow through these eight years we’ve patched ourselves up and are now ready to face the world again.”

His castmate Candice King (Caroline) says, “[This show] changed my life. It’s hard to summarize at this point what it means because it kind of means everything.”

SOON WE’LL ALL BE CRYING. Sitting on a plane, Wesley read the finale script for the first time, and the actor, who admittedly doesn’t get sentimental when it comes to the show, teared up. He then took a photo of said tear and sent it to Plec and Williamson as proof, of both his ability to cry off screen and the power of the ending they’d created.

However, it’s not the ending they originally came up with during the second season. “The big finale episode that we had always planned did not happen because the show was successful and lasted eight years,” Williamson says. For example, the original ending involved ghosts, which no longer exist now that the Other Side has been destroyed. Plec adds: “While it was not a journey with a straight line — it took many, many forms along the way — the heart and the sentiment, dating back six years ago when he and I first thought we knew how the series would end to the way it’s ending, is pretty spot-on.”

Sitting on set, Plec starts singing “guess who’s back” from Eminem’s “Without Me” with one of the biggest returning cast members. Nostalgia might be a bitch, but on this set it’s also cause for celebration, and the finale is filled with it. “I feel like I’ve watched other shows where the series finale leaves you unsatisfied, but we really do come to a conclusion with all the characters and their lives,” Dobrev says. “Julie and Kevin wrote a really beautiful episode, with a lot of callbacks to the pilot.”

Those callbacks come in many forms: characters, lines, and even locations, all of which factor into what Plec calls “our love-letter goodbye to the series.” After five acts of a “wild, epic season finale,” Plec says the final 15 minutes is where they really bid adieu. “It could almost stand on its own as a little movie with all the stuff we’re tying to accomplish,” Plec says. “We’re so proud of it. It really did give closure, for better or for worse.”

Walking away from the funeral scene, Dobrev wipes away Elena’s tears. At this point, you’d think Elena would be used to goodbyes. But this one’s different: There will be no more witchy high jinks, no more Other Side. Bonnie Bennett’s no longer in the business of bringing people back from the dead. This goodbye, much like the show’s final hour, is goodbye forever — which, for a vampire, is forever-forever.

The Vampire Diaries series finale airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.