Damon is in hell .... quite literally
Credit: Guy D'Alema/The CW

Welcome back from break TVD fans! What better way to launch back into season 7 than with flashbacks and terrible wigs? Except it’s not exactly a flashback. This is Damon’s prison world, and we’re just living in it.

Damon wakes up in 1863, before he became a vampire, when he was just a soldier in the Civil War. Lily is standing there looking as alive as ever, which should have been Damon’s first clue that something was off. But instead he lets this first version of the day play out: He saves a fellow soldier named Henry, he wakes up in the medical tent, gets a stereotypical over-the-top Stefan letter (“I wish you were here brother to teach me how to survive these endless nights”) complaining about how their father isn’t handling their mother’s death well.

In order to go help his brother, Damon asks for leave. His superior says no, but when Damon pushes, he says that he’ll let him go if he can bring back a couple deserters from a farmhouse nearby. Simple! Damon and his new pal Henry head to the house where three women let the two in for dinner, as it’s their wartime duty. But when the two deserters come out guns blazing from the cellar, everyone but Damon ends up dead.

Damon hears a noise in the cellar, and when he goes to investigate, he finds his mother — still alive. She tells him (and the audience) that his spirit is in the Phoenix Stone and that this is his punishment. Then she shoots him and he wakes up in the present with Bonnie.

Bonnie pulled Damon out of the prison world first, but while she was doing that, Julian stole Stefan’s body from upstairs. While Bonnie does a locator spell to find him, a very pregnant Caroline explains why they chose Damon first: The longer your spirit is in the Phoenix Stone, the more of it you lose. They didn’t want Damon to lose so much that he’d come out and kill Bonnie to bring back Elena. Smart thinking.

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Bonnie’s locator spell works, so Damon heads out to meet Julian at a diner on Route 29. There, Julian has soaked Stefan’s body in gasoline. Julian explains that resisting the pain when you’re in the Phoenix Stone just makes it worse. And then he throws a lighter onto Stefan’s body. As Stefan goes up in flames, Damon sees his mother again. She says “the pain is real, the feeling is real” before Damon wakes up in the medic bed again.

NEXT: Rinse and repeat

Suddenly we’re in an X-Files episode: Damon is re-living this day in the prison world and thinking he escapes it on repeat. But this time he has history on his side: He tells Henry what to do at the farmhouse. They gather up the women on their side, so the men won’t shoot them. They shoot them anyway. Damon wakes up with Bonnie again, but this time Stefan was pulled out before him. Damon doesn’t have time for Stefan’s “did you feel anything in the prison world?” speech and stabs his brother.

Then we finally see the real Bonnie, Stefan, Matty, and Caroline. Turns out they did pull Stefan out first, but they’re struggling to get Damon out. Stefan says that the only way they were able to reunite his soul with his body is because he gave into the pain. If there’s anything we’ve learned about Damon in 7 seasons, it’s that he won’t do that.

After a Groundhog Day-esque montage of Damon trying to kill the deserters many different ways, we finally see him give up. He decides the fastest way to get to Stefan is to become a deserter himself. He tries to head back to Mystic Falls but ends up at the damn farmhouse anyway. Lily is inside … and so is Stefan … and so is Elena … well, her coffin at least. Stefan tells Damon that he can’t tell right from wrong without Elena around. Stefan keeps goading him until finally Damon admits the day of the farmhouse massacre it wasn’t Stefan he wanted to see — it was his mother.

And Damon wakes up in the forest, but this time it’s Lily under the wheel, not the Wade Kinsella look-alike. She wants him to save her, but he says it doesn’t matter; it’s not real anyway. Again she says, “The pain is real, the feeling is real.” And instead of saving her, Damon finally confronts his feelings about his mother. He says what he should have said when she died: “I’m so sorry … Give me a chance to make it right … Give me a chance to let you love me.” He cries, and my heart breaks.

And — it would seem — that this was the breakthrough he needed to be reunited with his spirit. He wakes up to Bonnie, Stefan, Caroline, and Matt. But he thinks it’s not real and he wants to go back and spend more time with Lily (aww). He stakes Stefan, stakes (pregnant!) Caroline, throws Matt across the room, and chokes out (kills?) Bonnie. Then he looks around and says, “Why am I still here? This isn’t real.”

Guys, IS THIS REAL? Will anything ever be real again? If Bonnie’s dead, does this mean Elena can come back? (Did Nina Dobrev change her mind??) Will the twins be okay? What. Is. Happening?

What did you think of “Hell Is Other People”? Tell me below or on Twitter @realdalener. And be sure to read the showrunner’s thoughts on the episode in Julie’s Diary, exclusively here at EW.

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