Damon redeems himself, but it could be his worst decision yet
Credit: Bob Mahoney/The CW
Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…

Season 1 finale: Katherine returned. Season 2 finale: Stefan left with Klaus. Season 3 finale: Elena died. Season 4 finale: Silas doppelgänger twist! Season 5 finale: Damon and Bonnie “died.” Season 6 finale: Elena went to sleep. Season 7 finale: Damon and Enzo … go to the dark side?

The Vampire Diaries season finales are always some of its best hours. Whether they deliver on romantic moments — Bonnie and Enzo! Stefan and Caroline! — or absolutely break your heart — seeing Elena! Stefan and Damon! — they’re known for leaving you emotionally exhausted. And the season 7 finale was no exception.

Knowing that the team had to approach this as a possible series finale only made it more emotional for me. (That last image of seeing Stefan back at his desk writing in his journal? Yeah, that made me cry way too much.) But because it’s TVD, it had to end on a cliffhanger. Let’s get to it.

We start with an Enzo-Damon-Stefan/Caroline conference call, where Damon explains that they need to get into the Armory to kill the final Everlasting. That’s how they save Bonnie. But when an explosion doesn’t open the Armory, Damon has a back-up plan: Call Valerie. Yeah, that’s not an option. Plan C? Get Caroline’s daughters to siphon the seal, but Caroline gives that a hard no. So of course, Damon goes about making it happen on this own.

With that underway, Enzo pays Virginia a visit to find out what exactly is in the vault, but it’s information he doesn’t share with anyone. Elsewhere, Stefan and Caroline are still on the run as she Skypes her daughters from the car.

After she hangs up, she tells Stefan that Lizzie accidentally siphoned her the other day. But she’s still not ready to get them involved in the supernatural world. She wants them to have as normal a childhood as they can for as long as they can. And Stefan agrees. This is Caroline’s call.

Caroline thanks him but informs him that this does not make up for the things he’s done. Stefan may think he feels a thaw of her icy heart — he totally does, by the way – but Caroline keeps lying to herself informs him that he’s wrong.

Just then, Bonnie calls Caroline and asks Stefan to drive faster. Thanks to Matt’s police siren, she’s gaining on them. The problem? There’s a six-car pile-up blocking the road ahead. So Stefan pulls a Dominic Toretto and turns the car around and asks Bonnie to let them pass. But when Bonnie can’t — the urges are getting stronger — it’s Matt who saves the day. He gets out of his restraints in just enough time to grab the wheel and wreck the car, letting Stefan and Caroline pass.

By the time they both wake up, Matt realizes he’s pinned. If Bonnie helps him get out, he promises to keep stopping her from hurting their friends, but as she tells him, “You’re human, Matt. You don’t belong in this fight.” (He probably could’ve heard that a few seasons ago.) Bonnie then leaves him behind to try to get himself out, which naturally, only makes him bleed more.

Now with a little time on their hands — key word: little — Stefan and Caroline stop for gas. Stefan then hands Caroline the keys and tells her to keep running. The fact that they haven’t heard from Damon means Damon has a plan that doesn’t involve them, and Stefan has to stop him.

And stop him he does. Just as Damon and Enzo meet on a runway to fly to Dallas and kidnap Caroline’s kids, they realize that their pilot has gone home for the day. Yeah, Stefan called ahead and sent him away. Stefan informs his brother that the involvement of Josie and Lizzie is Caroline’s decision. And speaking of that decision, hearing the pain in Bonnie’s voice when she asked Caroline to drive faster, Caroline calls Ric about the girls. As he sees it, if the girls helping will reunite Caroline with her kids, he’s ready to do it.

NEXT: Stefan and Damon have a chat

As Damon and Stefan wait for Ric and the girls to get to the Armory, Stefan has a much-needed talk with his brother. Damon wants to know what made him flip the switch. Just yesterday, Stefan was pulling a Damon — kidnapping Caroline to keep her safe no matter the consequences — and now, Stefan’s back to his old self. What changed? As Stefan tells him, he realized that what he did wasn’t about love. It was about fear. Stefan informs his brother that the night he put himself down, it wasn’t because he loved Elena, it was because he was afraid he’d do something terrible and lose her forever. And that fear overrode any love Damon had for Stefan, Bonnie, anybody. “I thought about that when I pulled a Damon,” Stefan says. “I realized I never want to be that person. I refuse to be ruled by fear. I refuse to be you.”

I think it’s fair to say Damon already knew that, he knew why he made the decision, but it was necessary for him to hear it, and furthermore, for him to hear his little brother say it. More on that in a moment.

First, Josie and Lizzie successfully siphon the seal on the Armory with their tiny adorable hands. And with that, Enzo calls Bonnie. His role in this plan is to quite literally keep Bonnie distracted. So he asks her to focus on chasing him, and so she does. Who’s ready for a wild goose chase?

Back at the Armory, the plan worked. The door is open, and just before Stefan and Damon go inside, Caroline stops Stefan. But whatever she has to say, he asks her to say it when it’s over. My only question? What if there is no later?

Once inside, Stefan and Damon search everywhere before they realize that the only place the Everlasting could be is within the vault, a.k.a. the vault they’re not supposed to enter. Now, it’s their only choice. Except Damon won’t let Stefan go with him. Damon knows his brother can help him; it’s what he’s done over and over again. And over and over again, it’s screwed Stefan over. “I need you to let me go,” Damon tells his brother. “Let me succeed or let me fail, but let me do it by myself.”

And in a moment that’s been three years coming — in the show’s timeline — Damon says, “I’m sorry I walked out on you that night. You’re right — I was scared, and I knew you’d be mad, but I also knew that you’d be okay. I know my choices suck sometimes, and you like to be there to head them off at the pass, but this time I need you to believe in me, okay?”

Damon tells his brother that if he doesn’t want a life ruled by fear, “Then this time, YOU walk out on ME.” (Just like the Phoenix Stone wanted him to.) Damon tells his brother not to be afraid of what will happen. One way or another, Damon will be okay. Stefan agrees to let him go, but not without one last Salvatore hug that I will cherish forever.

And once he’s outside, Stefan’s greeted with another hug, this one from Caroline, and I can promise you Ric notices.

As Damon enters the vault, Bonnie finds Enzo at their love shack, where the Bonnie vs. Enzo fight begins. Enzo puts up a good fight, but when Bonnie shoots him, he realizes he’s not going to win. Holding a stake over his heart, Bonnie begs Enzo to fight her off, but he’s hit his limit. “I need one thing from you,” he tells her. “When this is over, don’t remember this moment. Remember the other ones.” The couple shares one last “I love you” before Bonnie can’t hold back anymore.

The good news? Damon finds the Everlasting in the vault and burns it, just in time to save Enzo’s life!

Just like that, the scars disappear and Ric goes to Caroline. He’s going to take the girls home. And he thinks she should stay. “You changed my life,” he tells her. “For that, I will always love you.” But he’s always known she didn’t love him the same way, and it’s okay. “You should be happy,” he tells her. No matter what happens, he assures her they’ll “always, always be a family.”

NEXT: Elena, is that you?

So she sends him off with a hug before heading over to comfort Stefan, who’s still waiting on his brother. But when he gets a text from Damon saying to have the bourbon ready, he can breathe a sigh of relief. As for what Caroline was going to say to him earlier, she tells him, “I lied earlier. There was a thaw.” And thus with a kiss, they rekindle their flame.

Back at the wreck, Matt is still losing blood, so much so that he hallucinates Penny? We’re not entirely sure what’s happening, but the point is: He sees her and is able to apologize. But as she tells him, “You’re a terrible shot, we established that years ago.” (So yeah, this is the most I’ve liked Penny.) Matt explains that he can’t escape this life, but as Penny tells him, that’s because he’s never really tried. Penny asks Matt what he wants, and he responds that he wants to be with her.

But she can’t take him with her. “There’s a better life for you out there, you just have to wake up and find it,” she tells him. So he wakes up to a rescue team there to help him.

Damon, still in the vault, calls Bonnie, who claims he’s “kind of forgiven.” But just as Damon gets ready to leave the vault, he hears Elena’s voice. Bonnie and Enzo, realizing what’s happening, try to tell him that Elena is safe in a warehouse in Brooklyn, but as Damon gets flashes of his relationship with Elena, he has to check. “Help me, please,” the voice says. “I’m so alone. I need you.” Only, it’s not Elena.

Enzo and Bonnie rush to the Armory to help, but only Enzo can get in, and he goes in alone. As Damon tells him, “It only hurts at first. And after that, it’s kind of fun.” And cue a creepy hand grabbing Enzo’s head and dragging him off.

We round out the finale with everyone writing in their journals per Elena’s request. Caroline explains that they were so close: She and Stefan were good, Bonnie and Enzo were almost happy, and Damon actually did the right, selfless thing. They waited in the Armory for a week, Stefan trying everything he could to get to his brother. But after seven days, when Ric finally cracked the security code, they discovered that the vault was empty. Damon and Enzo had escaped, and Bonnie can no longer do a locator spell to find them seeing as how her magic never came back.

As for Matt, he’s decided to leave Mystic Falls in his past. “Because as sad as is it, this isn’t my fight, he writes. “And if I’m ever gonna be happy, I have to recognize which ones are.” That might be the wisest thing Matt’s ever said.

Three months later, they hear the first rumor of a string of missing persons on the West Coast, with the number constantly growing. As Stefan — who’s finally back in his room and back at his desk — writes to Elena, “I don’t know what’s wrong with them or what they’re doing or why, but I promise you, we’ll get them back. Just know that whatever happens between now and then, it’s not his fault.”

And we end the hour with Damon and Enzo stringing up humans in a warehouse. First, they hang them by their feet. Then, they slit their necks. Why? Well, that’s a question for next season.

So season 7, the first full year without Elena, comes to a close. It had its highs and lows. The Stefan-Damon struggle held it together and gave us its strongest moments, if you ask me. Bonnie and Enzo were another nice surprise. The Heretics didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but as a whole, I think the flash-forward format worked for much of the season. Now we head into season 8 much in the way we headed into season 3, only this time, it’s Damon leaving a trail of bodies, and Stefan trying to save him.

What did you think of the finale? Or of the season? Hit the comments with your thoughts or find me on Twitter @samhighfill. And be sure to check out Julie Plec’s Diary for more about the finale.

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Best Starting Point: ''Growing Pains'' (401) — A lot changed in last season's lead-up. It's probably best not to miss this season opener, which shows…
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