The Salvatores battle Katherine Pierce one final time, and not everyone makes it out alive
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…

"I Was Feeling Epic": Eight seasons ago, Elena Gilbert met Stefan Salvatore. They talked all night. It was epic. And in season 2, when Stefan's best friend Lexi played relationship whisperer and told Elena that "when it's real,  you can't walk away," she explained to Stefan that she decided to be his wingman because, well, she was feeling epic. And now, in the series finale, it was Stefan's turn to do something—or more accurately—something else that was epic … and it cost him his life.

Let's get into it for one final recap, and no I didn't cry as I wrote that. (Yes I did.)

The action starts with Bonnie's collapse. Stefan's trying CPR to resuscitate her, but it's not working. And when Caroline's vampire blood doesn't work either, we flash to the woods, where Bonnie's wandering when she sees Elena lying in what looks like a very comfortable bed. Elena, excited to see her best friend, hugs Bonnie before realizing what this means: If Bonnie's here, that means Bonnie is dead, and that's not okay with Elena. Bonnie was supposed to live a full life and grow old, but as Bonnie tells Elena, "I can be with Enzo now… I'm ready."

But Enzo's not. Appearing to Bonnie, Enzo tells her that it's not her time before he pulls her back into the light, which causes her to wake up. After hugging Caroline, Bonnie turns to Stefan and tells him, "I saw her. I saw Elena."

The Vampire Diaries, EP 816A, " I Was Feeling Epic"
Credit: Bob Mahoney/The CW

Back at the bell tower, Damon and Matt show up to stop Vicki from ringing the bell, but as she tells them, there's nothing they can do. Damon, desperate to disprove that, throws Vicki off of the bell tower. (He's always had a thing for killing her.) It doesn't take long for her to return, and after he "tests his theory" by breaking her neck, it's official: Vicki is just going to keep coming back to life. So, Damon leaves Matt to try to get through to his sister while he plans for Matty Blue's inevitable failure.

Vicki explains to her brother that Katherine has instructed her to ring the bell every five minutes until Mystic Falls burns. All Vicki knows is that she can't go back to hell. She'd rather be dead and gone, which she will be once she rings that bell for the twelfth time. So Matt, realizing he can't stop his sister, activates the evacuation protocol citing a "gas leak." The best part? Him saying, "Yes … again." Poor Mystic Falls and its gas leaks.

Back at the Salvatore mansion, Stefan and Damon are trying to figure out their next move. As Damon puts it, Katherine "played the long game and finally beat us." At least that's what he thinks before he rounds the corner and sees that Elena's coffin is empty. And when Elena rounds the corner, Damon gets his reunion…

… sort of. Damon rushes to Elena and picks her up in a hug before realizing something. In an instant, he drops Elena, mostly because she's Katherine. Her response? "Rude." Ugh, I have missed her so much.

After a "hello, brothers," Katherine explains that Elena is still in her spiritual coma. As for where Elena's body is, Katherine borrows a line from season 1 Damon and tells them, "That's for me to know and for you to dot dot dot." And here's where we get the full explanation for what's been going on this season: Since the moment Katherine Pierce first arrived in hell, she did what she's always done best—manipulate men in places of power. She's had Cade wrapped around her finger, which is why he showed such an interest in the Salvatores. "He wanted you because I wanted you," Katherine says.

And now, she gets her perfect revenge. At 10 p.m., all of Mystic Falls, including Elena's body, will burn. "And I'm guessing one of your two Salvatores is going down with her," Katherine says. But the question is: Which one?

Stefan stabs her with the bone dagger they had made in the last episode, which buys them a little time before she inevitably wakes up. With that, they set out to find Elena. Damon and Stefan split up to cover more ground and Caroline promises to meet Stefan at the school, but Ric is not a fan of that plan. He's getting the girls out of town, and he wants Caroline to come along. Caroline tries using the classic, "It's Elena" excuse that has worked so many times before, but now, Caroline has daughters who need her. As Ric tells Caroline, "I don't need to remind you what it's like to lose your mother." Yeah, Ric's not pulling any punches at this point, guys.

NEXT: Caroline and Stefan say goodbye

Caroline promises to get to safety, but first, she has to meet up with Stefan. Speaking of Stefan, he gives us one final glimpse at the history classroom—where he and Elena once had history together—before he finds her body in the boiler room. The problem? Apparently, Kai helped Katherine spell that room so Elena can't get out.

Stefan calls Damon and tells him that they have to get Katherine to break the spell, but as per usual, Katherine is a couple of steps ahead of everyone. Kitty Kat is back in all her glory—curly hair and all—and she informs Damon that she's not looking to negotiate. Not this time. Because she's about to get everything she wants: Mystic Falls up in flames along with everyone in it. Damon calls her out on being jealous of Elena because "Stefan and I both would choose her over you." But two can play that game. Let's not forget that Katherine knows where to hit the Salvatores so it hurts. As she targets Damon's biggest insecurity, she says, "And she would choose Stefan… because I would. Any woman would. Stefan is the better man." Done with this conversation, Damon stabs Katherine.

Still looking for a way to undo the spell that has Elena trapped, Stefan, now joined by Caroline, calls Ric and Bonnie, who are on their way to the Armory. Stefan begs Bonnie to help. After all, it's not just Elena; Damon won't leave her, so Bonnie has to save them both. But Ric is done saving the day. He tells Caroline it's time for her to leave town and take the tunnels that lead to the Armory. He then hangs up before Bonnie can fully make up her mind.

At the high school, Stefan tells Caroline that he has to talk to Damon. He at least has to try to convince his brother to leave. But Caroline promised Ric that the girls wouldn't grow up without a mother, and Stefan understands. "Family first," he tells her. But as Caroline reminds him, they're a family now. "Don't make me leave you," she says through her tears in a moment that's sure to rip your heart out. But Stefan has to move fast if he's going to convince Damon, and he can't do that unless he knows she's safe. "He's my brother," he tells her. And as he said, family first.

So with one final "I love you," Caroline heads to the Armory, where Bonnie is currently in the middle of, once again, finding a way to save the day. When Bonnie sees the research that Ric and Dorian had started for "Project Hail Mary," a.k.a. finding a way to destroy Cade's hell, she gets an idea. Ric had come to the conclusion that they'd need a few million volts of mystical energy to destroy hell, which roughly translates to the amount of energy contained in hellfire. Bonnie quickly calls Stefan and tells him that Katherine has to be in hell when she destroys it, and he's willing to do whatever it takes.

By the time Caroline gets to the Armory, she has to leave Bonnie behind to get out of town with Ric and the girls. As Bonnie puts it, "I'm gonna save the world and you need to get in that car and drive away." Ric promises to fill Caroline in, so she leaves her best friend with one final thought: "Don't do anything stupid, Bonnie Bennett." And as she's done so many times before, Bonnie promises she'll be fine, all the while knowing there's a good chance she won't be.

Returning to the tomb where Katherine was supposed to have been when Damon first came to town looking for her, Damon informs the woman he once loved that Bonnie has figured out a way to save the day—she's going to draw the hellfire through the tunnels, thereby protecting the town, and then send it straight back to hell where Katherine and Damon will be waiting patiently for it. As Damon tells her, he's looking forward to dying at her side. (And how fitting that Katherine should die in the very tomb where she was supposed to spend all those years desiccating.)

At least, that's Damon's plan. But Stefan has something else in mind. Ever the martyr, Stefan shows up, and after Damon daggers Katherine—she's almost caught up with Elijah at this point in terms of how many times one person can be daggered—the brothers have their most emotional chat to date. Damon, ready to sacrifice himself, asks Stefan to tell Elena that he did this for her, to pay for his past mistakes. But Stefan has mistakes to pay for as well: He owes it to Bonnie and Enzo. He owes it to a lot of people.

Damon is quick to remind his brother that he wasn't responsible for Enzo, but when Stefan argues that he's responsible for every drop of blood he's spilled, Damon chimes in that he's spilled more. When it's clear neither is going to cave in the battle of "who needs redemption more," Stefan tries a new approach: He's human now. He'll be dead in 60 years. Damon, meanwhile, has an eternity with Elena ahead of him. As true as that might be, Damon tells his brother that eternity will mean a lot less without him.

"You think I want this? I just got married," Stefan tells his brother. But it's been nearly two centuries since Stefan made Damon become a vampire, and as he tells Damon in what might be my favorite line of the entire hour, "I have fought to turn you into the man who deserves the happiness that's out there right now, so let me do this for you." But Damon's still not budging. So Stefan follows that with: "Then let me do this for me."

And this is where I take a break because I'm crying writing this. But we're not done with the tears yet…

NEXT: Stefan's big decision

After this season brought us our first "I love you"s from the Salvatores, the finale gives us our first "I love you" exchange from them. Damon says, "I love you, little brother," before Stefan can say it back. But here's where it gets tricky. Stefan is human… which means Damon can compel him.

With tears in his eyes, Damon compels Stefan to walk out of the tunnels and not stop until Damon's death breaks the compulsion. "I am the big brother," he tells Stefan. "Sorry I wasn't better at it until now." Stefan then turns and walks out.

Two weeks ago, I talked about how I always felt like Damon had to sacrifice everything to save his brother in order to achieve the redemption that the show had been working toward. And for the second time in two weeks, he's proven that he's gone from the man who once promised his brother an eternity of misery to the one who's willing to do anything to let his brother live. And if I'm being honest, because of that, there's a part of me that was going to be okay if Damon was the death that ended this show. But that's not what happened…

Back at the bell tower, Matt brings his father to see Vicki—not to talk her out of what she's doing but simply to let him see his daughter one last time. (Also, major props to this show for bringing back Tiki's grandfather, the very man who recognized Stefan in season 1, thereby causing Elena to look into his past and discover that he was a vampire.)

After one final hug, Matt and Peter head to the town square, leaving Vicki to ring the bell for the twelfth time. But before she does, Ric tells Caroline Stefan's plan—to sacrifice himself to save everyone—and she does the only thing she can do: She has Ric pull the car over so that she can call Stefan.

She leaves him a voicemail, and just when I thought I could handle this conversation, Caroline says the best thing she could say in this situation (and also the thing that will make me cry the hardest): "I need you to know that I understand." She tells him that she will love him forever before reiterating that, above all else, she understands. And how amazing is that? Seriously.

Just then, Vicki rings the bell for the final time, and as hellfire explodes, Bonnie is able to take control of it and direct it through the tunnels all the way to the Armory. But needless to say, this is the most difficult thing Bonnie's ever done—and arguably the coolest thing a witch had done with fire behind season 2's "sun and moon" ceremony—and she needs help. Luckily, Enzo is there… along with all the Bennett witches, including Grams and Lucy! It only took six seasons, but Lucy finally came through on her promise that Bonnie would see her again!

Together, the badass Bennett women send the hellfire back to hell. As Bonnie says before she collapses, "I did it."

Suddenly, we're inside the high school, where Elena is awake, and we hear soundbites from earlier seasons, including Stefan asking "Is this the Men's Room?" Just as Elena rounds the corner, she once again bumps into Stefan.

Elena, naturally confused, asks for an explanation. Stefan tells her that he's not sure if Bonnie's okay, but what he does know is that Damon wanted to sacrifice everything to save Elena and save the town. He was ready. Stefan explains, "I'm human now. He compelled me to leave." But Damon should've known better: Stefan would never spend a day as a human without ingesting vervain.

We flashback to the moment before the hellfire came back through the tunnels when Stefan returned and injected Damon with his blood, thereby giving his brother the cure, undoing the very thing that caused Damon to promise him an eternity of misery all those years before. Just as Stefan forced his brother into vampirism, now he forces him back into the life he wants: a human one with Elena.

At that moment, Stefan knew his brother wouldn't do something stupid. Without the cure, Stefan would age and die, so there was no longer any reason to save his life. So, with Damon out of the way, Stefan held Katherine in place and just before he daggered her, told her one last time to, quite literally, burn in hell.

Then, just before he closed his eyes and accepted his fate, Stefan turned to Damon and said, "Goodbye, brother." OH MY GOD I HAVE SO MANY EMOTIONS.

NEXT: One final Stefan-Elena goodbye

Jumping back to Stefan and Elena in the hallway, Elena slowly registers what Stefan is saying. Damon is fine, but Stefa … he did what he had to do, he tells her. "Tonight I saw a side of Damon that I hadn't seen in a while: the older brother I looked up to, the son who enlisted in the Civil War to please his father, the Damon I knew when I was a boy. I wanted that Damon to live, and I wanted you to have an opportunity to get to know him." Contradicting Katherine's statement from earlier in the episode, Stefan tells Elena, "He's the better man. He's the right man."

I have a small issue with Stefan, who's just sacrificed himself, saying that Damon is the "better man," but the point is that Damon has finally completed his evolution. He became a "villain" when his brother forced him to become a vampire. And now, almost 200 years later, he's back to being the guy he was before he died, and not just because he's human, but because the self-described selfish vampire has learned to put others first. In terms of redemption, this one moment has delivered it for both brothers: Damon because he was willing to sacrifice himself, and Stefan because he did.

It's also a potentially unintentional nod to the season 2 finale, when Damon, on his deathbed thanks to a werewolf bite, told Elena that he thought she would've liked him if she'd met him when he was human. And now, finally, she's going to get to know that guy.

Returning to the moment, Stefan wipes a tear from Elena's face as he tells her, "It's good to see you, Elena. One last time." The two of them hug before he whispers one final message in her ear. Then, mirroring the moment when she left with Klaus in season 2 and the moment they said goodbye in the season 6 finale, they let their hands slowly separate. They've finally come to the end of their love story. And that's one of the things I love most about this moment. It does not take anything away from Damon and Elena's love story or Stefan and Caroline's love story, but the simple fact that Stefan told Elena that his brother was the right man in this scenario, brings us back to the love triangle that was the foundation of this show for so long. It's a beautiful wink to the fact that maybe there was a future in which Stefan and Elena found their way back to each other. We'll never know. But now, because of Stefan's decision, he's ended their story. But he's also the reason their story began.

By putting Katherine's comment about Stefan being the better man at the beginning of the episode and bringing it back here, it makes the triangle relevant again without undoing years of other relationships. Just like in the season 3 finale, it came down to which brother, but this time, it wasn't about who Elena would choose. Instead, it was about which brother would make the ultimate choice, and once again, it was Stefan. So maybe, in a way, it was always going to be Stefan, whether it was about getting a girl or making a sacrifice.

I also just have to tip my hat to both actors in this scene. I feel like there's so much they're juggling here. They can't make the moment romantic, because that would feel odd, but they have to acknowledge that they're saying goodbye to an epic love, and they handle it so perfectly. I'm sure some of you will disagree, and I respect how you feel, but for me, I feel like this moment respects all the ships.

And finally, there's the beautiful callback as The Fray's "Never Say Never" plays, the same song that ended the pilot, when Stefan showed up on Elena's porch after the bonfire and she invited him inside. It was the start of their love story—that was the night that they would talk and it would be epic. And now, it marks the (also epic) end of their love story.

Walking down the hallway away from Elena—which took me back to the moment he did the same in season 4 after hearing her say she loved Damon for the first time—Stefan opens the doors and enters… peace. And waiting for him is none other than Lexi, leaning against his Porsche. "That was beautiful," she says, to which he responds, "I was feeling epic."

Cutting from Lexi and Stefan's reunion, we get Elena's final "Dear Diary." As she wakes up in Damon's bed, her voiceover—mirroring sentiments she said in the pilot—says, "Dear Diary, Today will be different. Today I will smile and it will be genuine because today is the day that I get to live again." (Much in the same way that Stefan helped her figure out how to live again after her parents died.)

Just then, Elena wakes up to find Bonnie watching over her. After all this time, Bonnie found a way to break Kai's spell, and as she puts it, "It took some time but I think I finally figured this witch thing out." They hug, and then in a moment that absolutely destroys me, the reality of the situation sets in for both of them. Elena asks where Damon is, and Bonnie lets her know that he's with Caroline… "saying goodbye."

NEXT: A farewell to a hero (with great hero hair)

As we head to the Salvatore crypt, Elena's diary entry continues, "This life will be good and beautiful, but not without heartbreak. In death comes peace, but pain is the cost of living. Like love, it's how we know we're alive." It's a sentiment they've repeated throughout the series: Elena telling Stefan to feel something, anything—that our emotions are what make us human. Stefan then told her the same after Alaric died. But this time, it's about losing Stefan.

Damon and Caroline stare at Stefan's grave marker, which claims Stefan is "now at peace," and Caroline believes that. "We'll see him again," she tells Damon, but he's not so sure. He's pretty sure they'll reopen hell for Damon Salvatore. But in a truly heartwarming moment for these characters who've come so far—remember when Caroline was basically Damon's puppet?—she tells him, "Don't be so sure." Somehow, Damon has won over Caroline Forbes, and that's saying a lot. Between losing Liz and losing Stefan, they've come together, and much like Alaric said last week during the wedding, loss is what brought all these people together.

And while we're talking about bringing people together, Caroline walks out to find Elena standing there, and finally, Damon gets his reunion, kissing Elena as he means it.

Elena then sits Caroline down to tell her what Stefan whispered in her ear: "Tell Caroline I heard her," he told her. "And I will love her forever too." He got her message!!! (And now I'm crying again. Just kidding. I never stopped.)

As a final goodbye, everyone pays their respects to Stefan. Caroline leaves the snow globe he gave her once upon a time on his grave, which Damon follows with his daylight ring. After all, Damon's human now, and it's all thanks to Stefan. Also on the grave? If you look closely, Elena left her necklace. The first real thing he did to protect her all those years ago.

As Elena's voiceover leads into many others, she says the truest thing about losing someone, "Life goes on."

In a final montage, we find out that Matt received a bench for his efforts as sheriff of Mystic Falls, and he's even contemplating running for mayor. As for Tyler and Vicki, they watch Matt with pride before turning and walking off to their peace.

Bonnie is working on keeping her promise to Enzo: She's going to live this life to the fullest, and that starts with traveling… with Enzo by her side, whether she knows it or not.

As for Ric and Caroline, they've opened the Salvatore Boarding School for the Young & Gifted, which Damon decided was Stefan's final wish. There, Jo looks over her daughters just as Liz looks over hers. And then there's Jeremy Gilbert, who's returned to teach children? That doesn't sound like the best idea. (What does he teach? How to chop wood while in a super tight tank?)

BUT THAT'S NOT ALL. After it opened, the school received a $3 million donation from… KLAUS MIKAELSON! And with it, Caroline received a letter, which I've transcribed in full because I love all of you:

"I have often imagined the paths your life might take, but your chosen future is more noble than I ever fathomed. Please accept this contribution to your virtuous cause. I do look forward to thanking you in person, someday. However long it takes. Yours, Klaus." HOWEVER LONG IT TAKES. Guys, I can't. I CANNOT with this. And according to Ric's voiceover, "That is the beginning of another story." BUT IS IT A STORY THEY'RE GOING TO TELL?!

NEXT: One final diary entry

From there, we cut to Elena leaning against a grave outside the Salvatore crypt, where she visits Stefan as she writes in her green journal. She went to med school, after which she returned home to Mystic Falls. It's where she wanted to grow old, and according to her, she did, though her age is kept a question mark.

Writing the end of her story, she says, "And that's my life: weird, messy, complicated, sad, wonderful, amazing, and above all, epic. And I owe it all to Stefan. When I met him, I had lost my parents and I was dead inside. But he brought me back to life, and I'm going to live it as best I can for as long as I can."

Just before Damon shows up, a crow lands on the roof of the crypt, another pilot callback sure to make you feel things.

Joining hands with Damon, we see that Elena's wearing a wedding ring. Her voiceover tells us that Damon's worried he won't see Stefan again because he doesn't think he deserves peace. "But he's wrong, because I know peace exists," she says. "It lives in everyone we hold dear. That is the promise of peace—that one day, after a long life, we find each other again."

Jumping ahead to what I assume is Elena's death, Damon disappears from the picture as she turns to realize she's back home. And waiting for her on the front porch she once burned to the ground are Aunt Jenna, her mom and dad, and even Uncle John. (I guess Jeremy was busy at school.) With that, the girl who lost her parents in the pilot gets them back in the series finale as she ends things with a Gilbert family hug.

Then we cut to Stefan, and this is when I absolutely lose it—the moment I realize how this show is about to end. Standing at the Salvatore house, Stefan opens the door, and there stands Damon. "Hello, brother," Damon says, but this time, he's not the ominous villain here to ruin Stefan's life. This time, the Salvatore brothers have been reunited in peace, because after all, family first, right?

In their redemption, they're reunited, and we end things on a Salvatore brother hug, otherwise known as the best possible way to end the show.

I have a lot of feelings about this finale. There are things that didn't work perfectly: I would've loved for it to have been two hours to give some of the scenes more time to breathe. So much was happening in that final act that I think it would've benefited from giving viewers more time to really feel each moment. And on a smaller scale, I'm not entirely sure how invested I am in the "Caroline and Ric open a school" story, but there's also a lot that worked.

As I mentioned earlier, I think the most impressive thing this finale did was find a way to honor every love story this show's ever told. I can walk away feeling like I got closure on each and every one—and maybe a little hope on one in particular—all the while not one stands out as the "winner." And that's not a small feat.

If I'm being completely honest, I had always imagined an ending more along the lines of what co-creators Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson first dreamed up in season 2, but I also understand why the show had strayed too far from the love triangle for that to work. So in terms of where the show was today and what worked for that, I think they did the best they could've done.

If we're talking about big themes, and the redemption of it all, I love the idea that a show about vampires ends with peace. And while I don't fully understand how peace works—a potential flaw for some viewers—the point is that this show ultimately was about family and love. Who knew a show that was born out of loss and followed the lives of blood-sucking creatures would turn out to be so, what's the right word, epic?

What did you think of the finale? Hit the comments with your thoughts or find me (still crying) on Twitter @samhighfill. And be sure to check out my chat with the showrunners and the cast's reaction to the finale.

Episode Recaps

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…
The Vampire Diaries

Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrev, and Paul Wesley star in the CW’s romance-infused vampire soap opera.

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