The title of tonight’s Vampire Diaries episode comes from Jean-Paul Sarte’s existential play No Exit, which involves four characters existing in a room together. The last line of the play is, “Hell is other people.” Existentialism’s in again (existentialism AND nihilism). Existentialism’s so cool that people don’t know what it is when ascribing it to writers. One may peruse Reddit’s Book page and find the transcendentalist writers of the 1870s described as existentialist writers. Damon’s plight isn’t an existentialist or an absurd journey. Once he solves the riddle of his personal hell, he’ll return to Mystic Falls, which means he works towards an end. Damon works towards emotional catharsis. When he experienced the catharsis, the emotional drove him into a madness in, presumably, present day Mystic Falls.
Damon would need a puzzling personal hell to make him feel something. Seven seasons of The Vampire Diaries defined Damon as the erratic reactor to life, which Stefan contrasts because he’s the soul and heart, and Damon’s inability to deal with emotions led to incredible amounts of carnage in Mystic Falls. He murdered Jeremy 47 times, and he countlessly threatened everyone in Mystic Falls if something stopped or interfered with what he wanted. Lily took from Damon Elena. Elena changed Damon. She softened him. I wondered how the writers would tell Damon’s personal hell story without Elena. The trick is—and it’s not a trick—was to center his catharsis around his mother. The first act of season seven belonged to their turbulent relationship. She became a vampire after the TB and never visited. Lily never left her abusive husband. She started a new family with the Heretics, and on and on and on. Lily died. Damon declined to tell her he loved her, or anything emotionally substantial. He told, essentially, that she this to herself.
His personal hell was a loop until he solved what he needed to solve. A letter from Stefan sent him during the war served as the inciting incident. Stefan struggled with Valerie’s departure, the death of his mother, and life. Damon thought seeing his brother at home would restore him to present day Mystic Falls. He briefly came back to Mystic Falls each time, if he failed, which was a nifty twist the show once owned every episode. He needed leave from the Confederate army to reach home, which forced him to volunteer to bring deserters back to camp. Each time he went to the house, everyone but him and Henry died. Damon first killed that day. He covered the crime up. Henry and Damon never spoke of it again. The murder represented his first instance of repressing what he felt. His face expressed horror and shock, but he repressed what he felt until he didn’t think of it again. Lily appeared in the basement after the first time it happened to tell him he needed to embrace the pain and the feelings. Over and over and over again he re-lives the day at the house where everyone ends up dead, no matter how differently he changes his approach. Whatever happened, happened.
Of course, his hell’s full of imaginary people, imaginary places—real people and real places transformed into symbols and visions of what goes on inside Damon so that he knows it and so that when he doesn’t know that someone he trusts and loves tells it to him. Damon broke the deserters’ house loop by throwing a grenade at his camp. He wandered the southern countryside, found his house with Lily awaiting him, and then conversed with Stefan about what pain he, Damon, needs to embrace and feel: his pain because of how he left things with their mother as she lay dying. Stefan forced the feelings out of him in the basement of their house as their father beat Lily to death. Lily’s blood poured through the wooden floor onto Damon’s face, which was wonderfully done by director Deborah Chow, and Damon admitted who he wanted right after everything went wrong in the home of the union sympathizers: his mother. He lost her without telling her that he loved her.
The scene shifted to the battlefield where Lily lay dying. Damon told her over again why he hated her: for giving Kai the sleeping beauty coma idea for Elena, for what she didn’t do as a mother and wife, for never coming back; and he told her he loved her. Yes, Damon experienced the moment of emotional catharsis; he returned to Mystic Falls; and he killed Stefan, Matt, Caroline, and Bonnie to get back and finish what he couldn’t in his personal hell. Again, TVD executed a nifty ‘twist’, though I suspect the twist will be that he’s at the next stage of his journey through his personal hell, or that the second act of season seven’s entirely about the brothers’ respective personal hells.
It’s rare that a show can kill off with the main characters without killing them off in an effective way. Buffy did it in “The Wish” and ANGEL did it in “Time Bomb.” I think TVD accomplished it in “Hell Is Other People.” Damon, convinced he screwed up the riddle/puzzle, tried to reset. It didn’t reset, and now everyone he loves is dead. Caroline, in Damon’s personal hell, foreshadowed it by telling Damon they brought him back first because they thought the longer he stayed in his hell the less human he’d be, meaning he’d kill Bonnie to bring Elena back—except this time he kills everyone to bring his mother back.
“Hell is Other People” was a pleasant surprise and a good start to the second act of the season. It was the most imaginative and daring episode of season seven. So much of early season seven was a drag. I think a stretch of episodes that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not would be good. The episode title, as I already mentioned, comes from a Sarte play. The writers should give a tiny nod to Flann O’Brien’s fantastical novel about a murderer being transported to a surreal hell.
-I forgot why Alaric wasn’t in the episode, in any of the planes of existence or non-existence. What a busy life that man leads.
-Matt’s mostly a fictive piece of Damon’s unlife, I think. I don’t anything but the experience is real, whatever real means. Unfortunately, we saw nothing of Matt’s badass vampire fighting army.
-No flash-forwards either. Perhaps, when Damon and Stefan wake up, it’ll have been three years. Stefan will wake first. He’ll find Damon in that coffin. Or not. I guess season seven’s a narrative puzzle like the hell-worlds.
-Tonight marked The Vampire Diaries’ first Friday night airing. Julie Plec told reporters that the show would continue until Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder decide they don’t want to continue. The CW could cancel the series before any of that. Julie Plec does seem not worried about the show ending after this season. Could The Vampire Diaries never end like Supernatural? Will I be 35 and still writing these reviews? Eh, I’ll do it. Let me write, Julie Plec, if you’re reading, the 14th episode of season 9.
-Holly Brix & Neil Reynolds wrote the episode. Deborah Chow directed.