This review contains spoilers.
7.10 Hell Is Other People
Well this is timely. It’s groundhog day in the real world and The Vampire Diaries has finally resorted to doing its own time-loop episode. It’s taken the show seven whole years to actually do it, which is laudable on its own, but somehow it also managed to take that trope and craft the strongest episode of its current season. I’d even go so as far as to say it’s one of the strongest episodes the show has done in recent years.
Some of that’s to do with how focused it is, showing us the world from only one perspective for all but a single scene. For a show that usually burns through plots and revelations faster than is definitely advisable for a serialised drama, it’s a pretty big deal when it spends an entire 40-minute episode dealing with one problem and not even solving it by the credits. That’s a risk, and it pays off.
The initial plot goes like this – Damon, caught in the phoenixstone after the mid-season finale’s attack, wakes up during the civil war at the moment he received a letter from Stefan. Valerie has just left him in the lurch, and Stefan’s letter is a collection of complaints about how hard it is for him back in Mystic Falls with their father. Meanwhile, Damon (who is fighting for his life at war) decides he must go and help his brother immediately.
He requests two weeks leave but, to get it, he must go to a nearby farmhouse and arrest a group of deserters. Suffice to say, things didn’t go well, and everyone bar Damon and his partner was slaughtered.
One of the most entertaining parts of this episode was watching Ian Somerhalder inhabit old, human Damon again. This show has been going for so long that I forgot that the actor could play anything other than modern-day Damon, but here he’s a master at morphing the two versions of the character as he slowly realises what’s actually happening. This, of course, makes the ‘Groundhog Day’ elements all the more hilarious.
This isn’t a traditional time-loop episode, though, with a number of different scenarios handed to Damon in order to edge him towards an epiphany. We learn that the farmhouse incident is the first time he actually got blood on his hands, but that he and his partner covered it up after the fact. He’s repressed the guilt, subsequently deemed insignificant after he became a vampire and committed hundreds of other atrocities.
But it’s not that simple, because Damon’s mind wants him to realise that his mother had actually been the motivating factor behind so many things in his life. He has other excuses – Stefan, Alaric, Elena – but really he’s just a scared little boy who’s needed his mother for longer than he’d ever admit. It’s not a mindblowing revelation for anyone who’s spent any time at all looking at the character, but the way we get there more than makes up for it.
Because after Lily pops up in his first Civil War dream, Damon wakes up back in Mystic Falls thinking he’s been saved by Bonnie and the rest of the gang. When that’s revealed to be yet another dream within a dream after Julian kills Stefan, the loop begins over again and he’s back at war.
The whole thing is designed to unseat the audience, with us following along with Damon and thus as unsure as he is as to what’s real and what isn’t. Only one scene doesn’t feature a conscious Damon, and I assume that’s to establish that there’s a real world still going on somewhere. That way, when Damon appears to wake up in said world, we assume his murder spree is one that’s going to stick.
Of course, it’s unlikely that the show actually killed off its entire cast, but it sure is a good cliffhanger to leave us on. Even if it’s all retconned and we realise everyone’s simply been knocked out, rather than killed, Damon knows something about himself that he didn’t before, and that should be a fun shift to watch play out.
Right when you thought The Vampire Diaries had run out of steam, it comes back from its hiatus with one of its most entertaining and inventive episodes in some time. Let’s hope the move to Fridays was actually a good thing, and we get more like this in the future.
Read Caroline’s review of the previous episode, Cold As Ice, here.