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…

In this moment, I feel like Elena Gilbert, because I honestly do not know what to say or where to begin. I have to admit that the thought of losing Elena scared me at first. It really scared me. But watching this hour, which is arguably the show’s strongest since season 3, I realized that this might actually be the greatest thing that could have happened to the show.

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In a lot of ways, this hour felt like the Delena love story had come full circle, much in the same way the Stelena love story did. For Stelena, they fell in love. They had three seasons of happiness, but when it came time for Elena to choose between her own life and the life of one of her best friends, Stefan her well enough—and loved her enough—to save her friend.

Now, Damon and Elena have had three seasons of love and happiness. And when it came time for Elena to choose between her own life and the life of one of her best friends, guess what? Even Damon Salvatore—the man who once swore that he’d have chosen Elena if he’d been in Stefan’s shoes— that letting Bonnie die would never give him a happy life with the woman he loved.

Sure, Elena didn’t die this time, but that symmetry is still there, and by putting Elena in a coma of sorts, it gave us just enough of an emotional goodbye—it’s the last time she’ll see Bonnie, and probably the last time she’ll see Matt, Alaric, Tyler, or Jeremy—but not so much of an emotional goodbye that it was unbearable—Caroline, Stefan, and Damon will all be there when she wakes up.

We start with Damon lying in the road in the very spot where these two first met. Elena asks him, “How bad is it?” But Damon is more focused on the fact that she owes him a dance.

Flashing back to present day, we’re at the wedding, where Alaric is sobbing over the body of his dead almost-wife, and Damon is panicking at the fact that his blood isn’t waking Elena up. And when Damon takes Elena to the hospital, Kai finishes his plan: He stabs himself in the neck, and as he dies, so does his entire family.

And that includes Liv, who’s currently lying outside the barn with Tyler, who has a piece of glass in his abdomen that will kill him. (Honestly, talk about a red wedding.)

But when Liv notices the full moon, she tells the man she loves—yep! They love each other!—to kill her and trigger his curse so that he will heal. With that, Tyler becomes the second blubbering fool of the night. (Okay, third if you count me.)

Liv reminds him of his promise not to waste his second chance at life. She asks him to let her do this for him. (Man, this girl really loves sacrificing herself for her loved ones, doesn’t she?)

After one final kiss and “I love you,” Liv puts Tyler’s hands over her mouth and helps him to kill her. And now? Tyler’s a wolf again! Cue the breaking bones and (sexy) yellow eyes.

Meanwhile, Enzo has Stefan and Caroline—who cuddle even when unconscious—in his car. He’s taking Stefan to Lily, who can’t seem to find her heretic friends in a sea of storage units. But even Stefan can’t get her to stop looking for her “family,” despite threatening to cut her out of his life.

So instead, Stefan gets to the chase: What did Lily give Kai in exchange for his help? Oh you know, just her blood.

Yep, Kai is a heretic/wampire now! Back at the church, he wakes up and takes a page out of the Stefan Salvatore handbook by drinking his own father’s blood to complete his transition. Then he heads outside, where poor, poor Ric is putting Jo’s body in the trunk.

And then, the most heartbreaking thing of the hour happens: After Alaric puts a useless bullets in Kai, he turns the gun on himself AND PULLS THE TRIGGER. The only reason Alaric isn’t dead right now is because he let his anger get the best of him and used all his bullets on Kai. Let’s all take a moment to let that sink in … and then haunt us in our dreams.

The good It looks like Tyler can control whom he attacks as a wolf, because he bites Kai. That’s one thing Kai didn’t see coming. (Suddenly I really want to watch Kai try to convince Klaus to give him his blood.)

Back in a memory lane alternate universe, Matt and Elena are standing on Wickery Bridge, much like they did in season 3, when Elena finally accepted that the old her had died. As she quotes Matt, “Here lies Elena Gilbert, a fun girlfriend and an amazing friend.” (Only Matt could make “fun girlfriend” sound so sweet and endearing.) But the goodbye will have to wait, because Elena’s not ready. Not yet.

In the real world, Damon calls Bonnie with bad The doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with Elena. So what’s happening? Well, Bonnie and Damon find out at the same time. See, to get revenge on Bonnie, Kai linked Bonnie and Elena. So as long as Bonnie’s alive, Elena won’t be. In other words, Bonnie has to die for Elena to wake up. And if Bonnie even attempts to find a loophole, they’ll both die.

So who will Damon choose: Will he gladly let Bonnie die to save Elena? But as Kai puts it, if Damon kills Bonnie, Elena will never forgive him. Now that, my friends, is a TVD twist.

Also, can we talk about Ric’s text to Damon saying that TY is a and Kai is a vampire? What’s with the all caps? And can we see all of their text messages now, because if they’re all this amazing, I’d read an entire book of them.

Brief pause for a look inside Stefan and Elena’s alternate reality, where we’re back at the season 2 waterfall where Elena told Stefan she didn’t want to be a vampire. And yes, she’s back to being a weak human who can’t handle the hike.

Elena tells Stefan, “You me better than anyone. You always have.” That’s why he knows how impossible it is to find the words to say goodbye. So Stefan tells her not to say goodbye. Looking into the eyes of one of his soulmates, he tells her, “I can’t do this, not now. Not ever.”

Back at the hospital, Caroline asks Stefan if he’ll be okay when Elena’s gone. Caroline knows that when Elena wakes up, they’ll still be best friends. “But you, you were soulmates,” she tells him. Stefan agrees, but with some perspective on his life, he’s realized that Elena came into his life to be a soulmate, but also to be “the only person I’ve ever met who actually believed that my brother was worth loving.” Elena reminded him that he used to believe that, too. “Her faith in him brought me and him back together.” So yes, he loved her more than he ever thought he could love another person, but in the end, “I needed him more than I needed her.” #TeamSalvatore

(Who else flashed back to Elena telling Damon that he’d be the one to save Stefan from himself and not her?)

At the church, Bonnie goes to Kai, just in time for him to figure something out. Up until a little bit ago, he didn’t even know were real. And considering that the only way to turn a guy into a wolf is by magic, then their venom must be magic, right? So, in a move that would make even big bad Klaus Mikaelson jealous, Kai siphons the magic out of his neck wound and heals his own wolf bite. Yeah, that was cool.

Then, Kai throws Bonnie across the room. By the time Damon enters, Bonnie is on the verge of death from a collapsed lung. Kai tells him to choose: Bonnie or Elena. So Damon kisses Bonnie on the head, apologizes, and leaves.

Really? That’s it? Well, let’s just say that Kai is not happy with that ending. The whole point of his plan was to torture Damon for a while. Couldn’t Damon at least have flipped a coin? Heads or tails do tend to make things a little more interesting.

And as Damon puts it when he re-enters and decapitates Kai: “Heads it is.” Okay, now this is great.

But really, I hope you all have been preparing yourselves, because now it’s time for Elena’s goodbyes. With Elena in a coffin at the Salvatore house, each person gets a chance to let her inside their minds and say goodbye. First up, her girls.

Caroline and Bonnie: Back in Elena’s old room—with Elena’s old journal!—the besties have a sleepover and Elena asks them both to start journaling. She wants them to write it all down so that she can read it one day and feel like she was there. She then says goodbye to Caroline, whom she’ll see again, to thank Bonnie for every time she’s made a sacrifice for her. Now it’s Elena’s turn to repay the favor. Her only request: That Bonnie performs their favorite pillow-feather trick one last time. (At which point I yelled “oh god!” through my sobs.)

Matt: Now in a cop uniform, Elena tells Matt that this is how she sees him in the future—as a loyal and good human who spends the rest of his life fighting for others like him. Although Matt can’t handle the idea of never seeing her again, Elena tells him that based on their odds, she thinks they will.

Alaric: Out in the woods for one of their training sessions—again from season 3—Elena tells Alaric that he can’t fight the pain that comes with losing Jo. He has to let himself drown in it, and eventually, he’ll start to swim and every breath he takes will make him stronger. She promises him that he’ll beat it, and in return, he hugs his adopted-daughter-of-sorts goodbye.

Jeremy: Yes, Jeremy makes it back for this. Sitting at the stoner den at the high school, Elena loses it for the first time. But Jeremy assures her that he only came back to tell her that he’s happy and doing what he was born to do.

Tyler: As Elena unchains Tyler, she tells him to get out of Mystic Falls and embrace his wolf side. “Let it be the thing that makes you extraordinary,” she tells him.

Stefan: Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. I can’t do this. First, Elena thanks Stefan for bumping into her that day in the hallway. After her parents died, she never thought she’d be happy again, but Stefan changed everything. “You quite literally saved my life,” she says. “I love you so much.”

But she assures him that she looks forward to seeing the life he builds for himself while she’s away. (Spoiler: He won’t be in high school.) She tells him to “just be happy” before saying she’ll see him soon. His final words: “I’ll see you, Elena,” as the camera lingers on their hands parting, much the same way they did when she left to go with Klaus. (Only complaint: It didn’t need to be said, but I would’ve liked an “I love you” from Stefan.)

But before we get to Damon, here are some more highlights: Kai had cloaked Lily’s family—that man and his cloaking spells—so when he died, it lifted, and now, Lily and Enzo have officially reunited with the heretics.

As for Elena’s body, she will rest in the Salvatore crypt, where Bonnie will put a spell around her to protect her from any vamps who might want to suck the cure out of her. Now, as Stefan leaves his brother with the world’s most supportive hand-on-his-shoulder, Damon says goodbye.

Damon: In the street, Elena tells Damon that she he’d do the right thing and stand by Bonnie even if it meant living without her for a little while. She then tells him not to sit around and wait for her. She tells him to live a life and enjoy it. “Be happy.” The two of them then dance—have they been taking lessons?—taking us back to their first dance with their almost touch.

Meanwhile, Stefan shows up at Caroline’s house to tell her that he’s also made a list of how loving her has changed his life. And he knows that she needs time to heal. He’ll wait for her. When she’s ready, he will be too. He then kisses her on the cheek and leaves her smiling.

As for Damon and Elena, they manage to share their last “I love you’s” without letting things get too sad, before he dips her, and they kiss one final time. It’s simple. It’s heartbreaking. It’s so, so good.

Now for the twist: Jumping forward in time—not sure by how much—Matt is driving around in a cop car in what looks like a post-apocalyptic Mystic Falls. And up on the clock tower stands Damon Salvatore.

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Altogether, that hour was a beautiful walk down memory lane. It was so well paced and featured such emotional performances that all I want to do is watch it again and cry harder.


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…