If it’s possible to truly enjoy an episode while still thinking its central premise is bullshit, that’s exactly how I felt while watching “Hell Is Other People.” The episode itself manages to take the completely tired Groundhog Day-esque device of repeating a day over and over again and make it work wonderfully within the confines of The Vampire Diaries’ storytelling style, right before undermining itself by revealing the very unconvincing reason why it’s happening. It’s frustrating, and yet still manages to end up as one of the most entertaining episodes of the season despite these frustrations. Put one in the win column for TVD season seven.

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The trick of the episode’s success is that this premise—that the biggest, most painful thing haunting Damon right now is that he regrets how he treated his mother—is buried far enough into the episode that by the time it gets there, you’re hooked enough that it almost doesn’t matter how much it seems like forced nonsense. Damon is trapped in the phoenix stone, and his phoenix stone hell turns out to be a day in his life as a Confederate soldier, one where he went on a mission to retrieve deserting soldiers that ended up resulting in the deaths of both those soldiers and the women who were hiding them. When he wakes up and realizes the day is repeating, it becomes a series of attempts to stop the event from happening; Damon assumes that if he can stop his first moment of having innocent blood on his hands from happening, he can somehow find his way back out of the phoenix stone nightmares.

His quest doesn’t work, of course, because that’s far too emotionally simple and angst-free for TVD to base an episode around. The truth is that in order to find his way out of the stone, Damon has to confront his deepest, darkest pain first, and this moment of innocent nobodies getting killed simply isn’t it. What the show wants us to believe—and where the episode started to lose me—is that Damon’s biggest pain is his relationship with his mother, and most specifically how he left things right before she died. The problem with this is that for the entirety of Lily’s time on TVD, from her introduction to her last breaths, Lily was a terrible mother who did terrible things to Damon. Damon refusing to grant her peace when she died felt logical for the character when it happened, and felt satisfying for viewers as well; seeing that moment again in the “previously” segment right before the episode only confirms this. Lily was a big misstep for the writing of season seven, and bringing her back here as the crux of Damon’s emotional pain simply doesn’t quite connect like the writers want it to.

This is a shame, because up until this point the episode is far more entertaining than it probably has any right to be. Dream or alternate reality episodes are a tricky thing, because as the audience we know they both aren’t real and likely don’t have much bearing on the actual narrative of the show, but Damon’s descent into Vampire Groundhog Day madness remains fairly engaging and amusing throughout. This is especially true when the three women of the house who are hiding the deserting soldiers keep getting the jump on him no matter what he does to try and foil their plans. And if you buy that Damon has all of these pent-up, secret devastating feelings about Lily than the climax probably works like gangbusters as well. The thing is, if you take the idea to make Damon’s secret pain about his mother the crux of the episode and lay it all out on paper, it seems like a great idea. It’s personal, emotional, character-based writing—except it feels a bit like it exists in a vacuum where Lily wasn’t absolutely awful at all times to her sons, especially Damon.

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If there’s a saving grace of using the phoenix stone nightmares to bring up all of Damon’s painful feelings about his mother (even if they don’t quite track), it’s that it lead to a final sequence that feels like it is ripped straight out of the classic TVD playbook. Damon needed to be in a state of absolute emotional turmoil so he could wake up in a fury, not realize that what he thinks is still a phoenix stone nightmare might potentially be real, and proceed to try to kill all of his friends. Damon standing over all his friends’ lifeless bodies might be real. It might be fake. But it’s certainly fun, and fun is a great way to start the new year—even if it feels like the show fudged a bit to get here.

Stray observations

  • Damon’s Civil War flashback hair and hat combo is the envy of every ’00s-era emo boy. Welcome to the black parade, Salvatore.
  • It’s very bothersome that Alaric is not there when they are trying to revive Damon. I’m sure it was an actor availability thing, but still. Don’t forget these two are friends, show.
  • I assume that’s Candice’s real pregnant stomach and not a prosthesis of some kind. The three-month time jump gives them a good way to incorporate her pregnancy without having to hide it.
  • Even though it was just one of Damon’s dreams, I loved that the reason Bonnie gave for reviving Damon first is that everyone was afraid he’d lose his humanity and come out of everything looking to kill Bonnie and bring Elena back. It feels like Damon’s subconsciously knowing himself pretty well, and it’s a small moment that totally works.
  • This Week, In Matt Donovan Is The Best: Matt looked pretty good while getting knocked out. Way to still probably be alive despite getting the lights knocked out of you, Matt!

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