What is The Vampire Diaries even about anymore? I ask because I do not know. I do not! Something about death, certainly, and its philosophic relation to humanity; witches and Travelers and true love and "pure magic"; and a certain kind of curly-haired, feminine acting which is usually splendid but that has found its nadir in Ian Somerhalder, who has turned into the WORST, basically. And I like The Vampire Diaries! Because it really wants to be liked. It almost eats itself in the process.
The fifth season finale, "Home," extends season 5's favorite motifs: characters who keep repeating what's happening to each other as it happens, like they can't quite believe they have to be so expository; magic as a metaphor for everything; cavernous dorm rooms. People die. They die and die and die. "This list is getting uncomfortably long," Enzo says at one point in the middle of trying to convince Bonnie—again—to find a way to bring them all back from the other side. (Should I capitalize "the other side"? The Vampire Diaries wiki is surprisingly unhelpful.) "It's too late," Bonnie says much later, after it has obviously become much too late.
The Travelers, who you'll remember as the third in this season's sequence of Big Bads, continue to tighten their stranglehold on Mystic Falls while pretty much everyone else continues to question this plan. "Of all the small towns to call home, you probably shouldn't have picked one full of vampires," Sheriff Forbes says to Markos as he welcomes in rafts of backpackers to his newest "kingdom." (All Travelers are backpackers, but not all backpackers are Travelers.) Another motif: dudes and their hierarchies! The Julie Plec 'Verse is not particularly predisposed to delineations of power—not like, say, The Good Wife—but it is fascinated by self-proclamations of kinghood. To be fair, Markos' scheme is a pretty solid one: mass self-sacrifices, lots of coded talk of "cleansing," evocations of promised lands. I counted half a dozen schemes set against him in the finale, resulting in no fewer than four deaths, which we shouldn't care about because of magic! Because of magic.
I'll say this: TVD has the audacity to realize its own limits. Some things cannot be undone. If the series is about anything anymore, it is about itself. Markos continues setting up Traveler Town. (They even moved the Mystic Falls sign! Which I don't think you can just do unless your town also happens to be unincorporated but then where is the tax base? Where is the money???) Elena, Damon, Stefan, Caroline and the gang (the gang, like the list of the dead, shrinks and grows like an accordion) keep pressing forward in the opposite direction, certain that: a) they can get rid of all of the Travelers; b) undo the Traveler's magic-undoing spell; and c) revive any/everyone who they love who is supernatural and has died, including those among them who die in the process of saving everyone else. Life, like turtles, all the way down. (Bonnie's chosen metaphor is as an anchor, which she revises to "like a gateway," but it feels more like a black hole, anyway. Only black holes collapse.)
So Stefan stays dead for the majority of the episode, as we all feared, having had his heart plucked out by Julian. The hour opens with Caroline's sobs over his body, and some eyebrow-waggling from Damon. They vow to get him back. They do! I wonder at what point anyone will ask him what the other side was like. "It was very...blue," he'll say. And then think of how to qualify that—blue how? The other side is just very, very blue.
The gang's counterattack amounts to so much domestic terrorism: they'll convince the Travelers to congregate in revelry and then BLOW THEM UP. This act of violence will superpower whatever witchery Bonnie can wrangle together in order to allow everyone to come back to life before the supernatural alter-dimension that is tethered to her soul violently winks out. Most all of this goes according to plan: Sheriff Forbes lures Markos and the Travelers into the Mystic Grill with the promise of an "open bar" while Jeremy and Matt crank up the gas beneath the restaurant.
Damon, in an act of meta-textual self-sacrifice, proclaims that he was planning to deceitfully sacrifice himself in order to set off the explosion, but cannot lie in the face of his love for Elena. So they go together. Like Elena was going to let someone else save her town? (In a strange salvo in the tunnels beneath the Grill, Matt muses that maybe everything will be better now that it's been cleansed, like maybe they shouldn't save it. "Safe," he says. But safety is a mutable, kind of ferocious concept in TVD, a trap designed to maul our hearts.)
While Damon and Elena go on their death drive toward the restaurant, Bonnie prepares to open herself up to all the supernatural spirits, with some help from Liv-the-witch-who-tried-to-kill-Elena. (They trapped Liv as she fled the scene.) (Then they killed her brother to force her to cooperate.) ("Jerks," she calls them.) And Silas is there! Because Enzo is really very desperate to still be on the show probably, so he finds them another witch who knows this all-powerful resurrection spell. It's Silas—who, while still homicidally malicious, does kind of hit the hammer on the head: "Is it a crime for someone so good-looking to be so sad all the time?"
At this point almost everyone is dead: Damon and Elena after blowing up the restaurant; Markos, who was in the restaurant trying to kill Sheriff Forbes; Tyler/Julian after the Travelers forced him beneath the cleansing spell, stripping him of every transmutation and then snapping his neck again at a clean angle; and Stefan, still, who is keeping Lexi company while they both look for Alaric.
And the Travelers! Yes, they are all dead also. Like shadows, they approach out of the woods toward Bonnie's witchy encampment, Markos leading the way. "We meet again," he says. "We can do this all day, Bonnie. Your friends kill me and I come right back through you. I look forward to the déjà vu." Everyone else arrives, eventually, though it's never quite clear why Markos' followers don't make more of an effort to be resurrected? And why is it that when Damon and Elena first approach Bonnie as ghosts, she has to zap them back to the site of their death on the other side before they can come back through her? Logic, like magic, is multiplicitous: in this case it's probably more fun to have them zapped all over, criss-crossing, as supernatural spirits (Alaric!) than it is to actually just accomplish something.
Other than being typically incredible, Caroline doesn't really do anything in the finale. She tries to help Bonnie pack up their enormous dorm room and also is genuinely invested in saving Stefan (umhmmm, Lexi purrs somewhere nearby, probably). And she does not die. She gets to watch everyone else come back to life. Like Tyler. Tyler is definitely back, y'all, Julian-free and now human.
In the swirling blue vortex that the other side desperately is trying to become, Bonnie tries to gather their friends and loved ones. Silas, having given up his only valuable information, is sucked up by the winds of the great beyond. Bonnie doesn't help him. ("Bygones.") Enzo is meanwhile first out of the gate(way). Bonnie then readily zaps Alaric (Alaric!) back into existence; but her Grams demurs on another life, hinting at a sacrifice of her own. Lexi, who fights off Markos long enough to see him sucked into the void, stands with arms open to accept her incoming peace. Damon is slow to join them and Elena won't be zapped until he does, so Bonnie zaps her anyway and Elena begins to cry a little bit. (It gets worse.)
Crushed beneath the gathering weight of the spell, Bonnie falls into Stefan and zaps him back, too. No Damon. And Luke (who got zapped too somewhere in there), realizing that this kind of magic will kill its practitioners, begins a chant of his own, saving his sister and damning Damon and Bonnie.
It is very sad when Damon and Elena say goodbye. Very, very sad. Ian Somerhalder, who up until this point in the episode had been very himself, plays the impossible spatial physics of the scene just right. The absolute lack sharpens the drama. "Even if I wanted to apologize, you couldn't hear me. So I won't," he tells Elena as she crumples—accusing him of lying, accusing him of leaving her, but not saying the word. Dead.
Of course Bonnie says goodbye by calling Jeremy, who is only now again realizing that everyone lies to him. "So none of it was true?" he asks after it is obvious that most of it isn't true. He races to her, but it's too late. Together, Bonnie and Damon face a circle of bright white lights in the near-distance. Everything is ending. "Do you think it will hurt?" she asks him, after they've already taken the other's hand. He starts to answer. "I don't—"
Elena cries and cries and cries.