It’s amazing how much better The Vampire Diaries works when it steps back from the love stories a bit. This has always been a show that innately knows how to use its relationship threads to enhance an episode’s plot, getting in trouble when it lets those threads define an episode instead. “Man On Fire” is an abrupt return to this structure; a fantastic episode that not only rights the sinking ship that was this season’s focus on the love triangle, but also manages to use those tired relationships in a way that actually strengthened the episode instead of detracting from it. Well done, TVD.
Let’s be honest, though: The main reason this episode works so well is that it focuses on Enzo, who is one of the better additions to the Mystic Falls universe in quite some time. Enzo’s specific genius is that he fits easily into the gaping hole Alaric’s death left in the show, in that Damon finally has a friend again. It’s a void that wasn’t even apparent until it was filled again and suddenly it was as if Damon’s whole character made sense in a way he really hadn’t since Alaric died. Also, it helps that Enzo himself has an interesting backstory. Michael Malarkey plays him with a fire in his belly, infusing him with personality and verve. Enzo has been lurking around in the shadows of most of this season’s stories, but he finally got his very own showcase here, and it was a doozy.
Enzo’s story was also set up reasonably well throughout the season, making the payoff here work all the better. Enzo’s introduction as Damon’s partner-in-captivity by the Augustines, his continued existence as Damon’s confidante during that time and even somewhat Damon’s conscience, and his established love connection to Augustine experiment worker Maggie are all seeds the show has systematically planted from the start—leaving little breadcrumbs leading him right to this big moment. It’s something The Vampire Diaries has always done very well, and that streak continues here. When Enzo thinks Stefan is responsible for Maggie’s death back in 1960 (a story laid out via some absolutely gorgeous flashbacks to the night John F. Kennedy was elected) it’s only natural he would torture Stefan to get him to confess, endangering the people Stefan love best in the process. That’s just what this show does, and well. But what makes it more than just a typical TVD torture plot—what makes it practically sing—is how wonderfully Enzo’s story dovetails with that of the Salvatore brothers, and how important it will be for all three going forward.
When it is revealed Damon was the one who actually killed Maggie, it isn’t a surprising reveal (of course Damon killed her) but it’s a smart one. Having this as an obstacle in the Damon and Enzo friendship is classic TVD territory; this is a show that practically lives to twist healthy relationships into knots using murder as a tool. (Remember Lexi? Or Damon’s plaything in season three?) When Damon admits what he did and Enzo looks him in the eye and says “I don’t want to hate you, because if I hate you I have nothing left,” immediately then turning off his humanity switch instead, it’s gut-wrenching because it’s true both ways right now; in the aftermath of his breakup with Elena, Damon needs Enzo as much as Enzo needs him, and now everything is ruined. Damon and Enzo’s glorious friendship, gone, all because Damon had his own humanity switch turned off when he killed Maggie.
The idea of vampires having an emotional switch they can just turn off at will has always been a tough one to parse, especially because the show often uses it as a bit of a story crutch, turning it on and off as it fits the plot more than the characters. In both instances of this story, however, it feels more than earned: Damon turned off his switch in 1950 so he could leave Enzo behind, and in turn, Enzo turns his off so he can hurt Damon in return. It’s a tragic mess, because these guys should basically be partners in crime forever, and now that will never come to pass; when Enzo goes off the rails, Stefan threatens him by reaching inside his chest and grabbing his heart. But Enzo ends up doing the ultimate deed himself, pulling back from Stefan and leaving his own heart outside of his chest, beating in Stefan’s hand. It’s a diabolical, symbolic end, and one befitting the character, but it mostly leaves me sad Enzo has to die at all, because he’s become such a wonderful part of this universe.
If Enzo has to go out, though, this is certainly a worthy story for him to exit on. By killing himself using Stefan’s own hand he knowingly hurt Damon more than he ever could by simply killing him; in effect, he’s slowly killing Damon and Stefan’s relationship instead, poisoning it from the inside (once again using TVD’s ultimate weapon: murder, this time of the suicide variety). Stefan wants to keep this a secret from Damon forever, but Enzo is still around on the Other Side promising revenge. With the Travelers on their way to succeeding and the Other Side on a fast track to destruction, Enzo just might get his wish.
- The Traveler story finally got interesting to me here, if very, very confusing. So Markos proved the doppelganger blood cures all magical spells by turning Sloane into a vampire and then curing her, resulting in her reverting into being human and dying. So if the Travelers succeed, not only will this magic “curing” destruct the Other Side, but it will make all vampires in Mystic Falls return to their non-magic state (a.k.a. dead)? Am I understanding this correctly?
- Despite the Travelers getting more interesting, Markos is pretty darn boring.
- Gorgeous visual moment: Damon decapitating Maggie, as seen through the store windows reflecting the TV screen trumpeting John F. Kennedy’s election. Haunting and grotesque and beautiful.
- It was nice to see Stefan and Elena have such an easy, friendly chemistry in this episode.
- Bonnie taking her impending death fairly well. I didn’t even consider how this would affect Bonnie last week, because the show very rarely reminds us to care about Bonnie. Good reminding this week, show!
- This week, in Matt Donovan Is The Best: Matt won’t invite Damon inside his house. Ha!
- “Whose nasty-ass boxers are under the couch?” Please let this be an allusion to some roommate-on-roommate action.
- Damon: “Whoa, whoa, whoa Enzo, you have your murder voice on.”