How on Earth does The Vampire Diaries do it? I'm serious. Last night's episode had some story elements that most other shows would have spun out for a half dozen episodes, or a half season. And they were just brought up, dealt with, and then discarded.
In particular, both Salvatore brothers decided they were sick of being someone else's sidekicks, and they wanted to step up to become major players in their own rights — by using sheer cunning and guile. Most other shows would have teased us for a few episodes with the possibility that Stefan might outwit Klaus, or that Damon might overpower everybody in Mystic Falls. But no. Both brothers got firmly smacked down, and put in their respective places.
Because when you're a Salvatore and you're having a battle of wits, you'd best bring backup.
I loved the "mind control" theme in last night's episode — one of the most fascinating parts of TVD has always been the "compulsion" aspect, and now we've finally met a human who can fight "compulsion." Not with vervaine, but with pure mental discipline. Yes, HRG is still Batman, even when he's no longer on Heroes. I've always loved Jack Coleman playing a fatherly badass, and now he's playing an openly gay vampire-hunting ninja. (Not the first gay character Coleman has played — he's famous for playing one of the first gay characters in prime-time soap operas.)
Sheriff Forbes asks Damon to come in and give her ex-husband Bill a nice mind-wipe using compulsion, after first verifying that her ex has lost his vervaine-related immunity. And Damon does his bit — but it doesn't take, because Damon's a sloppy mind-controller. Bill shows up at the Council meeting, memories intact, and threatens to raise hell. Damon nearly kills Bill, and it's only the intervention of Carolyn that saves him. You get the sense that if Bill didn't want to avoid slaughtering his only child, he'd make short work of all the supernatural creatures in Mystic Falls. Because he's Batman. Not only that, but Damon loses his shot with Elena, and he loses his sidekick Alaric — who decides, once and for all, that Damon is a "dick."
(Oh, and the stuff with Caroline was also great — both Caroline being even more brutally honest than usual, and her final encounter with her even more brutal dad, who's like, "No, you're not ever going to be okay." BOOM.)
I've got to say, this episode was a good one for humanists. Not only do you get Bill Forbes resisting compulsion with no supernatural assistance, but you also have Jeremy Gilbert displaying nearly superhuman mind powers. When Jeremy decides that his dead ex-girlfriend Anna is getting too pushy and getting in between him and his actually living girlfriend, he's able to turn her off like a light, just through mental focus. Most of us, if told that we had to stop thinking about our dead exes in order to keep them away, would wind up thinking about nothing but our dead exes. Go humans!
(Also on the "go humans" tip — really glad that Alaric is growing a spine.)
Continuing the episode's "power of the mind" theme, Stefan decides that he's going to pit his wits against Klaus and his sister, Rebekah. Maybe he can play them off against each other, by pretending to be super close to Klaus and making Rebekah want him more than ever. This seems like a good idea — for about 30 seconds. It's amazing how fast Stefan's attempt at guile goes down in flames.
First Stefan gets tangled with Gloria, the "old school voodoo" witch who wants the Original Witch pendant that Elena has (or had — now Katherine has it.) Gloria decides to get the information out of Stefan the hard way — which means only one thing: half-naked Stefan bondage. And then after Katherine rescues Stefan, he hints at his cunning plan. (He doesn't actually say "I have a cunning plan," Baldrick-style, which is one of the few opportunities for fun this episode passes up.)
And then Stefan's attempts to manipulate vampires who are hundreds of years older than him goes about about as well as you'd expect — he's totally outclassed, and one kiss with Rebekah is all it takes for his cunning plan to unravel. Soon enough, Stefan's in the back of a moving truck full of coffins, and he discovers that Klaus has taken Stefan back to Mystic Falls to find out what he's hiding. (Apparently there is a wormhole connecting Chicago and Virginia, since driving back and forth between the two places takes mere minutes.)
So we're left with Klaus on the verge of discovering the truth about Elena's survival, and Stefan being pushed into his nightmare scenario — the preview for next week's episode looks like it ought to be the midseason finale, not episode five. And yet, none of this feels rushed or slapdash — it just flows perfectly. People always talk about how a good TV show can be like a novel, and yet some of my favorite novels move at a breakneck pace, full of twists and surprises — like this show.
Oh, and Bonnie is back, yay! And it turns out she's been cut off from the dead witches, and generally is in the witch penalty box due to her decision to bring Jeremy back — which, in fairness, is seeming like it may have been a terrible idea. Is Jeremy providing a gateway for evil ghosts to find their way back to the world of the living? Or is he our only warning about a terrible ghost attack that was going to happen anyway? I guess, given how fast things happen on this show, we'll find out soon enough!