Why Vampire Diaries is a show about the limits of mind control

The Vampire Diaries looks like a supernatural soap opera, with a deep mythos about the crazy Klaus and his plans for world domination. But really, it's a show about mind control — including the limits of how much you can control someone's mind, and how mind control often backfires and hurts the controller.

Almost every character on Vampire Diaries has used Compulsion to control someone, or has been controlled via Compulsion, at one time or another. And last night's episode had a lot of object lessons in how messing with someone's head can bite you in the ass. Spoilers ahead...

Lots and lots of vampire stories feature some kind of vampire mind tricks. Ever since Dracula dominated Renfield, plenty of vampires have exerted a mesmeric influence over mortals. But Vampire Diaries turns mind-wiping into the main vampire superpower — it's the go-to tactic for dealing with intransigent people. And for Originals like Klaus, it's the easiest way to make any other vampire into their slave.

And some of the creepiest, most horrifying stories on this show have involved Damon enslaving hot women for his amusement — including Caroline, who seems to have gotten over it by now. That close-up special effect of the magical vampire eye-dilation has become one of the hallmarks of this show.

Last night's episode was like a primer in how Compulsion can backfire. We had:

Why Vampire Diaries is a show about the limits of mind control

1) Stefanus, who has been a royal dick ever since Klaus compelled him to turn off his humanity several episodes ago. And now Klaus is realizing he created a monster — he used his control over Stefan to turn him into Stefanus, but then he let go of that control. And the result is a shameless, immoral monster who's decided to tear Klaus to shreds by any means that come to hand. Because "Friends don't strip friends of their free will," as Stefan puts it. It was actually fun to watch Klaus be off his game for once, as Stefan keeps finding new ways to screw with him.

Why Vampire Diaries is a show about the limits of mind control

2) Tyler, who has been talking endlessly about how his Sire bond with Klaus isn't at all like Compulsion — it's more faith. Or gratitude, for freeing him from a curse. Or maybe they're just like bros. And then Klaus finally pushes Tyler too far, asking him to bite his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Caroline. And Tyler refuses — but then when he goes to tell Caroline that he really loves her and puts her first after all, he immediately bites her. (As we all knew he would.) Afterwards, Tyler mopes to Klaus about it — and either Klaus genuinely feels bad about it, or he pretends to, so he can win more allies in his fight against Stefanus.

3) Jeremy. This one is less cut and dried. Last week, Damon used compulsion on Jeremy to get him to blow town and move to Denver, where he could have a "better life." And now, Bonnie is pissed, and Elena feels kind of remorseful about the whole thing. By sending Jeremy out of harm's way, is Elena kind of admitting that she and all her friends are trapped in supernatural shit, as Matt basically says when he's drunk? Is she taking a vampiric attitude to Jeremy's life, turning him into a puppet the way that Damon has so many other people? There's a lot of regrets about the "compelling Jeremy" business this week, and the whole business is enough to turn Alaric into a lovable day drinker.

In a way, this show is saying something profound about human nature: We're not predictable, even when you can control our minds. You can mess with people's memories, alter their perceptions, give them instructions — but that doesn't mean they won't still surprise you, or do things to screw with you back. People aren't programmable like machines.

Why Vampire Diaries is a show about the limits of mind control

All in all, last night's episode was a lot more thrilling, and fascinating, than the previous week's. Stefanus really does go off the deep end in his quest to prove that he's a bigger villain than Klaus, and you have to admire quite how expertly he screws with Elena. Threatening to drive her off the bridge her parents died on and turn her into a vampire — her two biggest nightmares, rolled into one — is a stroke of evil genius. And the line, "No dead hybrids at the Founder's Party" is an instant classic.

And meanwhile, both Caroline and Elena hold mock funerals for themselves, so they can let go of their "normal" lives. Alaric gets a new love interest, Meredith, who's probably a serial killer. (Yay!) Damon and Elena almost kiss again, but end up not doing it. Klaus snaps from "ruthless" mode to "sly charming devil" mode.

Why Vampire Diaries is a show about the limits of mind control

And finally, you get that weirdly beautiful scene where Klaus not only saves Caroline's life, but opens his heart to her, telling her, "There's a whole world out there waiting for you. Great cities and art and music. Genuine beauty. And you can have all of it. You can have a thousand more birthdays. All you have to do is ask." And Klaus admits that he's thought about ending it all a few times. (And yes, there may actually be a Klaus-Caroline romance. Holy crap.)

It's all beautiful stuff. And we're left wondering — will Klaus' charm offensive succeed where his plain old offensive failed? Because maybe that's the most successful form of mind control, after all — instead of actually telling people what to think or what to do, just win them over with so much sweetness, you own their hearts and souls.