HBO’s runaway hit True Blood has never been for the modest, squeamish, or faint of heart. The latest season is no exception, and in fact confirms that the third season was no fluke. In the supernatural hotbed of Louisiana, things are getting more bleak and nasty every day. Sookie Stackhouse, reluctant heroine of the Charlaine Harris book series turned prime-time sex kitten, has just about seen everything in the last few years, yet all signs indicate that the mayhem to date merely scratches the surface of “what’s out there.”
We began, you may recall, with the fairly simple conceit that vampires are thriving out in the open, no longer required to exist in secrecy because their diet of human blood can now be sustained through synthetic means. This does little to curb the prejudice and fear they face daily (nightly?) since most of them would still rather live as monsters. The backdrop of all the weirdness in Bontemps, Louisiana is a violent worldwide struggle for “vampire rights.” Satire! Fun! We soon find out that the vampires have their own political infrastructure at least as complicated as our own, and that forces internal and external offer the constant threat of a dangerous collapse.
Not racing immediately off into “vampires versus werewolves” territory was a thoughtful choice for a show which takes delight in big surprises. It took a pretty long time for the characters even to mention the existence of werewolves, as the second season featured a Bacchanalian nymph (maenad, if you prefer) as its key antagonist. Like a good horror sequel, this bizarre plotline amplified the collective insanity of the show and rocked the whole town of Bontemps in its grip. Then came the werewolves. The third season broadened True Blood‘s horizons considerably, with mixed results. We spent most of the show in Mississippi, where the deranged vampire king Russell Edgington wielded his influence over a corrupt pack of werewolves and stirred up a major clash between human and vampire factions. The sordid brutality of the show increased considerably, no doubt leading some fans to jump ship in dismay over the change in tone.
Early on, True Blood‘s fourth season began showing signs of mild to moderate plot fraying. This is typical of any show with a serialized story format, usually coming on the tail of a large-scale climax that substantially resolves the last major storyline. Having dispatched (for now) Russell Edgington and his cadre of Mississippi monsters, series creator Alan Ball allowed his characters to go their separate ways for a while. Thanks to a simple “one year later” twist, the writers sheared off some loose ends by not having to explain them at all, which probably would have been boring anyway. About the middle of the season, this did lead to some fragmented and seemingly aimless story tangents. Fans of Twin Peaks will remember a similar phenomenon in that show’s second season, in which the solution of Laura Palmer’s murder scattered everyone’s motivations to the wind.
The most uncomfortably prolonged and ultimately pointless plotline is Jason Stackhouse’s experience with Crystal Norris and her inbred clan of meth-brewing werepanther hillbillies. His relentless pursuit of her, as each of these facts about her came to light, never made sense to begin with. It seems the whole affair was contrived to invest Jason with some much needed maturity, and to set up his relationship with vampire Jessica (his best friend’s girl), but the lack of direct payoff after so much fuss over werepanthers leaves that trail mighty cold. As with Sam Merlotte’s family and Tara’s ordeal in Season 3 – at the hands of psychotic vampire Franklin – it pays excessive attention to characters we hate (not simply “love to hate”) and would rather not spend so much time watching.
Patience, however, has its reward. All the disparate elements begin to spiral once again toward a massive collision. The vampires finally gain a sense of what they are facing in Marnie the necromancer, forcing Bill and Eric to drop mutual hostilities and gear up for an action-packed confrontation. This does much to erase the plodding adventures of Arlene and Terry Bellefleur through a red-herring brush with the supernatural, as it lays the groundwork for the integral part Lafayette and Jesus will play in the showdown between vampire nest and witch coven. And some kind of wild showdown it is, my friends. Action, magic, double crosses and big trouble abound.
And that’s only the eleventh episode of twelve, which for any other show would have been the season finale. However, one of True Blood‘s signature moves is the false conclusion. The minute that immediate danger seems to have passed, and everyone takes a single breath of relief, evil springs forth for one more bite. The funny part is that only in the momentary peace do we realize that the love triangle between Sookie Stackhouse, Bill Compton, and Eric Northman has practically taken a back seat to everything else going on. The relationship between these triune protagonists has shifted drastically, but so gradually that Sookie’s rediscovery of her independence is a welcome and logical surprise. Meanwhile, a convenient device centered around Halloween (Samhain, if you prefer), allows a number of dead characters to return just long enough to warn that all is not well again with the world. In the final minutes of the episode, the writers deliver some extremely heavy blows which promise complete pandemonium for the beginning of Season 5. The vampire element alone appears to be on the brink of unprecedented chaos. For the record, the final scene with Bill and Eric is my favorite of the whole season. However, the biggest shock comes dead last. It is easily the most bitter pill that fans of the show have had to swallow yet, but it will motivate some key characters to decisive action.
In other words, now would be a bad time to jump on the bandwagon without first easing yourself into True Blood. Get to know the characters from the beginning, and the show will probably hook you, perhaps even against your will. For those who have not been scared off by now, I think we could all use a stiff drink before tuning in next summer for Season 5. Which I know I will. Season 4 had a few too many stops, starts, and jerky turns, but True Blood seized its bloodthirsty mojo back at the finish line.
What say you, faithful True Blood freaks? How is everybody feeling after what we can all agree has been a rough ride?