After two long weeks, we finally got our True Blood fix last night and while the show delivers the highs, it also has some worrying lows. There is some very welcome tying together of story lines, but some of the stories are lackluster and some are off-putting, so it's not clear yet whether season three's tapestry is going to form a coherent whole, or split into successful story lines like last year's Dallas trip and unsuccessful ones like the endless orgies of Maryann. Alan Ball has his hands full trying to knit together so many characters' stories and I suspect he's introduced too many new characters while keeping too many old characters and the result is just rushed and chaotic. It's still early in the season, but this kind of setup is unlikely to pay dividends later on.
"9 Crimes" is about the many ways passionate love can push us into dark territory. We had a very disturbing glimpse of that last week when Bill unleashed his anger at Lorena as he desperately tried to protect Sookie by allying himself with Russell. This week, Bill actually gets even more disturbing, and while he most certainly is not the boring Bill of last season, Alan Ball seems to be cutting away what was appealing about his character as well as what was lackluster.
We find out Bill was a "procurer" for Sophie Ann for 35 years and his job seems to have involved finding victims for his regent, among other things. It's hard to resolve the Bill who hated his life with Lorena so much he was willing to die with a Bill who is good at sidling into strip bars and pulling victims for his regent's entertainment—and yet apparently this was part of his job description for Sophie Ann. I'm left with the impression Bill really only tried to live a very different life from the one he had with Lorena for the two months he's been in Bon Temps—and even that time doesn't appear to be exactly what he wanted to portray.
With this back-story in mind, watching Bill use violence and backroom politics to deal with Lorena doesn't make me sorry he's broken up with Sookie. This doesn't seem like a case of star-crossed lovers so much as rose coloured glasses on Sookie's part. When he tells her, "I've only caused you pain. I am death. I will bring you only suffering," I wanted to tell Sookie to wake up and smell the coffee and listen. And though we get several sad looks from Bill which are meant to suggest he's suffering from his choice, it doesn't help his cause that he must stop himself from going to rescue Sookie because he's busy helping murder the waitress he selected. I am not bored by Bill, but I'm not sympathetic, either. I'm not sure if that's exactly where Alan Ball wants me.
I was very much in sympathy with Sookie as she sobs and tries to analyse her way out of her break-up with Bill. Anna Paquin does a marvelous job of selling both the comedy and the heartbreak of being dumped over the phone. She reminds us how inexperienced Sookie really is in the ways of love. Inexperienced or not, Sookie decides she's not taking this break-up lying down. Instead, she enlists the aid of Alcide's sister to make her up as biker chick extraordinaire and convinces Alcide to take her to his ex-fiancée Debbie Van Pelt's engagement party to find out more from the werewolves who took Bill. Active Sookie is an enjoyable Sookie.
There is manipulation mixed into her pain, however, which fits the theme of the dark side of love. Alcide's sister has been protecting him by hiding Debbie's V addiction and willingness to become a Nazi werewolf. Sookie has no interest whatsoever in Alcide's well-being as she uses his heartbreak to convince him to take her to Debbie's party. She's completely focused on her own pain and will use Alcide to get what she wants. And this may be part of the problem with the lack of chemistry between Alcide and Sookie.
The writers clearly want us to feel the sizzle between the two as Sookie cleans Alcide's cuts and he comforts her while also pointing out to her, "The man you love never existed other than in your head." And goodness knows Joe Manganiello has a set of abs that command the attention. But so did Mehcad Brooks and that wasn't enough to make the character compelling. So far, the most remarkable thing about Alcide has been his physique. Looking on the bright side, that may be because the writers are trying to force the chemistry even when the situation is working against it. Sookie right now is willing to throw Alcide under a bus to get what she wants and Alcide seems to be the patsy for both Debbie and Sookie, never mind the puppet of Eric. That's not sexy. At some point he needs to show us his stuff and be the feral wolf.
Unfortunately, the huge cast means Ball has to constantly cut away from scenes, in many cases before they are fully developed. Alcide has yet to be an active powerful force in the show. Eric is another victim of the cut and slash storytelling. His scenes this week were, as usual, excellent as he swoops in (literally!) to rescue Lafayette from his potential customers and gives him some sage advice on his failings as a salesman. Who can resist these two as Eric tells Lafayette, "Let's go, RuPaul."
We also see another side to Eric as Yvetta makes the mistake of asking him, "You want more or am I boring you?" Eric's mind is indeed elsewhere and of course he's focused on Sookie. From the moment we see him hovering outside Sookie's window (Eric gets some serious flying time in this episode), the scene works to reveal an Eric who is more in touch with his humanity than he's ever been willing to show. As Bill loses his veneer of humanity, Eric shows his dream of a relationship with Sookie is one where she can smell the ocean on his skin, because he grew up beside the North Sea. Besides giving more depth to Eric's feelings, the scene also shows us Eric's past still matters very much to him, and the man he was is not lost to the vampire he is.
In fact, as we found out last season, when Eric loves, he loves deeply, and this is both a strength and a liability. The Magister is still sniffing around to find out who is selling V and he raids Fangtasia to take Pam prisoner so he can threaten Eric. Zeljko Ivanek, like James Frain, infuses every line with genuine menace, and Alexander Skarsgard is completely convincing as he reveals the extent of Eric's love for Pam.
But the scene is rushed as the Magister tells Eric he can either take the fall for selling the V or take the fall for betraying his regent, both of which are apparently heinous crimes in the vampire world. Skarsgard makes the excellent choice to ground his reactions to his dilemma in reality, rather than some of the over-the-top reactions we've seen with some of the other characters. Eric is caught in a no-win situation that makes his decision to drag Bill into the mess believable—and yet I wouldn't blame a viewer who missed the setup, because instead of developing the tensions, the writer rushes through them to get to the next scene. We could use more time at Fangtasia and less at Merlotte's, as much as it pains me to say it.
Sam's story line has now officially crossed into Maryann territory for me. It's taking too long to set up the obvious with unappealing characters. As much as I enjoy Sam Trammell as an actor, I wish Ball would cut this story thread and give the time to the stories which are working. Eric's dilemma will impact almost every other character and it deserves a good setup. We could also use more time with Jessica and Hoyt, both of whom are excellent characters in search of something to do. Arlene's scenes could also go without hurting the show. It is cute that she is jealous of another redhead, but I don't know why she's still hiding her pregnancy and don't care. There is no room in this already crowded landscape to give her fears about Rene any real play and I don't want to just dabble in them.
I also don't want any more of Jason's quarter century crisis. I loved the character last year, but have no fond memories of season one Jason, and season three Jason is bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to his season one self. If he doesn't want to put in any work to be a cop, I don't have any sympathy for his realisation he hasn't gone far in life. Not only is the writing sucking the fun out of Jason, Andy is collateral damage. It's a shame, but on the other hand, Ball has to start pruning characters because he can't service them all.
Franklin and Tara's story, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. James Frain is simply excellent as a vampire who's mixing business with pleasure as he uses Tara to find Sookie and solve his loneliness problem at the same time. He is the obsessive side of love, chilling as he Duck-Tapes flowers into Tara's hands and calmly chats about missing fruit as he kidnaps her. Frain commands the screen every time he's on. Unfortunately, we've seen Tara fall apart, helplessly crying, so many times already, the impact is not as great as it should be. There's only so many times you can mine the same vein and Tara's is playing out. We needed to see a change in her this season, not more of the same. I still hope we get some kickass Tara, but it had better be soon.
I enjoyed the episode, but I am concerned the choppiness of the storytelling is going to impact how this season plays out. There are some wonderful themes mixed into the campy fun, but we have to stay with characters long enough to pick up on them and care. Ball is ratcheting up the darkness of the violence and unless the emotional core of the show keeps pace, I will find it hard not to feel distanced from the show. And I love this show.