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TV Review: True Blood – A Six-Week Check Up

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I’m back from vacation to catch up on two weeks of True Blood—and what a two weeks it was. With the season finally taking shape at the halfway mark and episode six having been written by master crafter Ball, I think it’s also time for a six week check up on our favourite vamps, weres, shifters and citizens of Bon Temps.

Season Three True Blood posterBall has already hinted that season three revolves around the theme of identity and indeed many of the characters are undergoing character-defining crises. The nature of those crises is revealed in “Trouble” and “I Got A Right To Sing The Blues,” which is welcome for both character development and the tying together of several storylines on the show. The first half of the season was spent getting most of the characters to Russell’s manor in Jackson, where secrets are now being revealed and alliances are both coalescing and breaking apart as everyone tries to figure out where the other characters stand.

The particular force causing the questioning of identity for so many characters is the struggle between nature and nurture. Are we a product of our genetic gene pool and our pasts or can we redefine ourselves? Russell Edgington’s past as a man deeply connected to nature makes him despise the mess humans are making of our world, and he’s willing to break vampire rules and redefine his own role in order to fix what he sees as broken. He wants to bring all the supernatural creatures together into a new family in order to take the stewardship of the earth away from humans.

On one level, this desire does not seem completely unreasonable. It’s hard to argue humans have been taking good care of the environment. On the other hand, Russell may care about the earth’s misfortunes but he’s ruthless in his other relationships, with the possible exception of the one with his consort, Talbot. Russell’s mixture of charm and ruthlessness, care for the earth and disdain for what he sees as lower life forms, and game playing nature mixed with care for his marriage make him very intriguing and this check up gives Denis O’Hare an A+ for what he’s added to True Blood. The king’s storyline has everything that makes the show work—soapy, gothic charm as vampires try to negotiate space with humans, laced with some identifiable issues floating under the surface and occasionally peeking into view. I was delighted to see the issue of the collision between vampire and human politics return to the story, as Russell plays on Queen Sophie Ann’s fear of the IRS to force her to marry him.

Sophie Ann has been trying to deal with her financial troubles by ordering Eric to deal V and then pinning the whole scheme on him, putting not only him but also Pam in danger from the Magister. Last season, I found Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of the Queen over the top and more of a caricature than a character. Her scenes yanked me out of the show, because while True Blood is no stranger to over-the-top drama, it succeeds because the characters are played straight and rooted in reality. We can identify with them. This season, Wood has toned down her mannerisms, making Sophie Ann much more enjoyable, even if I’m still perplexed as to how exactly she got to be queen. At least Russell addresses this issue, when he tells her, “You, my dear girl, are no queen.”

Sophie Ann’s identity issues lead to one of the two betrothal scenes we got in the last two weeks, both mixtures of the bizarre and the funny. Eric appears to change his allegiance from her to Russell, thus removing that pesky vampire rule about betraying a monarch from his path to save himself and Pam. He threatens to remove Sophie Ann’s head from her neck if she doesn’t accept Russell’s proposal. Ball has fun playing with romantic tropes as Eric literally sweeps her off her feet when she reluctantly agrees to marry Edgington,while the name on her lips as she is carried away is that of her human, Hadley.

Alexander Skargard as Eric NorthmanEric’s journey this year has been complicated, as we learn more about how his past has shaped him. Eric has always been a player, in control of himself and able to keep his goals in mind. Last season, we saw that he can be ruthless, but we also saw he can love and that while he is a political animal, he is also driven by responsibility to his post and care for his relationships. Of all the characters on True Blood, Eric is the hardest to categorize, both in the world of the show and by the audience. This difficulty, of course, makes him fascinating in Alexander Skarsgård’s capable hands.

Eric began the season by showing some vulnerability in front of Sookie, as he tries unsuccessfully to get her to drop her dangerous pursuit of Bill. He admits to Sookie his feelings for her make him feel human, and while he makes his discomfort with that clear, he also shows up to protect her from werewolves in her house, eventually forcing werewolf Alcide to protect Sookie. The audience is given even more of a peek inside Eric when he finds himself daydreaming of Sookie sensing his past as a Viking, smelling the salt of the sea on his skin.

Six episodes in, we now know how important that past is to Eric, how it has and continues to shape him as a vampire. I love that this vampire who appears on the surface to be motivated by self-interest is in fact most clearly defined as his father’s son, both in the human sense and the vampire. Eric has been driven for centuries to avenge his family’s death and finally prove to his father, albeit centuries too late, he is worthy of the responsibility he had been shirking. And he was schooled in how to accept responsibility by Godric, who taught him he could not let emotion drive his actions and that patience and planning would get him much further.

It’s a lesson Eric must call upon as he arrives at Russell’s to try and enlist his aid in his fight to save Pam. Eric’s first gambit is to try and implicate Bill as the one the Magister really wants, but Bill has already played his card with Russell and revealed Eric as the one dealing the V. However, Eric is quickly able to turn the situation around by admitting all, including that he was set up and his child is in danger, and asking for the king’s aid. When it comes to playing these kinds of games, Eric is a much better player than Bill, which in Russell Edgington’s house, appears to be a very good thing.

Eric must maneuver through a very complicated playing field, which both gets vastly more complicated and in another way very simple when he discovers Russell is the one who ordered the killing of Eric’s family to collect his father’s crown. Alexander Skarsgård shines as Eric dons one mask after another, flirting first with Talbot and then Russell to see if he can gain a tactical advantage for his overall goal of vengeance, while still using Russell to help him free Pam from the Magister. As he tries to play Russell on multiple levels, he must use Sookie as a playing piece, to her anger, though Sookie has no clear understanding of anybody’s situation, including her own.

Sookie’s anger at Eric seems a tad disingenuous, as she has been using Alcide to further her own ends, whether or not that hurts Alcide. She convinces the werewolf to help her track down his bad news ex-fiancée Debbie Van Pelt because she thinks Debbie’s trail will lead to Bill. Indeed it does, and of course, it also leads her straight into trouble. After Sookie obligingly takes herself to Jackson, Russell collects her with little difficulty, thus bringing all the key players to his beautiful but deadly house. This season has been marked by a few too many storylines, so the connection of so many story threads is very welcome. Even so, the need to skip to so many scenes in an episode has left a few narratives feeling a little more like Cliff’s notes than the complete story. While Alcide seems like a good hearted fellow,Sookie’s heated defenses of his character seem a little over the top. The writers are imposing a level of intimacy on the two I haven’t seen play out in front of me.

Alcide aside, the situation at Russell’s house is great dramatic stuff. Sookie finds Bill, who, in a move Godric would have advised against, attacks the three thousand year old king to save Sookie. Of course, he only gets himself a death sentence and is banished to the slave quarters with orders to be killed by a very reluctant Lorena. His tactical play not being bad enough, he then yells at Eric to save Sookie, as if Eric repeating Bill’s move would have a better outcome. Sookie also leads with emotion as she yells at Eric to save Bill. Eric ignores all advice to openly attack Russell in his own house and instead allies himself with Russell. He sternly tells Sookie that no one plays the King of Mississippi and he doesn’t intend to, something Sookie not unsurprisingly takes at face value. The audience, though, knows Eric’s tastes do not exclude Sookie and he was indeed at Sookie’s house to protect her, which makes the implied threat in Eric’s words to Russell visible to us if not to the king as Eric says, “I remember everything.”

Bill and Lorena also play a game of “I Remember” as Lorena struggles with the order to kill Bill. It is a testament to both actors that a scene in which Lorena slowly carves Bill up is very moving on an emotional level, if hard to watch on a physical level. The two finally have an honest conversation, with Lorena admitting she was damaged by her Maker and Bill admitting he knows there was once something lovely about her. If these two had talked like this one hundred and fifty years ago, their relationship could have been very different. But neither is quite able to shed the layers of self-deception they’ve lived with for years, with Lorena still blaming everyone else for her desire to hurt others and Bill refusing to own his own ability to enjoy pain. Though he is clearly a very different person than Lorena, he does have a need to hide away his issues, which doesn’t help him solve them. The hidden dossier on Sookie he had no plans to reveal to her is another case in point. Sookie may be focused on whether she can forgive Eric, but it’s Bill’s lies that may strike deeper.

Eric’s willingness to use Sookie for his bigger goals, after all, mirrors Bill’s decision not to help Tara, who is in dire straits again at Franklin’s hands. But, and I am so happy to write this, Tara’s reaction is to shed her passive status as victim at long last and instead to engineer her and Sookie’s escape. It’s a delight to watch Rutina Wesley as Tara appears to join Franklin’s creepily obsessive plans for her while in fact getting him to untie her and then drinking his blood for strength. Franklin may be a psychopathic boyfriend, but storywise, he’s the best thing to happen to Tara in a season and a half.

Franklin is a fantastic addition to the cast. James Frain somehow makes Franklin a very believable creepily obsessive boyfriend while still keeping him sexy and funny. I’m not sure how, because Franklin hits all the right notes as a dangerous stalker, but whatever the alchemy is, it works. I’m not sure we’ve seen the end of Franklin as he lies on the bed in his shiny silver jammies with his head caved in, but if we have, I’ll miss him. Of course, I still want Tara to run as fast as she can.

All these stories have made season three exciting, if a bit frenetic and scattered. However, the check up does show a few areas in need of strengthening. For one thing, the werewolves have been underwhelming. Besides being as stupid as Eric claimed, when not hopped up on V, they don’t even appear very dangerous. If Sookie and Tara can whoop one’s ass, I don’t expect any vampire to have an issue with them. And that doesn’t bode well for Alcide.

Joe Manganiello has recently been promoted to series regular, so we will see more of Alcide. But despite the writers giving him a very well packaged introduction, usually accompanied by a shot of the actor’s well developed abs, the character has made little impact on the story. Part of that is the fast paced nature of this season, but part may also be the actor, who has not so far made Alcide very compelling. Alexander Skarsgård made Eric drip with menace while wearing flip-flops and highlighting foils in an unflattering wig. Stephen Moyer made Bill very moving while being carved up slowly and bloodily by Lorena. Joe Manganiello needs to step up his game.

Ryan Kwanten, on the other hand, brings his game face to work every day, as does Sam Trammell, but both are saddled this season with uninteresting storylines. I’m glad Sam has finally found out what’s up with Tommy and Joe Lee, and perhaps this plot will finally take off, but the set up for it left me cold, despite the strong thematic tie in to family and identity.  And Jason has never appealed to me when I am supposed to care about his issues rather than laugh at his take on the world. He’s the architect of his own misfortunes and I don’t care about his desire he won’t work at to be a cop or his envy of the high school quarterback. It doesn’t help that the potentially interesting Crystal so far reminds me of Sam’s storyline.

Lafayette is of course another joy on True Blood. Nelson Ellis is a very capable actor who provides the human element of Bon Temps with charisma and humour. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy watching another side of him as he explores his relationship with Jesus. But the attraction of True Blood is watching humans try to co-exist with the supernatural. I’d like to see Lafayette’s romantic life embedded into a storyline that intersects with the vampires.

Another point on my wish list for the rest of the season is for all identity issues and revealed secrets to matter. We’ve learned Bill not only lied to Sookie and intended to keep on doing so, but also was a procurer for Sophie Ann. The side of him Lorena wanted to bring to the fore may not be one he is proud of, but it exists. These things should matter to Sookie. I don’t want a reset to season two Bill, whose flaws never seemed to matter to the narrative. I want what we’ve learned about Eric’s past to continue to inform his relationships in the present. The complexities of his character help give True Blood depth and hopefully Ball will run with them. I want Sam, Jason and the always wonderful Jessica to get hooked into the main action, which is much more interesting than the plots they’re currently mired in.

However, overall, the season is still getting a very respectable passing grade. I’m excited every week to see what happens next and I don’t expect that to change as we head into the second half.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Christine

    Gerry,

    I just have to tell you I’m so impressed with your 6 week check on True Blood. I found myself agreeing with everything you said, and that’s rare! So it’s been my pleasure to read what you wrote. :)

  • Gerry

    Thank you! I hope you stop by again. Can’t wait for the next episode tonight.

  • Rachel

    Excellent analysis/review! I agreed with everything. Well, actually I do disagree slightly on the fact that Eric used Sookie to further his own agenda with Russell. In my opinion, Eric was trying to save Sookie’s life by making it clear to Russell that she was valuable so that he would spare her life and not see her as just another human. I think Eric did the best he could under dire circumstances. Other than that, you were spot on! lol Seriously, truly excellent and I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading your take on the second half of the season. :)

  • Gerry

    Thanks Rachel! It’s always great to hear everyone’s opinions. I think Eric is more interested in Sookie’s well being than he let on, but I think he also knows Russell is already interested in Sookie due to Franklin. I think Pam at this point means more to Eric than anyone he has left, Godric having died, and he’ll go pretty far to protect her. But he doesn’t want anything to happen to Sookie–he’s playing Russell, not Sookie. So we don’t see things too differently. (-:

  • Rachel

    Very true, Gerry, and I completely agree! :) I really enjoyed watching him maneuver through the minefield and accomplish the first part of his very important plans – to save Pam’s life (and by extension his own), and to free himself from the menace of the Magister. I’m looking forward to watching how he will maneuver his way out of Russell’s clutches.

    I’m also looking forward to watching Sookie evolve as a character. So far, in my opinion, there hasn’t been enough growth. However, I do understand that Sookie is in many ways still a “teenager” in her approach on life and love.

    It should be a fantastic second half of the season. :)

  • http://roydupuis-online.com ANV

    Yesssssssss you’re back!
    I missed you Gerry!!!
    Great recap!!

    Alby

  • Nicole

    Great review! I have struggled with the show this season-multiple storylines that seemed like they were taking too long to intertwine have really hampered things. I am still bored by Jason’s storyline. Sam’s at least has begun to come together. My biggest continuing frustration is the Sookie and Bill. Sookie’s naivete and blindness in the face of the things she finds out about Bill and Bill’s oh so dull, dull, dull self loathing are killing me. I understand that Alan Ball loves Bill and thinks that he and Sookie are soul mates-he needs to find a way to write that story that doesn’t make both characters insufferably annoying.

  • ella

    Great mid-series recap! Excellent points made.
    Epi 7 showed promise for Jason and Sam – they still have time to come into their own and round out the season.
    Good analysis of Bill.
    I don’t get the Nature point that Russell was trying to make, disingeniously I thought, about humans messing up the environment. Where’s the evidence of his concern for the earth? There doesn’t seem to be anything green about him.

  • Gerry

    Hi ANV, Nicole and ella, thanks for reading! Nicole, I’m trying to ignore Ball’s soul mate comment, because if I can avoid reading ahead so I’m not spoiled, I really hoping he’s not really spoiling the end himself. I know what you mean by Bill and Sookie not necessarily being all that riveting, particularly last season. If Ball is going to find a way to bring them together, it has to be earned. I need to see Sookie actually dealing with what she knows about Bill and the trauma of what happened to her. Hopefully, that’s going to be part of the season.

  • Shannon

    Gerry, this is an excellent recap of the first 6 episodes. I was very intrigued to read your thoughts on Eric, as he’s one of my favorite characters. He is incredibly deep and I have a feeling we’re only seeing the beginning. If you’ve read the books, you know a whole lot more than you’re letting on! ;)
    I definitely agree with your assessments of the Sam and Jason storylines. That’s how I felt about Tara in Seasons 1 and 2. This season she’s come into some good stuff. But Jason seems more comic relief than anything, which is too bad because if the writers follow the books at all with his story, it could be so much more interesting.
    Episode 7 answered some of the issues you brought up. And I have read spoilers, which I won’t share here…all I will say is we haven’t seen the last of Jesus…
    Bring on the final 5 episodes! So far, this has been the best season!
    I hope to see more of Pam…and her relationship with Eric. As well as some more character development with Jessica – she’s a hoot and the best part of the end of Season 1 and all of Season 2!
    Thanks again for the great insight. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on the 2nd half of my guilty pleasure!

  • Gerry

    Hi Shannon, thanks for the comment! About the books, I’ve only read the first two so far. I started first with True Blood and not the SVM and I want my reviews to be of the show, so I decided not to read ahead. I do my best to avoid other spoilers, too, so I can view the episode with fresh eyes. Man, that can be tough–even HBO previews give away way too much, IMO.

    I adore Pam and Eric and Jessica, too and would love more development there. I enjoyed episode seven, but felt it had a bit of a split personality. The Russell/Eric/Pam parts were excellent.

    I love reading all the comments on the show, so please stop by again!

  • Lisa

    Gerry, I agree with almost everything you have said. What a great review of the characters and plots so far this year! I am also really tired of Alan Ball excusing everything Bill does, and trying to make all of his actions so noble and self sacrificing, when they are not! Sookie is so blind to his faults it is unbelievable. AB also does not seem to want to make Eric too sympathetic because he feels Bill & Sookie are “soulmates”. I completely agree with you about Alcide too, not an interesting character. He really has done very little to help Sookie, yet she thinks he is just fantastic. Jason is getting on my nerves. Keep writing these reviews, great job!