Ah, True Blood, you are as addictive as V, moving in surprising and powerful ways and occasionally just a bit scattered in your southern charm. Episode two, "Beautifully Broken," showcases the series' strengths and weaknesses, fortunately with the balance heavily weighted to the positive. With new characters popping up everywhere to introduce themselves, usually with gallant charm but occasionally with sly malevolence, and a breakneck pace to the well written plot, this episode continues season three's strong opening.
Let me begin by clearly stating I love the show in general and enjoyed this particular episode. I surrendered without protest as character upon character and plot upon plot raced by, ratcheting up the stakes for familiar characters and newbies alike. I laughed and jumped in surprise and was moved, sometimes all at the same time. That's Alan Ball at his best, thinking up the most outlandish plots that nevertheless work perfectly in his world and reveal layer upon layer in his characters. However, some of the issues from last season do appear to be hovering over this one, and I hope Ball manages to steer clear as the season unfolds.
I'll start with some of those potential problems, before getting to the strengths of the episode. Last season, the show had a pacing problem, as the writers developed two separate story lines which didn't come together until the final three episodes. The maenad story thread, despite the excellent Michelle Forbes, had to spin its wheels in the middle of the season as some of its key players had headed off to Dallas for the riveting Eric/Godric storyline. When the maenad story picked up again, it did so largely without Eric, despite how compelling he had just been in Dallas. The soggy middle and underuse of key characters did not improve the maenad story and I hoped we would see a more integrated third season with more even pacing. "Beautifully Broken" is a little disappointing in that respect.
Though each separate plot piece is well written and acted and pushes the characters further into trouble as they look into their pasts, the pieces together do not form a seamless whole. Instead, the seams are clearly visible, because at this point the different stories do not hook together. And the multitude of new characters, though each very intriguing, means each segment is very choppy, as the show cuts back and forth among the story lines. That's an issue, because we need to care about the characters. We need to invest in what they desire, vicariously feeling their fear and their joy. That is a little hard to do even with some of the strongest segments, never mind the ones with Tara, Jason and Sam, which are taking their time getting going.
On the surface, Sam's introduction to his birth family works well. Sam Trammell is a strong actor and he is particularly good with subtle scenes telegraphing betrayal, heartbreak or hope. He gets to work with all three as he tracks his brother Tommy Mickens down to the family home and meets his mom and dad, all of whom seem rather sketchy to put it mildly. Mom and dad are delighted to see their son again, but Tommy's transformation into a pit-bull who lures Sam to play in traffic is a pretty solid indication he feels less than brotherly love at this stage. All that is good stuff, except it never really gets going. I don't yet have much of a feel for Tommy, because I never get to stay with the story long enough to care about him. Sam's story needs to tie into the Sookie, Bill and Eric one, pronto. It does not need to tie into Jason's and Tara's, because they don't have any steam of their own yet.
I really like Jason and Andy, but there are much more interesting things going on in the show than Jason getting jealous of Andy's fame. There are some classic Jason lines ("I ain't never been in the front seat before!") and I like his scene with Sookie as, in a nice callback to season one, they clean up Gran's house together. But I am not yet intrigued by the blonde girl in the forest nor in yet more fallout from Egg's death. I didn't care enough last year to want more this year.
And that's an issue with Tara, too. Fortunately, Lafayette is intimately involved with Tara's story again this week and the visit to the psychiatric hospital to see Lafayette's psychologically broken but still sharply vindictive mother is very moving. Unsurprisingly, Alfre Woodard gives a powerful and nuanced performance as Mrs. Reynolds, with Ellis matching her note for note. The writers actually allow the story to stay with Tara and Lafayette long enough to make the visit effectively bring up the cousins' fears of mental illness and the ability to survive. At the same time, Lafayette also puts his finger on why I care so much about him and not enough about Tara. He tells his cousin life is not about trying to have no problems. "It's about being able to deal with the ones we got." We need to see Tara moving forward, trying her best to handle what she's got.
And maybe we do. James Frain makes his entrance into the story as a shady vampire who reveals Bill has a file on Sookie hidden in his house. He then tracks down Tara at Merlotte's and makes her acquaintance. Frain makes a very raffish bad boy vamp with streetwise flair, who may spice up Tara's story considerably. She at least changes from sullenly whining to throwing punches at racist rednecks while her new vampire friend holds them down. It's hard to see how this kind of violence is going to go anywhere positive for Tara, though, and I need to be able to root for her. Otherwise, there just isn't room in this already crowded narrative for her.
The ability to care for the character is why Jessica's part of the story works better than Tara's. The baby vamp's plot doesn't advance very far, either, but at least I enjoy her with the always snarky Pam and care about her broken romance with Hoyt. Even so, the missing body she's been trying to hide had better tie in soon to one of the other plots, because the narrative cannot remain so disjointed.
But enough of the complaints. There is even more about this episode that works and that is most apparent in the Bill/Sookie/Eric story. Catching up with Bill, who has just bloodily dispatched most of his werewolf escort, we meet the very charming King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare). O'Hare is a hoot, all southern manners with threats and schemes skillfully sliding into the hospitality. We don't get much further in this plot than the King revealing he knows Bill is intimately connected to the Queen of Louisiana's plots and proposing one of his own, but everything is so entertaining, it doesn't matter.From Talbot's delicate touch with the décor to Bill's fiery reaction to Lorena's presence, the scenes are captivating, though poor Bill is most unhappy at being the King's "guest."
Ball has clearly made some adjustments to Bill's writing and it is paying off. Last season, the writers tried too hard to make Bill the good vampire in contrast to Eric's evil sheriff. One note Bill was boring. This season, we're getting glimpses that Bill's motivations in going to Bon Temps may not have been as straightforward as we thought and not only does he have layers, not all of them are nice. And equally welcome, we continue to get glimpses of Eric's sensitive side, so that both characters lose the simplistic labeling. With Eric, the complexity of the character has never been in doubt.
Eric's scenes with Sookie and Godric are again the most intriguing, with Skarsgard's subtle performance forcing us to puzzle out what is self-interest and what is not as Eric reveals part of his past to Sookie. Eric and Sookie have had a very antagonistic relationship to date, but the writers are skillfully playing upon Sookie's compassion for Eric's loss of Godric as the two characters begin to forge a bond that is based on more than shared blood. Eric cannot turn away from his debt to Sookie, despite his discomfort with her feelings and perhaps his own. He also cannot turn away from a rage he feels toward the Nazi werewolves, revealed in a flashback that also brings back Godric (Allan Hyde) for a brief and welcome appearance.
That flashback is the source of my only caveat on how wonderful this story line is. Flashbacks are a clunky narrative device and therefore have to be used very sparingly and have a big payoff. Eric and Godric together is definitely a big enough payoff, but not if we hardly see Godric and get little of their relationship. Because of the multitude of storylines, the flashback was packed with exposition instead of emotion, though Skarsgard and Hyde are so good together, they find ways to suggest Eric's vulnerability and Godric's care. Still, in any future flashbacks, the emphasis should be on what we learn about character, not back-story.
But that's a small nitpick in the rich tapestry of Sookie and Eric's scenes. Paquin does an excellent job of recovering Sookie's combination of gentleness and strength we saw in the first season, as she tries to engage Eric's help through his emotions. These two characters, apparently so dissimilar, communicate on a level that resonates through their differences. Sookie defiantly tells Eric, "Don't underestimate me," to which Eric swiftly replies, "Don't underestimate yourself!" and the whole exchange recalls last season's equally charged conversation between the two about knowing the meaning of love.
The air remains charged as Sookie tries to see past Eric's flirtatiousness to discern if he really wants to help and Eric uses his naughty temptations to cloak how protective he feels about Sookie. The cloak drops as Eric catches scent of a werewolf in Sookie's house and demands again that Sookie invite him in. Sookie realizes Eric is in earnest and the episode ends with the line of Bill's nightmares: "Mr. Northman, won't you please come in?" And despite any flaws in the structure of the episode, I know I am hooked as Eric steps through the door to confront a wolf.