Alan Ball offered us “Fresh Blood” last night, the second last episode of the season and a frustrating mixture of the sublime and the simply unnecessary. The writers bookend the episode with the exciting main story, but the middle lurches along from one unnecessary and unexciting supporting plot line to another, while we desperately try to see past them to follow what ought to be the central narrative of stopping Russell.
Russell trying to kill main characters in his bid to take over the world should not be treated like a side plot. And the actual side plots at this stage of the game should be folded into the main story, not dangling off by themselves. Thank goodness the Eric/Russell revenge plot is as excellent as it is, because it has about ten minutes out of 50 to make its impact.
The issue with the side plots is not the actors tasked with trying to sell them. True Blood has an excellent cast. I appreciate the skills of them all, whether it’s Arlene struggling with a baby left over from season one or Jesus trying to lead Lafayette down a completely separate rabbit hole from everyone else on the show. The issue is these characters are supporting characters, fine in smaller doses in support of the main story, but not able to carry their own separate narratives which fight for time with the season’s main arc. In addition to the usual cast, Alan Ball introduced enough new characters this season to populate a whole other show, and we simply cannot get emotionally involved with all the stories rushing past us.
The biggest casualty of the overpopulated cast and whiplash-inducing story cuts is Sam. I have loved Sam from the first episode. He’s an everyman character, despite his shape-shifting powers. He hasn’t generated the kind of dramatic emotional highs and lows of some of the other characters, but his steadfast courage and basic decency in season two’s finale grounded that episode beautifully. I view him as a slow burn character, one who quietly but firmly offers an alternative to the over the top crazy all around him.
But the last episodes have introduced Sam to the crazy and I am not enjoying his transition. It feels much too abrupt, like the writers know they don’t know what to do with him and came up with something which has little purpose except to shock. Tommy puts his finger on the main problem with Sam’s shift into a human pit bull when he says, “You’re nothing but Joe Lee in a Sam suit.” I didn’t like the Mickens enough to care about them or enjoy their screen time. And sadly, Sam Mickens, er, Merlotte hasn’t made that story any more palatable. By the end of “Fresh Blood,” I had no issue with Tommy robbing Sam blind and just wanted Tara and Sam to go away.
Jason’s scenes don’t go much better. He always functions best when he’s part of someone else’s story, with his main contribution being his hilarious way of looking at things. Ryan Kwanten has a marvelous ability to bring this caricature of a Southern redneck to full-bodied life and make him oddly sweet and off the wall funny. But he has not made me care enough to want to follow Jason off into not one but two plot lines of his own. I don’t believe in his sudden love for Crystal and I don’t care enough for any of the Hotshot characters to be excited at the thought of Jason and Crystal riding off to their rescue. The incest revelation isn’t much a revelation at this point—Eric called the drug dealers “brother-cousins” way back in the beginning of the season.
But if the were-panther plot bunny is sickly, the quarterback glory days plot bunny is on life support and fading fast. I outright resented the time spent on Jason worrying about the high school football star. I don’t know him, don’t care to know him and do NEED TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON WITH RUSSELL! You know, that vampire who so frighteningly threatened to eat all our kids? Hateful graffiti slogans on the walls are no substitute for hints of what he’s actually planning to do and instead we get high school jock politics. Jason’s stories just let the air out of all that tension so nicely generated when Russell took to the airwaves.
I hate to say it, but Lafayette and Jesus don’t offer much more. Lafayette is an amazing character, but I think he functions best as a human offering his own feisty and playful take on co-existing with vampires. His earlier scenes with Eric and Pam sparkled. He is a surprising touch of warmth when he comforts Tara in her pain. But I don’t think he warrants a rabbit hole of his own unconnected to the main action. I was so hoping Lafayette, Jesus, and Ruby Jean would get folded into the vampire plot as supporting players, but at this late date that has still not happened. All these separate side plots are all desperately trying to establish themselves rather than furthering the taking over the world arc and this writing decision just slows. things. down.
Jessica and Hoyt fare the best and that’s because their story mirrors Bill and Sookie’s and follows the central conceit of the show: can humans and vampires have relationships other than prey and predator? Deborah Ann Woll is just luminous as Jessica and her scene with Hoyt is taut and sexy. This is the kind of subplot that furthers the main story rather than taking away from it, because it directly relates to the main theme.
That brings me to what should be the main story, because it is the season’s overall arc with the Big Bad. And fortunately, this plot is firing on all cylinders. Alan Ball made the excellent decision to fold Bill and Sookie’s story early on into Eric, Pam, and Russell’s and when the episode focuses on them, it is riveting. And though Russell has made such a splash this season, this episode makes it clear Eric is the heart of this story.
Eric’s journey this season has been admitting to feelings for humans, whether it’s his dead family or Sookie. His character has shown lovely texturing as the vampire allows us to see how much he still values his human existence when he daydreams about Sookie smelling his past on his skin, but then takes that past and single-mindedly pursues vengeance at the expense of the people in his present he cares about. The many facets of Eric’s nature have all had illumination and Skarsgard plays each one convincingly, without the need to try and fit the portrayal into an easy box. Eric both carries his pain alone and fiercely values family relationships. He will ruthlessly use anyone to gain a goal, but at the same time understands and will sacrifice his own needs to the big picture. He is manipulative but loyal. And his contradictory nature this season has been best displayed in his relationship with Pam.
One of the charges often laid against Eric is that he does not love anyone. Yet he is one of the most loved characters on the show and he’s had the most functional and deeply loving relationships, in contrast to the other characters and particularly Bill. Eric was clearly a loved child, despite his father’s chiding him about his responsibilities. And we saw in his flashbacks he was a beloved leader of his Viking band, who refused to leave him when he was dying, despite their own danger and Eric telling them to save themselves. He was loved by Godric and loved him in return. This vampire who gives the appearance of caring for no one in fact has been shaped by loving relationships and it is no real surprise, but wonderful to watch, when he reveals his love for his child.
Pam and Eric’s relationship this year has been tender and poignant, from Eric checking Pam’s injuries from the Magister to Pam telling Eric she doesn’t give a hoot about inheriting his estates, she wants him, just as he wanted Godric. This episode continues to illustrate the love between the two, as Pam has to accept she cannot save Eric from his decision to offer his own life to take down Russell. The scene between the two when Eric tells Pam she knows he loves her more when she’s cold and heartless, while giving her a tender kiss on the forehead, is absolutely lovely because it works on so many levels. The simple line conveys Pam’s heartbreak and Eric’s care for his daughter, while at the same time underlining Eric’s determination to follow through on his plan. He may be ruthless, but he is not cold and heartless.
He is, in fact, much more reminiscent of his Maker, Godric, than he appears on the surface, and the writers play with the similarities to Godric’s death scene. Pam, like Eric, has to let go of her Maker and help him with a plan that looks to end in his death. She has to pretend to be overjoyed at Eric’s meeting of the sun so Russell will join him, and I loved Kristin Bauer Von Straten’s line reading of “Why don’t you join him?” as she feigns her tears are as joyful as Russell’s. The contrast of her sadness with Eric’s wonder at feeling the sun again on his skin is beautifully played and recalls Godric’s wonder on the rooftop as he turned to meet the sun and saw God. Skarsgard’s walk outside captures all his character’s nuances, from the game playing to the courage to the love of life. Eric’s complexities have grounded this story line from the beginning and though Russell is his usual devious and fascinating self, it is what is revealed about Eric that makes the final scene so moving and so gripping.
And what we find out makes Eric’s relationship with Sookie more ambiguous than Sookie has so far interpreted it (usually with good reason, it must said. Eric is no saint or romance novel protagonist). Bill’s strategy for most of this episode is to try and convince Sookie he is no Eric as he tries to regain her trust. And though the two of them indulge in some dreaming about their life together, the dream is clearly flawed, not only because they see a future that does not take Bill’s vampire nature into account (he’ll never be a third grade teacher), but also because the contrast between Bill and Eric may be on quite different grounds than Bill proposes.
Bill rather desperately focuses on Eric as the problem, as he asks Sookie why she went to the sheriff, but Sookie is honest enough to say she’s seen a different side to Eric that is just as true as his ruthless side and she’s finally suspicious enough to conceal from Bill the question she asked Eric. Bill hasn’t quite kept up with the program when he declares to Sookie, “I’m nothing like Eric.” That’s true—but what exactly does that show about Bill?
Bill and Russell both have negative views of Eric, but neither is shown to have a good grasp of the Viking vampire’s character. Bill is so focused on his relationship troubles with Sookie and rivalry with Eric, he misses the danger Russell poses to her that Eric clearly sees. To Pam’s reminder that there’s a bigger picture than his relationship with Sookie, Bill replies, “Not to me there isn’t.” And Russell compounds his earlier dismissal of Eric as a pretty sycophant by saying, “Eric, you are just a lump of muscle with a blood grudge. You got lucky.” In just a few short minutes, he’s changed his tune to “Clever boy, to tempt me.”
The clever boy, the manipulative sycophant, the loving father and son, the courageous sheriff, the ruthless leader—they all describe Eric and just possibly lover may as well. Despite the high stakes, Eric shows how much it means to him that he finally gets to drink Sookie’s blood, so much so Russell gets impatient. While Sookie is understandably upset with all the men in her life, her relationship with Eric seems rife with dramatic potential. Next season?