True Blood: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

True Blood
HBO, Sundays, 9 PM
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”
Written by Alexander Woo
Directed by Michael Cuesta

Well, I certainly never expected anything like that to happen here! —Lady at Merlotte’s Bar

Yes, and she ought to know—that lady sitting at the bar talking to Sam in the last 20 minutes of this season finale was none other than Charlaine Harris herself, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels on which True Blood is based. Since the major storyline of this season—Maryann the Maenad—was vastly expanded from a minor subplot in one of her books, she can justly say that she never expected anything like the culminating events of that tale: mayhem, marriage, and murder.

Maybe Alan Ball should pay a little more attention to the works he is adapting, because his expansion of the Maryann storyline was tedious, overdrawn, and ultimately unsatisfying. After telling us all season that she was immortal, invincible, etc., in the end, she gets gored to death by Sam in the shape of a bull. Symbolically satisfying, perhaps, but when you get right down to it, Maryann was stabbed to death. Someone could have knifed her in Episode Four and we’d have been done with this overwrought tale of sex and madness. After the first couple of episodes—indeed, after the first orgy or two—we knew all we were going to about Maryann; subsequent episodes only confirmed the broad hints dropped earlier, leaching the series of any surprise or real drama. By the time Maryann tripped down the stairs wearing her wedding dress, the spectacle of most of Bon Temps chanting and shouting, with coal-black eyes, had grown stale and repetitive. There is a reason Ms. Harris disposed of this character in a few chapters, and Alan Ball would have been wise to emulate her.

This is not in any way, however, a knock on Michelle Forbes, who embodied Maryann’s creepy seductiveness superbly. She delivered really weird dialogue impeccably, and projected the maenad’s large-and-in-charge personality in every scene. Her final woeful question to Sam, “There’s no god?” was the perfect counterpoint to her self-confident, indeed tyrannical scenes of domination and exploitation all year, as Maryann finally discovers that her lifelong dream is a delusion. We’re still left, however, with Queen Sophie-Anne’s absurd assertions from last episode that Maryann became immortal because she wished for it really, really hard. Gee, did she also wish really, really hard for the ability to take over people’s minds? This is a ridiculous platform for a supernatural being, especially since we’ve already been shown vampires and shapeshifters. If we’ve gotten this far, we don’t need lame non-explanations like this.

I think the problem was that Alan Ball and his writers chickened out. Given that they presented Maryann as a priestess/handmaid of a god, they were then required either to present us with an actual god-like creature, thereby undermining their own demonstrable anti-religious stance, or explain away Maryann’s powers and immortality. We got neither one, just a quick death scene and extended wrap-up. The setup for this entire season paid off with a wet firecracker.

Worse, the ending put a wholly different spin on the storyline for Bon Temps. The entire town simply woke up from a bad dream at Sookie’s house and went home mumbling? The entire town is in denial? Oh, come now. Small-town America may be more cohesive than urban metropolises, but not everyone in that town is going to drink the Kool-Aid. There will be a few, like Eggs, desperate to know what happened to them, and just as traumatized if they remember. Eggs’s final scenes were the only ones I will remember—his tortured questions, the pain in his voice and eyes as he first solicits Sookie’s help, and then is horrified to learn the truth. Mehcad Brooks completely convinced me of Eggs’ terror and remorse. Unfortunately, his ending was less than satisfactory. A man who has had as many brushes with the law as Eggs would know better than to wave a bloody knife at an officer of the law.

The one redeeming virtue of the finale was the apotheosis of Sam Merlotte. Hang-dog as he’s been all year, my favorite character showed real heroism in the end. Stalwart Vampire Bill, he of the “I’ll protect you, Sookeh” mantra, once again proved his worth—by risking Sam’s life, not his own. He sent Sam in as a stalking horse to render Maryann vulnerable enough for attack, although neither he nor Sam knew whether Sam could be brought back from the edge of death. Indeed, given Maryann’s penchant for ad hoc heart surgery, there was every chance he’d lose that organ, and I don’t think all of Bill’s superannuated blood would re-grow a heart. It was a risky strategy that may not even have been necessary. Sam Trammell pulled out all the stops in this episode, in a completely satisfying performance that took Sam Merlotte from tears to rage to bitterness to terror. The scene where Sam looks at a deer, remembering Daphne, with a tear rolling down his cheek, was a wordless moment of sheer pathos. His visit to his foster parents showed the mixed emotions we would expect from a man who, having faced death, looks back on his past. I sincerely hope that Season Three will focus on Sam a lot more than this one did.

I hope that Season Three will give us a more coherent set of characteristics for Sookie and others in this show. For example, there were many episodes where Sookie’s telepathic abilities could have made all the difference to the plot, yet she appeared to be as deaf as anyone else. Since Season One made such a big deal of her inability to tune out the voices—indeed, it was Bill Compton’s main attraction for her—it is confusing to have her ability come and go at random. Or maybe she really is as confused as she seems: the proposal scene seemed to show her as a gold-digger. Bill proposes, she demurs, runs off to the bathroom with the ring, and poses with it for a few moments before deciding her answer is yes. It sure looks like the deciding factor there was the size of the rock, not the depth of her love.

The effects of vampire blood on humans is also woefully confusing: does the drinking of vampire blood always act as an aphrodisiac? It certainly did for Sookie, Jason and Amy, and Lafayette. Are we now to suppose that Sam Merlotte will be having erotic dreams about Bill Compton? Does Lafayette dream about Eric? Do Jason Stackhouse’s memories of Eddie the vampire contain erotic overtones? And if Lafayette really is selling Queen Sophie-Anne’s blood at Eric’s behest, does that mean there are college students at Tulane and Louisiana assembly members dreaming of her golden tresses?

There’s also the question of Sookie’s powers: if Maryann cannot take her over, why can she take over her brother? Don’t they share the same genes? We already know Sookie is not unique—we met Barry the Bellboy a few episodes ago. Shapeshifting, as we learned from Sam, is hereditary. So how is Jason not immune, as well. Supernatural abilities that come and go according to the needs of a weak plot are very dissatisfying.

I’ll just skip a long dissection of the character of Queen Sophie-Anne and say this: the part needs to be recast. With all due respect to Ms. Wood, she does not have the presence or the gravitas to convince me that Sophie-Anne is dangerous enough and powerful enough to dominate Eric. No. Just no. The scene where she throws him down and lowers over him looked awkward and weak; the only reason it played at all was that Alexander Skarsgard was playing Eric as Wimp. Both characters were distorted and unrealistic. Which brings me to one final complaint: Not enough Eric in this episode. Way not enough. That’s all I’ll say on that score.

Good moments included any scene with Lafayette dressed as a Grecian bridesmaid, and any scene with Andy and Jason where their eyes were not black. Vampire Beel dancing with Sookie left a grin all over my face; Bill really is a lover, not a fighter. His conversation with Jessica restored some balance to that whole relationship. Hoyt’s declaration of independence from Mama (wonderfully played by Dale Raoul) was extremely gratifying.

Season One ended with a scream; this one ends with a faint whimper from Sookie, as she calls out Bill’s name. Eric, who tore a man limb from limb in a berserker rage in the season opener, gets trounced by a slip of a girl-vampire and is told he sucks at Yahtzee. Lafayette, who has been through more changes than a model on runway day, tells Sookie he doesn’t even want access to his own memories any more. Tara was strong and angry in the season opener, although we had hope that her life might be improving—in the season closer she is bereft, afraid, shaken, and diminished. The one character who has grown and matured is, surprisingly, Jason. Who would have thought he would wind up as the moral compass of Bon Temps? Yet his speech to Andy Bellefleur sums up the true definition of anonymous heroism and self-sacrifice: “It’d be easy doing it for the glory, or the girls, but we’re bigger men than that.” Yes, by the end of Season Two, Jason is very much a bigger man than that. Kudos to Ryan Kwantzen and the writers for a totally believable, in-character transformation of this man. But it’s more than just symbolic that this season’s storyline ended where we started: in Merlotte’s parking lot, next to Andy’s car. We truly went in circles this season with the whole Maryann story; I hope whatever Alan Ball and company are cooking up for next year, it will advance Sookie’s story a little more.

So what’s up for next season? My money says Bill was kidnapped by Lorena; there is no fury like a woman vampire scorned. What really interests me is whether this show, which has taken on sex, religion, and sex, will have the courage to tackle a really taboo subject: race. Eggs Benedict was shot to death by a white man—whether the town knows it was Jason or thinks it was Andy, it’s still an issue in the South in America today. Moreover, the brunt of this season’s storylines was felt by the black characters: Tara’s life is shattered, she and Eggs got tricked into murder and cannibalism, Lettie Mae’s faith has been shaken, and Lafayette is left with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet Sookie’s main reaction to this is “Let’s clean house.” These are not accidents: in the books, neither Tara nor Eggs are black, and Lettie Mae does not even exist. Lafayette is a minor character. To have created and highlighted these black characters says something about the vision Alan Ball has of Bon Temps; now I want to see what he makes of that racial mix.

And next year, I want to see Bubba. Those of you who have read the books know who I mean. Those who don’t will have a treat in store.