True Blood: “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues”

True Nature

True Blood
“I Got a Right to Sing the Blues”
HBO Sundays 6
Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Michael Lehmann

“What are you?” —Russell Edgington

A lot of questions about the true nature of things get asked in this episode of True Blood. The above quote comes from vampire king Russell’s interrogation of Sookie, after he has seen her throw a man across the room with lightning. But the question might well have been asked of every other major character. Is Franklin Mott a psychopath or is he playing some deep spy game with Tara? Is Jason’s new-found flirt, Crystal, just a waif cheating on her fiancé, or something more mysterious? Jessica struggles to come to terms with her vampire nature, while trying to hang on to Arlene’s trust. Even Lafayette, who has no supernatural abilities at all, is struggling to come to terms with his career as a drug dealer, when challenged by a nice man who has come into his life.

We start out in familiar territory: once again, Bill Compton has failed to save Sookie. Worse, he has led Russell and his pet wolves right to her. Having betrayed himself, his mission, and his lover, Bill is defiant but, as usual, ineffective as Russell turns him over to Lorena and orders her to kill him, her own progeny. Sookie begs Eric to save him. Bill begs Eric to save Sookie. Eric pretends to be untouched by all these entreaties, as he almost literally sucks up to the king’s lover, Talbot (Theo Alexander, Pushing Daisies). Over cards and blood martinis (Bloody Marys would be too clichéd for this show), they discuss Talbot and Russell’s seven-hundred-year-old marriage and the vicissitudes of modern vampirism. Skarsgaard and Alexander were wonderful as jaded, world-weary cosmopolites sharing a mutual aversion to humanity. Eric, who has never shown us any hint that he is gay, is clearly flirting with both the Royal Consort and the king, but in his unguarded moments the expression on his face is deadly. He may have himself under icy control most of the time, but now and then his true nature—the berserker—peeks out.

“Why must you always deny our true nature!?” —Lorena

Against her will, Lorena prepares to carry out Russell’s order. We get the by-now overly familiar drama queen tantrum, the long, impassioned moaning about how Beel does not love her, and the usual pathetic begging for his love. Apparently all that changed for Lorena when she became a vampire was a complete loss of self-respect. Bill tries to appeal to her former human nature when he makes some mawkish comment about how her eyes, before she Turned, would have been full of light and not darkness. With lines like these, I’m not surprised Lorena is taking out the sharp knives. I suppose there is some attempt here to hint that Lorena and Bill at one time were not so very different, in order to emphasize how different they are today; if so, it failed. I saw no connection between these two other than Lorena’s pitiful neediness. She certainly shows none of the strength we see in Russell or Eric. On the other hand, she got one of the best lines of the night when she threatened to gut Sookie and “wear your ribcage for a hat”. I bet she would look quite fetching in it.

Nothing prepared me for the wonderful surprise which was Tara Reynolds this time around. She’s been a victim for far, far too long. Now she uses what wiles she can muster to deceive Franklin, to get him to free her hands, to weaken him by biting his neck (oh, dear—is she now going to have erotic dreams about Franklin?). Once free, she bashes his head in and flees. I would have thought that by now, Tara would have learned, if only through Sookie, that that won’t kill a vampire. With all those edged weapons to hand (talk about your SM bedroom décor), she could have decapitated Franklin, killing him forever. We saw Lorena’s head twisted 180 degrees on her neck a couple of weeks ago and yet she survived, so I don’t think merely bashing in Franklin’s skull will kill him (again). Not only will Franklin survive it, he might consider it foreplay. However, I give Tara full props for showing (finally!) some initiative and guts. Her ploy to get into Sookie’s locked room, her plan to escape, and her confrontation with a naked Alcide were all well handled. It’s nice to see Tara being smart and fierce again. And it was absolutely fabulous to see Sookie and Tara double-teaming a werewolf guard.

“Honey, there’s a fine line between feisty and delusional.” —Russell

Sookie, of course, fouls up the escape plan by going back for Bill. She’s already learned that Bill was spying on her whole family, that he rejected her at Russell’s command, and that he left Tara to die, but no, nothing will affect her undying devotion to the one vampire on the planet who cannot save her. Really, this “romance” is becoming black comedy of the ripest sort. While she waits for the coast to clear, she sees Debbie Pelt and her lover, Cooter, romping outside the plantation’s slave quarters, high on Bill’s blood. What I loved about this short scene was the way Brit Morgan and Grant Bowler so faithfully reproduced the body language of two dogs playing. They romped, licked one another, and jumped up and down on one another like big golden retrievers. I fully expected butt-sniffing to ensue, but they ran off on a chase instead. Their verbal language gave trailer trash a bad name, but their body language was pure canine. It was a delightful moment, showing better than any speeches that while these two may look like humans on the outside, their true natures are anything but.

“Are you the king of all the vampires?” —Sookie

We saw more of King Russell in this episode than even in the earlier ones, and Denis O’Hare delivered every minute he was onscreen. Of all the villains that have trotted across the landscape of Bon Temps, King Russell is by far the most delicious. He is suave without being smarmy, cynical without being morose, and delightfully witty. He’s the first villain we’ve seen who seems to really measure up to Eric or the Magister, who can stand up to and command other supernatural creatures. His casual acceptance of his own superiority, his arrogance, and his cruelty speak so loudly of the autocrat that on the rare occasions when the veneer slips and the tyrant comes through, it rings with all the authenticity of a pronouncement by Pharaoh. I love this villain, and hope he sticks around. Eric’s prospective vengeance fills me with more happy anticipation than the last three seasons of Sookie/Bill romance. What’s more, I can’t wait for Russell’s spouse, Talbot, to find out he’s marrying Queen Sophie-Anne of Louisiana. This will be one TV wedding I will not miss.

“Sam may be blood, but he’s not family.” —Melinda Mickens

One of the pleasures of this show is watching how Alan Ball and his writers flesh out storylines which are not found in the original books. Sam Merlotte and Lafayette Reynolds’ stories diverge completely from those found in Charlaine Harris’ novels, so these characters have become more the creation of Alan Ball than Ms. Harris. Sam is trying to figure out his shapeshifter family, who are obviously keeping secrets from him (secrets most viewers have figured out already, by the way). When his mother, Melinda, visits, we get one of the more revealing speeches of the evening from her, as she lectures Tommy on his duty to the pack, er, family. In only a few minutes, she lays out a family history of exploitation, degradation, and misery that makes the Reynolds family look like the Cosbys by contrast. Lafayette, who is being courted by a smiling, handsome man, fights his own cynicism, trying to make this budding relationship work. It doesn’t of course—Jesus Velasquez (Kevin Alejandro, Southland) will help him fight off some rival drug dealers who are trashing Lafayette’s Corvette, but won’t put up with his drug dealing. Lafayette uncharacteristically resigns himself to losing this fine young suitor, rather than give up dealing V. I hope he cleans up his act, and that Jesus gives him a second chance. Can Lafayette change his nature, though? Can any of us?

What strikes me about the characters of Bon Temps is that most of the major ones fall outside the bell curve of society. They’re gay, or supernatural, or shattered by trauma or marginalized by poverty or race. I like Alan Ball’s attempts to show the effects of this marginalization—that the characters in these stories are at once more sympathetic to other victims of stereotyping, and more unforgiving. Sam’s television is showing a vampire-rights debate that closely mirrors gay-rights debates; the vampire kingdoms are riven by divisions between those who want social legitimacy and those who hold it in contempt. The were community itself is divided between the traditionalists like Alcide (whose doglike fidelity in continuing to try to rescue Bill is not showcased enough) and outlaw packs like the one that serves Russell. Being, as they are, outsiders, these exaggerated characters can show us our true natures in a mirror only slightly distorted.

[Edited 28 July 2010]: True Blood hauled in 4.7 million viewers Sunday night, for a 2.75 household rating and a score of 2.8 among viewers 18-49. This put it in the top ten cable shows for the week—it’s number 10 out of 10, but it’s there. Not surprising, considering that a rating below 3 still makes a show a hit for a cable series. This show not only has fangs, it has legs