True Blood: “Keep This Party Going”

Daddy Dearest

True Blood
HBO, Sundays, 9 PM
“Keep This Party Going”

Written by Brian Buckner
Directed by Michael Lehmann

“I’ll be your bad ass vampire.” – Lafayette

For Father’s Day, True Blood offers up a handful of daddy-themed moments in the latest episode of this vampire soap/mystery. From Vampire Bill’s problems with his rebellious teenaged “offspring”, Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll, The Mentalist), to the revelation of his father’s desertion by “Eggs” Benedict (Mehcad Brooks,Dollhouse), there are enough fathers, absent fathers, unwilling fathers, pseudo-fathers and father substitutes to fill a sports bar on Sunday.

Bill Compton has the most obviously father-related issues. As he tells Sookie during some pillow talk, he has had to work hard to retain whatever humanity he has left. Since he was Turned when his own mortal children were pre-teens, he has never had to deal with a real adolescent. Now that he has been forced to Turn his protégée, he is lost. Sookie seems to have more real empathy with the young vampire, perhaps because she feels responsible for her Making. In a bid to bond with Jessica, Sookie consents to take her to her home so she can see her family. Sookie, having nothing but good memories of the grandmother who raised her, can’t imagine that Jessica might have another motive for seeing her parents again: revenge. When Jessica disobeys Sookie and enters her old home, she winds up throwing her father around the room like a rag doll, raging against his harsh treatment of the family. Only Bill’s last-minute arrival prevents her from committing patricide in front of her own sister. These are father issues with a (ahem) vengeance.

I’ve assumed throughout this series that the vampires cannot reproduce normally; i.e., Sookie and Bill are not going to be building a nursery onto the Compton place anytime soon. However, despite the vampires’ frequent assertions that they have left their humanity behind, some things appear to be hardwired. Despite being dead, vampires make other vampires. They form sexual partnerships as well as economic ones, and many of them prefer to live in “nests” very much like families. The vampire world seems to be organized into hierarchies, hierarchies which look very patriarchal from where I sit. In other words, these allegedly no-longer-human creatures still act very much like Homo sapiens. Among the many attempts to un-demonize vampires over the last few years, this is one of the bolder efforts: turning vampires into daddies and mommies with parental issues. I don’t know if the writers will keep it up, but it’s interesting to see it done.

Jason Stackhouse, Sookie’s boy/man brother, has subtle daddy issues. Having lost his father at the age of eleven, he was raised by his grandmother. Without a strong father figure, he has had to learn to define his own version of manhood. Heretofore, he has defined it through sports and sex, the two most juvenile facets of manhood. Now, at the Light of Day leadership conference hosted by Christian minister Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian, Scrubs) and his wife Sarah (Anna Camp,8 Easy Steps), Jason finds himself coming into his own as a natural leader. At first he is awed just to be close to a celebrity, but as he earns higher and higher praise from this substitute father figure, he also begins to have doubts about his “calling” to the anti-vampire movement. Even as he proves his warrior prowess in a fake vampire demonstration, he remembers Eddie (Stephen Root, Pushing Daisies), the vampire Amy killed last season. Eddie was one of the few people in Jason’s life who talked to him like a father, who talked about what it was to be a man, how to find his way to manhood. And just when he was establishing a connection to Eddie, Amy staked him. Now Jason is on the verge of bonding to Steve Newlin–and I suspect this will be another emotional betrayal for Jason. The fact that Ryan Kwanten can show this neediness through Jason’s good-ole-boy persona is testament to a fine acting job.

Steve and Sarah Newlin scare me more than the vampires. The vampires are what they are, with no excuses and (now) no secrecy. What you see is pretty much what you get. With Steve and Sarah and their Stepford congregation, what you see is very much not what you get. Luke (Wes Brown, Lockjaw) seems at first to be cast in the same mold as Jason–a hail-fellow-well-met jock. (Of course, as soon as he admitted to being an Aggie, I knew he was a loser.) They seem like brothers separated at birth, until jealousy begins to eat Luke from the inside. In the relentlessly upbeat atmosphere of Jesus Camp, Luke cannot admit to such a lowly emotion, and has to channel his anger into sports. Unfortunately, this arena is Jason’s home ground, and he humiliates Luke. Bad things will come of this, I am sure. (And leave it to Jason Stackhouse to find a way to take his shirt off in Jesus camp.)

Repressing jealousy is only one form of the emotional manipulation the Barbies for Christ employ on Jason. Sex-kitten-for-Jesus Amanda Jane (Molly Burnett, Days of Our Lives) sashays around a stage dressed like Brittany Spears, wiggling her assets provocatively, and cooing about how she’s still Daddy’s good little girl. Nobody seems to think there is anything odd about this Lolita in sequins singing for Jesus, shouting “Honesty”, and pimping her upcoming CD at a conference devoted to fundamentalist piety. Of course, hypocrisy among religious people is not a new theme in Hollywood (or anywhere else), but this episode’s relentless portrayal of the shallow end of the Jesus pool is one of the most damning I’ve seen in a while. Nor is it mere Christian-bashing. Last season, we got a beautiful portrait of Sookie’s gentle Gran, a forgiving and tolerant woman whose love went beyond family, to accept Bill the Vampire, to accept the failings of others with grace and charity. Now that’s a Christian lady who puts Sarah Newlin in the shade.

As Jason seeks redemption and salvation (and maybe a father figure), Lafayette seeks merely to survive. He’s willing to do anything, even to sell his soul, to get out of the rank prison where he has been incarcerated by Eric Northman. Having witnessed Eric’s berserker rage last week, he is under no illusions what his chances are (less than those of “a Jew at an Al-Qaeda pep rally”, I believe he put it). He’s been forced to face himself, to come to terms with who he is and what he has been. His buoyant, cocky self-confidence has drained away, and he will sell his soul, his body, his mother, anything to get out of his predicament. Lafayette has reached rock bottom. Ironically, the late Royce turns out to have furnished an escape for Lafayette after all. What started as a funny story/confession from Royce about his hip replacement (“My ass is magnetic now.”) becomes the key to Lafeyette’s prison, as he digs that hip replacement out of Royce’s dismembered corpse and breaks his chains.

On the threshold of freedom, however, he is shot by the airhead fangbanger Ginger (Tara Buck, Bones). Wounded, exhausted, and imprisoned once again, he has only one card to play–he begs Eric to make him a vampire. Asking for death in order to survive strikes me as a pretty mixed-up request, but Lafayette has made it clear that he is a survivor first, second, and third. He has also shown us that he has nothing left to keep secret, that like the vampires he is no longer hiding who he is or his complete “lack of moral character” as he puts it. Yet even on the edge of a horrible death, he is still sassy, still hustling. Kudos to Nelsan Ellis for a performance that makes me cringe for his character. I adored the flamboyant queen, shook my head affectionately at the prancing cook, but I fear for the broken and desperate man in Eric’s office. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out if Pam, Chow and Eric have sucked the poor man dry, or if Eric will grant his request. Of course, there are daddy issues of another kind altogether raised by the prospect of Eric “siring” Lafayette. I don’t care–I can’t wait to see Lafayette put the “vamp” in “vampire”.

The other standout in this episode is Michelle’ Forbes’ Maryann. Maryann is a lot more than the wealthy party girl she seems to be. The way she takes over Sam’s bar and turns it into a rave is a sly contrast to the Amanda Jane concert Jason sits through in Dallas. Whereas the Christians present a sleek, controlled, bleached and pre-packaged entertainment designed to sell a CD and a mindset, Maryann merely lets the good times roll in Bon Temps. Her honest-to-Goddess sensual abandon is a brilliant foil to Steve Newlin’s antiseptic little lovefest. Any room with Maryann in it is a party; she even gets Andy Bellefleur out onto the dance floor. But there is, of course, more to Maryann than meets the eye. When she touches drunk Jane Bodehouse, Jane’s eyes go entirely black. When Sam orders her to leave his bar alone, she starts to shimmer–and turns him into a dog against his will. When Sookie tries to read her thoughts, she gets ancient Greek–which tells us Maryann is most definitely not from Cape Cod. All in all, Maryann is one of the most forceful, dominating presences in this highly entertaining cast. Michelle Forbes, as usual, gives a splendid performance as the masterful, no-holds-barred creature of nature. Yes, she has her dark side (no one can torture Sam and earn my full sympathy) but she’s fascinating. I can’t wait to see how her storyline plays out.

Alas, the major storylines and characters are less fascinating. Sookie’s blithe disregard of Bill’s warning about Jessica is a dangerous sign–has familiarity bred contempt? Has Sookie been sleeping with a more-human-than-most vampire too long, and has lost the respect she should have for this deadly form of life? Bill is once again emasculated by Eric–Eric swans in, demands that he lend Sookie out again, and won’t take no for an answer. Bill, who keeps promising to protect Sookie, once again demonstrates that he can do no such thing. Maybe that’s why Sookie doesn’t listen to his warnings. On the good side, after Bill gets through chewing her out for her terrible lack of judgement, the makeup sex ought to be epic.

True Blood continues to be macabre, ironic, sexy, funny and surprising. I haven’t enjoyed a show this much since Pushing Daisies lost its last petals. Apparently I am not alone; ratings for the season two premiere last week were up 157% over the series premiere, with 3.7 million viewers tuning in. No word at press time about the ratings for this episode, but I’m willing to bet they were bloody good.