HBO, Sundays, 9 PM
“Nothing But the Blood”
Written by: Alexander Woo
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
“You are my miracle, Sookie.” —Vampire Bill
We open with one scream, and close with another. The second season of True Blood emerges from a long hiatus with more sex, more gore, more surprises to thrill its increasing fan base. Nor is producer Alan Ball content to rest on his many laurels (including a Golden Globe for Best Actress for series star Anna Paquin). From the very first scene of the season two opener, it is clear that Ball and his team have abandoned the Charlaine Harris original books on which this series is based. Which is fine with me, since I think the books have some serious flaws (especially with the storytelling), but I wish they’d acknowledge what this is—fan fiction. When you take an original text, lift the characters out of their context, and put them into new stories only vaguely connected to their creator’s original intent, then you are writing fan fiction. In the case of Alan Ball, you may have a large and talented cast, a fat budget, and the legal sanction of the copyright holder, but it’s the same idea.
So let’s look at this excursion into derivative fiction. The season opener picks up where season one left off—with Sookie Stackhouse, her friend Tara, and Detective Andy Bellefleur discovering a corpse in the back seat of Bellefleur’s car. It turns out not to be the character we suspected, and furthermore, it is missing a heart. Bellefleur, though drunk, does his fumbling best to start an investigation, at least until his long-suffering boss, Sheriff Bud Dearborn, shows up and takes him off the case. The next day, Sookie is surprised to learn that her great-uncle Bartlett the pedophile is not only dead, but that he left her all he owned. Even as she gets the news, she suspects that her lover Bill the vampire may have played a part in this, and later she confronts him. Bill doesn’t just own up to it, he declares his love for Sookie. Mutual declarations ensue, followed by one of the now-obligatory hot sex scenes. (If Sookie is going to bring blood play into her bed, she’d do well to get rid of that white bedspread.) Yet even as Sookie reaffirms her commitment to her fanged lover, her brother Jason is joining a cult devoted to vampire destruction, the Fellowship of the Sun. Her best buddy Tara is hanging out with a woman who may be a devotee of the ancient maenad cult of Pan, and her lovelorn boss is “tired of charring his ass on her back burner”. And Eric, Bill’s vampire suzerain, gets some payback for all the vampires who died (again) in Season One. All this in 55 minutes or less.
This is pretty bold storytelling, in that it pretty much completely departs from the established canon of the books. Lafayette has survived, the maenad Maryann is now a major player, Sam has become bitter over Sookie’s continual rejection of his affections, and the body in Andy Bellefleur’s car is none other than faux exorcist Miss Jeanette. Tara appears to be under the thrall of Maryann’s house pet, “Eggs” Benedict. Bill is now saddled with a rebellious adolescent “daughter”. And Sookie gets a legacy from her late great-uncle Bartlett the child molester. Yeah, we’re nowhere near the books of Charlaine Harris any more; it’s hard to see how the plots from the books can now be forced to accommodate these different circumstances. However, the writing has been so consistently excellent throughout the series, with new themes seamlessly entwined in the original thread, that I have every confidence this season will live up to the standards set by last year.
Like last year, the producers are not content to just tell fanger stories in the dark. There is always something more. Whereas the first season focused on addiction themes, and it’s really too early to tell what motif will underpin the second, it looks as though Alan Ball is interested in exploring the dark sexual history behind Sookie and Sam. As children, both were sexually exploited. The interesting thing to me is that Sam’s experience is treated as being almost as traumatic as Sookie’s. Society usually looks with faint amusement on the idea of a teenaged boy in a sexual liaison with an older woman. From The Summer of ’42 to Class to last year’s The Reader, the tacit assumption is that this is a dream come true for the teenaged boy. By contrast, Sam’s seduction by Maryann at age 17 seems to have left him nearly as traumatized as Sookie. The moment he sees Maryann again he panics, much as Sookie did when Bartlett showed up at Gran’s funeral. He brings Maryann every dollar he has, stuffed in a trash bag, in an attempt to appease her. He avoids touching her when she comes to see him. He acts, in fact, as though he were scared spitless. Far from a sexual awakening, Sam’s experience with Maryann seems to have put the fear of God(dess) into him in a big way. I didn’t think I could feel sorrier for Sam than I did at the end of Season One, but I do. Sam Trammell’s superb rendering of this complex and lovelorn man/shapeshifter is one of the highlights of this show.
Frankly, I’ve never understood why Sookie prefers Vampire Bill to Shapeshifter Sam. Much as I like Bill, compared to Sam his love for Sookie is compromised and lukewarm. Sam has never lied to Sookie (except for concealing his second nature), has always supported her, sacrificed for her, fought for her. For her sake, he stood up to three powerful vampires armed with nothing but a pointy stick. When a serial killer attacked Sookie, Bill collapsed in ash-covered agony, but Sam nearly tore the killer’s throat out. Sam’s background is similar to hers—blue collar, Southern, focused on home and family. He longs for a normal life, just as she does, and knows just what she has faced as an outcast. He’s shared the daily life she loves—working side by side, breakfasting together, long talks on the front porch. Now we learn that his is a scarred sexual psyche like hers. Sam understands her better than anyone else, especially Vampire Bill. These two were made for one another; only Sookie can’t see that.
If I’m a little vehement on the subject, it’s because these characters have really sucked (heh) me in. For the most part, they are rendered as complex, interesting, layered characters with problems both real (money) and supernatural (vampirism). The storylines require an unlikely number of bodies to pile up in Bon Temps, but the more macabre moments are well balanced by a sort of self-aware, ironic humor that works well against the background of magnolias and Southern drawls.
Case in point: the final scene of this episode. Lafayette is sharing a dungeon (yes, I said dungeon) with Royce Williams (Caleb Moody, Private Practice), who masterminded the burning of three vampires in season one. When their whispers grow loud enough to disturb the acute hearing of a vampire, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) troops downstairs to shush them, wearing foil in his hair and a bib. What, Eric the badass vampire was getting his highlights done? This dungeon is in the basement of a beauty parlor? (Actually, I would not find that so hard to believe.) This thousand-year-old vampire is wearing flip-flops? And yet even as we contemplate with amusement the trappings of a tame urban vampire of the 21st century, Royce taunts Eric and unleashes the Viking. In the terrifying last scene, the berserker in Eric literally roars to life, and Royce dies screaming. We are vividly reminded that the sophisticated veneer is just that, a veneer, and that the beast lies not far underneath. Eric, arguably the most complicated character Charlaine Harris created, now comes into his own in this series. I look forward to some complicated revelations to come.
In fact, it would not surprise me if the real standout characters of Season Two turn out to be Maryann and Eric. Bringing otherwise secondary characters to the fore will create depth and interest beyond the now familiar Southern Gothic romance of Bill and Sookie, Jason and his quest for self, or Tara and her quest for redemption. Those are slow-cooking recipes that will take time to develop; meanwhile, the revelations around the maenad and the Viking may be more satisfying than a pecan pie from Gran. Michelle Forbes mesmerizes every time she is on screen, and Skarsgard’s magnificent physique works as a fun contrast to his otherwise mild manner—until he’s riled. (I really wanna see a WWF style smackdown between Eric and Maryann. I think they’d be evenly matched.)
As last year, the production values are unmatched. Swampy, humid, Gothic without being over the top, this is a believable Louisiana. I can almost feel the mosquitoes biting. Nathan Barr’s superb acoustic score provides a brooding undertone even to passionate love scenes. I do get tired of seeing Sam in the same shirt in every scene, but I can live with that. Maryann’s opulent mansion contrasts well with the impoverished, trailer-park milieu of Sam and Sookie and Tara. Faded Southern romance has never been dustier.
Alan Ball promised fans a season that would be “sexier, hotter, funnier, scarier, more violent.” So far, he’s lived up to his promise.