True Blood: “Trouble”

Teenage Wasteland

True Blood
HBO Sundays, 6/7 EDT
Written by Nancy Oliver
Directed by Scott Winant

“Please be my vampire bride.” —Franklin Mott

I always knew James Frain was a hell of an actor, but his ability to say that line without cracking up confirms it. No phrase uttered this season so beautifully captures the mix of self-mocking black humor and cynical irony on which this show is built. After last week’s yawn fest, this week’s episode revs back up to the level of self-mockery and wicked delight we’ve come to expect from this series.

Eric, having literally thrown Bill to the wolves and blamed him for dealing vampire blood, now visits Russell Edgington to get him back so the Magister will not kill Pam. Eric is at his most polished and diplomatic here; there is no sign of the berserker who tore a man limb from limb last year. He even flirts with Royal Consort Talbot (Theo Alexander, Pushing Daisies) on a tour of the mansion and Russell’s trophies—until Talbot shows him a Viking crown that Eric recognizes. Suddenly the berserker’s face is showing through the urban veneer of centuries, though Talbot cannot yet see it. Eric’s cold implacability is much more convincing than Bill’s pathetic rages. I suspect that this will be the season where Eric begins to dominate storylines, from his attempts to save his “child”, Pam, to his quest for vengeance. I was especially happy to see the brief flashbacks (in Swedish!) showing a tenth-century Eric as a Viking playboy, until his family is wiped out by werewolves. I’m not sure this motivation quite jibes with our introduction to Godric a couple of years ago, but I’m willing to wait. Meanwhile, Eric gets to play undercover detective, with all the aplomb of James Bond.

Eric’s scenes with Russell point up a major difference between Eric and Bill: Eric can lie convincingly. Bill can’t lie to save his life—or more precisely, Sookie’s life. When Russell confronts Bill with evidence of his research into Sookie’s genealogy, Bill stammers, grins nervously, and generally looks like an eleven-year-old caught with his dad’s girlie magazines, trying to convince his mother he’s only reading them for the baseball statistics. For a while there, Wild Bill looked like he might turn into Wile Bill, i.e., getting a little smarter and savvier than he used to be. But the only consistency Bill has ever shown is his inconsistency. He can be reckless, but not with the courage of an Eric or even a Lafayette—when he’s reckless, it’s out of desperation. And Bill is often desperate, because it strikes me that Bill Compton is just not very smart. Did anyone not believe that Russell let him loose in order to have him lead Russell to Sookie?

Sookie is using her telepathic powers to good effect this season. In fact, she uses them to mess with the tiny mind of Debbie Pelt (Brit Morgan, Cold Case), repeating Debbie’s thoughts back at her in a smugly infuriating tone. Granted, none of the weres in this series other than Sam seem to be smart enough to pour water out of a boot, but even so, Debbie comes across as white trash so trashy she makes Arlene look royal. I continue to be impressed with Alcide, who is true to the books both in his animal magnetism and his slightly dim intellect. He seems like an honest guy, but he still plays by rules that Sookie does not quite grasp. Perhaps if Sookie owned a dog, she would understand better. As it is, I’d love to see Alcide’s reaction to a firmly voiced command to “Sit!”. The one slight annoyance I find in Sookie this year is the reappearance of her mystery power, the same one she used on Maryann last year. This time, Russell witnesses her sudden ability to throw a werewolf across the room, and like Maryann, he laughs with delight. And yet, without surprise. Perhaps Russell has figured out what Sookie’s genealogy really is all about. Shhh… no spoilers.

It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve seen Jason Stackhouse fall in love, so I guess he’s due again. This time around, it’s a young woman named Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher, The Beast), who seems to be just as artless, down-home and simple as Jason himself. Of course we know it can’t be that easy. However, it is a relief to see Jason hooking up with a woman who does not condescend to him (Amy) or over-awe him (Sarah Newlin). He’s been used and abused (albeit willingly) by virtually every woman he’s been with so far; in fact, he’s in some respects starting to look a lot like the hapless Tara Reynolds, yanked this way and that by titanic emotions that are completely out of control. So it’s with a mixture of pity and awe that I watch poor Jason get sucked in once again. I will give full credit to Ryan Kwantzen for making Jason Stackhouse a more complicated and likeable character than he may deserve. His expression of almost delicate vulnerability as he talks with Crystal, his aw-gosh country-boy grin, and his direct, uncomplicated manner make this gawky Romeo appealing.

And speaking of vulnerability, I was delighted to see another side to Lafayette. Nelsan Ellis did an outstanding job of showing the suspicion in Lafayette’s face turning to surprise and then bashfulness, as he realizes that Jesus (Kevin Alejandro, Southland), the orderly who works with his mother, has called to ask him out. The burly, muscular guy who can punch out three rednecks with three punches, who is confident enough to wear makeup and headscarves, turns shy when he realizes Jesus is attracted to him. I am not surprised to find that, underneath all the swagger, Lafayette is actually the sweetest girl in town.

The werewolves continue to squick me out. There’s something unclean about them; even Alcide comes across as a little dirty. Maybe it’s because a vampire, in full fang, can still pass for human, but a werewolf in full pelt cannot. As always, the werewolf sets up our back hairs because he represents a distortion of the human form; the vampire is the distortion (or loss) of the soul. The more primitive parts of our brain react most viscerally to the threat to our physicality represented by the shapeshifter; it’s why monsters throughout history are always shown as ugly or deformed. The vampire is a more intellectual threat—if he’s a threat at all. Since Dr. John Polidori first cast the demon-haunted ghoul of classic vampirism into the seductive nobleman with fangs we know today, he’s had an aura of glamor about him—much like the model Dr. Polidori used to begin with, his patron Lord Byron. The vampire is the ultimate Byronic hero—doomed, cynical, reserved, manipulative. Unless, of course, the vampire is Franklin Mott (James Frain, The Tudors).

Mott is a very strange vampire. For one thing, he’s either uncommonly emotional for a vampire, or a master manipulator and actor. When Tara tries to escape and is recaptured, Mott openly weeps tears of blood at her “betrayal”. Through fear and what appears to be outright psychosis, Mott is drawing Tara into a folie-a-deux of terrifying proportions. I want to feel sorry for Tara Reynolds, I really do, but I find myself increasingly impatient with this character. Yes, she is victimized, abused, and betrayed. On the other hand, she gets herself into these situations because she’s unable to control her temper or her lust. I think producer Alan Ball is making a statement of some kind here (because the Tara of the books is completely different). I think he’s making a comparison between the vampires—who scorn human emotions and behave like robots with a thirst—and humans, who are at the mercy of their emotions or their gifts. The dichotomy here is really between the self-control of a human and the lack of control of a child or adolescent. Which makes this a landscape made up of teenage crises, not dramatic moments.

This episode came in at 4.86 million viewers, for a rating of 2.7. This is even better than last week’s 4.7 million viewers, and continues to maintain the show’s average of 4.6 million viewers per episode. These numbers are more than twice as good as the nearest competitor on HBO, Hung. Nor is this playing only to the viewers; True Blood has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. Vampire brides notwithstanding, it looks like a heck of a summer ahead.