Alan Ball’s True Blood has returned to HBO with all its moaning cellos, berserker sex, and hyperstylized squick intact. The series, based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire novels, struck a chord with audiences in its first season, becoming HBO’s third most-watched show of all time, trailing only The Sopranos and Sex in the City. Still, many series stumble in their sophomore years, and the ubiquitous online ad campaign for Season 2 irritated more than a few people. Have Ball’s vampires overstayed their invitation?
Brief Season 1 recap, for the uninitiated: Following the invention of synthetic blood in a Japanese lab, vampires have “come out of the coffin,” revealing their existence to the world at large. Many want to live normalish lives, drinking TruBlood and other punny beverages instead of people. One of these mainstreamers, a Civil War-era vampire named Bill Compton, returns to his ancestral home of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Serendipitously, Bon Temps is the current residence of one Sookie Stackhouse, a psychic waitress who chafes at the constant onslaught of her friends’ and neighbors’ barbed, banal, everyday thoughts. Sookie warms instantly to Bill, the first vampire she’s ever met, largely because she can’t read his undead thoughts. Sexiness ensues.
If Sookie and Bill’s tumultuous romance is the sweaty spine of the series, the secondary characters are the real meat. Cases in point: 1) Tara Thornton, Sookie’s brilliant and angry childhood best friend, who has nursed a long-time crush on 2) Jason Stackhouse, Sookie’s dim but affable slut of a brother who buys aphrodisiac vampire blood from 3) Lafayette Reynolds, flamboyant dealer, prostitute, and short-order cook at the bar and grill owned by 4) Sam Merlotte, secret shapeshifter and not-so-secret admirer of Sookie. By rights, most of these characters should be cardboard: they’re certainly built on stereotypical foundations. But the actors embody them so vividly, the writers convey a sense of interiority so well, that every character shines.
In their first round of adventures, Sookie stopped a murderer who targeted female “fangbangers,” Bill killed anything that gave Sookie a funny look, and Tara’s mother entangled her in a sham exorcist’s scam. Meanwhile, Jason got hooked on vampire blood and was frequently imprisoned, Sam turned into a wimpy little dog now and then, and Lafayette pissed off some Republicans. Consequences included Bill being forced to make and raise a new vampire to replace a guy he staked in defense of Sookie, Jason thinking that maybe God had a plan for him, and Lafayette disappearing. Also, Tara took up residence with a mysterious, supernatural “social worker.”
Whew. All caught up. Now to the new stuff.
We pick up right where season 1 left off: outside Merlotte’s, after hours, in the most dangerous parking lot in Louisiana. There’s a body in the back of Detective Bellefleur’s car, and its nail-polished foot looks an awful lot like Lafayette’s. Sookie and Tara unload their best B-movie screams, and the detective grunts his drunken distress.
“Oh God,” Tara begs, channeling the audience, “please don’t let that be Lafayette.” Of course, it has to be Lafayette, right? Last season, we watched him touch up his nail polish shortly before someone attacked him behind Merlotte’s. Besides, his body turns up in this exact way in Season 2’s source book, Living Dead in Dallas.
Except it’s totally not Lafayette. Poor Miss Jeanette, the sham exorcist, gets the least dignified TV death of all time—not because she’s had her heart ripped out and her corpse stuffed in a car, but because the entire audience is cheering. Loudly. In the first two minutes of the season, Ball completely subverts the source text, stuns the show’s fans by giving them exactly what they want, and then cues the theme song.
Not a bad start!
So where do the rest of our old friends stand? Bill’s trying to be a good vampire dad, teaching Jessica, his new charge and makee, that we recycle in this house, dammit. (White bin for paper, blue bin for bottles of blood.) He’s also trying to figure out how to tell Sookie that he has a new teenage charge and makee. These Parent Trap sequences with Jessica—who takes childish petulance and cranks it to the same eleven as everything else on the show—could easily become sort of tired and one-note, but so far they work beautifully. The recycling scene alone made me laugh harder and more often than most straight comedies manage in a full episode.
Sam, meanwhile, is reduced to doggy hysterics by the appearance of Maryann Forester. He shovels cash into a trash bag and has several expository flashbacks, in which we learn that young Sam (who turned into an even wimpier little dog) once tried to steal a lot of wretched art and jewelry from the supernatural “social worker.” Maryann caught him, however, and the two had unpleasant-looking supernatural sex. Afterward, Puppy Sam found a stack of bills sensibly hidden in her bedroom drawer, yoinked the cash, and bolted. Terrified Present Day Sam tries to return the money with interest, but Maryann shuts him down. “I’m not here for you,” she says.
No, she’s here for Tara, who thankfully seems to be coming even more to the fore this season. In this first episode she deals with the fallout of Miss Jeanette’s murder and further explores Maryann’s palatial Greek dreamland. The pseudo-voodoo lady’s death (rather, the subsequent police investigation) forces Tara to confront her mother with the uncomfortable revelation that Miss Jeanette was a scam artist. That’s wrenching enough, but then Maryann shows up to deliver a truly vicious telling-off to Lettie Mae, one of two genuinely painful moments in the episode.
Later, at the Palatial Estate, Tara cozies up to Maryann’s other guest, Eggs, who is sensitive, ludicrously attractive, and has a dark past. So, you know, no pending romance here. The butler interrupts a near-kiss between Eggs and Tara, for which Maryann later backhands him across a room. We get a pretty strong sense that Maryann is in Bon Temps to make Tara as happy as possible, with all the good and ill that implies, and surely to some sinister purpose. There’s a fairy tale quality to this subplot that makes for a nice change of pace between bouts of Southern Gothic, and I can’t wait to see where Ball and company take it.
Over at Casa Stackhouse, Jason’s feeling a bit Christian. When he was imprisoned for one of the various murders he didn’t commit last season, anti-vampire evangelical group The Fellowship of the Sun paid Jason a visit to tell him that he was Special, Chosen, Beloved, etc. Now that he’s alive and free and sober, he’s thinking God must truly have a plan for him. Jason meets Reverend Newlin, the Fellowship’s aw shucks celebrity leader, and is quickly recruited for a costly “leadership conference.”
Sookie’s mostly just frowny-faced about things for the entire episode. You know what, though? She infinitely more relatable here than most of last season. She finally gets around to dealing with her grandmother’s old possessions in one of the most heartbreaking scenes the series has produced. A novel sits half-read on the old woman’s bed; an incomplete bit of knitting waits in a chair. Sookie makes a “keep” and “Goodwill” box, but struggles to put anything into the latter.
She also gets into two separate fights with her undead lover, both of which pack more pathos than the couple’s usual spats. Bill’s short-lived efforts to conceal Jessica from Sookie finally unravel, and she, um, doesn’t take his secret-keeping well. To compound the misery, Bill’s murder of Sookie’s abusive uncle comes to light, and she’s none too pleased about that, either. Still, after some passionate monologuing, Bill and Sookie reconcile and engage in a bout of vigorous make-up sex that takes the whole concept of fluid exchange to previously unscaled heights.
Last but certainly not least: Lafayette. When we see him again (yay!) he’s trapped in a Saw-flavored room underground, chained with other gaunt bodies to a ceiling-mounted carousel from hell. There’s a single toilet in the room, so when one prisoner needs to go, everyone has to turn the giant creaking wheel of misfortune until the party in question reaches the loo. Mysterious figures periodically bring in new prisoners and carry out the old, but Lafayette has so far managed to avoid being taken away.
One of the new arrivals turns out to be a former Merlotte’s customer who, last season, made the enormous mistake of spilling some bigotry on both Lafayette and his food. Dumb Customer tries (hilariously and even sort of touchingly) to confide in Lafayette, and both men wonder what on Earth they could’ve done to end up in such a place. We’ve naturally assumed that Republican basements just look like this, but alas, no. Irritated by Dumb Customer’s moans and confessions, vampire sheriff Eric Northman enters the dungeon in a green smock, his rock star locks pinned up and primed for highlights. This is vampire jail!
Eric begins to question Dumb Customer about a bit of anti-vamp arson, but is interrupted when the dude makes his last enormous mistake, jabbing a cross into the sheriff’s eye. Dude makes a run for it, but Eric grabs him, lifts him bodily into the air, and tears out the guy’s midriff with his teeth. At the time, this was the most graphic thing I’d seen on HBO, but it was instantly supplanted by a shadow play of Eric dismembering the poor, stupid arsonist, roaring like he’s in a Toho film and flinging limbs with abandon. Lafayette makes the same face you would make.
If you’ve seen the first season (or, hell, even if you haven’t), you probably already know whether or not the show’s for you. So the real question becomes, “Is True Blood still itself?” The answer: yes, resoundingly, and more so than before. Everything that distinguishes this series from the adolescent, puppy-eyed competition is distilled; the emotion is more powerful, the plot and pulp violence farther over the top, the reality heightened even further. Every Louisiana accent is worse than you remember.
But it seems to me that Ball and company are out to produce something a little deeper this time, too. The question of fulfillment runs through each new subplot, articulated in a broad range of ways. Jason looks to religion for a sense of purpose he’s never felt before. Tara’s desires are realized before her eyes, and reckoning with that will likely be difficult. Lafayette’s tired self-reflection is one of the best moments his character has gotten, and it seems to establish the emotional timbre of the season. “The drugs, the sex, the website,” he says. “I did it so my life wouldn’t be a dead end. And this is where I end up? What kind of punchline is that?”
Well, at least he’s still with us.
Episode Grade: 9 out of 10