Last week, "True Blood" went on a killing spree, dispatching major characters and lesser recurring characters and bit players and new characters—including a few that had potential, such as Sarah Newlin’s guru boyfriend—with an indiscriminating, bland casualness. The only loss that was supposed to mean anything was the unexpected, last-minute killing of Alcide, but his shooting—at the hands of a couple of random gun nuts, just after he’d appeared from out of nowhere to help rescue Sookie from the infected vamps—was such a hectic mess, and carried so little dramatic weight, that the only real emotion came from the slow, mournful version of Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” that played under the closing credits. 

Surprisingly, tonight’s episode begins with an effort at closure, as if real lives had been cut short, or at least as if real characters the audience cares about had been trimmed from the cast roster. In the opening sequence, Sookie phones Alcide’s father, Jackson, to tell him the sad news, then calls Hoyt to let him that his mother has died, at the hands of a vampire, no less. The scenes are static and ponderous, and unless they’re setting up a big revenge subplot, they serve only to throw a few handfuls of dirt on the graves of characters the show has left behind in its wake, getting this episode off to the opposite of a rousing start. In a later scene, Sam and Jason visit Rosie, the 911 operator, to tell her that Kevin is dead. 

Rosie is now part of Vince’s anti-supernatural posse, and when she sees Sam on her doorstep, she sneers at him and calls him a monster. But when he gives her the bad news, she melts and allows him to comfort her, crying while he gives her a hug. Later, we see her with Vince and a bunch of his goons, and she callously says that her decision to let Sam in her house was only a “momentary lapse of weakness.” This show would feel a lot faster on its feet if it spent devoted less time to showing characters saying and doing things that don’t lead anywhere and that they themselves later insist didn’t mean anything. (The whole long scene between Sam, Jason, and Rosie is really just there to explain how a member of Vince’s gang has come to learn the whereabouts of the infected vamps, so that the vigilantes can be included in the climactic storming of Fangtasia.)

Once again, a huge chunk of the episode consists of late-breaking backstory, delivered in the form of flashbacks. We learn how Eric came to become the sheriff of Shreveport; back in 1986, he and Pam were delivered there at the behest of Zeljko Ivanek’s vampire Magister, who offers that hoariest and least convincing of explanations for why someone has been placed in a situation by someone who doesn’t like him: the Vampire Authority doesn’t trust Eric and regards him as a potential threat, so rather than kill him or lock him up somewhere, they’ve decided to put him in a position of authority, so as to “keep him close.” Eric and Pam find themselves running a video-rental store with a respectable façade, though it does most of its business renting dirty movies. “Humans love their porn,” says the Magister. That had better be intended as an in-joke. (It’s not as funny as Pam’s horrified gasp when she sees the tacky, VHS-tape-filled room that is to be her new purgatory.)

Eric and Pam sweat it out for ten years, until Eric, to judge by his ‘90s-flashback hair and wardrobe, is deep into his Doc Severinson phase. That’s when Ginger shows up. In 1996, she’s an impressionable college student with a syllabus of avant-bloodsucker movies to load up on: Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers”, David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”, Guillermo del Toro’s “Cronos.” (More movie trivia arrives through the side door, when she drives up blaring “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a song that always conjures up memories of Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie shopping for trendy hot pockets at the disco in “The Hunger.”) Ginger takes a job at the video store and, after a few more years pass, comes up with the idea to convert the space into a sexy vampire hotspot, with Eric perched atop his tacky throne. She even comes up with the name “Fangtasia.” 

Pam likes the whole package so much that she glamours Ginger and proceeds to tell Eric it was all her idea. It should be; it’s disappointing to think that Eric and Pam needed anyone’s help, let alone Ginger’s, to realize that they needed to be in the hot-and-sweaty vampire-roadhouse business, and it’s all the more depressing to imagine that they were in Shreveport for 20 years, glumly lining up cassette boxes and DVD cases and hiding their light until a barrel, without mustering up the imagination or ambition to come up with a better use of their talents. If the show invested in this set-up just for the sake of the punch line of showing how Ginger started out on her eventual road of being serial-glamoured into a hollow shell casing, it wasn’t worth it.

The episode keeps circling back to the main plot, which concerns Sookie reaching into the murky depths of Holly’s mind to find out that Arlene and Nicole are being held at Fangtasia, then rustling up a rescue team. It includes Jason, Sam, and Bill, along with all the vampires Bill can recruit: basically, just the usual suspects and a couple of unfamiliar faces. (Sookie has already browbeaten Jessica, who hasn’t eaten in months and took a bullet in the shoulder last week, into agreeing to feed on Lafayette so that she can regain her strength and be of some use.) Eric and Pam show up just in time to take part, and Eric ropes Willa into coming on board, too. Everyone is unstrung by the news that Eric has contracted “the virus,” and there’s a fairly funny scene of Eric, trying to prove that he’s as tough as he ever was, repeatedly punching at a back wall of Fangtasia’s while everyone politely stands around humoring him. But lives are at stake and time is precious, so Bill finally steps in and reduces the wall to rubble with one punch.

The last several minutes are a long, drawn-out bloody mess, with our heroes laying waste to both the infected vamps and Vince and his merry band. In the course of all this bloody carnage, Arlene is pulled back from the brink of death after being nearly drained, despite her eagerness to follow Terry into the light. (Todd Lowe gets a brief, spectral, bathed-in-heavenly-light cameo, checking in from the other side to tell Arlene that he loves her and looks forward to seeing her again someday, but right now, she needs to stay on this terrestrial plane and watch after her kids.) So, the upshot is that we’re four episodes into the season, and two extremely ineffectual groups of bad guys—the infected vamps and Vince’s militia—have been put down, leaving things wide open between now and the series finale. 

On the plus side, Eric finally gets a few funny lines. (Seeing Bill for the first time in months, he says amiably, “Pam tells me you wrote a book in which you claim not to be an asshole anymore. Is this true, Bill?” Then he fills Sookie in on his vacation: “First I went home to Sweden, which was beautiful. But unfortunately, I triggered an avalanche that killed an entire ski village. Things got a little hectic after that.”) And as Jason, Ryan Kwanten continues to show that he can be funny no matter what condition his lines are in. But all in all, this was very likely the least interesting episode of “True Blood” ever. If not the worst.

Has “True Blood” hit rock bottom? And if it has, is it going to rally and reinvent itself once more, or just stretch out and get comfortable down there? Who’s taking bets on which characters who have died, this season and in seasons past, will make it back for one more bow before the curtain falls?