The guiding principle behind “Fire in the Hole” seems to be that if the show can cover enough physical ground and extend its reach over a great enough span of time, that will make up for a set of relationships that have ceased to evolve and a plot that’s freezing up.  There’s a lot of inert dialogue scenes where people try to work out their thoughts and feelings, including one in which Violet expresses her disappointment in her “warrior” Jason for even having thoughts and feelings. (Remembering the day they met, she says that she could tell right away that “you were a man like they used to make them, who lived by a code of honor and dignity, and with an iron-forged c**k!” Stick that on your next Father’s Day card.) These philosophical debates don’t do much for the audience, but hey—there are flashbacks! Bill has his picture taken with his little daughter before heading off to the Civil War, and we get to see Eric’s fateful first encounter with Nan Flanagan and the forces of the Vampire Authority. If little fill-in details like that don’t do much for you, you’re out of luck.

Eric’s flashback is occasioned by Pam tracking him down and finding him infected with the virus and, apparently, at death’s door. He’s in such bad shape that, just looking at him, Pam has tears of blood leaking from her eyes. If it weren’t for that, it would be hard to tell just had sick he is, since the other infected vampires on this show carry on as if they were auditioning for a crowd scene in “28 Days Later,” but Eric’s sickness manifests itself by compelling him to stretch out in a big comfy chair, looking more sexily louche than ever. While Pam is choking back the tears, Eric tells her that being so close to death makes him think about Godric, Nora… why yes, it even makes him think of Sylvie. 

Who the hell is Sylvie? Sylvie was the nice French girl Eric used to bone in her father’s vineyard in 1985, when Nan came around to tell him that "True Blood" was about to hit the market, “mainstreaming” was the wave of the future, and he needed to get with the program. Eric being Eric, he told her to get lost. (Pam being Pam, she gave Nan an appraising look and enquired about her shoes.) So Japanese assassins charged the vineyard, took Eric and Pam prisoner, and ordered Eric to decide which of his two consorts, Pam or Sylvie, he’d get to watch die. He really takes his sweet time making a decision, considering the limited amount of suspense the viewer can feel, since we all know that Pam has been in plenty of episodes of this series and Sylvie, not so much. It’s not as if anyone is sitting on the edge of their seat screaming, “Who will it be? Who? Will? It Be!?”

Eric is so busy settling into death that he has no interest in saving himself, until Pam informs him that Sarah Newlin, the blonde bunny for Christ, is still alive. The news that there’s still someone out there for him to wreak vengeance on inspires Eric to rally. Thanks to the pre-credits sequence, the audience already knew that Sarah is alive, and also that she’s now in Los Angeles, the brunette devotee and bedmate of an affable Indian guru. Snuggling with him after a long day at yoga class, she chatters about having once been “a clueless Christian girl,” adding, “I believed that life on Earth was just an audition to get into Heaven. I never knew that life on Earth could be heaven!” (Her speech seems meant to echo an exchange that Sam, who’s all shook up after his visit to the sits of the vampire massacre at St. Alice, has with Reverend Daniels. The Rev tells him that death is an unfathomable source of fear and despair, but that a life spent anticipating death is no life at all.) Her bliss is short-lived—damned if the Japanese assassins don’t barge in and kill her guru while she’s in another room, picking them out a nice post-coital wine—but the news that Anna Camp’s reappearance on this show is the best news of the night. Here’s hoping that future episodes will give her more to do than cower in the wine cellar and simulate orgasm in close-up.

Elsewhere, things aren’t looking so hot. Having sought Bill out while Alcide is in the shower, Sookie announces that she has a cunning plan to find Holly and Arlene. She wants Bill to drive her out to the rogue vampires’ hunting ground and park his vampire ass high in a tree, watching over her while they wait to see if the hungry vamps will take the bait. It’s about the stupidest plan seen on TV since the last episodes of “F Troop,” but it does provide for lots and lots of time spent out in woods with Sookie and Bill exchanging words of wisdom while waiting for the damn vampires to arrive. (Short version: Yes, Bill, she does love Alcide, not that it’s any of your business. But she’s also torn apart inside from knowing that Alcide loves her just a little bit more than she loves him.) 

The rogue vampires finally do arrive, with a confused Holly in tow. Sookie’s plan goes to hell, naturally, and Bill is about to get staked when pretty much the remaining good-guy population of Bon Temps—Andy, Alcide, Jason, Sam, Jessica, Violet, the whole sick crew—rush in from out of nowhere and pulverize the mean buggers. Just when everyone seems out of harm’s way, some anti-supernatural rednecks plug Alcide between the eyes, which is the crowning touch on tonight’s body count. The list of characters who don’t make it out of this episode alive also includes Hoyt’s mother, whose passing most viewers will probably take pretty well, and Mack, a flamboyantly bitchy gay vampire who is Sam’s protector, and who seems like a promising new character until he’s killed by the gun-waving, Tea Party-style mob who are aiming to “take our town back.” I was just warming up enough to Mack that it’s fairly annoying to realize that he’s only in his one scene to serve as a sacrificial victim to help give Sam time to get away from the mob. At this point, I might miss him more than I will Alcide, though Joe Manganiello does have one classic “True Blood” moment after he’s come out of the shower to find his girlfriend missing and runs through a cemetery at night with his shirt off.

There’s some new pieces of vampire lore parceled out tonight, for those who get excited about that sort of thing. Bill, who has lost his ability to sense when Sookie is in danger, explains that, after being drained dry and then revived at the camp, he has become a different vampire—news that throws Sookie for a loop, so that she asks whether he’s “not the same vampire who did all those horrible things to me.” (She accepts his assurance that, though this is technically the case, he still feels just terrible about those awful things.) And Lafayette gets high with the new James—a puckish fellow who sounds as if his lines are being dubbed by Keanu Reeves—by taking pills and letting James taste his blood. (The new James was forced to step in to replace the old James after the actor who played the role last season reportedly quit rather than participate in same-sex-romance scenes with Lafayette, so there’s not a lot of suspense about where this might be going, either.) This weirdly intimate method of getting a buzz on is necessary for James because vampires, check this out, can’t swallow pills. As Marlon Brando put it in “Last Tango in Paris,” “Good excuse.”

With Alcide out of the picture, will the flames of love engulf Sookie and Bill again? And will Eric and Pam flash back to Texas in 1983, so they can meet the cast of “Halt and Catch Fire”? If Pam can’t teach Cameron how to dress for success...