Despite all evidence to the contrary, “True Blood” would like to give you what you want from it. This is not a Brechtian experiment in raising awareness of the audience’s desire to have its feelings manipulated in the name of “entertainment” by frustrating and disappointing us at every turn; at its best, it’s a robust sexy horror comedy made by HBO pros. But it’s been having trouble being scary and funny—intentionally, anyway—because of creative exhaustion, or the contempt that’s bred by familiarity, or because Alan Ball has left the building. Or maybe its priorities are just screwed up. “I Found You” opens with a languorously paced scene in which Jason Stackhouse tracks down Eric, standing in front of a window with his shirt open, as if practicing his moodiness. “Why’d you come here, Jason?” asks Eric “I came because I knew you’d ask that f***ing question,” replies Jason, who accuses Eric of running away to escape their undeniable, unspoken passion for each other: “Ah cain’t get you out of mah head,” he drawls. “But you probably hear that a lot, don’t you?” The two end up in a fierce and shirtless lip lock.
The Harlequin Romance-level steaminess and Velveeta-smooth camerawork are part of the tip-off that this is a dream, along with the fact that Eric was last seen high on a snowy mountaintop, bursting into flames. But whose dream is it? My first thought was that it was Sookie’s, and that her unconscious had cast her brother in the starring role because it still needs that much distance from a clear-cut admission of her desire for Eric. But it’s Jason’s dream, and for that extra little blasphemous thrill, he’s having it while napping in a church pew. Where is this coming from? If Jason really does have the hots for Eric, isn’t the most potentially interesting aspect of this new wrinkle in his libido how it might affect his relationship with his vampire mistress, Violet, with whom he did it in the road at the end of last week’s episode? But Violet doesn’t even make an appearance tonight, and she’s mentioned only in passing, in Jason’s dream; he says that he’s “crazy about herm” before throwing his jacket on the floor and unbuckling Eric’s pants. The scene comes from nowhere, connects to nothing, and who knows if it’ll lead anyplace. In the context of this episode, it’s just a smirky, “fun” way for the show to reaffirm its commitment to what a Slate critic calls its “queer legacy.”
In the real world, the hunt continues for the vampires who made off with Holly, Arlene, and all those other bodies without names. Andy confesses his frustration over not knowing how to “narrow the search.” Sookie, taking a breather from looking downcast over all the hateful messages coming over her telepathic CB antenna, announces that she has an idea. “I found a dead girl in the woods last night,” she says. “I didn’t recognize her, just like I didn’t recognize a single one of those vampires. So what if they came from another town, and brought the girl with her?” Whatever else you can say about “True Blood”, it’s still the only show where the line “I found a dead girl in the woods last night” is likely to turn out to just be the pretext for a road trip. Having deduced that the girl is from the nearby town of St. Alice, a posse consisting of Andy, Sookie, Sam, Jason, and Alcide head out to see what’s what. Before they leave, Sam, in the folksiest touch on this show in many a moon, asks that everyone set to work tidying up the restaurant, so that it’ll look nice for Arlene after the rescue. (He has an ulterior motive: he hopes that giving the citizens a busywork project will keep them from lapsing into hysteria and despair.) Sookie, seeing the words “The Brutal Indifference of Life” on a tombstone, is moved to deliver a soliloquy on the theme. I missed most of it, because I was trying to remember if “The Brutal Indifference of Life” was the title of a “True Detective” episode.
Unsurprisingly, Sam’s master plan backfires. (One consequence of the time-jump at the end of last season is that we totally missed out on Sam’s honeymoon period as mayor.) His old political enemy Vince sets right to work, stirring up trouble, telling everyone that the local powers that be, Sam and Andy, have abandoned them. Someone suggests that they be “good citizens” and just keeping fixing up the restaurant, but Vince is all like, screw that noise, let’s get ourselves armed and ready for the coming storm. All of a sudden, the dangerously spooked people of Bon Temps appear to be functioning as a metaphor for Tea Party America. Vince also mentions that Sam can change into a dog when the spirit moves him. “Damn,” says Hoyt’s mother, “I knew it! And all this time, I was blaming it on the Nyquil.” Adilyn telepathically intuits that the mob is going to charge the police station and raid the supply of guns, so she runs to the sheriff’s office.
The only remaining police officer in Bon Temps, Kenya, a black woman cop I don’t remember ever really noticing before, is holding down the fort. At first, she’s not too impressed with Adilyn’s psychic hunch, but then we get a long close-up of Kenya’s face as she thinks harder on it, and then she agrees to protect the arsenal from the townspeople. Then the mob shows up, and Vince announces, “We’re here for the guns that are part of our Second Amendment right to not ne f****ed over by our government!” (He’s already riled up the townspeople with his battle cry, “This town is full of vampires, has a dog for mayor, and is being preached at by a telepath.” How did this guy lose the mayoral race to Sam? He’s a one-man bumper sticker factory.) Kenya tells him to shove it, and says that if he and the rest of these crazies had been packing heat the night before, “this whole town would be dead.”
Then a young black woman who I also don’t remember ever really noticing before steps up and calmly talks to Kenya, asking if she really feels good about putting herself between a mob and the gun room for a white sheriff who left her alone in a town going to hell, who reserves the plum assignments for Jason Stackhouse, a white boy with less experience “and a quarter of your I.Q.” Kenya gets another close-up, chews this over, and turns on a dime, telling the townspeople to help themselves. Kenya gets a whole season’s worth of character development t and role reversals in this one scene, and when Adilyn expresses her displeasure over her betrayal by hitting her with a blast of pink faerie light that blows her against the wall, she even gets in some stunt work. This is followed by a scene that’s like a Piers Morgan nightmare: the gibbering, idiot townspeople get their hands on the guns and lose their minds from the feeling of lethal power in their hands, cackling and shooting up the joint. I’m no gun fancier myself, but this liberal fever dream is so crude and over-the-top that it’s a little embarrassing. After all, the male heroes on this show—Bill, Eric, and Alcide—get into violent, physically dangerous situations all the time, and the idea of any of them getting a gun never comes up, not because they’re philosophically opposed to killing, but because they can usually just rip their enemies’ heads off with their bare hands.
Luckily, Arlene and Holly aren’t just sitting around the basement at Fangtasia, watching their vampire captors tear through the supply of Redshirts and waiting to be rescued. They have a cunning plan. Arlene has recognized one of the vampires, Betty, as one of her old schoolteachers, and “she recognized me, too. She was going to pick me, but then saw me, and she picked Belinda instead.” There’s a lesson worth waking the kids up to hear: make a good impression on your school teachers, you never know when it’ll pay off. Sucks to be Belinda, though. Arlene tells Holly, “I did not survive four lousy husbands, a serial killer boyfriend, and the sordid suicide of my love, Terry, to die in the dingy basement of a vampire bar.” I waited for her to say something about how her other love broke her heart by faking his own death for her own protection and then the bad guys came after her anyway, but then I remembered that was on “Person of Interest.” (Carrie Preston: a Little Nell for our times, with a henna rinse.)
Betty agrees to help Arlene and Holly sneak away while the other vamps are asleep. But first, she needs to feed. She tells Arlene that she should bite her in the femoral artery, because then, if the other vampires catch them, they won’t see the bite marks and know something’s up. The viewer knows the real reason is so she can stick her head between Arlene’s legs and suck away noisily, because, again, “queer legacy,” but she can’t very well say that. She does it, though, and then, she, well, blackens and liquefies, melting into a puddle of nasty-looking goo. If that’s a metaphor for something, it’s very important to me that I never figure out what.
Meanwhile, Andy, Sookie, and the rest of the Bon Temps chapter of the Scooby Gang have arrived at their destination and found it to be a ghost town. They wander through empty streets full of boarded-up houses, with messages such as “PRAY FOR US SINNERS NOW AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATHS” and “S.O.S.” painted on the walls and rooftops. It has the elements of a really creepy scene, but it’s partly spoiled by how fresh and shiny everything looks; abandoned towns full of eerie messages are more unsettling when it looks as if the elements have been at work there. It also doesn’t help that one of the messages reads “FEMA SAVE US,” and that Sam flat-out says that he never would have believed that “our government would leave us for dead.” The Katrina analogy would work much better if it were allowed to invade the viewers’ consciousness subliminally, instead of pounding it in with a sledgehammer. (Though there is a great moment when Jason eats a piece of pizza that’s sitting on the kitchen table in an empty house and announces, “Two and a half days.”)
There’s a tug of war going on inside this show, between its honest impulse to reward long-term viewers with some time spent with their favorite characters, and a showboating urge to be seen as making powerful statements about big, real-world events. It’s most palpable in the string of reunion scenes that wrap up the episode. Tara’s death has been a windfall for her mother, Lettie Mae, in terms of screen time, but most of her scenes haven’t been much fun. Since her vampire bodyguard, Willa, allowed her to drink her blood for its healing properties, she’s been conversing with her dead daughter, and finally presses her hand against a hot skillet as an excuse to get another taste. (When she interrupts Willa’s slumber, Willa hisses, throws her against a wall, and begins throttling her, then says, “I am so sorry, I’ve never been woken up before.”) This gives her a vision of Tara hanging on a cross with an enormous CGI snake wrapped around her. Is Lettie Mae having religious visions, as she seems to believe, or the hallucinations of a drug addict?
It’s hard to say, and not that easy to care; Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, works like a saint, but addiction and religious nuttiness are two subjects that this show has already worked to the nub. Love that refuses to die is another subject that it has ridden around the block a few times, but it may have a little life left in it. Before leaving the ghost town, Sookie finds a diary by a woman who loved and lost a vampire, and who recounts how things spiraled out of control with the infected vampire population in St. Alice. The diarist’s tale of forbidden love causes Sookie to flash back to happier times for herself, Bill, and this show, and that night, after gently deflecting Alcide’s advances, she goes to see Bill, to ask if he would still sense it if she were in danger. Meanwhile, Pam has found Eric, in France, sitting in a house looking dissolute and depressed and acting like a fang tease. (A young lovely walks past Pam as she enters, complaining that the handsome man has no interest in drinking her blood.) “True Blood” is choking on metaphor glut, and it can keep its religious visions to itself, but it is still possible to get hooked wondering what these characters will say to each other after a long time apart.
Is Lettie Mae going nuts? Is Jason about to dump Violet and hop on the next plane to France? And how cheap are houses about to be going for in St. Alice? Which of these many new plot threads do you have pegged for a non-starter?