If last week's cliffhanger was a bit ambiguous -- did Bill's suggestion to blow up all the Tru Blood factories signal a genuine shift to the dark side, or did he have something bigger up his sleeve? -- this week seemed to erase any doubt that Bill has indeed lost his damn mind. (Or he's playing an incredibly savvy long game.) And that's just one way that the floundering series stepped up its game this week.

For a show severely overstuffed with storylines and characters, "True Blood" can seem maddeningly slow going. It doesn't help that the multitude of plot threads vie for slivers of screen time week after week. But "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" kicked off the season's final third by giving us real progress on several fronts.

In celebration of the forward momentum, I'm departing from the usual Good/Bad breakdown to focus on the four storylines the episode advanced in meaningful ways:

1) The Vampire Authority

Like it or not, this is the season's defining arc. Now that we're at episode nine, I think we can safely crown Salome as the year's primary villain (Chris Meloni's Roman was just a decoy), and depending on what happens in the next three weeks she still has a chance of finishing ahead of season four's Marnie in the Big Bad Rankings. Salome's not going to beat Michelle Forbes' Maryann or Denis O'Hare's Russell, but Valentina Cervi had two good moments this week (the Dance of the Seven Veils/sex scene with Bill where she also revealed a major motivation for her actions is rewriting her place in history, and her climactic moment of triumph when Bill betrayed Eric) and regained some of the alluring mystery she lost by delivering too much clunky dialogue in the last few episodes.

The Authority drama also got a boost from the reintroduction of Tina Majorino's perky techie Molly, now firmly in cahoots with Eric. Given how the episode ended, will Salome punish and dispose of Molly as a traitor, or does she still have a chance at helping Eric get the upper hand? I'm actually hoping she sticks around. Especially compared to the disappointing way the show has developed (or failed to develop) the relationship between Eric and his "sister"/lover Nora, Majorino's fleeting appearances have brought some much welcome light and energy to a murky, lifeless storyline.

2) The Hate Group

While the Vampire Authority has been plotting to wage war on humans, the other side of the extremist coin this season has been the anti-supernatural hate group that shot Sam and Luna, kidnapped Jessica and tried to initiate Hoyt. The big mystery (in theory) has been who's running the show. As many predicted, it turned out to be old Sheriff Bud Dearborne... kinda. Barely used as a regular in the first two seasons, Will Sanderson's Dearborne randomly popped back up two weeks ago, just as the hunt for the hate group's "Dragon" intensified. And in an uncharacteristically swift development, tonight's episode not only revealed Bud as a key figure in the hate group, but also exposed his new girlfriend Sweetie (Jennifer Hasty) as the Dragon. Why? Because her husband left her for a shifter. That's the kind of lame anti-climactic explanation we expect from "True Blood" these days.

What we should be expecting from "True Blood" (but don't often get): lurid craziness like Sam's naked fight with Dearborne and Luna's naked smackdown of Sweetie. Also, rapid resolution: Andy shot Dearborne in the head, Sam saved Sookie's life (again), Sweetie got pummeled by Luna and hate group captive Hoyt wound up getting munched on by pigs. Even though I doubt we're done with the hate group entirely (especially with the Authority ramping up for war), at least we're through treating it like a mystery. (But Hoyt actually dying from pig attacks is probably too much to ask for, right?)

3) The Ifrit

I don't think anyone was ever expecting a great finish to this. The question of what exactly was stalking Terry Bellefleur and the platoon he fought with in Iraq has been a drag on the whole season, subjecting us to cheesy wartime flashbacks, wasting guest star Scott Foley as Terry's corrupt commanding officer and daring us not to laugh at the revelation of a giant smoke monster called the Ifrit. But the good news is, it seems to be over! And Foley finally got something significant to do when Patrick took Arlene hostage at Merlotte's. He also tried to talk Terry out of shooting him. He wasn't successful. And hopefully we can all put this behind us (and Terry and Arlene will decide they need to get the hell out of Bon Temps before falling victim to another half-assed ghost story).

4) The Wolf Pack

One of the season's least exciting storylines sucked a little less this week for two reasons: It barely had any screen time, and what happened was actually interesting. I don't mean Alcide's quest to work out his daddy issues -- I consider that a tangent simply to introduce Robert Patrick in what will probably be another of the show's unsatisfying and irrelevant guest gigs. I mean Russell's visit to the wolf pack which resulted in a confrontation with Martha and the confiscation of Emma (in cute puppy form) as a gift for Russell's new squeeze, Steve. Why those two were roaming free of the Vampire Authority I have no idea (I guess Russell has earned Salome's trust), but anything that gets Russell out into the world again to stir up trouble is a good move.

If there was a downside to all of these advances -- besides the fact that the show is still a long way off from its justifiably Emmy nominated glory days of season two -- it's that four of the best characters were largely on the sidelines. Jessica cried blood over Hoyt's tortured heart, Lafayette helped Sookie contact Gran and led her on the path to Dearborne, and Pam and Tara had their weekly token scenes at Fangtasia (as Pam worried for Eric's safety after the Tru Blood factory explosions), but they were all mostly extraneous to the main events.

Still, any episode of "True Blood" that kills off multiple characters (even if they're guest stars) and provides closure in storylines (even if the closure proves short-lived) is a model for how this show should look more often.

What did you think of this week's episode?