Alan Ball launched "True Blood" as a romantic horror show, laced with caustic wit and social satire (vampires were finally "coming out" of their coffins around the world, demanding equal rights). He gave us two (or arguably two and half) seasons of reliably entertaining summer escapism. And now Ball leaves "True Blood" in the worst state it has ever been: an overcrowded, emotionally empty, frustrating, convoluted, nonsensical mess.

Tonight's chaotic fifth season finale was Ball's swan song with the series (at least in full-time capacity) and carried his writing credit. Here was one last chance for Ball to play around with the characters, bring couples together or drive them apart, prove to us that "True Blood" still has some magic lurking under the shambles it has become. And what did we get? A big, fat middle finger to the fans, the cast and whoever else Ball's ditching with his exit.

Alan Ball has left the building ladies and gentleman, and if you don't get the message it's time to follow him out the door, well, you're just not paying attention. After all, the title of the episode was "Save Yourself."

Writing on a weekly basis about "True Blood" this season has been an exercise in finding new ways to complain about the same problems. We all knew the Ifrit story was junk from the beginning (long before we knew it was even about an Ifrit), we wanted Pam and Tara's newfound relationship to be explored in more than one or two scenes per episode segregated from the rest of the action, and we quickly caught on that the Vampire Authority wasn't going to be a road worth taking, let alone worth hanging an entire season on. If you watch "True Blood" because you're hooked on Sookie's love life, you enjoy the characters bouncing off each other in fun and unpredictable ways, you love guest villains chewing the scenery, or you simply dig an unapologetic embrace of the "It's Not TV, It's HBO" philosophy toward sex scenes ... this was not a season of "True Blood" for you.

So much of what once made the series a pleasure (guilty or not) has either vanished or dissolved into something resembling that gooey mess vampires leave behind when they're staked. The gooey mess was all over tonight's finale, which sent a number of vamps to their true death: Russell (staked by Eric before the opening credits in an exit far less thrilling than his burial at the end of season three), Rosalyn, Salome, Chelsea the Vampire Authority receptionist, any number of Vampire Authority guards (this really wasn't a good week to work for the Authority) and ultimately Bill himself in the customary "super shocking!" season ending cliffhanger.

Wait, WHAT!? THEY KILLED BILL!? AND YOU'RE ONLY MENTIONING IT NOW?!? No, silly, they didn't really kill Bill. Instead of trying to trick the audience into thinking he was dead until next season (like they did with Tara last year), the "True Blood" masterminds went ahead and gave us a sneak preview of the new Bill: emerging naked and blood soaked from the remains of the old Bill, who had slurped down Lilith's blood moments before. There's the major arc of the season right there: Bill's transformation from the most sensitive, remorseful and valiant vampire Sookie Stackhouse had ever known into a fangs-out monster corrupted by a fanatical religion and what Pam informed us just last week was "nesting" behavior.

Why? Why do this to one of your main characters and the man established from the beginning as a soulmate for your heroine? Well, these days on "True Blood" the answer is rarely more thoughtful than "Why not?"

I'd guess Stephen Moyer isn't really complaining. Bill may have appealed to the hardcore romantics, but when Alexander Skarsgard's Eric arrived as the cocky bad boy alternative (with a heart of gold, encased in stone), it was pretty clear that Bill was kind of boring. He'd have funny lines here and there, and I always thought he had great, apparently very real, chemistry with Anna Paquin.

But "True Blood" is barely a show about relationships anymore. It's about Big Crazy Things Happening, sometimes stretched out over far too many episodes (like the Ifrit or Sookie's ongoing visits to Fairy Land), sometimes happening far too quickly to make any sense (Roman's dead! Tara's in love with Pam!). These Crazy Things are supposed to impact the relationships -- shake them up, threaten them, strengthen them  -- but with the focus spread so thin over so many storylines and characters, that impact keeps getting smaller and smaller. And when you spend an entire season sending Bill on a downward spiral that makes no sense given everything we know about the character, and you don't even let Sookie in on what's happening until the season finale, how are we supposed to share in her emotional devastation?



Sorry, Sookie, we don't get it either, but with no end in sight for this show someone decide Bill can't always be trying to do the right thing for vampire kind. Time to try something else, like turning him into religious zealot and monstrous maniac!

Anyone can go completely insane on "True Blood" at any moment these days. I'm sure even Sookie will get her walk on the wild side before the series ends. There could be a danger in that, and it could even make the show the sort of sexy, frightening, complex soap it aspires to be. But as Ball departs, "True Blood" is just a cartoon. Jason sees visions of his dead parents urging him to kill vampires, Alcide gets high on vampire blood and pummels his way to Wolf Pack leader, Sheriff Andy becomes daddy to a litter of half-human/half-fairy babies, Luna might be dying after skinwalking her way through a live TV appearance as Steve Newlin, and Lafayette makes Cajun margaritas.

Does any of this bode well for season six?

There's only one answer: Save yourself.