True Blood's been tough to review since season 3, when it gave up trying to tell two big storylines over a dozen episodes (with subplots as breathing space), and just resorted to dipping into various disconnected stories of very uneven quality. I'm annoyed season 4's following this example, with "You Smell Like Dinner" feeling less like an episode of a TV drama and more like a random pages of a live-action comic-book. It may be easier to tackle things on a character-by-character basis from hereon in, as there's usually no storytelling arc because every hour's a mishmash of happenings.
"Looking for a few good vampire spies, are you?"
There was a fun flashback for Bill (Stephen Moyer), during a trip to London in 1982, where he visited a punk bar and preyed on the bartender without killing him; an act of kindness that drew the attention of vampire bigwig Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck), who it appears has had plans for vampire Bill these past three decades. He agreed to become her spy in the vampire monarchy, if she could find a way to make him King.
It's just about acceptable Flanagan's been tardy about facilitating Bill's rise to power, as 30 years is a trivial timespan for a vampire—and because True Blood's at its best when focusing on vampires, Bill's storyline feels promising to me. Making him the Vampire King of Louisiana is this season's best idea so far, as it separates Bill from his usual role as Sookie's (Anna Paquin) besotted protector.
It was also interesting to see the edgy interplay between Bill and the much older and more experienced Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) in their scenes together, as their positions of power have switched. I also appreciated seeing that Bill already has a spy in the witches coven, as that brought a rare sense of cross-story cohesion to the episode. It was also fun to see Moyer have a reason to speak in his natural English twang—as incongruous as it sounded. As a codicil, did it really take nearly 30 years for synthetic blood to be created?
The witches are the hokiest addition to this season—but they're not outright stupid yet, just a little dull. I quite like the idea the coven Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) are trying to join specialize in "necromancy", which could be used to control vampires, and the moment when head witch Marnie (Fiona Shaw) was possessed by a higher power and protected her people from Eric by giving him amnesia was fun. This means Eric's lost his memories and supercilious personality, and will likely be taken into Sookie's care after she spotted him walking along the roadside (topless, naturally). I'm sure Skarsgård will have fun playing Eric as a sweet, naïve, likable, damaged person. He's one of the few actors who can truly elevate the poorest of material with a natural screen charisma. The magic reset button is already flashing amber, however. Also, a few questions: if the witches become proficient at reanimating the dead, could they perhaps bring a vampire back to normal life? Would such a power be of great interest to someone as a "cure" to the problem the world now believes vampirism to be?
"This ain't got nothing to do with you. I can eat who I want."
They may be stuck in a dull storyline about how the spark's gone out of their relationship, but saucy vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and redneck Hoyt (Jim Parrack) can just about manage to keep you engaged with a seemingly trivial subplot. It helps that The show missed its chance to capitalize on the unexpected popularity of wild child Jessica last year, but it's trying to make amends by having Jessica visit Fangtasia to feed on attractive men in toilet cubicles as a way of injecting some excitement into her nights. There's also a loose feeling that haughty vampire Pam (Kristen Bauer) and Sookie are positioned as maternal figures for Jessica, a character who tends to need guidance and direction as she struggles through life (and death).
"It's not that I don't appreciate all the licking, cuz I do, but I'm more of a Band-Aid kind of guy."
I have no idea what Jason's (Ryan Kwanten) story is about, as I don't remember his girlfriend Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher) being a villain last season, but this wouldn't be the first time my memory of True Blood's let me down. Or did something happen between them in the year we haven't seen between seasons? Now she has Jason tied to a bed, intending for him to become the unwilling sperm donor for a were-panther she wants to raise with her infertile new boyfriend Felton (James Harvey Ward). It's a storyline so terrible and nonsensical it actually makes me angry. Jason was once a highlight of True Blood (a welcome dose of likeability and comic-relief), but he's now one of the characters whose storyline you're tempted to fast-forward through. It's a terrible shame.
Terry (Todd Lowe) and Arlene (Carrie Preston) reprised the scene they performed last week, for all intents and purposes, with Arlene still convinced her baby's the unnerving spawn of a psychopath, as Terry does his best to calm his wife down. Only now the baby demonstrated the ability to give Arlene a bloodshot eye? Or was that just a sign of Arlene's stress? Whatever, I don't care about any of this. It would make no sense if the baby is dangerous, and it'll be a waste of time if the baby is normal, so either way this story's headed nowhere good.
"If I’d had a teacher like you, I might've made it past the ninth grade."
Last season's finale included a scene where Sam (Sam Trammell) shot his ne'er-do-well brother Tommy (Marshall Allman), but season 4 wants us to forget all that because the rational fallout is too downbeat. Sam was headed into very dark territory—even given a criminal background—and the writers have maybe thought better of it. There are already signs the shape-shifting siblings are going to patch things up, Sam has yet another ridiculously attractive girlfriend who likes to get naked called Luna (Janina Gavankar), and there's a "support group" of shifters who like to gallop around as horses and tell stories around a campfire. Of particular note, we learned that shifters can assume the shape of humans once they've killed one, as Luna can now transform into her dead mother (who tragically died giving birth to her). Expect that to figure into the story at some point, obviously. Is Sam destined to kill his brother and have to assume his identity to keep up a pretense, or something? Or will Tommy learn this esoteric shifting secret and decide his life would be improved by killing Sam and becoming his brother?
"Now go clean yourself up. You're covered in queen."
The prize for most pointless storyline surely belongs to Sheriff Andy (Chris Bauer), who arrived at the Sure Shot residence pretending he's there to arrest dealers of vampire blood, while actually angling to be given a fix by his dealer Felton. Andy's a character the writers struggle to find worthwhile material to (despite having made him Sheriff last season), as he's too dumb to solve the town's crimes, so they've basically given him a V-blood addiction story we've seen Jason and Lafayette go through already. It's a sad waste of Bauer's talents.
"You Smell Like Dinner" was another mixed bag effort. Sometimes it feels like a successful episode of True Blood is only one that contains enough good stuff to eclipse your short-term memory of the bad, and this episode was close to tipping the scale in that favour, but didn't quite manage it. I wouldn't say I was ever bored, because the show's at least understands it has to keep things nimble when dealing with so many plots over an hour. If a particularly tiresome or annoying subplots rears its head, you only have to grin and bear if for a maximum of three minutes, which helps enormously. It's just a shame True Blood keeps trying to make the most of a large ensemble cast there isn't enough good material for, who are usually nudged to the sidelines anyway because every season introduces even more townsfolk, in case anyone's getting bored. Whether or not it's purely a creative decision, or something that's unavoidable because the "core cast" are all contracted for multiple years, I don't know... but I do know it's damaging the show.
written by Brian Buckner / directed by Scott Winant / 3 July 2011 / HBO