Tuesday, 13 September 2011

TRUE BLOOD, 4.12 – "And When I Die"

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

True Blood's finales have never been good, although season 1's at least bothered to act as the pinnacle of various stories and didn't squash every significant event into the first half-hour. "And When I Die" was another of this show's bizarre season enders, where everything's wrapped up surprisingly early and 20-minutes is spent laboriously setting up future events. Maybe this is done because Alan Ball knows True Blood's guaranteed another season months in advance, but I just don't understand the thinking from a creative perspective. This wasn't really a story here, just a collection of scenes, most with nothing gluing them together. It was like director Scott Winant grabbed some half-written script notes from the writers' room, shuffled them into a random order, and filmed them as best he could. I can't deny there were a few moments teasing season 5's storylines that were unexpected and made me grin with anticipation, but as a piece of storytelling "And When I Die" was undisciplined, disorganized, and hugely flawed.

Ghost witch Marnie (Fiona Shaw) has possessed Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and proceeds to siphon Jesus' (Kevin Alejandro) own magical abilities, giving her the power to capture Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) and tie them to a stake to be burned alive. This impressive capture was dealt with off-screen, which felt particularly unforgivable because it's not like the episode didn't have enough time available. Even worse, Marnie was defeated by Sookie (Anna Paquin), Holly (Lauren Bowles) and Tara (Rutina Wesley) somehow having the knowledge to raise helpful dead spirits, which includes witch Antonia (Paola Turbay) and Sookie's grandmother (Lois Smith)—the latter of whom seemed oddly indifferent about meeting her beloved granddaughter again. Marnie was persuaded to stop killing, mostly by assuring her the afterlife will wash away all her bad feeling towards the vampires and bullies in her life. I don't know, to me this was a good example of True Blood scrambling for resolution and, while the idea of raising the dead to defeat Marnie's spirit was cool in theory, in execution it was underwhelming.

With that done, practically everything else was tying up a few loose ends, and laying groundwork for season 5. Sam (Sam Trammell) went to his brother's grave and reunited with his girlfriend and her daughter, assumedly giving him a family dynamic next year; Jason (Ryan Kwanten) confessed to best-friend Hoyt (Jim Parrack) that he's slept with Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), and the fallout was curiously muted considering we've spent half a season on this story; Jessica later fulfilled a weird Red Riding Hood fetish by visiting Jason's house in a red cloak and lingerie (giving the alabaster-skinned actress her first topless sex scene, for those watching purely for the boob count); Sheriff Andy (Chris Bauer) gave Wiccan waitress Holly a hug, showing restraint and maturity in his literal handling of a woman for once; Arlene (Carrie Preston) was visited by the ghost of murderous ex Rene (a returning Michael Raymond-James), who warned her that Terry's (Todd Lowe) past is coming back to haunt him, which coincided with an old war buddy of Terry's wandering into Merlotte's; Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck) quit the American Vampire League, hoping for Eric and Bill to join her in a mutiny against "The Authority", only to insult them so badly that Bill staked her into a gooey puddle; Alcide (Joseph Manganiello) found a deep crater in a newly-built car park, where it appears Russell Edgington has escaped from his concrete prison; missing Reverend Newlin (Michael McMillian) arrived on Jason's doorstep, revealing that he's been turned into a vampire; and Sookie was attacked by Debbie (Britt Morgan) in her house, but managed to blow Debbie's head off with a shotgun after taking a life-threatening shot at Tara.

So yes, a lot happened (arguably more than most other episodes altogether), but anyone can throw together a procession of what-the-fuck scenes. True Blood undoubtedly has a gift for delivering entertaining moments and certainly understands the power and appeal of a strong cliffhanger, but I wish it knew how to actually tell stories. Things just happen on this show, often on a whim, as it throws a jumble of ideas together and sees what sticks. It's especially annoying because Alan Ball has actual novels to work from, which I assume are written in a more cohesive manner, but maybe the problems begin with Charlaine Harris' prose and just get exacerbated by Ball? Or maybe True Blood's now accrued so many changes from the books that it's tearing the existing narrative apart? This may explain why the first season remains the best in so many ways, as the TV show and books were in greater harmony.

I was at least pleased the show actually killed two of its most useless characters: Jesus, whose role as Lafayette's mumbo-jumbo boyfriend was going nowhere interesting; and Debbie, a character I never quite understood to begin with, who poor Britt Morgan had to struggle with. Together with Tommy's demise a few weeks ago, the show has actually terminated three dead weight characters at last! Unfortunately, it's already replaced one of those characters with Terry's mysterious army buddy, and it looks like Steve Newlin and Russell Edgington will be back in prominent roles next year, so the size of the cast is actually unchanged.

Season 4 wasn't as atrocious and scatterbrained as season 3, but it was still a far cry from the show's early years—when it knew how to tell a serialized story, and didn't rely on quips and action sequences where people are beheaded in a geyser of arterial blood spray if things get boring. There was a good mid-season run of episodes where I thought True Blood had turned a corner, but that soon fell apart. Maybe if each season was just 7 episodes long, it would all work better.

I suppose True Blood is actually very clever in some ways, because it dedicates the majority of its finale to delivering an extended teaser for next season's frivolities... so even if you're disappointed by the story that's just ending, the show is showing you reasons to stick with it. And, as much as it pains me to admit, I'll be back next year to see how anti-fang figurehead Reverend Newlin became a vampire himself, if Tara will survive that gunshot to the head (the one that looked like it missed, sadly), how Eric and Bill will avoid being assassinated on the orders of The Authority, and to see the return of the brilliant Denis O'Hare as Russell Edgington. I'm hoping he forms an uneasy alliance with enemies Eric and Bill to fight the mysterious overlords pulling vampire society's strings, but we'll see...

This show's like a cigar; you know it's not good for you, the taste and smell isn't great, but it's strangely addictive and gives you something to do.

I hate True Blood in many ways, but I love to hate it slightly more.

written by Raelle Tucker / directed by Scott Winant / 11 September 2011 / HBO