When we last caught up with Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and the other denizens of the sleepy Louisiana town turned supernatural hot spot, she had vanished into the light with her faerie godmother after learning that her vampire paramour, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) had perhaps not been quite so honest about the circumstances surrounding their first meeting.
In true, er, True Blood fashion, multiple characters were either placed into jeopardy or decided to flee Bon Temps altogether in the third season ender, which closed a creatively uneven season that overflowed with vampire kings, werewolves, drug-induced nightmare visions, and creepy baby dolls. With Season Four, showrunner Alan Ball has the opportunity to right the cart a bit, introducing an overarching storyline that involves witchcraft and some devious spirits and one that places Alexander Skarsgard's Eric Northman front and center.
It's a plotline that once again mixes high and low culture, metaphor and mystery, Southern Gothic and gothic. Eric's story--which SPOILER ALERT! involves a case of amnesia--allows us to see his character in a vastly different light, peering at the vampire sheriff through a prism to see another version of Eric Northman. In fact, the same can be said be true for all of the characters this season, as they each deal with identity issues of their own. It's quite easy to point out the two different versions of Eric, Sookie, Bill, Tara, Jessica, Hoyt, etc. that materialize over the course of the upcoming season. Is there a difference between the true "us" and the ones that we present to the world? How do we define ourselves when no one is looking? Do we have more than one self, more than one identity? And just how fluid is that concept?
These are provocative and tantalizing philosophical questions, couched within the context of a supernatural drama, which as always allows for a heavy use of metaphor and metaphysical exploration. That is, if you can get past the first eight minutes of the season opener.
So what did I think of the first three episodes of Season Four of True Blood? Pop open a Tru Blood, saddle up your horse, and keep reading. (But, as always, do not reproduce this review in full on any websites, message boards, etc.)
True Blood can often be loopy, sometimes deliciously so. It can also be out-there crazy. But the opening sequence of Season Four's "She's Not There"--which finds Sookie in the faerie lands of her blood ancestors--might be one of the worst things to ever appear on True Blood, an oddly literal exercise in D-grade sci-fi, with cheesy and subpar special effects and a tone that's entirely different than anything we've seen on the series to date. While it answers the question of where Sookie disappeared to at the end of last season, it's not the way I would have kicked off Season Four, nor what I would have imagined.
Fortunately, it does get significantly better from there. After a complete misstep in the opening installment, the first three episodes of Season Four of True Blood (sent out to press for review a few weeks back) return to form, shifting the action back to Bon Temps and to the sprawling set of characters established over the last few seasons. Showrunner Alan Ball (whom I interviewed here) is being particularly spoiler-averse this year, which means that I'm forbidden to get into too much detail about the season opener, though those of you who watched the first eight minutes of the season already know a considerable amount about light fruit, Mab, and other details.
But it's the circumstances around Sookie that are perhaps the least interesting elements of the first few episodes back. More intriguing are the other storylines surrounding her: Sam's quest to belong; Jessica's exploration of her true nature; Tara's attempts to find herself (I did say that identity is the key underlying theme, didn't I?); Andy's struggle to maintain his personal sense of order. Elsewhere, the vampires attempt to put a new face on their community following Russell Edgington's televised slaughter of a news anchor last season, high-quality home furnishings and property ownership are discussed, Bill deals with some new responsibilities, and a group of witches convenes at a New Age bookshop, drawing together several familiar faces into the spiritual realm.
I'm still not in love with the faerie storyline (particularly after seeing how it was handled in those opening minutes), but there are several long-dangling plot threads neatly tied up due to some reveals here. Sookie's dual heritage is of especial interest, as she finds herself caught between her own personal desires and the political machinations of the faerie court, such as it is. But there are some shocking moments contained within this plotline as well, at least. (One in particular was a real jaw-dropper.) And there's another storyline--a particularly creepy one surrounding Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) and Hotshot--that made my blood run cold.
But, putting these issues aside, the second episode of the season, “You Smell Like Dinner" (written by Brian Buckner and directed by Scott Winant) is a particularly strong installment, setting up a new status quo for the series and examining the fallout from Season Three's events in a compelling and addictive way. There is a precise and adept velocity of storytelling here, with arduous attention given to setting up some pins to be knocked down later. Sure, there is overwrought craziness writ large with a flowing, cursive hand here (True Blood's stock in trade, it seems), but these are moments of compelling new directions for several familiar characters, eye-popping ones at times.
It's impossible to look away from Fiona Shaw's Marnie: she's ambition incarnate in a dowdy print dress, a frumpy housewife whose placid exterior conceals the beating heart of the power-mad. Rutina Wesley's Tara is for once not painted as either the angry black woman or as the victim, but as a rather badass version of herself. Look for a major showdown between Tara and Pam... and some typical steal-stealing from Kristin Bauer van Straten in general, who once again gets to have some of the most deliciously bitchy lines on television and who tosses off these bon mots with such effortless grace that it's auditory candy to hear her speak. (One moment in the season opener, in which Pam tries to reach out to Fangtasia's human customers, is particularly hilarious.) Nelsan Ellis' Lafayette and Kevin Alejandro's Jesus continue to charm; Deborah Ann Woll's Jessica and Jim Parrack's Hoyt, meanwhile, have some hard times ahead. (Let's just say that Jessica's cooking skills aren't quite up to par with Maxine's.)
Alexander Skarsgard shines in this season, delivering a stirring performance that's vastly different to anything we've seen from him to date. Season Four's Eric is an entirely separate creature than the vampire sheriff we've come to know over the last three seasons, displaying a rare innocence and animal naivete that's entirely captured in Skarsgard's subtle facial expressions and in his eyes. He's at the top of his game, really.
At least for now, there's a less frenzied pace to the storytelling (compared to the tail end of Season Three) and a concentration of setting, keeping the action confined to Bon Temps, Hotshot, and nearby Shreveport. Which is a smart decision; last season, the action seemed to whiplash all over the place, taking Sookie and Co. to Mississippi and all over. But by using the area around Bon Temps as a nexus for the season's multitude of plotlines, it infuses every shot of the town with possibility. (You never know just what's lurking on the other side of street.)
There's definitely a lot going on here, as the revolving door of characters keeps on turning apace, but there's also a lot to sink your teeth into, particularly from our returnees, each grappling with problems of a personal or supernatural nature. Or both, as the case may be. That issue of identity, of self-connection and awareness, looms large over the season, and that's a good thing as it draws together these disparate characters into something that's easy to identify with as audience members. Where we come from, our pasts, our family, our experiences: these are the things that define us. Sweep them away, and it's unclear just what you're left with or how you see yourself, regardless of whether or not you have fangs.
Ultimately, Season Four of True Blood does quite a lot right. The second and third episodes are bloody brilliant (especially, as aforementioned, that second one) and there's a terrific sense of momentum and tension here, as a number of tantalizing new mysteries present themselves to the audience. As always, there is the potential here for this new season to be unpredictable, darkly sexy, and blood-soaked fun. So long as we stay well outside of faerie land, that is.
Season Four of True Blood begins this Sunday at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.