We’ve had vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, ghosts, Maenads and fairies. What else could possibly be missing from the supernatural checklist? One thing: witches. Season 4 of HBO’s vampire/sex-a-thon True Blood increases speed after spending the entirety of its third year falling at each hurdle it encounters, whilst still suffering from a mirage of problems of its own. Spells can be cast to wipe memories or to make flesh melt off the face like candle-wax but not to make True Blood overcome its continued book of errors.
As usual, let’s see where our characters find themselves at since the culmination of the previous season. Sookie is, quite literally, away with the fairies for all of fifteen minutes, which equates to around a year in the regular world. Since that time has progressed, several characters and dynamics have changed; Bill has been promoted to King of the entire region, a significant departure from the books if I understand it correctly. Also, Eric is still doing what he does best – putting on a fake smile to convince the humans of the world that not all vampires are crazed lunatics as Russell Edgington was. The AVL needs to put a positive spin on the events of season three and who better to do that than a certain Mr Northman? Away from Bon Temps, Tara is playing the role of Toni – a cage-fighting lesbian. We’ll get to that later. Needless to say, with the progression of time comes changes in almost all stories the characters are/were involved in, some for the better and some otherwise.
As per True Blood standards, a season needs a big villain for our merry band of vampires and fairies to face off against. We’ve had Maenads, ancient vampires and regular old serial killers fill this role in previous years. This time, it’s occupied by that of a witch named Marnie. She begins the season being a silly old woman mumbling to herself in a witches coven but rapidly progresses to become intertwined with the soul of a 400 year old witch named Antonia. Their combined power and revulsion of all things vampire makes them a walking nuclear missile for the undead, carrying the ability to control them like puppets and eradicate them at a moment’s notice if need be. Whereas previous villains have remained largely unsympathetic to the audience, mainly for their continued acts of violence and slaughter, Marnie actually manages to make you feel sorry for her at several points along the ride – a trait most uncommon in most villains.
As I’ve said countless times before, a good villain should have something that separates them from the stigma of simply being all-evil slaughtering machines; they should have something that powers these desires and something that gives them reason to be evil. At heart, Marnie (or Antonia) isn’t evil but have simply suffered so much at the hands of vampires that they feel empowered to take back the control held over their heads. A villain who spends their entire time simply eviscerating others and laughing maniacally is fun at first but that dwindles over time. A villain who has understandable, and often sympathetic, motives and reason behind those actions can be a character that lasts far beyond their time on the show. Fiona Shaw plays the role, two if you like, extremely well for the most part and helps to make the witch storyline slightly more interesting.
Besides bearing a massive grudge against all things vampire, Marnie/Antonia also casts a spell on an attacking Eric Northman, ridding him of all of his memories and transforming him from a slaughtering machine into a puppy-dog of sorts. It’s from this transformation that the flames of passion between him and Sookie finally erupt, with her being tasked with keeping him safe from a King who wants to see him dead. She falls in love with this new version of Eric, despite being aware of the inevitability of his memories eventually returning but she still cannot move past her feelings for Bill and as a result, ends the season leaving both of them having failed to make a choice that won’t destroy the other in the interim.
I’ve said before that I vastly prefer the relationship between Sookie and Eric and that hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s become more apparent. The electricity between them is so sharp that it’s a surprise that it’s not visible on screen. She is aware of his violent, manipulative and cruel nature and yet I would imagine it’s that danger that is part of the attraction. Bill tries to turn away from his true nature and be something he is not whereas Eric embraces it, pretending to be nothing than he already is. The process of seeing him turn from bad-ass to baby lasted for far too long, almost damaging the character irreparably, but we got to see a different side to Eric that we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to see. I hope Sookie does not turn away from Eric in the future as it would make a huge portion of the events in this season seem irrelevant to the point of useless.
As well as the main characters of the show enjoying significant screen-time, as to be expected, the secondary characters also get their fair share of the light. Jesus and Lafayette are firmly ingratiated into the witch storyline, which in turn significantly bumps up their presence compared to the previous season. Not only that, Jason enjoys two plots of his own this time around: a relationship with Jessica, who happens to be his best friend’s girl, and having to contend with the prospect of becoming a were-panther. It’s the latter story that leaves a strong stench behind as it fails to be anything but truly pointless.
Part of True Blood’s continued problem is creating storylines, developing them a little and then completely dropping them from existence, never to be mentioned or referenced to again. Jason’s first plot of the season perfectly highlights that issue. He spends most of the beginning of the season tied to a bed and repeatedly raped by the same were-panthers, with their intended goal being to make him into one of them and continue the breeding process. It’s not as if the story itself wasn’t good, as the potential was there to move Jason’s character beyond what was already there, but as usual, a mix of lazy writing and a show that moves too fast for its own good completely negated any effect it could possibly have had. In fact, it’s almost outrageous in how poor the whole thing was handled. You’d think that Jason would be significantly affected at enduring such torment for such an extended period of time but the after-effects are quite literally forgotten about in the space of one episode. It’s ridiculous character development and lazy writing at its finest. Look at how a rape ordeal affected Tara in season three; it almost completely obliterated her strength of character, so much so that she moved away to escape the memories. That is an accurate-ish portrayal of the after-effects.
It’s almost as if the writers knew they’d created a poor plot and they wanted to end it as quickly as possible, neglecting to carry out the necessary character development in the mean-time. Just as soon as Jason finishes this plot, he moves straight into another with Jessica. When you think about it, nearly all of Jason’s stories on True Blood have involved sex: he romped with an uncountable number of women in season one, had sex with the reverend’s wife in season two when he became part of the Fellowship of the Sun and became sexually interested with crystal in season three. It’s almost as if they cannot think of anything to make Jason a part of that doesn’t, in some small way, involve getting down and dirty with someone. Putting him in a situation like this, where sex becomes the plot rather than a part of it, had the potential to do some serious character development. It was wasted, unfortunately.
As mentioned earlier, Tara has completely changed course in the year that has passed since season three’s culmination. After being raped, held prisoner, attacked, fed on and generally being as miserable as can possibly be, she attempts to come back fighting by ditching men and taking up cage-fighting. Now, I’m all for Tara attempting to regain some of that strength she had but like this? It doesn’t work for me. For a start, when has Tara ever shown an interest in the female gender, or cage-fighting for that matter? Nevertheless, Tara being the sucker for punishment that she is, decides to return to the scene of the crime, as it were, and as expected, it ends in disastrous consequences for her at the end of the season, as she receives a shotgun blast to the head.
In some ways, killing Tara off felt like the right thing to do. There are only so many times you can throw somebody into a situation that makes them utterly miserable before you have to either try something new or put them out of their misery. Seeing as how Tara clearly cannot keep away from the town that destroyed her life, having her start afresh elsewhere was out of the question. So where else could the character possibly have gone? Finding another love interest, only to have them brutally murdered at the end as would inevitably have happened? The simple fact is that the writers couldn’t think of anything for Tara beyond endless pain, misery and disappointment. If she is to return in season five, the only way I see that happening is if she’s a spirit or turned into a vampire, both of which could possibly provide some development. If not, I’m glad she was at last given an end to the torment.
I can fault the character, or the development of the character, but not Rutina Wesley’s performance of her throughout the years. She’s always played the role fantastically, whether it be emotionally engaged Tara or helpless and destroyed Tara. If she is not to return for season five, I sincerely hope she finds gainful employment on another show because as far as I’m concerned, any show should consider themselves lucky to have such a talent on-board.
One of True Blood’s biggest, and continuing, problems is how quickly it creates plots and then cleans them from the slate as though they never existed. Season three featured such a thing in wide doses and unfortunately, season four continues to suffer from those same issues. There are simply too many characters in the show and because of that, there are too many un-connected plots floating in the air that bear no relevance to anything beyond the characters involved in them. When they eventually reach their conclusion, they are simply dropped and never mentioned again, which breaks the narrative flow and makes the process of watching them unfold feel like a waste of one’s time. A perfect example of this is the random story in the middle of the season involving Arlene and her baby.
Arlene believes that the ghost of her dead serial killer husband, Renee, has come back to haunt her and her family. Strange things are happening to her baby boy (his child)but it turns out that there is a ghost causing these events, just not the one in mind. The spirit of a dead woman from decades ago has returned, believing that Arlene’s child is her own that was tragically murdered right before she was. Said spirit takes possession of Lafayette’s body and kidnaps the child, leading to a confrontation that ends with Mavis (the spirit) finding peace and ‘moving on’. Then that is it. The story is never mentioned again after the conclusion, by anybody involved.
It’s this kind of inconsistent writing that is the most familiar with True Blood’s problems. The above story takes up quite a large portion of the season, involving a substantial number of characters and as such, takes up a lot of screen-time. For those events to simply become inconsequential leaves you thinking ‘what was the point?’. I understand that you need to give these characters something to do but if you’re going to feed us a story and then seemingly pretend it never existed once it’s completed, why bother? Why dedicate a large portion of the season feeding us something that will eventually become obsolete when that same portion of screen-time can be spent on the plots that will continue beyond their conclusion? Again, it comes back to the inconsistent writing time and time again.
It is the same for Sookie’s fairy story at the beginning of the season. We’re literally given fifteen minutes in the fairy world before she’s dumped back to Earth and then the entire story is never referenced to again for the remaining eleven episodes. I don’t think the True Blood writers are fully aware of the fact that just because a plot has ‘finished’ does not necessarily mean that. For example, the after-effects continue beyond the conclusion. I come back to Jason’s rape ordeal from earlier on and my point is reiterated – the actual plot involving the were-panthers may have finished but the scars it left behind on Jason did not disappear straight away. Well, they shouldn’t have. Of course, a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end but it also needs lasting consequence, of which True Blood lacks.
Despite being extremely negative regarding season four, I did prefer it to season three. Yes, the writing and development was inconsistent and lazy but the events that happened were of more interest to me than season three’s. Do I consider season four as good as two? Not even close, but fun nonetheless. My re-watch of True Blood to date has now come to an end, making me more than eager for the arrival of season five next month (and Christopher Meloni’s appearance!). True Blood can be lazy, ludicrous and insane but at heart, it still remains an extremely enjoyable show, providing you dispense with excessive thought process on some occasions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. For now though, all that remains to be done is to deal with the wait for season five.