JUNE 30, 2014
I’M STILL NOT sure how I was convinced to start watching True Blood. I hate blood. As I type this — at this very mention of the liquid that I am admittedly full of — my hands have shrunk back into the cuffs of my sweater and I’ve scrunched my shoulders up around my neck. Few things make me feel as vulnerable as this life stuff, for which there are few available metaphors because it is itself so potently symbolic. Blood is the blood of blood. There, I have disappeared into my sweater again.
True Blood is full of blood. Vampires sucking human blood. Humans sucking vampire blood. Vampires crying blood instead of tears. Bottled blood. Microwaved blood. Walls covered in blood. Fabrics soaked in blood. Hair made sticky with blood. Characters in rubber gloves scooping up, mopping up, scrubbing out blood. (True Blood’s commitment to showing how a mess is cleaned up, not just made, is one I appreciate.) Often, when it is explosive or particularly bizarre (Seasons 5 and 6 had a fair amount of naked people caked in blood), I don’t really mind it. It’s too unfamiliar to be true. But other times, when a wound is mundane enough, I cannot help but sink into myself, to guard the places where my blood beats loudest.
True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries series, first premiered in 2008. I got on board the summer of 2011, precipitating a desperate marathon of the first three seasons in my un-air conditioned apartment, and have followed it faithfully since then. Until Game of Thrones came along, it was the most popular HBO show after The Sopranos. True Blood, all sex and gore and weird silly magic, is a consummate summer show, something to watch with a sweaty drink in hand and a fan blowing in your face. Its seventh and last season premiered this June 22nd (even they cannot resist making death jokes), and soon the bloodiest TV show I have ever watched will be over.
The vampire we know today comes from southeastern Europe in the early 1700s, when its folklore was first recorded in print (and so publicized), pushing local communities’ preexisting belief into frenzy and introducing the stories to an international audience. Vampires terrify for obvious reasons: they are animated, bloodthirsty corpses. (Several bodies in what is now Serbia were exhumed and then mutilated during this time; and over one hundred graves in Bulgaria have since been found impaled with metal.) Just as real as the fear it inspired, this body of folklore also offered a potent (if grotesque) relief to mourners. In those early stories, vampires always sought out their spouses first. So much of vampirism is about the horror of getting what you want.
True Blood begins when Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress in the northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps, meets and dates the ex-Confederate vampire-next-door Bill Compton (“Bill? I thought it might be Antoine or Basil or like Langford maybe, but Bill? Vampire Bill?”). Bill was born in a house across a field from Sookie’s own, though he’s moved back to Bon Temps for the first time since he left it, alive, to fight in the Civil War. Creator Alan Ball — whose Six Feet Under shared True Blood’s predilection for death and the surreal humor that accompanies it — has described the show as being about “the horrors of intimacy,” and it’s true the series charts how desire by itself can be complicated, and ultimately unsatisfying. But True Blood is also about the enormity and complexity of the world, though much of it is hidden in plain sight. In Season 3, Sookie’s charming, dense brother Jason balks at the existence of supernatural beings in addition to vampires:
“Shit. Bigfoot, is he real too?”
“I don’t know, I guess it’s possible.”
Jason’s logic, if fanciful (and delivered with painful hope), is not unsound. If vampires and werewolves are real, why not everything else? Sookie’s relationship to Bill throws her in the path of werepanthers, shapeshifters, maenads, fairies, witches, mediums, extra-biblical figures (Salome, Lilith), gods, demons, ifrits (a kind of jinn), ghosts, and of course a large variety of vampires. Collectively they are called “supes,” as in “supernaturals,” and pronounced as “soups.” I suppose that’s what they all are, when you throw them together like that. A soup.
Is True Blood good? Probably the answer to this question is no. Is True Blood good TV? Yes, a million times yes. After asking whether the Season 6 premiere “was a ‘return to form’ or ‘drastic departure,’” Price Peterson wrote in Vulture’s recap of the episode, “Trick question: This show has always been simultaneously bad and good every season.” Though certainly some seasons are more uneven than others (the less we talk about werepanthers the better), the show’s relentless commitment to cliffhangers, to people without clothes, to ludicrous plot twists more than meets my entertainment quota. May I remind you that we all saw Alexander Skarsgard naked in flames on top of a glacier at the end of last season. There are zero penises on Game of Thrones and none of them are on fire. So point for True Blood in this particular category.
When I defend True Blood, I usually tell a story from Season 3 that begins after Russell Edgington, the nearly 3,000 year old megalomaniac vampire king of Alabama, discovers the remains of his husband. When they die, vampires either ex- or implode into a gooey pulp, and Edgington gathers this stuff of his lover up, weeping into it, and places it into what looks like a giant glass candy jar, looking all too much like strawberry jam. He takes to carrying it around with him in a messenger bag and talking to it in urgent whisper. Edgington later brings the jar to a museum to show it an old favorite painting. “Talbot adores this one,” he says. The image of this small, elfin man (played with such vivacity by Denis O’Hare) cradling the ruby urn before a grand landscape painting, a guard’s body lying dead in the foreground, has stayed with me as I’ve watched the series. It’s bizarre and magnificent.
Edgington is one of my favorite True Blood characters, and he embodies so much of what is good about the series: the camp, the humor, the thrilling outrageousness. (He once burst onto a national news program in a cravat and a double-breasted smoking jacket to rip out the anchor’s spine from behind and declare “MINE IS THE TRUE FACE OF VAMPIRE.”) While the show shares melodramatic DNA with soap operas and Almodóvar and even Once Upon a Time, a prim cousin to True Blood: it is also fundamentally a vampire story, which means it has roots in that very particular tradition.
The first mention of vampires in English come from news reports (in 1732) of vampire hunts in Serbia and from Austro-Hungarian travelogues (in 1745). These eastern European vampires were bloated, near-purple corpses. (Their exhumers believed them fat from feeding and ruddy from blood, when it’s likely they were witnessing a natural stage of decomposition.) The aristocratic seducer, the vampire archetype we know best, was born during the same rainy-day storytelling contest as Frankenstein. (The cause for the rain — the 1816 climate phenomenon known as “the Year without a Summer” — reminds me of 30 Days of Night, a vampire comic and later movie set in the long night of Alaskan winter.) John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron, centered his Vampyre story on a dashing nobleman who sweeps women off their feet — not unlike his lothario employer — and into the grave. This image stuck, and was followed by the influential penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire (worst vampire name) in the 1840s, and finally by Dracula, a work that soon overshadowed its predecessors and continues to loom above its descendants.
After Dracula, English-speaking audiences could no longer pretend they were unfamiliar with the tropes of vampirism, and neither could the protagonists of the stories themselves. A character may not suspect a vampire attack, but they certainly know what a vampire is. Succeeding vampire stories then had to do a bit of housekeeping up front: here are our rules for this supernatural being, here is how they are different, here is how they are the same. There’s not much different about the biology of True Blood’s undead (though differences do exist): the show’s addition to this long, thickly annotated canon is sociological: how vampires organize themselves in familial, social, and political spheres. Which is to say, the messier parts of life.
Vampires are easy ciphers for decoding a culture’s anxieties. In the Victorian era, Bram Stoker peeled back fears about the New Woman, about disease, about religion, about class. (Dracula, a centuries-old aristocrat, preys on the English bourgeoisie.) During the glut of vampire movies I remember from my childhood, Interview with the Vampire chief among them, blood had an especially terrifying cast. In the elementary school cafeteria where we obsessively discussed the rules of vampirism laid out in the Anne Rice adaptation, we also warned each other about AIDS-infected needles left in movie theater seats. In one light, this myth is as interesting as the one about razor blades in apples, an absurd fear and so without meaning. In another, that the transmission of disease through the blood stream was the locus of our fear shows just how insidious and far-reaching AIDS hysteria was. We were not afraid for other people or angry on their behalf; we were jealous of our own safety.
Vampires didn’t really go away in the 90’s: there was Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Blade and of course Buffy. In the aughts, True Blood premiered the same year as the first Twilight movie, a hypersexual answer to the abstinent series. Twilight, for all its chastity, is clearly about sex, and all its attendant anxieties and dangers. (Not only fears about consent and injury surrounding the act itself, but its aftermath: Bella’s fatal pregnancy literally shatters her body.) I wonder now, at the beginning of its final season, if True Blood is perhaps about diversity, the specter of a truly multicultural society. Ball has explicitly discouraged political readings of the show. It’s for fun, he argues. Despite title credits that show a church sign reading “God hates fangs,” the series is not meant to draw a connection between “coming out of the coffin” — the vampire decision to go public — to similar, real-life LGBTQ movements because that would link blood-thirsty, non-quite-human creatures with queer people.
I don’t disagree with him that vampires shouldn’t be equated with any group of human beings, but it’s also frustrating when a man who has set up several explicit signposts then denies they exist. But this has nothing to do with the idea at hand — monstrous diversity — and merely with its handling. What’s clear — as different supernatural subcultures jockey for dominance or safety, good press or privacy — is that much of the story of True Blood is about how difficult it is to build relationships across communities, especially when a painful history comes to bear. For the most part, none of these groups have any reason to trust one another, but as the most recent episode of True Blood made especially clear, they also need each other to survive. Intermingle or perish.
At the end of last season, we saw the residents of Bon Temps at a mixer, vampires and humans cautiously reaching out to connect with one another. They’ve been compelled together by an epidemiological disaster: a strain of hepatitis deadly to vampires that, between infection and eventual death (about three days), renders them into a kind of desperate, foolhardy, and fast-expiring zombie. Earlier that day, two local congregations (black and white) had met to discuss the event, and even there (though also of course there)—humans among humans—they were divided by race. But when prompted by one pastor, the mostly black half and mostly white of the audience grudgingly rise and then merge. The same scene—uncomfortable, tentative—is echoed that night. It’s heavy-handed storytelling, but it’s not ineffective. For Bon Temps to weather the zompocalypse, it has to really become one cohesive place, not an atomized collection of racially and species-based groups.
I’ve drifted off into the dangerous waters of “we’re all humans,” but it’s hard not to use this language in a context where there are real distinctions to be made between humans and their supernatural variants. True Blood has always done a good job acknowledging that even with so many “supes” to hate, people don’t just stop hating each other. History always matters: one of the first questions that Sookie’s best friend Tara asks of Bill is whether or not he owned slaves. (He says no, but admits his family did. Tara, entirely appropriately, scowls.) Already the season premiere has driven wedges into the wary alliances formed at the end of last season: a major character has died, another’s secret supernatural identity has been discovered. The episode was full of tenuous negotiations, made all the more urgent by the threat of oblivion. Talking down a group of vigilantes, Jason appeals to that common ground: “Listen, we are all freaked out by this Armageddon-like situation here.”
The end, whether it comes in the form of Bon Temps’s destruction or merely the final episode, is closing in. The books conclude with the dissolution of Sookie’s marriage to the thousand-year-old Viking Eric Northman and the beginning of her relationship to the relatively normal Sam Merlotte, her boss at the local bar. (In the television show, Sookie and Eric’s romance is brief, and it’s while the latter has a case of creepy childlike amnesia.) Harris’s ending — one I hope True Blood will not echo — feels like a condemnation of the kinds of relationships vampires and humans have across biology, across the division of life and death, across tribe. Though True Blood is rarely optimistic about the interactions between family and social and genetic groups, it keeps hurling them against each other because it insists on contact. That these groups know each other is itself important. Though the existence of so many folkloric legends in True Blood is its own kind of terrifying, so is the consequent wonder at the depth, the uncanniness of reality. Magic is real there, and often horrible.
I have absolutely no idea what will come next. Who could have predicted Sam murder-by-fly shapeshifting inside of another person? Bill ripping the Governor of Louisiana’s head off in broad daylight? Steve Newlin coming out as “a gay vampire American”? Tara (briefly) becoming a cage fighter? Russell Edgington doing anything? All anyone can expect is more naked people and more goop, and god bless. Blood is always bound to gurgle up again.