“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Friday, July 22, 2011
True Love with a Bloody Twist: the Uses and Abuses of the Sympathetic Vampire
There’s something not right about the following scene, which has our war-weary lover lying supine as those rowdy restaurant patrons rob him outside in the parking lot. And there’s something not right about how the waitress manages to fight them off, rescuing the helpless veteran. By the end of the first episode of True Blood, though, we see the waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, playing the more familiar role of damsel in distress—just in time for the credits to role, as if the cliffhanger left any doubt about whether the veteran, Bill Compton, would play the role of knight. And yet the familiarity of the romantic plot at the heart of the series is well subsumed within the supernatural subject matter and countless other plotlines. Bill, it turns out, is a veteran not of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, but of the Civil War. He is a 170-plus-year-old vampire. Those patrons were robbing him not of his wallet but of his blood, which can be sold to humans as a potent aphrodisiac, having subdued him with silver chains and inserted needles into his veins.
In terms of pure entertainment, True Blood is the best show I’ve seen in a long time. It aspires to seriousness by allegorizing the plight of homosexuals (LGBT) in modern America, while featuring a cast of characters transparently designed to explode stereotypes. Tara, an angry young black woman, is constantly reading, knows legal and medical jargon, and just wants to be loved. Lafayette, Tara’s cousin, a black flamboyantly gay cook who moonlights as a drug dealer and prostitute, is a Machiavellian mastermind who can whoop some ass. Jason, Sookie’s brother, a narcissistic horn-dog jock, has a heart of gold, and can’t bear to see anyone hurt who doesn’t deserve it. Sookie herself, at first blush an innocent and dizzy blonde, all smiles, quick nervous laughs, and friendly manners, is telepathic, strong-willed, and possesses boundless courage, as she displays in her rescue of Bill. But most of the show’s appeal comes from traditional—you might even say conservative—storytelling.
Bill is played by Stephen Moyers, who was forty when the first season of True Blood was filmed, and Sookie by Anna Paquin, who was 27. (The actors, who began dating the first season, are now married.) Sookie likes her men older, as one of the central plotlines in season one is the love triangle she and Bill make up with Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar where she works, who has neat tufts of gray hair and is played by Sam Trammell, 39 at the time. In season two, despite herself, Sookie takes a shine to Eric Northman, a thousand-year-old vampire played by Alexander Skarsgard, then 31.
If the May December pairings seem insignificant, there’s also the throwback that Sookie, a woman in her mid-twenties, is a virgin when she meets Bill. Her telepathy supposedly explains her sexual reticence, as hearing the raunchy thoughts of men her own age inevitably precludes the budding of any intimacy—neat little plot device that. But there’s no doubt what the writers are really up to in the episode that has Sookie donning a billowy white dress and running bare-foot just after sunset to offer herself to Bill for the first time. The encounter takes place on a velvet blanket before a fireplace with candles on the mantle. Lest we get bored with this old-fashioned scene—or embarrassed by how much we’re enjoying it—Bill’s fangs emerge. “Do it. I want you to,” Sookie says. Sure enough, he plunges them into her neck, and lovingly licks up the gusher he’s caused. But the blood drinking is merely an interlude—in fact, it’s used as another cliffhanger—and the scene ends with Sookie’s orgasm. The sixteen-year-old boy in me exulted.
What happens next is emblematic of the show’s worst vices. Sitting in the bathtub with Bill, Sookie reveals that she was once inappropriately touched by her great uncle when she was a young girl. What actually happened is obscured by her recollection of the man’s thoughts. The only offense actually depicted is him having her sit on his lap as he helps with her math homework. “It was just touching,” she says. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as what happens to some girls.” This storyline is superfluous, even gratuitous, meant simply to signal that Sookie is deep and complex. When Bill confronts the man, wheelchair-bound and in his eighties, the encounter is disturbing for all the wrong reasons. Bill is supposed to be struggling with his vampiric urge to kill, and the writers saw this subplot as an opportunity to let him backslide in a way that would, if anything, make him more sympathetic. But in a show so proud of its own sexual openness the unceremonious execution of a helpless old man for an unvoiced and opaquely acted out attraction he had no control over is unsettlingly hypocritical and unenlightened. (For punishment to qualify as altruistic, it needs to entail a cost or a risk to the punisher.)
True Blood relies far too heavily on the trope of the haunted past for characterization. Watching the show, I keep imagining a Family Guy-style cutaway to Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers saying in a mock-tragic tone, “We lost a lot of good men out there.” This is bad psychology and lazy storytelling. The idea that personality is reducible to background lends itself to the very urge toward stereotyping the show delights in frustrating. And yet the show has the redeeming quality of being snarkily aware of its own reliance on pulp fiction conventions. In a scene from season one that has Sam and Tara somewhat begrudgingly allowing themselves to fall into a courtship of sorts, he asks her why she likes Sookie’s brother Jason and why she doesn’t do anything about it. She responds in her endearing-annoying rhotic twang, “It’s part of my whole fucked-up thing: low self-esteem, childhood trauma, blah, blah, snore.”
In season two of Mad Men, Don Draper responds to an idea for a TV show, “It’s derivative with a twist, which is what they’re looking for.” Shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twilight certainly fall into the derivative-with-a-twist category. They’re all traditional romances jazzed up with supposed monsters who turn out to be nice guys with tragic pasts. And they all center on prototypes Anne Rice deserves credit for, even though her stories weren’t romances at all. Bill, Stefan, and Edward are really all Louis. Eric, Damon, and—sorry, Twilight is just too awful to watch—are Lestat. What makes the HBO version so much better is certainly not that it has anything like the substance of Rice’s early installments of The Vampire Chronicles, which owe much of their profundity to her abandonment—unfortunately short-lived—of Catholicism and her wrestling with existentialism; True Blood is fun because unlike the other shows in the paranormal romance genre it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.
Not all of the comedy comes from the characters’ snarky remarks about the ridiculous plots they find themselves in. The hectic pacing does wonders to keep the tone light, an effect that harks back to a much earlier HBO series dealing in supernatural fare, Tales from the Crypt. Watching the episodes, I almost want to pull out a stopwatch and see if the editors are allotting each subplot its portion of the show according to some preset pattern. Indeed, the intricate workings of the multiple plots suggest nothing so much as the inner mechanics of a watch. And the writers are savvy enough never to answer a question without replacing it with three others.
Ultimately, True Blood fails to be anywhere near as progressive as it seems to want to be. For all the collective wincing among the audience every time someone speaks of favoring his or her own kind, any show that pits good guys against bad guys both panders to and promotes tribalism, however it’s defined in the narrative context. Some of the characters who appear bad at first show signs of redeemability. In fact, the writers, in making Eric so much worse than Bill before having him break down in tears at the death of the vampire who made him and becoming inexplicably protective of Sookie, are at risk of letting him steal the show. But there are plenty of other characters—that uncle, Maryanne, Loraine—who are simply beyond sympathy.
The show does, however, have moments when it transcends its mere functionality as pure entertainment. There’s a scene in season one, for instance, in which Bill is sitting at a table in the kitchen of a church, his hand on a bottle of synthetic blood—ironically called true blood—awaiting the arrival of all the townspeople so he can give a speech about his memories of the Civil War, and all the while listening in, with his keen vampire hearing, as everyone remarks on the potential dangers in hosting a blood-thirsty monster. Just as you find yourself desperate for him to prove them all wrong and win them over, Sookie arrives on the arm of Sam Merlotte. Meanwhile, the gears of the watch are turning: Jason is tripping on vampire blood; his friend Hoyt is tempted to taste some true blood; the cops are keeping their ears open for clues about some murders, for which both Bill and Jason are suspects; and a group of miscreants is gearing up to ruin to the lecture. For all its busy distractibility, the scene is masterful. As Bill walks out, takes the American flag from where it’s been draped over a cross for his benefit, hangs it on its pole, and continues winning over the crowd, just as you'd hoped, you know that’s character, in both senses of the term.