True Blood reinvents vampire sex.
Sleeping with a vampire is basically necrophilia and can even suggest incest (you're sleeping with your "maker"), and since you are dealing with an immortal, the age differences between partners can be positively vast. But the most troublingly taboo aspect of the sex lives of vampires concerns the question of consent. Rape is as dominant a subtext in vampire stories as mindless conformity is in zombie stories. No less an authority than Stephen King has said that the re-enactment of the primal rape scene is part of the vampire's enduring success.
Stephen Moyer, whose Vampire Bill is the romantic center of True Blood, took some criticism last year for suggesting in a magazine interview that one plot twist was built on a rape fantasy, but the allure of forbidden sex has long been a part of the vampire story since Bram Stoker's Dracula.
True Blood is such supremely dirty fun because it doesn't just tap into the dark sexual kinks of the vampire myth. It refines and experiments on them, giving old taboos a fresh spin. For one thing, the traditional vampire is a man preying on women; here, women are the predators just as often. Rape has become something of a vampire cliché. The sick genius of Episode 3, which returns the series strongly to form, is that it finds other creatively perverse ways to mingle sex and violence.
The show starts with Sookie titillated by the spectacle of Eric straddling and devouring a nude man recently transformed from a wolf. His mouth dripping blood, he looks up at the breathless Sookie and delivers this purple double-entendre: "I got your rug all wet." That's soon followed by a second violent and sexual act in which the charmingly devilish British vampire Franklin (played with sleepy-eyed menace by British stage and screen star James Frain) has his way with Tara, who appears terrified and ecstatic at the same time.
But the real radical innovation in vampire sex arrives in the startling final scene. It discovers a potent variation on sexual violence: hate sex. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it's when you sleep with someone not out of love—or even desire, exactly—but out of passionate contempt. As far as I know, this spin on sexual violence has never been tried in vampire programming until, in an animalistic rage, Bill threw Lorena down last night and forced himself on her. This angry assault looks like rape but isn't, exactly. It preserves the excitement of the taboo while also making it less morally problematic. As the woman who turned him into a vampire, Lorena has a tortured history with Bill, and she has repeatedly told him that love with a human is futile. He assaults her, but she doesn't seem to mind. In fact, while she seems to enjoy being handled roughly, he is clearly in pain as he violates his own sense of carefully maintained restraint and fidelity.
This upsetting scene is a masterstroke of dramatic perversion, pushing sadistic and masochistic buttons. For an idea so fittingly twisted, someone deserves an Emmy or at least a congratulatory slap in the face. The execution is as inventive as the concept, since at the end, Bill grabs her neck and just when you think you know where this is going—wait a second, what the hell?—he turns her neck completely around. Somewhere, Linda Blair is smiling.
The other highlight of this eventful episode, in which Sookie sets out to find Bill, who cuts a deal with the Vampire King of Mississippi to save her, is a visit to a werewolf bar (or barn, as its called), Lon Pines. Since we're already seen Fangtasia, the sleek vampire bar, this gives us another metric in the eternally raging vampire-vs.-werewolf debate. Let's compare. Vampire style means leather, nose rings, fish-nets, all black, while werewolves prefer flannel, blue jeans, and tank tops. Vampires listen to techno and metal; werewolves rock out to blues licks. A vampire sees Sookie and says "How sweet it is," while werewolves are more direct: "You look like dinner," the bouncer says. In terms of décor, it's the difference between a goth bar in downtown Manhattan and a dive in the Pacific Northwest. It's a question of taste, but even with its dungeon downstairs, Fangtasia has my vote.
The gradual softening up of Eric continues as he adopts a gentler approach with Lafayette and confesses to Sookie that a werewolf who has sucked on vampire blood poses a challenge to his strength. True Blood's writers are masters at compression, and that they have made us care about a ferocious, cold-blooded character who seemed like an unsmiling cult leader one season ago is an accomplishment. I have taken a firm anti-Sookie stance—earning responses evenly divided between Amen! and Hell, no—but if some vampire must have her, I'd like it to be Eric.
As for the new theater stars from last week, I am getting more optimistic. The casting of the elegant J. Smith Cameron as Sam's redneck mother remains bizarre—look at her manicured eyebrows!—but since it's perhaps suggested that she might not be what she seems, this might be an elaborate trick. I hope so. And Denis O'Hare's turn as the vampire hing is growing into a very canny performance of a master manipulator and power player who fakes everyone out with a tone of weary reasonableness. He truly seems like an ancient gentleman when he sighs out lines such as "It's like Armageddon here every time someone chips a dessert glass."
Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.