Anxious eyes and a hungry mouth often figure prominently in creepy movies, but you see less of the ear, except, of course, when it's been separated from the head. The cinematic tradition of severed ears stretches across torture porn and zombies movies, but perhaps the most famous examples come from Reservoir Dogs and Blue Velvet. Comparing the violence in those movies, David Foster Wallace once wrote, "Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching somebody's ear getting cut off. David Lynch is interested in the ear."
How about Alan Ball? The executive producer of True Blood resolved the cliffhanger of the previous episode—Bill Compton surrounded by growling wolves—with the matinee idol vampire flashing his barbaric side, viscerally gnawing on a hairy ear in his mouth. Round one of vampire versus werewolf ended in a knockout.
The camera pans back, and we see the bloody victim turned back into a naked man, kneeling with an odd, classical poise for someone who just lost a rather helpful part of his face. "My ear. My fucking ear!" he shouts. In front of him is an artful tableau of a massacre. Bill sees one last living wolf and says breathily, "You're next." Do we want him to kill? Of course we do. But I don't think it's sadism so much as that this show never looks more alive than when someone is about to die.
Skin overshadowed scares last week, but Episode 2, titled "Beautifully Broken," made up for it by pandering to the horror crowd with a chainsaw (wielded by the wonderfully immature young vampire Jessica, who will hopefully take on a larger role), a completely unnecessary reference to Stephen King's Christine, and a flashback involving werewolf Nazis. This really was the Tarantino episode. The best line of the show goes, as usual, to that lovable buffoon Jason Stackhouse, the Woody Harrelson of Bon Temps. "Werewolves?" he says upon finding out about the new supernatural creature down south. "Bigfoot, you think he's real too? Santa?"
The show began and ended with a burst of excitement, but in between, it fizzled, burdened by a strained plot and too many long close-ups of very serious faces. Thus far, the major battle of the third season of True Blood is not between light and dark so much as between light and heavy. Heavy dominated this time.
Tara and Sookie were both in tears over lost loves. To which I say: Get over it, ladies. That was an entire episode ago, a lifetime in soap-opera years. Lafayette hardly brightened the mood with this groaner: "The Buddhists weren't lying when they said life is suffering." Did "the Buddhists" write this episode? And look, one plotline about reuniting with lost parents can slow a pulp soap opera down, but two? That's dramatic quicksand. Moreover, when Sam sat down with his parents (Lafayette also visited his mother), his moody new brother stormed out of the room because … why exactly?
You know the writers are getting lazy transitioning from one heated moment to the next when they rely too much on the stomping-out-of-the-room gambit. When Sookie ran into the bathroom after Bill proposed marriage, you almost wanted him to take back his offer—that is, if you didn't know enough about the conventions of the show to realize that storming out of a room is just True Blood code for Something Big Is About To Happen.
That isn't the only telegraphing going on. Eric's Aryan hardness has been slowly softened up since last season in order to make him a more formidable rival for the attention of the strangely popular Sookie. When he says lines like, "It makes me feel disturbingly human," it's a play for the audience's affections. Why any vampire would want to put up with Sookie's thudding earnestness is the real mystery. She makes a few moves toward jokes—"I ain't that blond"—but her deadly earnest seriousness, which borders on smugness, is too often at odds with the invigorating bad taste of the best parts of the show. In an ethically-challenged world of happy fools, proud scamps, and lovable killers, she always remains boringly correct.
The show is based on a series of novels, which I haven't read because I don't want to spoil any surprises, but if Alan Ball decides to steer wildly away from the story with a Psycho homage that kills off the star in a surprise shower scene, I would not complain. (Snoop Dogg, however, would apparently be inconsolable.)
This episode mostly has the feel of a warm-up, setting the table with a slew of new characters and plotlines. Two superb theater actors appeared this week as odd fits for major cameos. Only on cable television would J. Smith Cameron, the beautiful actress and wife of Kenneth Lonergan, be asked to play a white-trash, long-suffering wife of an ex-con. There's a twinkle in her intelligent wide eyes that is so out of place, a flash of beauty that is almost amusing.
More promising is the introduction of the great Denis O'Hare as a suave blood-sucking appreciator of the finer things who invites Bill back to his well-appointed house, outfitted with bountiful fruit and a manservant. He presses him for intelligence about the vampire queen of Louisiana. O'Hare appeared tentative at first, but he's a cagey actor and may be biding his time. Onstage and in film, O'Hare specializes in character roles that show off his vulnerability or quirky intensity, not his charming ease and power. His most acclaimed and famous part was in the baseball play Take Me Out, in which he played a nerdy accountant. Here he is the vampire king of Mississippi. It could work, I guess, and if it doesn't, hey, unlike vampires, theater actors need to eat.