This is Your Brain on Blood
True Blood's devastating critique of the war on drugs.
A bloody four-way romp in the back of a limo, a vast werewolf-vampire conspiracy, and a character named Kitsch are the kind of kicks we have come to expect from True Blood. But the truly startling thing about the latest episode is that the series is starting to resemble The Wire.
I realize that sounds perverse, since David Simon's relentlessly lauded portrait of Baltimore is the least guilty pleasure in the history of television and no one, I hope, is ever going to compare Alan Ball's fantastical soap opera to Balzac or Dickens, unless it's in service of a vulgar pun. But the substance of this show is in the metaphors, and this season is offering up a wide-ranging and cynical critique of the drug war. Trust me, this is not as nuts as it sounds.
From Martin to Near Dark to Habit, vampire movies have long compared the need for human blood to drug addiction, but while the blood-suckers are usually the junkies, in True Blood, the most dangerous fix might be vampire blood. Mix a cocktail of steroids, ecstasy, and Viagra, and you have some idea of its addictive thrill. It's the ultimate high for humans and werewolves. But vampires are banned from selling it, creating a bustling black market so vast that it corrupts vampire politics, divides werewolves, and turns the justice system into a farce. Bon Temps is more like Baltimore than you think.
This season is built around a turf war between royal vampires (read: gang leaders) who exploit the demand for vampire blood for personal gain. The King of Mississippi cultivates an army of rowdy werewolves by serving up free shots of his own blood in what he calls a "collaboration for the ages." His rival, the Queen of Louisiana, asks Eric to quietly sell the product to raise funds for her lavish lifestyle. The way they exploit the blood trade reveals their true motivations: He wants power. She wants money.
Criminalizing blood has worked about as well as criminalizing narcotics, but the anti-blood laws prove quite effective as a weapon to settle scores. Bill and Eric, dueling for the love of Sookie, frame each other as sellers of V. Bill tells the vampire king that he believes Eric has been selling V with the help of Bill's maker Lorena, whom he wants to kill. But when Denis O'Hare's king explains with faux naiveté that destroying a vampire is a punishable offense, Bill says not if no one reports it.
Eric handpicked Lafayette to supply the queen's product, but one deal goes wrong and he's jumped by a group of rednecks. Eric rescues him, making the customers an offer they can't refuse before delivering a business lecture to Lafayette. He criticizes his flashy style saying, "that's not salesmanship, it's ego." Stringer Bell couldn't have said it better himself.
After this pep talk to his sales team, Eric gets a disturbing call. The magister, the vampire judge played with an ominous chill by Zeljko Ivanek, raided his bar and found a stash of V. Eric flies there to find his partner tied up and suspended, one of the two bound women in the episode. (Tara gets gagged by her vampire suitor, whose plans for her remain mysterious.) Eric tells the magister, who has been trying vampires at least since the Inquisition, that he's been framed, which earns this acid response: "You've got the wrong man. My dog ate my homework. I saw Goody Osbourne with the devil," he says, quoting Abigail's accusation of witchcraft from The Crucible. "Excuses do not get better with age."
The implication that this vampire was one of the judges in the Salem witch trials as imagined by Arthur Miller is a great joke, but it's also characteristic of this sly show—its literary references are always worth digging up. Also in this episode, the king quotes from a Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Betrothed"— "A woman is a woman but a good cigar is a smoke"—that dismisses women because they age, an argument that would appeal to a 3,000-year-old vampire.
The line from the The Crucible, which imbues witches with as much topical meaning as this series gives to vampires, is not technically accurate, since Abigail's accusation is not really an excuse at all, but who cares? It's a lie born out of sexual frustration intended to frame an innocent person, so the Crucible reference illustrates a central theme of the True Blood episode: How easily the law can be manipulated for personal gain. Eric can play this game too; he counters with a lie of his own, suggesting that Bill might actually be the one selling vampire blood. He tells the judge he is investigating. On the surface, we have dueling charges about crimes against vampire law, but it's again really about something else. Not power or money, but the show's real currency: love and lust.
The law is a joke in this show, and not just among vampires. A few scenes later, Jason Stackhouse blackmails the new sheriff, Andy, to get a job with the police. Since Jason is always the lovable buffoon, it's played as crude comedy, with threats made standing at the urinal. It's literally bathroom humor, but it weaves perfectly into the cynical attitude towards law enforcement in this episode. Humans are just as corrupt as vampires, and in this quick scene, we see their system of enforcement is equally flawed. Like much of True Blood, it's smart masquerading as dumb.
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.