The True Blood Season Finale
Not enough skin, not enough scares, plenty of cliffhangers.
You know it's trouble when True Blood has almost no skin or scares. Betrayal and the quality of mercy are fine to pass the time, but let's not forget the important things in life, like severed limbs and topless vampires, preferably at the same time.
The season ended on a strangely off-key note. It was serious when it should have been silly and silly when it should have been serious. The show has never been perfect, and I for one have learned to enjoy some of its faults, but the finale didn't suffer from the usual, endearing flaws. It didn't go too far, or go over the top, and it settled into a point of view more often than it lingered in morally problematic gray areas. The undead really seemed lifeless.
Russell, thankfully, did not suffer the true death. And I would not be surprised if the producers made this decision once they realized they had struck gold with Denis O'Hare. They needed to find a way to keep him in the mix. But the way they saved their star and Emmy front-runner for a return is so self-evidently idiotic that it seemed the result of a last-second change of plans or perhaps a joke in a writer's room that ended with someone shrugging and saying: What the hell?
See if you can follow this. Eric and Russell are burning to death in the sun when Godric, Eric's dead maker, appears as a friendly ghost lecturing Eric on how he should forgive Russell for killing his parents. Eric, who has more of an Old Testament notion of justice, will have none of such sympathy, but he conveniently does pay attention to Godric's point that the afterlife is peaceful. After Sookie drags him back inside, Eric decides to save Russell and bury him in concrete so as to avoid the calm of true death.
This plan is about as sound as chaining up Superman to a timed explosive device and then leaving because, well, what could possibly go wrong? In Eric's best-case scenario, the concrete should keep his powerful mortal enemy down for 100 years, which the 3,000-year-old Russell calls "a nap." Just in case you were gullible enough to think that might happen, Bill pushes his romantic rival Eric into a hole and pours on the concrete, only to discover soon after that Eric escapes. But if Eric can get out in five minutes, does he really think Russell will stay put for 100 years? At least it will be fun to watch the vampire king take his revenge next season.
At its best, True Blood uses ideas as a kind of thematic palette cleanser. It makes the blood go down easier. But if you had to boil the series down to a thesis statement, it would be that deep down, everyone—vampires, humans, whatever—secretly enjoys walking on the dark side. You could call this nihilism, but the reason people love Tony Soprano, Dexter, and Vampire Bill is not merely because they are charming. They get away with things most of us would never do. But if we're truly honest, there are moments when the thought crosses our mind.
By emphasizing this point in the finale, Ball lets us know what he is thinking more directly than usual. Jason Stackhouse, who loves a good self-deception, expresses it defiantly: "Some times the right thing to do is the wrong thing." Crystal's half-brother is less noble: "Maybe I like hurting people." Russell's philosophy is all in his evil laugh. He killed Eric's parents to get their goats, he says, but his cackle suggests he doesn't even believe it. Some of the sins committed on the show are calculated, but you get the sense that often these characters simply understand the thrill that Jace Everett, the drawling singer of the theme song, is referring to when he says, "I want to do bad things with you."
Even Sookie Stackhouse has a wonderfully sadistic moment after emptying the remains of Talbot down the sink in front of his longtime lover Russell. There's a maniacal glint in her eye. This isn't just payback. She is getting off on the sheer pleasure of his pain. Fan-tastic. This might be the most impressive dramatic arc of Season 3. Even though her anger at Bill increasingly seems contrived to suit the necessity of keeping them apart, let's give credit where it's due. Anna Paquin's become funny (sometimes unintentionally, like when she said, "Watch your fucking mouth") and is not so bland anymore. At the start of the season, I didn't understand why she charmed everyone. Now I do.
Ball once again counters the feminist attack on the show by having Sookie insist that Bill "doesn't own" her, and Russell makes clear that Bill's assault on her was not his fault, that her blood is so amazing that almost any other vampire starving of thirst would have killed her. In other words, this isn't domestic abuse. It's vampire nature. That said, Bill does become more than a little creepy, the kind of obsessed ex you just can't get rid of.
This closing episode had more the feel of a beginning than an end, leaving fans with many questions. Did Sam really kill his half-brother? What is that voodoo-looking doll inside the house of Jessica and Hoyt? Will Jason lead a nation of hillbillies? And who will win the air battle between Bill and the vampire queen? That's a lot of cliffhangers, but looking forward, clearly you can expect Season 4, coming next summer, to be about fairies and witches.
My prediction is Ball will turn the reputations of these two creatures on their heads and give us attractive, modern witches and fairies less benign that you think. Memo to Ball: study the movies of Guillermo del Toro for a primer on how to make fairies scary. And with Hoyt's mother buying guns at a shop with an Obama photo on the wall, do not be surprised to see a stand-in for the Tea Party.
In the end of the most tedious character plotline of the year—the forever tearing-up victim Tara—she has a serious talk with Sam about making a big change, starting over with a "brand new life." It's a speech that prepares us for a big dramatic shift, and if anyone needs one, it's Tara, who was a smart, sassy dynamo before she became a walking water fountain. So she thinks it over, cries, stares in the mirror and then studies a pair of scissors. Slashing horror movie music turns into soulful guitar strums as she makes her big move. Tara gets a haircut. Stunned, Sookie gasps, "Oh my God." To be fair, it is a startlingly professional job considering Tara did it by herself.
This would be a great joke if it began with the guitar and moved to the Bernard Herrmann score when the world's most dramatic trim was complete. But the tone was too straight and if it was meant as a joke, it was easy to miss the punch line. Since the shortening of Eric's locks did anticipate his evolution, maybe here is the real secret to True Blood. Character changes, but hair is destiny.
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.