What Other Shows Past Their Prime Can Learn From True Blood’s Final Season

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 25 2014 3:25 PM

What Other Shows Past Their Prime Can Learn From True Blood’s Final Season

True Blood
It wasn't perfect, but True Blood nailed some key aspects of its final season.

Still via HBO

True Blood should’ve ended after Season 3. Anyone who labored through the HBO show’s insufferable fourth-season witch-coven blunder will likely tell you that. What began as a promising and nuanced take on vampire-human relations as a loose allegory for gay rights in America lost its way midway through the series, becoming an overcrowded mess of supernatural beings with little substance. And on Sunday night, the series finally met its long overdue True Death, ending after six years on the air.  

But unlike other once-beloved shows that also carried on past their prime (Gilmore Girls, Dexter, Lost) and then underwhelmed us with their conclusions, True Blood managed to salvage its last days with a final season that surprisingly got it right—right up until the sadly forgettable series finale.

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In his second season as showrunner, Brian Buckner envisioned the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana (where most of the “fang-banging” occurs), as a dystopian wasteland that’s lost most of the charm fans have come to expect from the Southern hamlet. The final season picked up—as always—where the previous season left off, with the town under siege by a group of ravenous vampires infected with Hepatitis-V (a deadly virus which, last season, was mixed in with the synthetic blood that vampires try to drink in lieu of human blood). In the Season 7 opener, Bon Temps becomes Ground Zero for a mass-casualty standoff between infected and healthy vampires, during which True Blood set the tone for its swan song by, for only the second time, killing off a major character, Tara Thorton (Rutina Wesley).

It’s a risky move most shows wouldn’t have made so early on in the season—imagine if Breaking Bad had (belated spoiler alert) offed Hank in its Season 5 premiere. But other shows—I’m looking at you, The Newsroom—should follow suit. Because while Tara once made for a welcome (if often racially stereotypical) contrast to the unbearable purity of the show’s protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), she ran her course long ago—right around the time, back in Season 4, that she briefly moved to New Orleans, changed her name to Toni, started dating a woman, and took up mixed martial arts. (Somehow, turning her into a vampire made Tara even less interesting.) Tara wasn’t the only character who needed to get the boot sooner rather than later this season: Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), once a semi-intriguing foil for the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), was drained of any personality or purpose as the seasons dragged on—True Blood finally jettisoned him in its penultimate episode, and I can’t imagine there were many complaints.

In giving Tara and Sam their farewells, True Blood opened up a nice chunk of screen time for two characters the show had previously left underdeveloped, creating some of the most rewarding moments in Season 7. Tara’s mother, Lettie Mae (Adina Porter), had long been painted as a Bible-thumping alcoholic with little complexity. But she became a series regular, and her volatile behavior and strained relationship with Tara were finally explained. In a vampire blood-assisted hallucination, she was reunited with her daughter, who revealed to her that, as a child, she stole her father’s gun and contemplated shooting him while watching him assault Lettie Mae. Finally we had a deeper understanding of a woman who, for so long, felt barely worth knowing.

True Blood set up a similar send-off for another of the few humans on the show, Ginger (Tara Buck), the loyal but seemingly ditzy waitress at vampire bar Fangtasia. She’d always been a noticeable presence at the bar, but was never written as someone worth caring about. We could infer that she was enslaved to Eric (Alexander Skarsgârd), the owner of the bar, and his progeny Pam, but that was about all we knew. That changed in Season 7, when, through a flashback, her rather surprising origin story came to light. True Blood also saved one of its most memorable sex scenes ever—and that’s saying something—for Ginger, granting her longtime wish to have sex with Eric. You’ll have to watch that one to fully appreciate it.

Such sex scenes have always been a staple of the series, and surely attracted a good portion of its audience. Keeping that in mind, True Blood wisely gave fans what they likely expected from the show’s last hurrah, with several scenarios clearly catering to the more fan-fiction-y side of its audience: a dreamt-up love scene between Eric and Sookie’s brother Jason, a much-deserved vampire sex scene for Arlene, a long-awaited sex scene for Lafayette, and even a reunion (albeit a quick one) for fan-favorite couple Jessica and Hoyt.

There were missteps in the show’s final season—Bill and Sookie’s forced storyline, the attempt to humanize Eric, the unnecessary Yakuza subplot, I could go on—and last night’s disappointing finale failed to live up to the season that preceded it. But if there’s any recent blueprint to follow in closing out a show that should’ve been put to rest a while ago, it’s True Blood. We can only hope that Ryan Murphy (Glee), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) took notes.

Dee Lockett is Slate's editorial assistant for culture.

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