Monday, June 27, 2011

True Blood -- Episode 4.1 -- "She's Not There"

Bill's better as a bad ass.

What a difference a year makes, huh?

Season 4 of True Blood began tonight in a grand fashion, with HBO airing not only the premiere, but also the second episode on their HBO premium website for subscribers. I will not be discussing the second episode, "You Smell Like Dinner" until next week after it officially airs. In the meantime, let me tease that the second episode is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Episode one, "She's Not There," is a terrific season opener. It brings quick closure to last season's dangling plot threads and introduces some excellent new ones. The pacing felt tighter and more constructive than in a few of last season's meandering episodes, and our characters have been given a chance to breathe and develop on their own without the pressures of plot machinations. Overall, it feels like the writers of True Blood took a long hard look at their product and figured out how to play to their strengths. This makes me very excited for the season to unfold.

Fun Times in Faery Land

A lot of the criticism of season 3 was the inclusion of Sookie's trip to Faery Land, which my girlfriend immediately said looked like the set of a douche commercial. Having read the novels by Charlaine Harris, I was already privvy to the twist that Sookie was half-faery, so I was never particularly bothered. I did think the sets were a little too cheesy, even for True Blood, and felt that they made the faeries seem way too nice and merry. I felt the writers were holding a little too close to the cliche of faeries as Disney-esque nymphs.

Upon re-watch I realized how wrong I was about the way the scenes were handled. Firstly, there were only two scenes in Faery Land during season 3 -- when Sookie was in her coma, and during Bill's post-coital bliss after drinking way too much of Sookie's blood. The images were so indelible that it seemed like the show spent more time there than it actually did. Secondly, the faery scenes are pretty dark and ominous. They are actually set in the Bon Temps Cemetery, with the half-naked faeries running around dancing among the graves without much of a care in the world. There's a sense about them that they actually seem to revel in death while putting on the pretense of life.

That certainly comes to play in the opener of season 4. Sookie finds herself in Faery Land, which is ripped off from the Odyssey's island of the Lotus Eaters. Among the characters we see here are old favorites, like disgruntled telepathic bell boy, Barry, and Sookie's long lost grandfather, Earl (Gary Cole, sans shirt, tie, and TPS reports). We also meet a new character, the evil Queen Mab (thanks Shakespeare!), who tries to force Sookie to eat a light fruit. Fortunately, Sookie resists and removes the Emperor's clothes, revealing Faery Land to be as desolate as ... Joshua Tree! We discover that while Queen Mab wants to separate all faeries from the earthly realm, there is a rogue faction of faeries that want to integrate with humans much as all the other supernaturals creatures on the show have. This group helps Sookie escape back to Bon Temps, where she learns something shocking.

Get Out of Jail Free Cards Sometimes Work!

Probably the biggest issue many people will have with season 4's beginning is the twist that Sookie's excursion in Faery Land cost her 12 and a half months of time in Bon Temps, during which its residents got some much needed R&R from the writer's room plot factory. The events of the the first three seasons probably took place over the course of a couple months of real time, so the characters needed a break to regroup.

I imagine most critics will see this as a cop out on the writers' part. And maybe it is. I'd prefer to think that it's the writers' way of letting us know that Sookie is the real problem here, and that all the trouble that usually befalls Bon Temps is her fault. It seems that the moment she's gone, everyone's life settles down. The moment she returns, bad shit starts up again. Weird how that happens.

I think the reboot works, for the most part. It did require a lot of exposition for the first half of the episode in order for us to get caught up with the characters Sookie left behind, but it also allowed us to be as frazzled and shocked as Sookie herself by the developments. Even though this cast is expansive, Sookie is still our representative, and her surprise is ours as well. So, the reboot not only gave the show a chance to relax, it also gave the writers a chance to re-establish Sookie as the protagonist. Of course, that will no doubt change as the season progresses and storylines develop, but for now it's a welcome sigh of relief.

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

A lot changed in the year Sookie was gone. Here are the highlights:

1. Jason Stackhouse is now a full-time Deputy Sheriff who also has taken on the responsibility of tending to the rednecks in Hotshot. He seems more mature and kind-hearted, a complete 180 from the Jason of season 1. I like this change because I was never a big fan of Jason being the dumbest character east of the Mississippi.

2. Hoyt and Jessica are living together, and now seem like any other pre-married couple. They're kind of boring, but they seem to sense this, too.

3. Arlene and Terry had the baby and Arlene thinks he is a psychopath. There's a terrific scene in which she comes home to discover the little imp has ripped the heads off of her daughter's Barbies while Terry was in the crapper.

4. Tara is now a lesbian MMA fighter. I like the MMA part, but the lesbian part just feels forced and cliche. At this point it would seem a traditional, healthy heterosexual relationship would be a plot twist on True Blood.

5. Sam shot the leg. Sam has since joined a group of other shifters, and Tommy has moved in with Hoyt's momma. This is a nice irony seeing how much Tommy resented Hoyt in season 3.

6. Lafayette and Jesus are still together and have joined a local witches' coven. Lafayette is reluctant to do so, but Jesus encourages him to embrace his witchy ways.

But the show kept two changes for last that really had me excited.

1. Eric bought Sookie's house to keep for her in the event of her return, but also to ensure that he could never be denied entry again.

2. Bill is the Vampire King of Louisiana.

A New King Is In Town

What a shocker to learn at the episode's end that Bill is the Vampire King! I rejoiced in the twist because it means that Bill has more to offer the story now than merely being a lovelorn, overprotective boyfriend. Like at the beginning of season 3 when he had to defend himself against the wolves, Bill now seems more badass than ever. And that's a welcome change in the story. I'm really interested to see where they take this.

A Woman In Peril

Another big criticism certain to be levied against this new season is how Eric's purchase of Sookie's house has turned her into a damsel in distress. The logic is that Sookie's house has always been her haven from the vampires, to whom she could deny entrance anytime she desired. This gave her an equal standing with them to a degree by affording her a power that couldn't be taken from her. Now, though, it has been, and that has sapped her of her defining quality -- her strength.

I like the twist because it provides a remarkable obstacle for Sookie. How will she handle Eric and the vampires in light of this revelation? How can she regain her strength? Without a safe place, Sookie has to fight, giving us the source of excellent conflict. Her strength is not in her home, it is in herself. Losing her house only means that she has to find another way to gain an advantage against Eric and any other vampire longing for her tasty Faery blood.

With episode 1 in the books, I'm stoked for the rest of the season. It should be a blast!

What did you think?

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