True Blood: Season 6, Episode 1–Who Are You, Really?

“Whatever that thing is, it’s not Bill.”

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So, True Blood is back, after a rather disappointing season finale last year that failed to provide a resolution for most of the mysteries set up by season 5. It’s now de rigeur for every TV show to end its seasons on a cliffhanger, but True Blood’s previous form has been to wrap up the year’s storylines before introducing a new shock element to lead into the next. Season 5, for the first time, left viewers with very few answers to the questions posed throughout the year, and failed to really provide a satisfying ending to a season that had been rather disappointing overall.

So, will the new season succeed in wooing fans back? The season opener had a lot to pack in, mostly by dint of having so many loose strands left from last year, and seemingly tried to address them with some of the most frenetic opening minutes I’ve seen in a TV show. Eric and Sookie, still stuck in the underground HQ of the now-defunct Authority, were faced with the new, godlike rebirth of Bill Compton, while what was left of the Authority troops pursued Nora, Pam, Tara, Jason and Jessica through the corridors. Sam was rushing to the surface with Luna, now dying from the effort of having shape-shifted into Steve Newlin, and her daughter.

All were squabbling; Jason, gripped by his newfound vampirephobia, sniping at the others, while Pam and Tara, now apparently a couple, were already at the arguing stage, and Pam wasn’t taking kindly to getting orders from Nora. Sookie, meanwhile, still has to figure out the identity of the mysterious Warlow, the vamp who killed her parents and who now appears to her occasionally out of thin air. Oh, and there’s still the small matter of the impending war between vampires and humanity that followed the fanatical Sanguinistas’ bombing of the Tru Blood factories, forcing vamps back onto human blood to survive. Got all that?

This premiere seemed to try and address most of that within the first few minutes, giving an oddly unbalanced pace that veered from frenzied at the start to contemplative for the second half. The various parties’ escapes from the Authority HQ were rapidly intercut action sequences, courtesy of director Stephen Moyer. Perhaps that was why Bill himself was largely absent for much of this part of the ep, seen mostly as a snarling silhouette while everyone fretted about what sort of creature he’d become.

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There followed torrents of exposition as the show set up threads to come. Jason is still being haunted by visits from his dead parents, who seem “kinda more racist than they used to be”, while Nora was intrigued by his mention of Warlow, who, it seems, is mentioned in the Vampire Bible as the first progeny of Lilith, making him obviously some kind of vampire Satan.

I like True Blood’s frequent, often critical allusions to Christian fundamentalism, though I thought last year’s religious cult and mention that “God made the vampire in his own image” was a bit on the nose. Still, it’s an interesting idea that vampires too have their concept of the Devil; and if that is who Warlow is, it makes him a more formidable and potentially more interesting foe than just bringing back Russell Edgington again to please the fans.

If Warlow is the Devil, though, he can’t be much worse than the vampires’ god. Lilith seemed to embody the very worst aspects of vampires last year; and now Bill has been reborn in her image. The script thoughtfully saved net forums a deal of trouble by coming up with the name ‘Bilith’ all by itself. Whatever has happened to Bill, everyone agreed that he wasn’t Bill any more – something reinforced by his Maker’s summons to Jessica, which virtually pulled her inside out.

And yet, when they did catch up with Bill (at his house; not a very inventive hiding place but the obvious place to go after one’s apotheosis), he seemed to be very much the same. Except, when he threatened Eric, he survived Sookie actually staking him.

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This was obviously a turning point for Sookie, who previously has been unable to even contemplate harming Bill. To make matters worse, she’s obviously in love with Eric too, regardless of the fact that he’s no longer the amnesiac innocent she fell for a couple of years ago. No wonder she’s so confused that she wants shot of the lot of them, rescinding Eric’s invite to her house in the hope of returning to some sort of normality. Sorry, gal – this is Bon Temps, they don’t do normality.

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As Andy Bellefleur was reminded in his continuing comic subplot of lone father to a litter of fairy girls. He got a tearjerking speech about parenthood from Arlene, after which he seemed to embrace the concept, lovingly taking nappy-changing lessons from Terry. It looked as wholesome as could be; except this is Bon Temps, so by the morning the kids looked to be grown to eight-year-olds.

Poor old Andy; having started as a faintly unsavoury and unpleasant character, he’s grown into the show’s comic relief. No wonder he works with Jason Stackhouse. I’m not sure where this plotline is going, and it seems rather slight and inconsequential. But I’m more interested in it than I am in the continuing exploration of werewolf politics, to which we  returned here.

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s done well enough. But the werewolves were introduced primarily as adjuncts to the vampires, and for me at least, they’ve never been interesting enough as a subculture to justify the amount of time the show is increasingly expending on them. Plus, if we get balanced screen time between vampires, werewolves and fairies, it starts veering perilously close to becoming Being Human – and we’ve got two of those already.

Still, the charismatic Robert Patrick is always worth watching as Alcide’s dad; and the naked werewolf transformations provide plenty of the show’s trademark titillation, if that’s what you’re into. For me, the utterly gratuitous shots of a naked Joe Manganiello do take my attention away from any deficiencies in the plot.

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Rather more interesting plotwise was the latest development in the growing hostility between humans and vampires, with the introduction of Louisiana Governor Burrell, incarnated by a bald, bespectacled Arliss Howard. Howard’s a good character actor who tends to play either put-upon Everymen or out and out villains; given his introductory speech, I’d say Burrell’s one of the latter. Miked up by seemingly every new network, he proclaimed a vampire curfew, and that the state would seize vampire assets and forbid them from owning businesses. Here we go, then: it’s every genre show’s favourite, the recreation of the Holocaust!

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Subtle it ain’t, and I’m not entirely sure it works as an allegory either. The show’s frequent likening of vampires to every group in history victimised by bigots does tend to overlook the fact that vampires actually are vicious killers who survive by drinking blood, as opposed to the medieval propaganda that claimed Jews were.

While it may not entirely work as an allegory, and it’s a card that’s been played all too frequently in this kind of show, the idea of a vampire Holocaust at the hands of humans does have potential. But as I commented last year, the strength of this show is in its characters and their interactions, not in massive political power games – we have Game of Thrones for that. Burrell’s Hitler-like stance is plainly going to be a major plot thread this year – let’s see if True Blood can find anything new to say on the subject.

It looks like the other continuing plot thread – along with Burrell and whatever Bill’s apotheosis turned him into – is going to be the search for Warlow. We didn’t have to wait long, as he conveniently popped by to pick up the hitch-hiking Jason Stackhouse in an elderly station wagon that looked suspiciously like the one his parents died in.

Not that Jason realised who it was, at least initially – he’s never been the sharpest tool in the shed. The rest of us, though, were clued in by the fact that he was played by perennial bad guy Rutger Hauer – who, lest we forget, previously played the similarly named king vampire Barlow in the 2004 version of Salem’s Lot.

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Hauer has always given good psycho, as fans of 1986 movie The Hitcher can attest to. Here, the roles were (perhaps knowingly) reversed from that classic thriller, with Hauer the driver who picks up the foolish young man. He was still the psycho though, his unsettling performance mannerisms undimmed by age. By the time he was cackling furiously and disappearing, leaving the driverless car to careen off the road, even Jason got the point that he might be a wrong ‘un.

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So, a few new plot threads to go along with those still unresolved from last year, and some nice character development – particularly the nascent relationship between Tara and Pam, two women so bitchy they plainly belong together. Despite some uneven pacing, it was an entertaining enough opener, and True Blood has never been good at settling on any one (or two, or even three) main season plots in its opening episode. I’m not convinced the show really has that much more mileage left in it after starting, last year, to essentially repeat itself. But let’s see if this season proves me wrong as it goes on.

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