You need to be somebody’s… or you won’t be.
—Pam (Kristin Bauer)
Last season’s finale of True Blood was something of a mixed bag: the grief-crazed rampage of the King of Mississippi, Russel Edgington (Denis O’Hare), was a high point, as was the revelation that Bill (Stephen Moyer) had manipulated everyone’s favorite telepathic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Pacquin), into falling for him. After all the chaos, the final moment of the season was almost minimalist—by True Blood’s standards—as Sookie gave up on Bon Temps and disappeared in a flash of golden light with the fairy, Claudine (Lara Pulver).
Season Four opens in the fairy world, with Sookie and other humans mingling with their fairy godmothers at something like an alternate universe welcoming party. It’s a retelling on the Lotus-eaters myth, with the humans feasting on glowing “light fruit,” pushed on them by the fairies, and then quickly losing track of everything else around them, including time. Her own experience with the supernatural has made Sookie far less trusting than her human counterparts and, as she often does, she quickly uncovers the ugly underside of this particular fairy tale.
Sookie isn’t the only one discovering grim realities. Back in Bon Temps, Jason (Ryan Kwanten) discovers the hard way that the inbred community of were-panthers he has taken under his wing are less enamored of him than they are hell-bent on expanding their gene pool. Hoyt’s (Jim Parrack) and Jessica’s (Deborah Ann Woll) fantasy of human/vampire domestic bliss is challenged by something as simple as the difference in their most basic need, food. He considers Jessica feeding off others—people who aren’t him—a betrayal. And, of course, the ever-anxious and -voracious “public” had their worst suspicions about the vampires confirmed when Russell Edgington ripped out the heart of a news anchor during a live broadcast last season. The incident has inspired digital-age Van Helsings armed with iPhones to further expose “the vamps.”
Following on last season’s addition of werewolves to True Blood‘s supernatural population continues to expand. Bill has planted a spy inside a coven of necromantic witches led by Marnie (Fiona Shaw, who manages to be both endearing and incredibly creepy). Even Sookie, so long so patient, seems exasperated by this turn of events, telling Eric, “You mean I have to deal with witches now?” As with the werewolves, the primary threat the witches embody is not against the humans, but against the vampires. For one thing, the witches are learning to control the dead. Vampires are (technically) dead. You do the math.
Such threats in True Blood typically point to a mix of vulnerabilities and inspire a range of responses, as loosely defined communities and tentative alliances contend over politics, territories, and bodies—with sexual desire and jealousy underlying all. We can’t help but see the irony of the vampires’ concern over the necromancers, given that both groups work incessantly to control everyone else around them.
Sookie, as always, forms a kind of center of yearning, an object of desire and worry for all. That the opponents also repeatedly protect and endanger her only increases their sense of competition. Part fairy, Sookie is at more risk than your average girl for being consumed by the local vampires (as the number of “rules” grows along with the populations, we know fairy blood gives vampires the ability to day-walk). She mirrors the mixed feelings expressed towards her, as she too is stuck wanting, hating, and fearing the thing that can both save and destroy her. For all Sookie’s seeming power, she is incapable of surviving on her own.
Since Russell Edgington single-handedly destroyed whatever progress the vampires had made in mainstreaming, Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck), tireless spokeswoman for the American Vampire League, and Bill are now working together to restore their public image and win acceptance from their human neighbors. This includes a new barrage of PSAs with a sort of “Vampires are people too” message, as well as Bill’s redoubled efforts to uphold Nan’s “No dead humans” mandate.
The significance of this particular decree lies in its wording. Despite trying to convince humans that vampires don’t need to suck their blood, thanks to the synthetic True Blood, the vampires regularly do exactly that. The key to achieving a sustained place in mixed society hinges on crafting their public image, specifically, concealing the reality of their subculture. When Bill severely punishes one vampire (Aubrey Deeker) for violating the rule, it’s clear the real problem isn’t the crime, but that the crime was documented by some intrepid YouTubers. “No dead humans” actually means “Don’t get caught,” a timely, if obvious, allusion to current events far beyond Bon Temps. IT hardly seems a new problem is new for the vampires: they’ve always counted on “not getting caught” for their survival.
This season, as before, True Blood employs its supernatural others to signify cultural anxieties about race and sexuality. Now these anxieties are foregrounded in some of the human protagonists. It’s a necessary shift: while the show has always portrayed elements of the vampire community as corrupt, we have been assured that Bill, and maybe a few others, were merely misunderstood. As this story has lost credibility, the vampires as a plausible metaphor for “accepting difference” is falling apart. Lying is only effective when it’s unknown. As Sookie has learned, acceptance—tolerance, embrace—of difference is more complicated when it also demands a denial of self.
This development also exacerbates tensions regarding the series’ other “others,” the right-wing “nut jobs.” Afforded the most one-dimensional presentation imaginable, these ever-protesting hysterics are ridiculed by vampires and vampire-supporters alike. But the unspoken irony, in this case, is that the supposed crazies are not only right, but also correct.