True Blood

I’m sick of things sneaking up on me.

— Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin)

“Every time I think I know what’s what, it turns out I don’t know anything.” As much as Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) thinks through her dilemmas — numerous and profound, usually having to do wit her vampire boyfriend — she remains mystified by her own choices and those made by others. The choice she’s contemplating now, during the first few minutes of True Blood‘s second season, has resulted in a traumatizing sight: a corpse left in the back seat of Detective Andy’s (Chris Bauer) car, her mouth gaping, limbs stiff with rigor mortis, and her heart literally ripped from her chest.

As Sookie ponders her limits, Tara (Rutina Wesley) tries to maintain control, hoping to elude confessing to cops what she knows about the victim, namely, that she kept a “voodoo bus out in the middle of the woods.” Whether this has anything to do with the woman’s grisly end is unknown. What is abundantly clear by this brutal, swift, and exquisitely yucky scene is True Blood is back, doing what it likes to do best, that is, dumping you into yet another crisis with precious little context or buildup. Sly and beguiling, it offers up desperate souls and sweaty bodies, hungry vampires and fearful humans.

Tensions between communities in Bon Temps, Louisiana are rising. Even as Sookie is making her way from the crime scene to her regular late-night liaison with her gentleman vampire lover Bill (Stephen Moyer), he’s trying to get a hold of his own changed situation. The new master of Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), whom he turned late last season, he’s not quite equipped to cope with the ordeals of a teenaged girl, a point that Sookie makes shortly after she discovers Jessica (who emerges, betoweled, from the bathroom as Sookie and Bill are entangled mid-clinch, to announce how much she likes his “shower”). When Sookie wonders exactly what’s gone on — “You bit her, you drained her. Did you have sex with her?” — Jessica is instantly endearing and annoying, like a lot of kids her age: “Eww!” she gasps at the thought, “Old!”

Jessica is the designated replacement for the vampire Bill killed last year in order to save Sookie. That Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgîrd), the vampire sheriff in Bon Temps, has ordered the replacement is more a matter of policing Bill than replenishing undead ranks. These two have a seriously complicated relationship, partly dictated by their competition for Sookie (Eric wants to put her thoughts-reading skills to his own uses, while Bill, well, he appreciates that she’s inspired him to feel “something I thought had been lost to me forever”), and partly by their concern over who has the oldest, most potent blood (the new season will be introducing two new vampires, both older than Eric, one a princess played by Evan Rachel Wood). As Eric and Bill have to make deals and trade favors, they repeatedly declare their mutual respect, compare notes on their trainees: Eric’s girl wears killer pumps and is “lazy but loyal,” Bill describes Jessica as “petulant and afraid.”

As much as they think themselves opposed, these boys are awfully alike, sharing a righteous moodiness and sense of alienation that the younger generation just doesn╒t. They’re mystified by the new vampires’ ability to slide in and about of human communities, and not a little worried when dead bodies start showing up that are plainly not the work of vampires. Bill is horrified by his new responsibilities as a maker (i.e., a father). “She has no humanity,” he whines to Sookie, “She’s in the grips of an overwhelming transformation. There will be times when she cannot control even a single impulse and believe me, she has many.” Sookie rolls her eyes: “How is that different from being a teenage girl?”

But as vampires are learning how to mingle with humans who are, as Sookie puts it, “open-minded,” other humans are turning up the anti-vampire heat. Where last season showcased an anti-immigrants-like movement bolstered by sensationalist talking-heads media, here the haters are overtly religious, rich, and recruiting. Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) remains disturbed by his own encounter with a dead body last season (his girlfriend killed a vampire who was, Jason worries, a “nice person”). Picking up on the search for order and redemption he started last season Jason heads off to church camp with the telegenic Rev. Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian) and his Stepfordy wife Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp).

Jason isn’t certain how he feels about “fangers.” Not only is his sister dating one, but he’s also aware that his beloved gran was killed by a human full of hate for vampires. Still, he likes fitting in, and likes being told how “special” he is, and so he’s inclined to swallow Steve’s patent illogic. With humans designated light and vampires dark, he insists, the sides are absolute: “You cannot love evil, you have to hate it so hating evil is really loving good.” Gee, Jason gulps, never thought of it that way.

Even as Jason is almost tripping over himself en route to his salvation, Tara is having her own “community” issues, spending a little too much time at the home of sexy-goofily vibrating Maenad Maryann (Michelle Forbes), not to mention falling for Eggs (Mehcad Brooks). If Jason’s getaway is flag-waving and pert (during a group session, Jason hangs his head, “I ain’t much of a sharing type of guy”), Tara’s is hot and sultry, tres Louisiana, even if Maryann’s outfits look like knockoffs of Angelina Jolie’s goddess gowns from Alexander. Neither adventure is especially subtle or interesting, but together they underscore the similarities between fundamentalisms — whether Christian or pagan.

These too-easy distinctions are effectively messed up in Tara’s cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). Locked up in a vampire’s dungeon as this season begins, he tries to deal with his captor. First, after weeks of torture, he declares his willingness to give up whatever information he can, with apt intertextual allusion: “If I got even a Jew at an al-Qaeda pep rally chance of getting my black ass up out this motherfucker, I’m taking it.” Presenting himself up as a vampire waiting to be made, Lafayette says, “I’m already a person of poor moral character, so I’ll hit the ground running. Not only will I be a bad-ass vampire, but I’ll be your bad-ass vampire.” While this offer is discomfiting enough, it’s made worse when Lafayette escapes the dungeon, dragging a chain and a slave’s collar around his neck. Never one to understate, Lafayette resists Tara’s nurturing and Sookie’s protection. He’s learned to rely on himself, and he makes all too plain what everyone else in True Blood talks around: (Southern) romance is a long-lived deception, comprised of power struggles and betrayals and brutalities.

RATING 8 / 10