'True Blood' recap: Keep your eyes on the road
No matter what happens, a "True Blood" finale should make the viewer feel something. We should be weeping that it's all over and cursing that we have to wait until next summer. We should be intensely angry and disappointed, saying, "THAT was the finale?" We should be ecstatic from how excited we are at what just happened. We should feel one of the above or some combination of them. But the "True Blood" finale pretty much made me feel nothing. It felt, for all the world, like a tiny pause in the storyline before we barrel forward toward something else, as though the show would be back in a few weeks' time, and we'd head toward the real end of the story at this point. A season finale is a period or an exclamation mark. This was a comma.
Over the course of the third season, it's become clear that what I like about the show and what you guys like (and what the producers like) sit on opposite ends of some canyon that's impossible to cross. I think the show works best when it's streamlined, moving forward constantly like a shark. Many of you love the diversions and side-trips we take into storylines that don't have much to do with the main plot (beyond featuring characters that all live in the same small town in Louisiana). I like the show best when the characters are all working toward some sort of impossible plan. Many of you like getting lost in the flavor and color of the world. And that's fine. We don't all have to like TV shows for the same reasons. The best I can do here is explain why I've liked enough of this third season to be entertained but also explain why it's failed on levels that made me feel vaguely dissatisfied.
But the season finale was some whole other level of dissatisfaction. It spent about 50 minutes just wandering around, closing off a few storylines, suggesting other ones were about to begin, and wasting time, and then it tried to rouse itself to a shocking climax in its last five minutes. Bill went to take out the vampire queen, Eric survived to fight another day and Sookie disappeared in a flash of light while greeting her fairy brethren in a graveyard. As cliffhangers, these aren't bad, even if they don't match up to the series' previous cliffhangers (and I was no big fan of the "Bill disappears!" cliffhanger), but as motivations to keep us waiting on the edges of our seats for the next several months, they're a little wanting. Do we really think Bill's going to die in his fight? Do we really think that Sookie's gone for all time? The only question becomes just how quickly the show walks these plot points back. At least with the "Where's Bill?" cliffhanger, we wondered just how he had disappeared. That opened up the show into a whole new chapter of werewolves and craziness. I'm not sure anything here has that same level of promise.
In a way, it feels like "True Blood" has been marking time since Sookie and Bill escaped Russell's clutches. There have been some truly incredible moments -- like Russell's appearance on cable TV -- but even this episode felt like a long throat-clearing while the writers tried to figure out just where they were headed from here on out. There's a weird air of desperation to this finale, as all involved throw some ideas at the wall and hope that some of them stick. Sure, it's nice to see Godric back (even if he's a ghost or angel or something), but there's no real reason for him to be there, other than to externalize the conflict within Eric that Alexander Skarsgard is already doing such a good job of showing us via his acting skills. Any time a show starts telling you what to think or how to feel without feeling confident enough to figure it out on your own, that show has failed on some level, and Ghost Godric is a fairly classic example of this. All he's there to do is to make us think, "Gee, Eric is sure turning into a tortured character." Well, yes, but the show's already suggested this in many, many other ways.
Don't get me wrong. There are some cool moments in the finale. I don't really see the point of putting Jason at the head of a family of disadvantaged hillbillies, but, God help me, I'm willing to see where it's all going (if only because of how much I loved the movie "Winter's Bone"). Bill and Eric's solution for how to get Russell out of their hair for a hundred years or so is very clever, and the image of Russell being buried beneath the cement, his hand reaching out toward the two standing above his pit, is very creepy and very effective. And I liked individual moments within all of the storylines, like Sam trying to tell Tara his deepest secret or Russell trying to cut a deal with Sookie (whose negotiating technique is one I really need to take to heart the next time I'm asking for a raise). And Sookie feeding Talbot's remains into a garbage disposal was just fantastic.
But the vast majority of the episode feels like a show that's unsure of itself and unsure of what to do next. The first seven episodes of this season moved with a confidence and surety that the show hadn't displayed before. Even in the plots that weren't wholly engaging, there was a sense that everything was headed somewhere, that the payoff would at least make sense, if not redeem the whole storyline. After those episodes, there were great moments, but everything felt like the writers doing what they could to keep way too many balls in the air, their juggling act growing more and more sweaty and desperate. For every fantastic moment, there were just as many clumsy ones, and all of the show's tap dancing couldn't save it forever.
I don't think "True Blood" has jumped the shark (especially since I hate that phrase and concept). I don't think what's happened is irredeemable. I do think that the show needs to sit down between seasons three and four and try to figure out just what kind of stories it wants to tell and eschew everything that doesn't contribute to those stories. I like the promise of the fourth season revolving around witches. I like the idea that this season and the next are just two halves of one big story (at least that's what I assume the structure is leading toward). I still like these characters, and I still like these world. I just want the show to stop looking over at me from the drivers' seat all of the time, hyperactively shouting, "You having fun? You having fun? You having fun?!" I want its eyes on the road, the ride smooth, a confident smile on its face, like earlier this season. Because then I can say, "Yeah, we're having fun."
Some other thoughts:
- A friend who watches the show wrote me as soon as it was over to say he thought it was good, not great, and that he thought the final message from Alan Ball seemed more like an apology for the season than a preview of what's to come.
- And, hey, did anybody see that preview of the HBO season to come before the show? That had some really cool stuff in it, including "Boardwalk Empire," which I'll be covering in this space starting this week.
- Oh, hey, Alcide is back. He ... didn't really do a lot, did he? I feel that way about much of the finale.
- Not only did Sookie kick Bill out of her life, but she rescinded her invitation to her house, meaning he can't come in again? I'd talk more about this if I didn't think the writers would just immediately reverse it within five minutes of the next season starting.
- Russell's burn-ination makeup was really well done. Emmys all around!
- So am I wrong here? Or do you completely agree? Check in in comments or hit me up on Twitter or via e-mail.
- "Was it the right wing that ripped a guy's spine out on television?"
- "Are you sure you're not hungry? I could make you a peanut butter and butter sandwich."
- "I feel safer protecting myself, since I now know I'm vampire crack."
- "You're a witch who's a nurse who's a dude."
-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Sookie (Anna Paquin) kneels at her grandmother's grave to ask for guidance. Then she gets sucked off to fairy land. See you next summer, everybody!