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"Who Are You, Really?," "The Sun," "You're No Good," "At Last," "**** the Pain Away," "Don't You Feel Me," "In the Evening," "Dead Meat," "Life Matters," "Radioactive"
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The penultimate season of "True Blood" was fraught with behind-the-scenes turmoil. Creator-showrunner Alan Ball had departed the series and his replacement, Ball's old "Cybill" cohort Mark Hudis, was himself replaced partway through the season by long-time "True Blood" scribe Brian Buckner. (Ball has a history of tapping out after five seasons and being notoriously difficult to replace--"Six Feet Under" ended when it did because he couldn't convince anyone to take over.) Whether this directly contributed to an abrupt plot development that effectively cleaves the season in two, the truth is that "True Blood" weathers these personnel changes invisibly enough as to affirm it is either on autopilot by now or, to be less generous, was already something of a runaway train that had only ornamental use for a conductor. Whatever the case, the show's sixth year represents a marginal rebound--though at this point in my "True Blood" journey, I'm just a masochist ranking the instruments of torture.
Season Six makes a few smart opening moves in forgetting the Sanguinista movement, killing off Janina Gavankar's bland Luna (only to saddle Sam (Sam Trammell) with the sanctimonious Nicole (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), but I digress), and all but ignoring Jason's (Ryan Kwanten) dead-end parental hallucinations. I'm sure this will all seem maddeningly discontinuous on a binge-watch of the complete series, but as a seasonal viewer, I can't say I sat around for the past twelve months wondering about Jason's concussion. And anyway, "True Blood" does pick up right where it left off, with Bill (Stephen Moyer) having drunk the blood of the goddess Lilith, transforming him into a demigod capable of telekinesis and unaffected by disinvitations from people's homes. He will also become clairvoyant during a brief "coma" in which he predicts the vampire holocaust that is the season's throughline. Meanwhile, the impending arrival of Warlow (Robert Kazinsky), the ancient vampire with dibs on Sookie (Anna Paquin), brings with it Sookie's heretofore-unmentioned fairy godfather Niall (Rutger Hauer), who's come to Bon Temps to protect her. While Hauer is charismatic, Niall is banished to another realm before he can really wrestle the performance away from his fright 'do.
Warlow materializes early, under an assumed identity. (This would count as a plot twist, if not for that pesky law of economy of characters.) It turns out the key to Warlow's specialness--as dramatized by hilarible flashbacks to caveman days that make 10,000 BC look nuanced--is that he's a vampire-fae hybrid, which, needless to say, raises more questions than it answers. In classic "True Blood" fashion, Sookie's intention to poison Warlow by dousing his dinner in colloidal silver is emphasized with a silent-movie hamminess, yet the particulars of Warlow's diet are overlooked: Unlike other vampires on the show, he can eat people-food, but does that mean he actually needs both blood and solids to survive? I wish "True Blood" had a nerdier respect for its mythology (by now a gnarl of contradictions it would take Houdini to untangle), but that ship has sailed. Surprisingly, Warlow doesn't justify the Lestat hype he got in Season Five. Unsurprisingly, Warlow becomes the latest in Sookie's inexplicably long line of suitors. At least this one has the excuse of having spent thousands of years idealizing her, blinding him to her charmless self-centredness.
A more pressing threat is another retcon of sorts, Louisiana governor Truman Burrell (Arliss Howard with a shaved head), a vendetta-driven man who aims to become the vampires' answer to Hitler. Capitalizing on public fears following the bombing of "True Blood" factories, he institutes a vampire curfew and shuts down vampire-owned business, among them the frankly unmournable Fangtasia. He puts into rotation UV-coated bullets, and starts his own "True Blood" factory in order to bottle it with a deadly virus called Hep V. And finally, his pièce de résistance, he opens up...aw, not another goddamn high-tech bunker our heroes are constantly breaking into and out of. We just blew one of those up! This one's a death camp, though, presided over by a Mengele named Dr. Overlark (John Fleck) who subjects the vampire prisoners to a variety of punishments, including, because this is HBO, forced copulation.1
Bill's adorably insular premonition of the apocalypse he must prevent for the sake of vampirekind sees his friends getting barbecued within the bleach-white walls of this compound. He concocts a plan that involves abducting Andy Bellefleur's four rapidly-aging fairy daughters along with a Japanese professor (Keone Young) to synthesize their blood with his own super-plasma. Although Bill is now stronger, faster, and more fearsome than everybody else on the planet, for some reason he enlists Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) to ensnare the professor by donning something slutty and pretending to be one of his students. I'm not complaining, especially as the statuesque Woll spends the rest of the season in prison blues, but damn do these characters take the scenic route, even with the episode count reduced from twelve to ten for this go-round. What works is those fairy daughters, whose rapid maturation transforms them overnight from toddlers into nubile teenage girls--a poetic illustration of paternal anxieties and the brevity of childhood. Meanwhile, when they tell Jessica they're not named, merely numbered from one to four, it feels satirically self-reflexive of the way that so many women on this show are treated as interchangeable eye candy.2
Burrell's genocidal aspirations--the real BigBad of Season Six--are disproportionate to the megalomania he projects, or rather doesn't project: The chameleonic Howard is an actor generally hired for his intelligence and reserve, and these are qualities perhaps antithetical to the "True Blood"-verse. Bill tearing Burrell's head from his shoulders is at once shocking (particularly with three episodes still to go) and a shrewd reduction of him to a literal figurehead, shifting the balance of power to batshit-crazy evangelist Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp), whose unhinged attack on a "Tru Blood" executive single-handedly proves there's some juice left in the series. Indeed, there's a wildness to the second half of the season, a sense of the inmates taking over the asylum, that you have to assume reflected the personnel upheavals on set, and the show suddenly divesting itself of its central authority figure seemingly emboldens it to make other radical changes that could be viewed as course corrections. Eric's (Alexander Skarsgård) personality-free sister Nora (Lucy Griffiths) meets the true death (and not a moment too soon, as I tired of mistaking her for Burrell's dead ringer of a vampire daughter, Willa (Amelia Rose Blaire)), for instance, and werewolf Alcide (Joe Manganiello) ditches his pack with ostensible permanence.3
There's one other significant curveball this season, when twitchy Terry (Todd Lowe) at last fulfills whatever death wish he's had. Because "True Blood" often suggests a reaction to Ball's own "Six Feet Under" in its reluctance to wallow in grief and overall glib treatment of mortality, it's curious that the series mourns Terry, going so far as to borrow iconic imagery from "Six Feet Under" like its trademark fade to white (which I took to be a definitive answer to the question of whether Terry is gone for good). I can't say the episode-length funeral for Terry did much for me: the "Lost"-style flashbacks to touchstone events in his recent past prove mostly unsuccessful at imbuing him with post facto gravitas, while the cartoonish tone of the series continues to be rigidly unaccommodating of pathos, as it has been since the "Eddie" subplot concluded in Season One. Still, I appreciate the rare follow-through on a prophesied tragedy.
Too, with Warlow mounting a violent campaign to turn Sookie into a vampire and Bill more or less regretfully converting a bunch of vampires into daywalkers, a loose theme emerges in Season Six about the fallacy of forcing change on others into which the circumstances of Terry's demise tie in nicely. Without his consent, Arlene (Carrie Preston) has Terry glamoured by a vampire friend of a friend into forgetting his military past and thus his secret recruitment of a Marine sniper to take him out. It's a merciful gesture--Terry is instantaneously cured of his resurfaced PTSD--yet it's also an act of selfishness: Arlene goes on and on about how Terry is now the serene, attentive man of her dreams, but that's not the man she married, is it? It occurred to me that dwelling on Terry's demise is effectively lingering on Arlene's comeuppance; karmic retribution is the series' stock in trade but this feels different, more ambitious. Although it might be a fluke, this is the year that "True Blood" gained something resembling moral dimension.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
HBO's 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation of "True Blood: The Complete Sixth Season" is pretty much status quo: slick and sleek, if sometimes slightly overbaked and overprocessed. It's possible, maybe probable, that whites tend to have limited dynamic range before blowing out to convey the intrusiveness of bright light in a show about vampires. The series is still shot in Super35, but I'm convinced I spotted a few inserts, if not whole scenes (like the one where Alcide and Sam share a nightcap at Merlotte's in "Dead Meat" (6.8)), where digital was substituted, because the constant grain suddenly vanishes and blacks lose their dramatic depth. If they're testing the waters for a full-on conversion to HD video, the show will most assuredly lose some of its distinct pop. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks have an astonishing transparency in Season Six and once again respond well to amplification. In other words, "Bad Things" sounds great with the volume cranked high. Lamentably or not, dialogue is crystal clear and impeccably balanced against music and effects.
Perhaps indicative of the backstage discombobulation, the supplemental offering is somewhat slim this time around. The usual array of commentaries doesn't begin until episode 4, "At Last," featuring writer Alexander Woo and actress Blaire. The latter's excitement and curiosity help buoy a conversation conducted over the phone. I'm dubious about Woo's claim that it's "20 below" where they shoot night scenes in SoCal, but I'll let it slide. "Don't You Feel Me" (6.6) teams writer Daniel Kenneth with director Howard Deutch for a spotty dialogue centred around the Some Kind of Wonderful helmer's "True Blood" learning curve. We learn that actor Nelsan Ellis was terrified of drowning Paquin, who grew impatient with his carefulness. On the yakker for 6.7, "In the Evening," Moyer and writer Kate Barnow contribute such gentle gossip as the fact that fully half the show's makeup budget goes to false eyelashes. This is an episode in which Moyer's wife Paquin is extremely naked, for what it's worth, but he refrains from any personal asides during the scene, instead using it as a segue to fannishly pontificate on Sookie's lovelife. "Life Matters" (6.9) pairs Preston with Buckner, who teases the upcoming seventh and final season, promising the actress there will be blood for Arlene. They spend much of the hour pre-emptively mourning Warlow (as opposed to Terry). Buckner continues to hint at upcoming developments with the returning Barnow on 6.10, "Radioactive," but their chat runs out of steam soon after Barnow points out the "elephant" in the room: Manganiello's terrible $6000 wig.
"Inside the Episode" featurettes of 3-5 minutes apiece still append each segment; as usual, the show's writers and directors attempt to explain in their own words the character motivations from episode to episode. From a reviewer's standpoint, this is not totally useless. Along with the interactive family-tree-cum-glossary "True Blood Lines," the fifth and final disc features "Vamp Camp Files," a multi-tiered interface linking to in-character briefings from Sarah Newlin, Dr. Overlark, Dr. Finn (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and General Samuel Morris (uncredited). It's nice to see more of Vince, who absolutely gives the season's best performance as a corrupt vampire shrink who takes sexual advantage of his patients. He works miracles here with a monologue about how a childhood obsession with vampire movies led to him demanding his mother serve him tomato juice instead of milk. But for the most part they talk in circles, as characters isolated from their fictitious environment are wont to do, and the mock blueprints, top secret files, and whatnot hardly ring with authenticity. I tire easily of these faux-appendices and this one is no exception. A download code for a Digital Copy of the season rounds out the package.
1. More inconsistencies: We learned in Season Five that clusters of vampires will adopt "nesting" behaviour, but the vampires held captive in the camps are by all appearances immune to not only this, but also "the bleeds" that happen when a vampire is awake past its bedtime. Eric gets them early on in the season from staying up talking to Willa. return
2. That being said, how do they develop a vocabulary and perfect speech in the span of two weeks, give or take? This is The Fly II all over again. return
3. Good riddance! With their vapid snarling and banal titty-baring, the "Sons of Anarchy" wannabe wolf-packs on this show grind it to a halt whenever they appear. I only wish it weren't probably too late to do something about those sad heat-wave werewolf transformation morphs. In the words of fellow FFCer Jefferson Robbins, "Same thing with Sam. It's all 'BOOP, I'm an ocelot!' Zero fuss. Make us feel it a little bit, huh?" return