Posts Tagged ‘True Blood’

 

A Softer World: 642

Warning: spoilers for True Blood Season 4

Falling asleep last night, I found myself considering a question that’s been niggling at me for months: why is it that I’m fine with forgiving some True Blood¬†characters who’ve done terrible things in the past, but not others? Despite all the protestations and boundaries of my own ethical system, the distinction seems to have less to do with the type of terrible thing (up to a point) and more about why it was done.¬†By all accounts, I should find Eric Northman to be a more horrific vampire than Bill Compton; his torture and imprisonment of Lafayette alone is one of the more harrowing plots in an already gritty show. And yet, I don’t – and while a reasonable portion of that discrepancy can probably be attributed to the not inconsiderable charms of Alexander Skarsgard, the vast majority of it isn’t.

Looking at Bill’s history, we see an interwoven pattern of love and violence. For love of his maker, Lorena, he committed multiple atrocious murders, their goriness shown to us in a series of flashbacks. For love of Sookie, he took it upon himself to kill both her¬†pedophile¬†Uncle Bartlett and the¬†villainous, violent Rattrays. No matter how deserving of death we might view these characters to be, all their murders were premeditated, placing them well outside the show’s internally acceptable justification of self-defense which. By contrast, his multiple betrayals of Sookie – selling her to Queen Sophie-Anne, returning to Lorena, forcibly draining her blood – are all the worse for being committed against a loved one, even when we can acknowledge the extent to which his hand was forced.

In Eric’s case, however, there’s a sense in which the worst thing he’s done to Sookie personally (as opposed to her friends) is to buy her house and refuse to sell it back. Not only does this give him unprecedented control over her, but the house has such significance to Sookie that the threat of withholding it constitutes emotional blackmail. Compare this to earlier incidents: though Eric both tricked Sookie into drinking his blood and has forcibly bitten her, these crime are nullified – comparatively, if not absolutely – by the fact that Bill has done likewise in a far more awful manner. His history is violent, yes, but nonetheless designed to make us sympathetic: killing Nazis for one thing, and avenging his family’s murder for another. Elsewhere, his devotion to Godric and care for Pam are both used to underscore his benevolence and loyalty, whereas Bill, having first been a spy for Sophie-Anne, has more recently been revealed as a double agent, killing his queen with the aid of Nan Flanagan. Finally, there’s the terrible incident of Tara’s rape and imprisonment to consider. At the time, both Bill and Eric were witnesses to her plight, and it’s a significant mark against both of them that neither one helps her escape. The difference is that whereas Eric remains a relative stranger, his aid neither looked for nor expected, Tara and Bill are friends. When she pleads with Bill to free her, he refuses – and given what comes next, it’s this betrayal which damns him most of all.

Where am I going with this? That love is simultaneously the best and worst justification for committing terrible crimes, and also a leading cause of terribleness when love is the thing betrayed. Acting against a loved one, no matter how pure or necessary the motive, is bad. Acting for a loved one in a terrible way, no matter how pure the motive, is just as bad, but mitigated in cases of extreme necessity. Acting for a loved one in a pure or necessary way is good – which should hardly need to be said, except that distinguishing these latter instances from one another is where we tend to struggle. By this point in True Blood, pretty much every single character has either committed murder, attempted murder, betrayed their friends, run amok or otherwise behaved badly, to the extent that eliding certain events and justifying others is the only way to like anyone. But even then, some crimes stand out as¬†unforgivable – it’s just that we don’t always agree on which these are,¬†and the emotional byplay as the characters argue their respective cases is fascinating.

And that’s where the opening comic comes in: because doing terrible things for love has become the show’s¬†raison d’etre. Whether it’s Sam and Tommy’s relationship with the Migginses, Sookie sheltering a mind-wiped Eric, Tara lying to Naomi about her real identity, Lafayette dealing drugs to pay for Ruby-Jean’s hospice, Crystal imprisoning Jason, Amy betraying Hoyt, Bill imprisoning Marnie or any one of a hundred other scenarios, True Blood has somehow become a show about the intrinsic difficulties of trying to redeem dysfunction. After three seasons of madness and bloodshed, the cast has been left demoralised and broken. Nobody is innocent, and where we once were quick to judge this character or that as being virtuous or villainous, both those terms have now been rendered fundamentally moot.

As to whether that answers my opening question, I’m not sure. Every fandom has arguments against or in favour of particular characters, but in the case of True Blood, it really is impossible to hinge that debate on superior moral fortitude. For my part, the line I draw, however shakily, seems to hinge on love. Killing someone in self-defense is one thing, but killing to show how much you care is a contradiction in terms.

Unless you’re Eric Northman. Then it’s OK.

Sort of.

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

As keen readers of this blog may have noticed, I am currently overseas on what has thus far been a holiday. I say thus far because at some point in the near future, I will have to find myself a job, however temporarily, in order to supplement our saved monies with new monies. But until that happy day arrives, I will continue to enjoy a glorious abundance of reading time. Since our departure on August 20 – eighteen days ago –¬†I have read¬†fourteen books. And of those fourteen, eight have come courtesy of Charliane Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series. Only the most recent volume, Dead¬†and Gone,¬†has escaped my eagle eye, and that’s because (a) it’s still in hardback and (b) I want to savour it. Also, I only finished¬†From Dead to Worse last night. At 1 am.

Being a regular occupant of the fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal section of various bookshops, I think I can reasonably claim that, up until the recent advent of the True Blood TV series, which is based on the books, Charlaine Harris was not taking up nearly so much shelf space in Australia as is currently the case. In fact, I only knew of the series through an online article comparing the roles and personalities of various women in vampire books, and despite having had True Blood recommended to me by several friends – and despite the fact that the article itself mentions True Blood – it wasn’t until I wandered into a store and¬†found a prominently displayed copy of¬†Dead Until Dark emblazoned with a reference to the TV show that I realised one was based on the other. It was enough to make me buy the first book, which I finished at the airport, and from there on in, I have been shamelessly hooked.

So let me cut to the title of this piece: Sookie Stackhouse – and Charlaine Harris – are awesome. With each book, I find myself making notes on exactly why the series works; I can’t vouch for True Blood, not having watched it (yet), but here are my top¬†5 reasons why Sookie Stackhouse beats the pants off every other vampire-lovin’ heroine on offer:

1. The Setting

Sookie Stackhouse lives in a little town in Northern Louisiana called Bon Temps. Unlike Sunnydale, home of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bon Temps is not endowed with a local hospital, seaport, airport, military base or¬†university campus¬†as the narrative requries: rather, it genuinely is a small town, and manages to remain so despite Sookie’s many adventures. Despite her strong cast of locals, Harris feels no pressing need to set every single incident in Bon Temps, happily¬†moving events to¬†bigger cities like Shreveport, Dallas and New Orleans; and when she does write about¬†Sookie’s home ground, there’s¬†always a strong sense of local humdrum. People hold grudges; they get married, or engaged, or pregnant; and while these happenings aren’t at the core of the series, they nonetheless glue everything together.

2. The Real (and Unreal) World

This is something of a sticking point for urban fantasy stories. The notion of a secret world existing beneath the real one is definitely intriguing, but the very fact of that secrecy means that the real world must play second fiddle to supernatural events: the magic-world can impinge on real-world events as a matter of course, but except for human ignorance necessitating secrecy in the first place, the reverse is rarely true. By creating a setting where vampires alone of a thriving supernatural world have revealed themselves to the public, Harris has created an intriguing, original balance between the real and the magical. There is a publicly anti-vampire church called the Fellowship of the Sun, and¬†there are maenads, fairies, half-demons and their kindred keeping out of sight. There are vampire-exclusive hotels and airlines, and hidden inbred communities of wereanimals. There are vampire groupies (fangbangers), humans who make an illegal living from draining and selling vampire blood for its potent qualities (Drainers) and anomalies like Sookie.¬†In the backdrop of¬†each story are supernatural politics: werewolves and shifters debating whether to take the vampire path and reveal themselves, vampires trying to ‘mainstream’ and live among humans, ancient vampire politics revitalised for the modern age, and laws being blocked or passed in government that affect the vampire community. Perhaps most significantly, the effect of Hurricane Katrina finds its way into the narrative, a real-real world event crossing into real-and-magical world territory. As per¬†Anne Rice’s established canon, Harris¬†started out by treating¬†New Orleans as a vampire mecca, and¬†set¬†the sixth Sookie¬†book,¬†Definitely Dead,¬†in the city.¬†It was published after the hurricane had struck,¬†but as¬†its events¬†took place¬†–¬†quite by accident – in the months prior to Katrina,¬†Harris was able to¬†integrate the tragedy into¬†Sookie’s chronology without recourse to retconning.¬†As a consequence, the plots of the¬†following volumes –¬†All Together Dead and From Dead to Worse – are both contingent on Katrina having disrupted vampire and werewolf territories, forcing migrations between states and providing Sookie with houseguests from New Orleans,¬†friends¬†whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the disaster. At a micro level, Harris has a profound sense of events having consequences, and of the fact that sometimes, there’s a delay between cause and effect. None of her¬†Sookie books is entirely cathartic, but rather consists of a segment of life, some aspects of which lead naturally to future plots,¬†while others don’t –¬†and in a supernatural series, that particular realism is wonderful.

3. The Human Element

Thanks to Harris’s skills as a writer, Sookie Stackhouse is an entirely believable character. Having been raised in Bon Temps, she’s never been to college and is largely self-educated; she says her prayers at night before falling asleep, worries about the choices she makes, budgets for house repairs, shops, works, pays¬†her bills, and in every important respect reads as a real person. This is true of all Harris’s characters, even when they aren’t entirely human: there are no straw men to be found, and the fact that Sookie is a telepathic narrator means that even passing¬†characters can have their thoughts refreshingly outlined without the need for a break in narrative voice. Even the vampires,¬†to whom Sookie is attracted precisely¬†because she can’t read their¬†minds, feel like¬†representatives of a real and different species in their own right: Harris¬†has managed to make them both alien and familiar all at once,¬†and not just brooding humans with a fetish for necks.¬†

4. The Chemistry

There’s something very sexy about the Sookie Stackhouse books – and by ‘sexy’, I don’t mean our heroine spends 90% of the time with her kit off. Sookie enjoys sex, and there’s certainly some thrilling scenes, but the sexiness comes from the chemistry of well-crafted relationships, not just mindless boinking. The fact that Harris has distinguished fangbangers – vampire groupies – as a social phenomenon of¬†her new world order is a welcome brow-raise to the legions of vampire heroines desperate to get themselves bit and turned. Sookie doesn’t want to be a vampire. She wants a family, a loving partner and money in the bank; and her dealings with vampires, when not sexual, focus¬†primarily on the latter qualification. Even when she’s in love with one of the undead, she never so much as contemplates eternal life. There’s an extraordinarily welcome realism to the notion of a female heroine who is neither pining for centuries of love with the first vampire she meets nor constantly jumping the bones of anything supernatural. At times, Sookie might be looking for love in all the wrong places, but like so many real women, the important thing is that she is looking, and not just for a one night stand. Her telepathy means that¬†any relationship with¬†a normal human would be shortlived: it would simply be too painful to be constantly aware of all the negative thoughts, repressed fantasies and disloyal impulses that cross the regular human mind – and if we, as readers, are honest with ourselves, we can understand this in a heartbeat.

5. The Genre

Ignoring their paranormal and romantic themes, the Sookie Stackhouse¬†novels are well-written mysteries in their own right. Harris’s gift for realistic¬†background detail and her avoidance of¬†false catharsis makes the whodunit element a genuine page-turner. Sookie-as-narrator¬†thinks in¬†a¬†playful, often humerous¬†voice, with an earthy, sensible¬†grounding¬† – perhaps an uncommon feature¬†of fantasy heroines, but one which serves¬†both creator and character in excellent stead. The Sookie Stackhouse books would be at home in multiple sections of the bookstore, and yet are decidedly unformulaic. It is not a requirement of each book that Sookie has sex, or kills someone, or falls in love – rather, there are various things which may or may not happen, and each story is a different triangulation of familiar points. Events progress; relationships end; minor characters dip in and out – the people behave like people. There is humour, and danger, and luck – the latter always being a tricky thing to write, but which Harris pulls off with aplomb – and there is comfort, and loss, and a natural advancement of Sookie’s¬†knowledge of¬†the hidden¬†world. Harris has said recently that she has a couple more Sookie books in her, and while I fervently hope this is the case, I also hope that, when she does eventually leave Bon Temps to fend for itself, she only closes half the doors, and leaves a couple of windows open. Because that ¬†realness – that sense of possibility, of the day to day, of¬†small events making big waves and big events causing micro changes – is what creates such an abiding sense of affection for the series.¬†Sookie Stackhouse is a wonderful gal, and luckily for both her and Harris, she’s¬†found the writer she deserves.