On True Blood: Long Live the King

I never ever thought I’d ever say this again, after pretty much writing off the show after one of the confusing and awful Maryanne-as-slave master episodes last season, but: I’m starting to really enjoy True Blood. It’s not that it’s gotten any better to me; it just feels more entertaining. And my reasons for enjoying it can be summed up in two words: Denis O’Hare.

I’ve been a fan of O’Hare’s work ever since I saw him in the original Public Theatre production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out. I loved the play and O’Hare’s expertly-rendered, heartbreaking performance as the gay accountant of a recently-out baseball star so much that I saw it again on Broadway.  So, to be blunt, I was sorta nervous when I heard he was subjecting himself to the trainwreck of over-acting and bad writing that was True Blood, a show that somehow managed to make otherwise good smart actors (cf. Michelle Forbes, Evan Rachel Wood, Lois Smith, Adina Porter) into screeching, unappealing cartoons.

Well, maybe O’Hare’s too good or too smart. Because his work as Russell, the King of Mississippi is nothing but funny and engaging. He plays the blend of put-upon husband and petulant royal to the hilt, as if he knows it’s all one big joke anyway, so why not invest it with a little heart and humor and, as my buddy Al, calls it delicious evil? Perhaps his lover Talbot put it perfectly when he told the King, “You’re acting like a century-old child.”

O’Hare’s presence has given me something to pay attention to when I’m looking away from the dubious racial imagery True Blood has been playing with all season. Ever since the overly-symbolic representation of Maryanne as slave master last season, it seems as if Alan Ball and his staff of writers have decided to just go full-out with all the master-and-slave shenanigans, most often putting Tara (and regular readers know how I feel about that particular disaster) into some of the most stereotypical slave images I’ve seen in a piece of American pop culture since Mandingo—and that movie was about antebellum times (and, believe it or not, in some ways smarter than True Blood; see it if you haven’t)! Tara chained to the bed in the southern plantation in a Victorian era-looking (white!) cotton dress, held down to the whims of her white “owner.” Tara escaping the chains, and fleeing barefoot across the plantation, dogs snapping at her heels. Then, after one of the dogs catches her, it transforms into a nude white guy mounting her in a very sexual way.  I know bodies (and the various ways of queering of them through dress, behavior and, well, death) play an important part in the True Blood ethos, but when you’re dealing with the black female body, in an overwhelmingly white, Southern, (over)sexualized context, perhaps you’d wanna re-think some of the visual tropes you’re trotting out for your upscale, liberal HBO audience. The sad part is this: I’m not even sure that Ball and co. actually realize the power of playing so indiscriminately with such overdetermined imagery. Do they think they’re making some statement about race and gender? Or are they just trying to push the envelope? Either way it’s coming off in a rather distasteful and disturbing way. It’s not Great TV. It’s racism.

Anyway, it has been interesting to observe the more explicitly queer aspects of the show take root, starting with Sam Merlotte’s dream in which Vampire Bill glamoured him into a shower sex romp. Of course we didn’t see it happen—Sam was saved, literally, by the bell (the ringing of his phone)—but it woulda been good; seemed to be more chemistry between the shape-shifter and the Vampire than I’ve ever witnessed between Bill and Sookie. I was happy to see Lafayette get some loving—well, at least a kiss—from the only other dude-of-color to ever appear in Bon Temps since Eggs got shot. And how about sly old Eric Northman? (I love that character’s name even though up until last night the man himself didn’t do much for me.) If there’s one thing Alan Ball’s characters know how to do it’s to use sex as a weapon. Too bad Talbot had to be on the, um, receiving end of Eric’s revenge scenario. But only True Blood could make the prelude to murder into sexy freaking foreplay—with a striptease, natch! I loved the convo before they got down in the groove: Eric “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this.” Talbot “A man.” Eric “No, a vampire.” Funny, sexy, piquant with expectation.

For a second there I thought I was watching an episode from the first season!

See the scene below:

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1 Comment

Filed under Race, True Blood, TV

One response to “On True Blood: Long Live the King

  1. JJ

    Hi Scott; great post. I too was bummed when the Sam/Bill flirtation turned out to be only a dream.

    “You’re acting like a century-old child”.. classic! loved it.

    I’m chagrined to admit that I still sometimes have to be reminded about the racist imagery and themes that you point out, and usually I’ve agreed with you; in this particular episode it leaps out at you, once you’re aware. Whether conscious or unconscious, racism is racism, although it’s hard for me to believe that the imagery is not consciously portrayed, given the repetition throughout the series and the criticism he’s gotten. I’m not sure what you’re implying by “pushing the envelope”, but I do wonder exactly what he is trying to say. My gut feeling is that he is trying to make statements about gender and race and that he does NOT realize he’s playing with fire. If he does, then I’d agree that’s reckless.

    I would love to see him sit down with someone like you, or maybe a diverse group of GLBT folks, women’s advocates, people of color, etc. and explain what it is he’s trying to say with some of his themes and imagery and to get more feedback like yours about how it is perceived as malignant regardless of his intentions.

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