This post contains spoilers through the fifth episode of the fourth season of True Blood.
Once upon a time, there was a television show that, unlike similar stories in the genre that were being told at the same time, used vampirism as an effective metaphor for both the intense pleasure and the terror of sex. The show could be insecure sometimes, because it was broadcast on a network with a lot of critically acclaimed programs that took on issues like structural corruption in government, and the societal cost of the drug trade and the war on drugs, and what it’s like to go to therapy when you’re a New Jersey mafia boss. So sometimes the show overcompensated, going a little heavy-handed on the metaphors, but its intentions were good, and its sex scenes were sexy, and the show plugged along until it was a genuine hit. And then, as so often happens when common people rise to positions of great power, True Blood went kind of nuts.
I was struck last night by how far the show has strayed from the parts of its metaphor that were convincing and powerful when Portia showed up in Bill’s office to try to convince him to keep seeing her, even after the nasty little genealogical surprise they got in the last episode. “Forty-two states have repealed their anti-incest laws, even in case of brother and sister. They have found no credible reason to ban sex between two consenting results,” she tells him. “There are married cousins in Bon Temps with more common DNA than you and me.” Obviously, the 42 states statistic isn’t remotely true, and while I don’t care much about realism in a fantasy show, if that’s one of the things Alan Ball thinks belongs in his alternate universe, it seems to me to reflect some fairly incoherent thinking about the way the world actually works. The emergence of vampires may give people in the world of True Blood license to explore the darker side of their own desires, and spurs others to lock those desires down, but vampire mainstreaming works to the extent that it does because vampires suggest to humans that they can live within existing law. The idea that there’d be a widespread relaxation of incest laws doesn’t really make sense by the show’s internal logic. And no matter how fast Bill shoots down Portia’s proposal, it’s a weird thing for the show to get behind, even for a minute, that plays into some rightwing logic about gay relationships and cheapens some of the work the show’s done in other areas.
Similarly, True Blood appears to be going in the least substantive possible direction when it comes to the ordeal that Jason just went through in Hotshot. “As much as I love it, every bad thing that’s ever happened to me is because of sex,” Jason explains his deep revelation to Hoyt. “Maybe God’s punished me for having too much sex.” And even that lesson sticks only as long as it takes for Jessica, whose blood helped Jason recover from the mauling the panthers gave him, to show up in Jason’s dreams wearing one of Hoyt’s shirts and an extremely covetable bra and panty set.
There are good little bits and pieces of things in this episode, whether it’s an increasingly angry (and rotting) Pam explaining, “I can put up with a lot, but you fuck with my face, it’s time to die,” or Tara’s mother telling Arlene, as she attempts to exorcise Arlene’s baby “You know, I was possessed by a demon, so I have firsthand knowledge.” But these asides work precisely because they’re matter-of-fact about the difference of this universe, rather than hollering at us about how strange things are all the time. You can tell more interesting stories about the limits of human tolerance and human social orders when you’re expanding what people have to accept a step at a time, then forcing them to accept something new again. When everything, from redneck panthers to vampire incest, is possible at once, and you’re reckoning with them without pause, there isn’t room to tell good discrete stories about every element in the mix.