Aunt Petunia never leaves, even when she's dead, and once again she holds the line for one last episode of True Blood. Nelsan Ellis has to take up the mantle tonight: possessed by Marnie's vengeful spirit and looking for payback after the whole "getting killed" thing. It also gives her a chance to prune back some of the cast in appropriately gory fashion.
Ellis isn't Fiona Shaw, of course, and the difference is noticeable. Then again, it's supposed to be: Lafayette's possession attains far creepier heights than one would expect, especially when he turns the knife on himself in an effort to coerce Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) into surrendering his power. But he acquits himself quite well until Shaw returns for some final dramatics, and his late-inning dialogue with Jesus provides the episode with its most touching moment.
As for Shaw's curtain call, it hits the target as well as can be expected: soapy, intense and colored with a few hints of humor to keep us from taking it too seriously. That helps mitigate the rather arbitrary nature of the big climax: a Halloween showdown with Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) chained to a burning stake. Director Scott Winart loves visual flourishes and lends the showdown a nice sense of Halloween fun, but it threatens to run away with him at times. On the other hand, it also gives us the delicious sight of Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) in lingerie and a Red Riding Hood dashing through the Louisiana night. (We're not above a little cheesecake now and then, and if you can't enjoy it on True Blood, where can you?)
Add to that some other nice touches – including Pam's (Kristin Bauer van Straten) temper tantrum about Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Tommy's decidedly awkward funeral -- and "And When I Die" aptly maintains the goodwill restored by last week's season high point.
Which isn't to say it shakes the dead weight. Sam (Sam Trammell) is still at sea, and though he and Paquin have a nice "old friends" moment, it can't save him from slipping further into irrelevance. Alcide (Joe Manganiello) shows up to complicate Sookie's love life yet again -- been there, done that -- and Sookie’s apparent menage a trois with Bill and Eric utterly lacks the required emotional resonance. It hasn't worked all season, and while the show has compensated in other ways, this is supposed to be the core of it all. Its overall flatness is utterly inexcusable.
Jason (Ryan Kwanten) does better with another curiously sweet coupling with Jessica (and he does not, in fact, become a panther -- so this is me eating all kinds of crow) followed by one of the better twists to come along in quite some time. In fact, the whole bevy of season-ending cliffhangers gives the episode a lift: ranging from the expected-but-delicious to the genuinely eyebrow-raising. Only the last one feels forced: part of that "winnowing down the cast" notion that doesn't feel half as shocking as it should.
This is what True Blood has become after four seasons: good promises and bad ones mixed together so completely that one can never be extricated from the other. Yet it delivers on enough of them to keep us watching, and once again it entices us with the prospect of a truly delicious Season Five. It has some ground to make up -- this year has constituted a definite let-down -- but hope remains alive. We can't ask for anything more from this closing episode.