True Blood thrives because it doesn’t allow its season-long gimmicks to rest on their laurels. While other shows might, say, throw werewolves into the mix to juice ratings – then sputter when they can’t figure out what the hell to do with them – this show works them into a compelling arc that makes them welcome new additions to its Gothic universe.
The new season continues that tradition on a number of fronts: briefly with the faeries who carried Sookie (Anna Paquin) off at the end of last year’s run, but mainly with the coven of witches who Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) finds himself joining. They seem benevolent, even a little befuddled. But they hold real power in their hands that might bring trouble to both the human and vampire residents of Bon Temps. “She’s Not There” reveals them with typical elegance, using an established character as a guide and displaying an unwillingness to overwhelm us with too many details. It helps to have Fiona Shaw serving as the coven’s de facto leader, who talks to spirits and may even be able to raise her parrot from the dead (with Lafayette’s help). Shaw is an absolutely fearless actress – in good performances and bad – and the role benefits from the right amount of crazy-eyed nuttiness on her part. (It’s also kind of cool to see Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia actually practicing magic.)
The show’s other big development displays much more lost potential, however. After arriving in Faery Land – a sort of glowing porn shoot with beautiful people lolling about in skimpy clothes – Sookie soon parses something deeply wrong with the situation and makes her way to the nearest exit. The sequence embodies True Blood at its loopy best, so far off the map that it seemingly comes from another planet. It nails the notion that faeries are dangerous creatures (I cannot emphasize this enough people: if you ever find yourself in a mystical land of wonder and enchantment, do not eat the fruit), as well as providing a neat plot wrinkle when Sookie comes home a year after she left, despite only being gone for a few minutes.
Once that initial impression fades, however, the episode does absolutely nothing with the concept. Sookie’s back, everyone’s aged, but it doesn’t seem to hold any purpose besides cutting out some tedious exposition. Considering that it delivered last season’s major cliffhanger, and considering that Sookie’s faerie blood has become a serious plot point, we needed a little more than this arbitrary wrap up. (True Blood played the same trick with Bill’s abduction at the end of Season Two.)
On the plus side, Sookie’s absence gives the show an opportunity to advance the characters into far more interesting places. Bill (Stephen Moyer) now serves as king of Louisiana, giving him something cool to do besides moon at his lady love all day. Tara (Rutina Wesley) finally finds a healthy outlet for her anger as a low-rent UFC fighter, while Jason (Ryan Kwanten) appears to have cleaned up his act and now serves as a formal deputy in the sheriff’s department. Perhaps most interestingly, Arlene (Carrie Preston) has had the baby – the one she fears is evil – and comes home to find him popping the heads off of dolls. That kind of over-the-top notion keeps this show from slipping into the doldrums and makes tuning in as compulsively irresistible as ever.
The trick, of course, is whether it can develop all these plot threads properly. In seasons past, some of them inevitably served as space filler, and while this batch looks promising, they may eventually collapse upon themselves. Indeed, the larger number of subplots gives “She’s Not There” a very cluttered feeling, and as usual we need to wait to see if the excess narrative merits tuning in. But that’s business as usual with True Blood, and in previous seasons it’s always come through. Genre television enters a fairly turbulent summer, with comparatively few dependable stalwarts to see us through in case the new fish don’t pan out. True Blood is one of them, and from the looks of things, it doesn’t plan on letting us down.