When HBO announced that it will make 500 hours of programming available to stream for free through April 30, quarantined viewers across the country rejoiced. In that treasure trove of content, you’ll find critically acclaimed favorites like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Big Little Lies—but not, as you might expect, the network’s megahit Game of Thrones. Still, have no fear. HBO’s is offering up a different long-running fantasy show based on a series of books: the vampire drama True Blood.
I highly recommend Charlaine Harris’ paranormal romance series The Southern Vampire Mysteries to anyone with free time and an inability to focus on that copy of War and Peace that you swore you were going to read while social distancing. The first five seasons of True Blood—which are also the best—track pretty closely to the events of Harris’ books, while the final two mix elements from the series with some entirely original plotlines (not unlike the final few seasons of Game of Thrones). While those last two seasons of True Blood are major letdowns (again, sound familiar?) the first five are so glorious that the sheer disappointment of the last two can almost be forgiven.
That’s why it’s important to start with the right episode. True Blood centers around the various adventures of telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her on-again, off-again vampire beau Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps. The show is set two years after the release of “Tru Blood,” a synthetic blood replacement whose invention allows vampires to “come out of the coffin” and live side-by-side with humans. Much of the central tension of the show revolves around the integration of vampires into society and the detractors on both sides of that process. The parallels to real social justice movements can be a bit heavy-handed at times: Along with a child in a Ku Klux Klan hood, one of the shots in the unsettling opening credits is of a marquee board outside a church that reads “God hates fangs.” But while the show eventually incorporates every fantasy creature from the familiar werewolf to the maenad, in its earliest seasons True Blood was at its best when it focused on the minutiae of integrating vampires into human society—specifically a society that many viewers from outside the Deep South may find as alien as the concept of vampires.
Despite the immediate intrigue provided by the show’s central vampire-human mixed species relationship, True Blood doesn’t quite kick off until the fifth episode. Not only is “Sparks Fly Out” when the show really hits its stride, it also has one of the best scenes of the entire show. The episode begins with Sookie and Bill returning from a trip to a vampire bar in Shreveport. On the way back to Bon Temps, Bill is pulled over by a police officer and when it looks like the situation will go sideways, he pulls the equivalent of a vampire Jedi mind trick, compelling the officer to let them both go, to Sookie’s consternation. The push and pull of Sookie and Bill’s relationship, the constant dance of trying to date across difference, is one of the more interesting themes True Blood explores.
The majority of the episode involves Bill, in an attempt to curry favor with Sookie, speaking to her grandmother’s Descendants of the Glorious Dead group—a local organization dedicated to tracing the genealogies of soldiers who had fought for the Confederacy. For viewers unaccustomed to it, and even for those more familiar with the visual regalia of the South, seeing the Confederate flag at the front of a church might be jarring. Even more jarring is the casual reverence with which the residents of Bon Temps speak of their ancestors who fought to keep people in bondage. But True Blood is one of the only shows to fully reckon with what it would actually be like to interact with someone who was alive in the 1860s. It makes sense that Bill Compton, who grew up in Bon Temps at the time, would have fought in the Civil War, and not on the right side. And in Bon Temps, fighting for the Confederacy is less of a reason for censure then being undead.
True Blood’s primary strength comes in its ability to juggle multiple storylines without giving any of them short shrift—at least until the last few seasons. Though Sookie and Bill are the suns around which the rest of the cast revolve, characters like Sookie’s affable, dim-witted brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), her best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley), and short-order cook Lafayette (an incandescent Nelsan Ellis) never feel like one-dimensional foils. After the Descendants of the Glorious Dead meeting, most of the town makes its way over to Merlotte’s, presumably the only bar and restaurant around. A group of three rednecks send a burger back to the kitchen because it was cooked by Lafayette, a gay black man Ellis manages to play as both flamboyant and hard-edged, tenderhearted and tough.
It is a testament to Ellis’ considerable skill that Lafayette was meant to die in Season 1, but he worked such magic with the character that he stuck around for seven seasons. In “Sparks Fly Out,” Lafayette learns that the burger he cooked was sent back because the rednecks suggest that it has AIDS. He takes off his earrings, takes off his apron, and goes to ask who ordered the burger with AIDS. When one of the rednecks argues that as an American he has a right to choose who cooks his food, Lafayette responds, “Oh, baby, it’s too late for that. Faggots been breeding your cows, raising your chickens, and even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy ass up in this motherfucker.” He then licks the offending burger, shoves it in the redneck’s face, quickly and efficiently dispatches the others, reminding them to tip their waitress before he walks away. It’s a thrilling scene that reminds viewers that despite the existence of vampires, prejudice in this world is not restricted to the undead—nor must it be suffered silently to deliver an easy morality play in which the marginalized might rise above insults.