"True Blood" As A Subversion of the Tragic Vampire Trope
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"True Blood" As A Subversion of the Tragic Vampire Trope

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 17, 2012 | Comments ()


Oh the glory that is Netflix, with those little red envelopes giving those of us without the liquid capital to afford HBO the ability to enjoy a series after the rest of the Internet stops buzzing about it. "True Blood" is the latest one I've picked up, buzzing through the first four seasons at a rate of about a disc and a half per month.

I'd read all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels before seeing the series, mainlining those in a couple of weeks, such a blur that I really have very little recollection where one novel's story line dropped off and the next one picked up. There were a lot of errands being run though, in between the actual interesting bits of the story.

The television series is a much better affair than the piles of paperbacks. It reminds me of Children of Men that way. Not because it can even come close to comparing to that magnificence of that film, but in the similar relationship it has with the source material. It leaves the bare bones of some parts of the story, retells much of the same story, but elevates the story into something much more than the original was capable of.

Without delving into an outright review of television years old at this point (and especially since I know that the fifth season has continued what many see as a general decline in the series anyway), I'll argue that the power the series has is exactly in the way that it merges traditional notions of the vampire as evil along with the trend of recent decades casting the vampire as a tragic and romantic figure capable of redemption.

Every single individual who attacks the vampires in the series is absolutely and completely correct in the context of the series. The charges they levy, of vampires being unable to control themselves, of being murderers marinated in the blood of thousands, are in every way accurate. Every antagonist in the series that has set sights specifically on the vampiric protagonists would be the protagonist in any honest telling of the story. Newlin's a douchebag, and Marnie goes nuts, but they're not actually wrong. Hell, even their techniques are not particularly morally troubling. If mass murderers were simply allowed to walk the streets, wouldn't the moral course of action be exactly the course of action these "antagonists" pursue?

In order for the vampire to be tragic and romantic requires him to have some desire to repent. Without that, a vampire is nothing but an elaborate serial killer, and no matter how gorgeous a Viking he is, he's neither tragic nor romantic.

But that's exactly where "True Blood" hammers its point home. With the occasional exception of Bill (who nonetheless sees nothing wrong with massacre for self preservation of his century-old murdering hide), the vampires are anything but repentant. It is not repentance to regret doing something that you never the less would do all over again given the same circumstances. That's just moping. These characters have no stomach for doing penance for their crimes, they don't labor to do good to make up for the evil they have committed. They merely want the past forgotten.

Yet at the same time, "True Blood" manages to make these characters completely sympathetic. We root for Eric to rip the hearts out of irritating characters. But the show has the honesty to ensure that characters who engage in brutality we enjoy also have a taste for the brutality we don't. It forces us to swallow down despicable characters as our heroes, without even the sheen of the anti-hero to make them distinct. Rather the show insists on with a straight face making the protagonists exactly the characters that previous generations would have rooted against.

This dichotomy is where the show really excels. It fits in at face value with the vampire fiction of the last thirty years, presenting brooding and romantic figures with whom we sympathize, while simultaneously making those characters exactly the vicious creatures of previous generations. This completely subverts modern vampire fiction, in much the same way that shows like "Seinfeld" and "Always Sunny" have subverted comedy by making the protagonists the people that we should be rooting against.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • $27019454

    I broke up with True Blood (the series) halfway thru Season 5. Having been through nearly 5 seasons of devoted watching, I conclude that 1) It never got better, season-wise, than Season One, which was marvelous and raw and weird and filled with delicious characters (Amy, Eddie, etc) and totally unique story lines. 2) As far as side characters go, it never got better than Franklin. Such fuckery. Such long fangs. Yikes! 3) and it never got better as far as humor and "moments" go than Sam's sexy dream about Bill. That epitomized the series' humor and self-mockery and fun and odd sexiness and debauchery.

    It was totally sad to see how the series went south, because it was from the very beginning... really something else. I enjoyed reading this piece. Many times I did ask myself why I was rooting for these murderous bastards. But such foxy bastards, non?

  • duckandcover

    Go on Netflix and watch "Where the Heart Is." James Frain went a long way in 12 years, speaking of Franklin.

  • Mainly I think True Blood is an exercise in illustrating perception management. You are not alone among critics in saying the Bill character is 'repentant' and 'sympathetic' but you are also not alone in forgetting that the character allowed the female protagonist to be beaten to within an inch of her life so he would have an excuse to pump her full of a mind-altering drug.

    If this were the only incident involving Bill that is being glossed over it would be bad enough, but it's just the first in a long series of heinous acts he's committed, including serial killing for sport and profit. Eric's actions do not come anywhere near Bill's level of debauchery and treachery yet he's routinely equated with Bil because he kills, too. But there is a distinct difference between them: while Bill routinely targets the innocent, Eric routinely targets those who PREY on the innocent. The moral distinction is not subtle so I am often disturbed by the failure of critics, and many viewers, to understand it.

  • duckandcover

    "The television series is a much better affair than the piles of paperbacks."

    ET TU, SLW? ET TU?

    The show is a complete pile of crap -- but you can't stop watching it. After season 5 went off the goddamn rails on a crazy train, I'm still more than likely going to pick up season 6 to fill the gaping hole of feels that Game of Thrones always seems to leave.

    Even if you haven't seen season 5, season 4 was an utter pile of crap. The only vampire you were rooting for by that time was Pam, especially when she picked up the "I'm sick and tired of Sookie and her fairy vagina" flag and began to carry that like she was running around the track in the Bon Temps Olympics.

    The books, while not exactly the next Game of Thrones, is nowhere near Twilight. Which makes it palatable. It's pizza -- bad or good, you're still going to eat it. Even when Sookie begins to bang everyone up and down the main highway of Bon Temps, it doesn't even begin to touch Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake. It's also way above the show -- Sookie surfing down the side of a pyramid-shaped hotel with Pam and Eric inside because a bomb's about to go off, anyone?! Eric in form-fitting tacky spandex while at a secret sex club?!

    TL;DR - the show's not better than the books.

  • No way,no how. For one, I've never wanted to strangle Book Sookie every time she opens her mouth. I actually LIKE Book Sookie.

  • duckandcover

    I loved her. Her and her terrible outfits.

  • Guest

    Say trope again!

  • Uriah_Creep

    Trope. Trope, trope, trope. Tropety trope trope. Tropety tropety trope trope. Tttttttttrrrrrrrrrroooooooooopppppppppppe.

  • sourbob

    Bill is the repentant, sympathetic-to-humans one?

    You may change your mind on that after you see Season 5.

  • $27019454

    But such a luscious, foxy vampire! Which, I guess, illustrates the point of this think piece.

  • Lee

    Bill needs to die. If he is redeemed again, I'll stake my tv screen.
    It's true though, I read a couple of the books and they left me cold, where the series sucked me in so hard, I'm now willing to watch all kinds of ridiculous melodrama to see what befalls the characters.

  • foolsage

    I must admit, I'm curious to see where they're taking Bill after the cliffhanger. He (ahem) doesn't seem likely to be very sympathetic to humans at this point.

  • Bedewcrock

    I think it's all a ruse!

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    He'll somehow find himself and become a second, kinder coming of Vampire Jesus.

  • Return of Santitas

    Seriously, the errands! Why do we have to read about Sookie's grocery list? The TV Sookie never does errands.

  • I swear we had to read about her cleaning her house at least three times per book. And not just "I cleaned my house". Noooo. It's "I reached under the sink and got the brillo pad and cleaner, then opened the oven, the put on some gloves, then washed the top..." etc etc ETC. A little filler is OK, but jeeeebus.

  • $27019454

    And what she wears and brushing her hair. Ghhaaa. Also, she is ne of those women who sees another woman looking sleek and thin in a pair of skintight pants and thinks, "Another reason to hate her." I loathe that whole portrayal of women as vapid, jealous cats. Ugh.

  • Guest

    TV Sookie doesn't even work at her job.

  • To be fair, TV Sam often doesn't either.

  • $27019454

    I'd wear him like a scrunchie.

  • firedmyass

    Maybe because film is a necessarily compressive medium, whereas the written word is expansive?

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