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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 17, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 17, 2012 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.