Probably my biggest complaint about True Blood's second season is that there were just two primary plotlines -- the disappearance of the sheriff of Area 5 and the takeover of Bon Temps by Maryann -- and neither was all that compelling. That's in large part because each hinged on the audience being invested in the fate of a character we'd either never met (Godric) or never liked (Tara). So instead we were drawn in by more comedic, yet entertaining, subplots, like Jason's recruitment by the Fellowship of the Sun, Hoyt's courtship of Jessica and Andy's descent into drunken uselessness.
Now, just two episodes into Season 3, I'm a little concerned that creator Alan Ball has moved in the opposite direction, putting too many pieces, and plotlines, in play. Bill's abduction by the vampire king of Mississippi, who wants his help in securing a political marriage to Sophie-Anne, and Sookie's frantic efforts to find her almost-fiance, would seem like plenty to get the season started. However, we're also introduced to werewolves (Nazi and otherwise), Eric's history with Operation Werewolf (complete with World War II flashback) and his attempts to avoid the Magister's investigation into V trafficking, Sam's reunion with his biological family, hints that Bill didn't meet Sookie by chance, and a sinister vampire who rifles through Bill's house and seeks out Tara -- plus subplots involving Jason and Andy, Jerry and Arlene, Jessica, Hoyt, and Lafayette. That's a lot of territory to cover in just 12 episodes.
I'm probably worrying unnecessarily, as this week's episode, "Beautifully Broken," does a pretty good job of delivering those elements at a breakneck speed, sandwiched between scenes of vampire-versus-werewolf savagery.
Again we're treated to a more primal Bill Compton who, having just fed, makes short and bloody work of a redneck werewolf pack, killing three of his attackers and chewing off the ear of a fourth. But just as the backwoods brawl heads into Round 2, it's stopped by Mississippi's genteel vampire king Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), who literally rides in on a white horse and reveals himself as the foppish mastermind behind Bill's kidnapping. Over an attendance-mandatory dinner of cruelty-free carbonated blood, warm blood bisque with rose petals, and blood gelato supervised by his husband Talbot (Theo Alexander), the painfully polite yet menacing Russell offers Bill a position as sheriff in exchange for information about Queen Sophie-Anne Leclerq, whom our ascot-wearing king seeks to marry. Bill, of course, declines the offer and bristles at threats against Sookie. But when his irritating maker Lorena (Mariana Klaveno) strolls into the room, he snaps, setting her on fire with a conveniently placed oil lamp. The moral of this story: Don't fuck with Bill Compton.
Sookie, meanwhile, ends up with Jessica at Fangtasia, where she pumps Eric for information about Operation Werewolf, triggering flashbacks to 1945 Germany where -- are you ready for this? -- dressed as SS officers, Eric and Godric hunted Nazi werewolves. You see, these aren't ordinary werewolves: They're well-organized, well-funded, highly trained and fueled by vampire blood. They're, like, Nazi super-werewolves. (Yes, it's ridiculous, but you can't tell me you didn't cackle with glee at the completely over-the-top concept.) Nearly as fun is Pam's advice to Jessica on how to stop feeding just short of killing the human: "I think about cryin' children with soggy diapers. And also maggots."
Initially rejected by Eric, who lies about what he knows to keep her out of danger, Sookie runs into poor, sweet Terry, who gives her a pistol -- "Hey, I've always liked you, and I'd miss you if you got killed. Just so you know." -- before resuming his own subplot, which involves convincing a pregnant, nauseated Arlene he can be trusted with her kids: "Number 1, I'm a nurturer. I found a baby armadillo by the side of the road, and I nursed it. Now it sleeps under my bed. His name's Felix. Number 2, I have a diploma from anger management, where I learned talkin' about your feelings is the manly thing to do. Number 3, I never killed nothin' by accident."
Luckily, for the sake of Sookie and the plot, Eric realizes he's in her debt, and arrives at her home to serve as her defender, and maybe more: “You're going to invite me in so I can protect you," he commands. "Or have passionate, primal sex with you." When Eric senses a werewolf inside, he growls, "Invite me in -- now!" To which Sookie squeaks: "Mr. Northman, will you please come in?"
Strangely, the two threads that I expected to enjoy this week -- Sam's meeting with his biological family and the continued adventures of Jason and Andy -- disappointed me the most. Sam's low-class, collection agency-dodging shapeshifting relations hit just one note, with the single moment of interest arriving when his angry brother Tommy (Marshall Allman) sets him up to be killed by a truck while the two are out on a "run." Jason and Andy, meanwhile, spin their wheels, burning screen time until Jason can glimpse the mysterious blonde in the woods during the meth-lab bust. That's not to say I don't enjoy seeing the two together; they provide wonderful comedy relief, such as when Andy gives Jason a pep talk and says, "You're prettier than most girls." It's just that "Beautifully Broken" doesn't advance their story.
Likewise, the presence of no-nonsense, acid-tongued Lafayette makes any scene much better (particularly if that scene involves Tara). However, as much as I like seeing Alfre Woodard as his institutionalized bigoted mother Ruby Jean Reynolds, his trip to see her is forced. It isn't to show annoying, suicidal Tara where she could be headed -- "There's some darkness in this family, Tara. My mama, your mama." -- but rather to introduce Lafayette's potential love interest, in the form Ruby Jean's nurse Jesus (Kevin Alejandro). I'm happy to see Lafayette get a boyfriend, but I could do without the leap to get to him.
Continuing the strangeness, the development I like most this week involves Tara -- even if only tangentially: the introduction of James Frain (24, The Tudors) as Franklin Mott, the mysterious and menacing vampire who searches Bill's house, uncovering a treasure trove of information on the Stackhouse family, lending credence to Russell Edgington's suggestion that Bill didn't meet Sookie by accident (setting up a split, perhaps?). After (we presume) removing the decaying corpse that Jessica has been worrying over for the past two episodes, Franklin makes a beeline to Merlotte's, where he meets a moping Tara and helps her beat down two drunken racists in the parking lot. I look forward to seeing more of Franklin next week, and learning what his interest is in Bill and Sookie, even if that means enduring more Tara. I'll likely regret saying that.
• After seeing vampires drink "plain" blood or the synthetic Tru Blood, the dinner at Russell and Talbot's provides us with a glimpse of how the gourmet undead live. Blood gelato? Sure, why not?
• Bill, upon learning the name of one of his abductors: "Cooter? Seriously?"
• Jessica's increasingly desperate attempts to dispose of the corpse have been high points of the past two episodes, topped off by her triumphant appearance with the rented chainsaw -- only to discover the body gone. (Thanks, Franklin?)
• We'd seen the exchange between Sookie and Jason about the existence of werewolves in the promos, but it's still funny:
Jason: "There's werewolves?"
Jason: "Shit. Bigfoot? Is he real, too?"
Sookie: "I dunno. I guess it's possible."
Sookie: "Jason! Focus!"
• As much as I like the expansion of the True Blood universe with werewolves and more shapeshifters, I'm hoping not every new character has a new supernatural bent. There's obviously something strange about the woman Jason spies in the woods, and I have a feeling that Jesus is more than what he appears.
• Sookie's impression of Bill was perfect and hilarious: "I keep expecting him to come through the door and say, 'SOOKAH!'"