HBO // 2011 // 720 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // May 28th, 2012
"Someday I see myself growing old and sitting on a porch with my grandbabies, just watching the sunset." -- Sookie Stackhouse
Time will tell whether, by the end of the series, Sookie will be on track for grandbabies and sunsets or whether she'll be as endangered and terrified and put-upon as always, but there's certainly no rest for the weary in True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray). After dealing with vampire monarchs, packs of werewolves, and the revelation that she is a faerie in Season Three, Sookie confronts a coven of witches and its volatile leader this year -- and plays nursemaid to innocent, amnesiac vampire Eric!
The pleasures of series creator Alan Ball's nonstop romp of supernatural sex and violence are perhaps wearing a little thin by this fourth season, but True Blood remains good, not-so-clean fun.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Four.
The end of True Blood's third season saw telepathic, Southern waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, X-Men) disappearing into a burst of light, and presumably another world, after finding out she is a faerie. It seemed at the time like she would be gone for a while, but Season Four returns Sookie to Bon Temps, Louisiana, and all her supernatural buddies within the span of seven minutes of screen time. The trick is that Sookie's few minutes in the faerie world have caused her to miss a full year in the human one, and some mighty changes have blown through town in that time.
Her once-true-love Bill (Stephen Moyer, Priest) has become the vampire King of Louisiana. Her once-despised-enemy Eric (Alexander Skarsgård, Generation Kill) has bought her house in order to manipulate her. Her once-BFF Tara (Rutina Wesley, How She Move) has left town to take up ultimate fighting and sex with women (Huh? Not complaining, but huh?). Her once-and-always-goofy brother Jason has become a cop (Ryan Kwanten, Flicka). Plus, there are a bunch of witches.
* "She's Not There" -- Back from her quick trip to faerie-land, Sookie confronts changes in Bon Temps and her new landlord, Eric. Catching up with other characters, the episode reveals that Tara's cousin and Merlotte's chef Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis, The Soloist) has reluctantly joined a coven with his boyfriend Jesus, and that Merlotte's owner Sam (Sam Trammell, Judging Amy) has eagerly joined a little club of fellow shape-shifters.
Eric: "Sookie: You. Are. Mine."
* "You Smell Like Dinner" -- Bill enjoys the perks of being the
new King of Louisiana and orders Eric to bust up the local coven. Tara returns
to town just in time to get mixed up in all of this, while Jason is taken
captive by a group of dirt-poor drug dealers he'd been trying to help.
Sookie, to Bill: "Every time I found out something new about you, I wound up wishing I didn't know it."
Commentary: Stephen Moyer, Deborah Ann Woll, Brian Buckner
* "If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin'?"
In the aftermath of Eric's attack on the coven, Lafayette, Tara, and Jesus fear his wrath, but Tall-Blond-and-Handsome's got amnesia. Somehow, this becomes Sookie's problem and she plays babysitter to the dazed vampire.
Tara: "So thanks for bringing me tonight. It's been a while since I got attacked by a vampire."
Commentary: Anna Paquin, Alan Ball
* "I'm Alive and On Fire"
Drunk on faerie blood, Eric takes a romp in the sunshine and Sookie enlists the werewolf Alcide (Joe Manganiello, How I Met Your Mother) to help her track him down. Bitten by were-panthers and pumped full of "Mexican viagra," Jason is forced to have sex with a bunch of were-panther women who want to get pregnant.
Jason: "I don't know why you're cryin' -- I'm the one gettin' raped!"
Commentary: Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Lehmann
* "Me and the Devil"
Unable to find Eric and pestered by the missing vampire's partner-in-crime, Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion), Bill imprisons Marnie (Fiona Shaw, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), the witch he sent Eric after. Sam helps his shifter brother Tommy (Marshall Allman, Prison Break) recover after Tommy inflicts a lethal dose of self-defense on his cruel parents.
Bill to Pam, about the curse that's rotting her face off: "Maybe there's a cosmetic solution...some extra lipstick?"
* "I Wish I Was the Moon"
The usually chaotic Bon Temps gets even more chaotic under the light of a full moon. Sookie's make-out session with Eric gets interrupted by a furious Bill, Jason tries to plan for his transformation into a violent animal, and Tommy accidentally shifts into Sam -- whose life he then purposefully messes with.
Jason: "I think I'm turning into a were-panther."
Sookie: "A were-what?"
Commentary: Raelle Tucker, Gregg Fienberg
* "Cold Grey Light of Dawn"
Fully possessed by Antonia, a powerful and long-dead witch, Marnie escapes her captivity at Bill's and sets about putting an end to all vampires. She plans to reprise a spell she once cast to call all nearby vampires out into the sun -- and their toasty deaths -- and recruits a heartbroken Tara, who has just lost another loved one to vampires, in a way.
Tara: "Everyone who's ever been with me has ended up dead. It ain't a long list, but it's a bad one to be on."
Upon surviving Antonia's attempts to burn them in the daylight, Eric seals his romantic bond with Sookie while young Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll, Mother's Day) breaks hers with Hoyt. Bill arranges a peace talk with Antonia at the cemetery at midnight -- sounds like it will go peacefully, yes?
Sookie: "There's no such thing as forever."
* "Let's Get Out of Here"
Sookie tries to rescue Eric from Marnie's mind control while Bill hopes to prevent utter disaster at the vampire PR event, The Festival of Tolerance. On the other side of town, Jason, Jesus, Merlotte's waitress Arlene (Carrie Preston, Doubt), and the gang try to get Arlene's baby back from Lafayette, who has been possessed by the spirit of a grieving mother from the past.
Jason, to Jesus: "I've got a theory. When you guys role play, does Lafayette ever turn into a woman named Maevis?"
Commentary: Sam Tramell, Romeo Tirone
* "Burning Down the House"
Bon Temps' vampires decide to take the fight to Antonia, planning to blow up her magic shop hideout regardless of the humans (including Tara) inside. Bon Temps' humans (and faerie) try to get the captive humans out before that happens. Local cop Andy (Chris Bauer, The Wire) gets an intervention about his addiction to vampire blood (V) from his cousin, Terry (Todd Lowe, Gilmore Girls).
Andy, being scolded for keeping V in a house with children: "There's a safety cap! I think."
Commentary: Fiona Shaw, Nancy Oliver, Leslie Linka Glatter
* "Soul of Fire"
Sam and Alcide go after local werewolf pack leader, Marcus, who killed Tommy and is sleeping with Alcide's girlfriend. Marnie's quest comes to a head with a tense showdown between her and the vampires at the magic shop.
Tara, of the coven: "I fuckin' quit this group!"
* "And When I Die"
Life returns to weird-normal in Bon Temps after Marnie's defeat -- except that her spirit returns and inhabits Lafayette to wreak havoc on her enemies. After all that gets sorted out and life actually returns to weird-normal, Sookie has to make a choice between her two vampire loves, Bill and Eric.
Pam: "I am so over Sookie and her precious faerie vagina and her unbelievably stupid name!"
There's a moment in this fourth season of True Blood when the brutal and sexy vampire Eric rips a human's heart out, clears a bit of the gunk off, and slowly sips blood out of it through an artery straw to intimidate an enemy. This is the series' signature brand of morbidly delightful, gruesome violence, and even if that sense of delight has become diluted over the course of four seasons, it remains key to this series' unique charm. True Blood sets itself apart from other high-end television by being totally unabashed and carnal about its saturation in sex and violence. It sets itself apart from other supernatural fare by balancing the vampire romance and lust with the ever-present danger and grossness of these creatures. If you can give yourself over to all the show's extremes, you'll likely enjoy the ride.
While these extremes are still big fun in Season Four, the series' main weak points do seem to be getting worse. Namely, True Blood is drifting farther and farther away from the core characters and plot it began with, the relationship between Sookie and Bill, and is piling on subplots that make the series more dull and disjointed. Season Four is littered with side stories that held my interest far less than the main story: Sam's romance with a fellow shifter, Alcide's attempts to help werewolf Debbie recover from her V addiction, Jason's capture by were-panthers, and Arlene's belief that her baby is some kind of demon. These plots are pretty dull and, worse still, for most of their running time they are almost totally disconnected from the main characters and storyline. Sam, for example, used to be a main character who was in love with Sookie, serving as an interesting rival for Bill and a sometimes-partner in protecting her. This season, he shared only a sparse handful of scenes with Sookie and played no role in the central witch plot whatsoever. Some of the minor characters do have truly interesting subplots -- such as young vampire Jessica and her attempts to sort out her sexual and emotional life -- but these characters work best when they intersect meaningfully with the main story and characters, as Jessica does.
That main story in Season Four sees a local witch, Marnie, provoked by a vampire attack into discovering her immense power. Here, True Blood continues its tradition of introducing a central villain for the season and casting someone truly wonderful to play her or him. In Season Two, we had Michelle Forbes as a wild and free maenad, Season Three brought Denis O'Hare as an eccentric vampire king, and this time we're treated to the nuance and gravitas of Fiona Shaw as Marnie. Shaw has the acting challenge of transforming Marnie from a meek magic shop owner and small-time witch into Antonia, the confident Spanish sorceress burning with a rage that possesses her. She rises to this challenge beautifully, but despite the dual personalities and twist near the end of the season, Marnie remains strangely more one-note than the maenad or the vampire king. Even though she causes plenty of trouble for the local vampire, her arc and the battles it entails feels just a bit less epic than usual on True Blood.
Maybe more of the show's creative juices in Season Four went elsewhere, into developing a convincing romance between Sookie and bad boy Eric. The writers (or perhaps Charlaine Harris, in the books True Blood is based on) were self-aware enough to realize that the best way this could plausibly happen would be to wipe Eric's memory and personality! While things do get a bit too soft-focus gushy as Sookie falls for this new Eric (I found the snowy hallucination particularly bland), some of the best moments of the season emerge from Skarsgård's dazed performance as amnesiac Eric. I laughed with glee after Eric drains the faerie protecting Sookie; Sookie exclaims, "You just killed my faerie godmother!" and Eric flashes a sweetly mischievous, fanged grin -- his lips coated in blood -- and says, "Sorry?"
As we've come to expect, HBO puts together a gorgeous technical presentation for True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) and teams it with hours of varied and high-quality extras. Anyone who's paid a lick of attention to the aesthetics of the series knows that the crew works hard to create a sense of atmosphere and texture. This effort shows in the set, stretching from the thin layer of film grain that undergirds the images to the feeling of humid Louisiana air in the many night scenes and even to the matte, almost leather-like, feel of the Blu-ray box itself with its smoky cover images. Visually and sonically, the set is exceptional, with rich colors, deep black levels, and great use of ambient sound and directional effects.
While sending off some of its series with sparse special features, HBO wisely invests in well-stocked discs for True Blood, which both lends itself well to fun extras and probably has the kind of fan base that appreciates them. Season Four offers six commentary tracks -- detailed in the episode list above -- that nicely pair actors with writers and directors. While these tend toward the standard praise-everyone-effusively and complain-about-how-cold-it-was fare, there are plenty of fun moments (Ball comparing Marnie's crazy fire eyes to the Michelle Bachmann Newsweek cover) and interesting behind-the-scenes facts (the owners of the house used for exteriors of the Compton house were so offended by Season One of the show that the crew was not allowed to shoot there again). More info on the production of the show arrives in the 3-5 minute "Inside the Episode" featurettes that accompany each episode. Here, writers and directors offer their thoughts on a few key scenes or characters from that week's installment. These can certainly enrich the story, but they're nowhere near as fun as Season Three's more varied and creative "Postmortem" extras. There's also "The Final Touches," a 28-minute roundtable discussion with Ball and members of the postproduction team that shares insight on special effects, editing, and sound work for the series.
Considering the huge cast of characters, viewers may find the interactive encyclopedia "True Blood Lines" (housed on Disc Five) quite helpful. Organizing all of the season's characters by supernatural category (vampire, werewolf, witch, etc.), the guide provides brief bios of each and also maps their connections to other characters. Even for attentive fans who can keep track of all this on their own, there are treats in this feature. You can learn, for instance, much more about minor characters who are given basically no backstory in the show itself, such as the members of Sam's little shifter dinner group. For a trove of this additional backstory that enhances the series, though, viewers will need to check out the "Enhanced Viewing" mode available on each episode. This feature adds on-screen text and inset videos to the episode as it plays. The text varies from blurbs about the history of witchcraft to translations of the Spanish and Latin spells the characters chant to hints about where the plot is going and reminders about where it's been. The extra videos are the real treat, though, as they feature actors from the show recording new footage of their characters commenting on the on-screen events. In the past we've seen four actors per season doing this duty, but this year a slew of participants add lots of variety: Andy, Arlene, Crystal, Debbie, Don Bartolo, Godric, Jason, Lafayette, Luna, Maxine, Melinda, Nan, Pam, and Tara. These are really entertaining, ranging from the comedy of Andy speculating about gay male role play to a sad story about the cold and calculating vampire spokeswoman Nan Flanagan's relationship with a fellow suffragette in the 1920s. One major complaint, though: previous seasons offered the option to play all these videos at once, outside of the episodes. This year, the only way to access them is within the Enhanced Viewing mode. There is a handy ability to skip ahead to the next video, but it's still annoying for those who just want to see the bonus content without re-watching all the episodes.
Lastly, there's are handy digital and DVD copies included in this set -- the former with an expiration date for the download and the latter on two flipper discs.
Remember those logic problems from the SATs? "Bobby, Susan, and Abdullah have four flavors of ice cream and three kinds of toppings; how many different kinds of sundaes can they make by combining them?" By its fourth season, True Blood is beginning to seem like one of those logic problems, where the writers are cycling through as many combinations as they can of sex acts, types of violence, supernatural creatures, and romantic pairings. While all the elements are starting to feel familiar, they luckily haven't run out of entertaining combinations just yet.
Guilty as sin, and just as fun.
Review content copyright © 2012 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 720 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Character Guide
* Episode Previews
* Episode Recaps
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site