Off with his head, hipster racism & scapegoating poor folks: True Blood S03E06

Hosted by Thea Lim, featuring Tami Winfrey Harris, Joseph Lamour, Latoya Peterson and Andrea Plaid

Tara’s Escape, Sookie’s Rescue

Thea: Was it just me, or were there like a bazillion storylines going on this episode? I don’t remember ever seeing so many concurrent plot lines on this show before. I am impressed that they can all keep in straight. (What?? Did Thea just say something nice about True Blood??) But to start with our girl, goooooo Tara! I was pretty thrilled not only to see Tara taking her power back, but to see a woman rescue Sookie for once. What did we think of the scenes where Tara attacks Franklin and where Sookie and Tara take out the werewolf?

Latoya: I’m not going to lie: my very first, immediate reaction when Tara was like “Sookie, I’m here and we are going to get out of here-” was to put up the black power fist. Go Tara! Then my immediate, second, sarcastic thought was “Okay, so wait, Tara, after all she’s been through, *still* has to save Sookie? She has to fuck her abuser to get away and pluck Sookie from the pedestal?” Then Tara grabbed the mace and silenced my internal squabbling.

Andrea: I was thrilled how Tara used Franklin’s weaknesses–his “freakiness” and his vampiric aversion to daylight–to get away from him. (Though I’m going to be honest: James Frain’s voice is pure aural sex; this scene sealed this for me. I just wish this scene–really, all the Tara/Franklin scenes since their night at the motel–was much more consensual so I could hear his voice being better utilized, like agreed-upon dirty talk while sexing it up.) But I just thought Tara using the mace was like Tara being tied up: all for the visual shock. I just think Franklin’s going to wake up with a bad headache and even more physically vicious.

Thea: My movie watching companion was yelling “use the ax! take off his head!!” while Tara was bashing in Franklin’s skull. Methinks Franklin might survive the bludgeoning. In any case this was the goriest episode I’ve seen in a while.

Latoya: Oh me too – I was yelling at the TV “take the mace! Stake him to make sure he’s dead!”

Joe: Finally, this is the kind of Tara I love! Cunning, quick on her feet and clever. One thing though- you can only kill a vampire in the Sookieverse by cutting off the head or staking. Frankly, if you lived in a world with vampires, wouldn’t you think to know that, just in case? I’m totally afraid that he’s going to wake up and become abusive like we never have seen from him before- and coming from Franklin, that must and will be something awful.

Thea: Were the scenes of female kickback gratifying, hyperviolent, or just gross? Or all three?

Andrea: I didn’t feel a swell of girl power watching Tara and Sookie whupping that were-guard’s ass and escaping. I know that some commenters think I’m being a bit harsh about Sookie (like I care), but I think that sequence underlines off-centeredness about Sookie and Tara’s friendship: Tara’s trying to rescue her friend and Sookie’s trying to rescue her betraying (and quite foolish) man.  At this point, I don’t think Sookie’s actions say “sacrificing herself for the ones she loves” so much as her “spunk” and “sass” endangers, in this case herself and her rescuer, her alleged best friend Tara. To me, Tara is structurally a better friend because she’s self-preserving as well as rescuing her pal when shit goes down, whereas Sookie is materially a good homie, providing shelter when shit is relatively safe. Like I said before, she also has the power–since it’s her house–to take that material comfort away from Tara. Just ain’t feeling Ms. Stackhouse, whereas I root for Tara.

Thea: Even though I have a soft spot for Sookie, it was extremely disappointing when she didn’t side with Tara (or at least show some sympathy or interest in what Tara was saying about Bill – after all this is the first she’s hearing of Bill’s betrayal of Tara). I wanted to yell (a less misogynist version of) “bros before hos!” at the screen.  I think this is just the way this friendship goes – which I blame on the writing more than anything else…this friendship seems to have little that truly qualifies it as a friendship.

Joe: In Sookie’s defense, this must be some situation to find yourself in after 20-something years of non-violence. However, I just want someone to slap Sookie the next time she cries. Is it just me or is she just the biggest crybaby?

Tami: Andrea, you know I’m with you on the James Frain love, but I too was feeling Tara’s bad assery. Not so much feeling Sookeh. You’re dead on with your assessment of her “spunkiness.” It’s a rather privileged willfulness where the needs and safety of others be damned in favor of what Sookie wants and needs. It’s childishness masquerading as strength–a faux sort of girl power that is nothing new. It’s Scarlett O’Hara for a new millenium. It is also very related to race, as I think few women of color can get away with playing Sookie or Scarlett.

Joe: One more thing about the Tara storyline: This is basically an extremely over the top cycle of abuse diagram: The tension building phase (Franklin stalking then later glamoring Tara); Acting-out phase (Franklin biting Tara at Sookie’s, bringing her to Jackson, then later tying her up- frankly, this whole story line); Reconciliation/Honeymoon phase (Their first hook-up, and at least at Franklin’s side offering to make her a vamp); and the callm phase (the night after she fooled him into thinking she loved him and everything was okay). The whole time she was running, I was thinking “I hope she has a good place to hide come nightfall so that she isn’t trapped by him again.” I cannot take a whole season of this.

Stop dropping slavery as entertainment; hipster racism

Thea: I hope we never see Tara tied to a bed again. Can we talk about the visual impact of seeing a white man tie up a black woman and physically dominate her for so many episodes? Just as with the “Tara runs from the slave mansion” imagery, I just can’t get over the trivial use of such loaded and hurtful images, for no clear reason.

I guess this is a kind of an art philosophy argument – I feel that you shouldn’t use such historically weighty optics, simply for entertainment. It just feels crass – and also plain confusing. Part of me keeps expecting this show to turn into an exploration of American slavery. It’s almost as if Alan Ball’s subconscious is dying to talk about it. I mean, did anyone else hear Russell say “Take Bill to the slave quarters and kill him”? Why – why the offhand, unnecessary reference to something that brings up so much pain for American viewers? I felt completely the same way about Russell’s comment to Eric about Hitler. It’s just such a cheap way to get a rise out of viewers or achieve the label of “controversial.” It is demeaning to the parts of the show that are actually interesting, new television.

Joe: Fitting that a bitter old queen like Russell would sympathize with Hitler… I’m sorry, I had to.

Thea: Well,  yes and no, depending on how well Russell knows his history. Along with the Jewish people, the Nazis also tried to annihilate gay communities — and others.

Tami: I totally co-sign, Thea. That “slave quarters” reference felt…I don’t know…heavy…strange…misplaced. Why refer to buildings as slave quarters that (hopefully) have not contained slaves for well more than a century? In former slave-holding states there are certainly buildings that once housed slaves that have been repurposed for new uses. I have rarely heard these spaces referred to as “slave quarters.” Indeed, in a lot of cases owners go out of their way to erase that ugly history. (Unless, of course, you own one of those gross bed and breakfasts that leverage slavery to make your charming venue unique – Ugh!) Ball and the writers seem to be playing on some old antebellum imagery in this storyline and I can’t figure to what end. I am certain there is some Northern bias involved–that the only association writers can make with the state of Mississippi is slavery.

Joe: Sweet lord, Tami. That is just… there really aren’t words. I googled ‘Slave Quarter Bed & Breakfast’ and like an idiot I clicked on one of them… I’d just like my eyes to unsee what I just saw. Russell seems like the type of vamp that thinks of human history as something “cute”, no matter how horrible an experience it was. Even noting that at some point he was part of that history. He wouldn’t change the name of something like slave quarters. Nor does he care about anyone’s discomfort but his own, frankly. Think of Eric and his father’s crown. I do truly believe that we’re supposed to eventually dislike all vampires, or at the very least dislike them as love interests…Bill keeps making the wrong decisions for someone he supposedly loves. Eric is showing his true colors. Russell… is just terrible. Good girls ending up with the bad boy is something that never happens without one changing their stripes, and sometimes even those reformations don’t take.

Andrea: I had a Twitterpal describe True Blood as “almost hipster racism satire” in the sense of not making fun of hipster racism but as being a prime example of it. The imagery – and history-reference drops, as we’ve been saying all along, show off how liberal and educated the creative team is, considering the funky contexts in which these drops are made and, as Thea and I have discussed offline about this show, when the symbolism around vampirism constantly shifts on this show. A great example of this context is Bill in the “slave quarters” looking like a bloodier version of St. Sebastian martyring himself because he refuses to succumb to Lorena and “what being a vampire means” and for his love of Sookeh in a building associated with an institution where Black people were routinely tortured, raped, and killed for the sake of white supremacy, especially white womanhood…as well entered consensual relationships, reared children, ate, drank, celebrated as much life as they could.

The Lafayette and Jesus Kiss

Thea: So the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Laffy and Jesus kiss. What did we think of the way this scene was filmed? On the one hand it was an interesting contrast to see such tender restraint in a True Blood love scene. It also seemed fitting to Lafayette’s cautious nature. On the other hand, it’s an easy out if one is queasy about filming a gay love scene. On a third hand, it’s 2010 and we’ve definitely seen way more explicit gay love scenes on TV, so is it really fair to imagine that AB & Co are worried about filming man on man action? Also, the Laffy/Jesus kiss scene included some pretty racy references to “hardness.”

Latoya: Well, lots of flirting, but I think Lafayette’s blushing bride face kind of said it all. This one is special.

Joe: That entire scene, I kept thinking “Kiss! Kiss already!” I did find it strange how they lit that scene, since you couldn’t see Lafayette’s face really. All in all, I was happy for them, even though, for this episode, it was short lived.

Thea: I also suspect this Laffy/Jesus affair is far from over, especially since Kevin Alejandro’s name is in the opening credits. Other Laffy/Jesus questions: what did we think about the reveal that Jesus’ mother was raped, and the potential implication that Laffy’s mother had the same experience? Also, is it just me, or is Jesus just a little over aggressive? Perhaps this is just my inner church-going-pearl-grabbing-grandma, but some of his forwardness makes me uncomfortable and worried for Laffy. Or is this just how romance is defined on True Blood?

Tami: Loved the tenderness of that romantic scene, but I was beginning to wonder whether Ball was teasing us or just wimping out on showing physical affection between two men. I’m with you, Thea. Part of me loves Jesus and Lafayette together, but part of me is wary. Jesus saw Laffy for all of five minutes at the hospital and now he seems to be aggressively pursuing him–even camping out at his job for more than nine hours. I don’t know, if this were real life, I’d be all “Danger, Will Robinson!” But, for now, I choose to ignore this disturbing bit of behavior, because I’m so rooting for this couple. I totally don’t think Jesus is gone for good.

Joe: My thought, why’d you ruin the moment, Jesus, with that ‘hard’ line. Yeesh. But, being that Alan Ball himself is gay (and partnered), I think he probably has a desire to show more gay relationships in popular culture. We saw this in his other show, Six Feet Under, with David and Keith ending up in a healthy relationship. They even adopted. Their relationship wasn’t a caricature, although it was similarly dramatic at times. But, it helped show that love exists in this form, too. I really hope he takes a similar route with Lafayette and Jesus, or whoever Laffy ends up with.

Andrea: Dang, this is a hard one for me to call the more I see Lafayette and Jesus. I can completely see where Jesus’s actions can be seen as aggressive: the 9-hour hangout, the chase after seeing Laffy for all of 5 minutes, the getting into Laffy’s personal space before receiving permission to do so pre-kiss. At the same time–and this is really where my opinion rests–I deeply appreciate Jesus’ forwardness. For the most part, I think Jesus knows exactly who he wants and is taking the most direct approach to get to him. His forwardness turned me on, even though I’m not the focus of his attention…especially when Jesus schools Lafayette on the orishas (Nice without the condenscenion). The way the kissing scenes were filmed were quite nicely done.

Tami: Thanks for reminding me of the conversation about Orishas. I thought that was a nice inclusion of black and brown culture. What’s more, the writers didn’t “woo woo” the religion. African-derived religions are generally demonized in mainstream Western pop culture and TB would be exactly the sort of show to go in that direction, but they didn’t and that is refreshing.

Poor white folks as scapegoats for bigotry

Thea: Ok, enough with the racism/bigotry scapegoating of poor white folks. I feel as if Arlene has become the show’s punching bag for bigotry. I remember her being a more complicated and interesting (and also humourous) character in Season 1. Now I feel that she is only ever used by the show as a stand-in for those Bad Elements in American culture that hate on the Other…which of course cheerfully exonerates anyone who is not from the South, poor and without college education, from racism or bigotry. Weak!

And random “hillbillies” come out of nowhere to bust up Laffy and Jesus date? That just seemed like a lazy way to move the plot forward. Why were they there, and why then? We later see that they are the V dealers Laffy intimidated and Jason helped arrest, but still – that motion of them coming and beating up Laffy just seemed to appear out of nowhere. Too convenient…on the level of plotting, and on the level of distinguishing between “good white people” and “bad white people.”

Joe: Let’s not forget, also one of those guys is Crystal’s fiancee. Bon Temps sure is small, man.

Tami: Yeah, after weeks of misogyny, this week TB served up a steaming plate of classism as a palate cleanser. It was particularly strong this episode. Here is something that I notice: In Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels there is a love for the citizens of Bon Temp with all their quirks. Harris, a native of the Mississippi Delta, never makes fun of their Southernness or small-townness. Through True Blood, there is a thread of disdain for these people–or at least a sense of the viewer being better than these working class, Southern folk. You can hear it in the references to “brother cousins.” It’s in the dog fighting storyline. You can see it in the portrayal of the neighborhood of Hot Shot. In the book, the area is insular, private and, yes, given the side-eye by the residents of Bon Temp because of it. But they are, particularly their patriarch, decent people. Alan Ball’s Hot Shot is full of dirty-faced, racist, homophobic, violent, meth-dealing weirdos. It is stereotypical. It is unnecessary. It is a simplistic and the wrong way to portray racism, homophobia and other bigotry.

Andrea: Co-sign.

Joe: Ditto. Meth is such a trendy plot device these days. I can just see the meeting where they decided to add that to the Hot Shot-ers.

Bon Temps – Why do they stay?, plus a look at Talbot

Thea: Some random questions: how do we read Talbot racially? Did anyone catch what language he is speaking? And yes, why on earth does Laffy, a queer and very out black man, stay in an almost all-white, homophobic town? Is this believable? I feel like there should be more reasons given for why Laffy (and Tara) stay. Most POCs I know from those sorts of places got the hell out of there by the time they were 17.

Joe: Lafayette explains (a little) why he stayed in Bon Temps? He says:

Lafayette: I’ve been places, I just always end up back here.

Jesus: You’re not done with this place?

Lafayette: Sometimes it feels like it isn’t done with me.

Thea: Yes – that’s the dialogue I was thinking of. But come on, would that keep any of us in such a hostile place as Bon Temps?

Tami: I don’t know that I read Bon Temps as all-white and I don’t know that the townspeople are, as a whole, homophobic. It’s just that TB’s writers only care to explore characters of color through the lens of the white majority. We do know that somewhere there is a black church that Lettie Mae attends. In season one, Lafayette and Tara attended an all-black party.

Thea: I remember that! I often wonder what happened to all those black people. This is a more compelling reason for Tara and Laffy to stay…they do have a black community, it’s just that they’re too busy being hunted by vampires to hang with them.

Tami: Consider that fictional Bon Temp is located just outside of Shreveport, which according to the 2000 census is just over 50 percent black, 47 percent white, with remaining percentages of other races. Hmmm…one would think the clientele in Fangtasia would look a little more diverse, considering it resides in a mostly-black city. It is not that there are no people of color in and around Bon Temp, it is that TB does not care to include them.

Theo Alexander, who plays Talbot, was born in Greece and is fluent in the language. That said, his IMDB profile leads me to believe he’s played many ethnicities that can be coded as white but olive-skinned. Not sure about Talbot.

Joe: Theo Alexander has called his character Greek, so I think he just applied his culture to the character. He said “…very Dionysian, very sexual, very Greek! It couldn’t be anything but Greek in my eyes.”

Thea: Well, good to see an actor who is not entirely coded as white actually play their own ethnicity (I’m thinking of what John Cho says about the roles he plays not actually being written for Asians).  However I am not sure about essentialising all of Greek culture down to “sexay”…haters gonna hate.