There are lots of stories out there with vampires in, but few keep me coming back for more. I only made it through the first few chapters of Twilight. I haven’t touched anything related to the Cirque du Freak. And as much as I think that the Coppola/Oldman Dracula from 1992 is something of an ur-text for how vampires should be portrayed, I only watch it every couple of years.
True Blood is different. It’s not just the fact that it’s doled out to us episodically or that it’s on HBO, if you know what I mean. I could point to broad things like “scary good writing” or “excellent production values” (the occasional botched special effect aside) but I think there’s more to it. Let’s sink our fangs in a bit deeper.
Now, obviously, I’m not referring to a relationship between a vampire and a girl who might be part fairy as ‘realistic’. What I mean is, the way Sookie and Bill deal with one another, the trials they face and the problems that occur strikes me as not only realistic, but mature.
These are two individuals who care very deeply for one another. And unlike some of the other manifestations of such a relationship that are out there, these two not only go to great lengths in an attempt to secure each others’ happiness, they also communicate their feelings to one another to the best of their ability. Sometimes the words come out all wrong, and sometimes Bill loses his mind from starvation and nearly kills Sookie, but this leads me to the thing that really underscores the power of this relationship.
They want to work together to make the relationship a lasting one, because they love each other that much. Even when Sookie is so mad at Bill she could spit nails, to the point of pushing him away, it’s clear she still feels every bit as intensely now as she did when she first met him. And Bill would step aside to let Sookie be with someone who could give her children and not drag her into the blood-drenched world of his kind, because he loves her deeply and cares more about her happiness than just about anything else. It’s a nuanced and well-developed relationship that continues to be realistic in its portrayal of those in the real world, rather than becoming a parody or worse, some form of moralizing. I’m looking at you, Ms. Meyer.
Positive, Deep Characters
Let’s face it. “God hates fangs” is one letter away from being a very real and very disturbing messages some churches love to propagate. True Blood is something of an Aesop (albeit a broken one) for many minorities that are discriminated against. A lot of fiction out there prefers to play this discrimination or stereotype for laughs rather than give us a positive view of what these people are really like. For example, while there is some good stuff in The Birdcage, for the most part it’s a madcap comedy. True Blood went in a different direction than comedic representation from the very first episode, with Lafayette.
In the Southern Vampire Diaries, Lafayette’s something of a minor character. In the television series, he’s come to play a pretty important role in the goings-on. He’s unashamed of who he is, unafraid to put a few extra touches on himself to look gorgeous and definitely willing to throw punches at folk who have a problem with him being who he is. Now, the fact that he’s a drug dealer and occasionally puts on webcam shows of himself aren’t terribly positive aspects of the character, but he’s made it clear that he cares more about the people in his life – his cousin Tara, Sookie, his mother, etc – than any cash he might make. He’s a pretty stand-up guy, when you get right down to it, and he’s always around to talk sense into folk when they’re being dumb.
Most of the characters show this sort of depth, but… not all of them are positive.
With the likes of Eric and Russell Edgington running around, it’s clear that True Blood isn’t interested in making their villains one-dimensional cackling characters in the mold of Snidely Whiplash. As the show progresses, the raising of the stakes comes with more interesting and difficult to predict antagonists. Neither of the affecting forces in the second season, Maryann or the Fellowship of the Sun, can really hold a candle to Russell Edgington. What will it mean, I wonder, if Eric actually manages to take Russell down? Will that make Eric, by default, the biggest vampire bad on the block?
It’s not even clear if Eric is a villain, per se. While he was clearly started as something of an antagonist towards Bill and Sookie’s idea of a quiet life together, he’s shifted into more of a gray area. He’s a bastard, sure, and manipulates people around him without much thought outside of himself most of the time. But he does care about things – Godric, Pam, avenging his mortal family who’ve been dead over a thousand years – and more than once shows that under the quiet, confident smirks and deadpan remarks is a character every bit as deep and complex as the protagonists. Whichever side of the fence Eric ends up on, be it that of our heroes or that of himself first and foremost, I’m definitely a fan.
Those are just a few reasons True Blood works as a tale with vampires in, and why people like me are tuning in every week. Of course, having vampires that look like this doesn’t hurt, either:
Unfortunately I won’t be able to see tonight’s episode until around Wednesday. Hopefully I can avoid spoilers, but I am dying to know what happens after Mr. Edgington’s little telecast.
Russ Pitts’ triumphant return as an Escapist columnist prompted me to finally lay down some thoughts on villainy. A little roleplaying in World of Warcraft on my characters reminded me how much fun it can be to write for or portray a villain. My brother-in-law, when running Dungeons & Dragons is described as “an evil DM,” always bringing out the malevolence in his NPCs so that the player characters in his campaigns are always motivated to dispense a little adventurous justice. My father’s an attorney. I’m surrounded by villainy.
There are all sorts of villains, however, and every one of them sees themselves more or less in a positive light, if not convinced that they are the hero. Let’s stay with the D&D theme for a few archetypal examples.
Some villains actually try to uphold the law. Sure, the laws might be corrupt or warped in some way, but it’s still a structure for peace and order. Police states can be peaceful, after all.
There are also villains who have a personal code of honor they will not violate under any circumstances. “No women, no kids,” for example. Sometimes they verge a bit into anti-hero territory, but for the most part, these villains don’t pursue villainy for its own sake – they pursue the law, or justice, as they see it.
Take Darth Vader. For the most part, when he is Darth Vader, he’s hunting down terrorists and insurgents, trying to stop a full-on rebellion against the established government. His methods are somewhat draconian and he isn’t one to compromise or even show remorse, but he’s pursing a noble end in the eyes of the Empire’s creators.
Some people are motivated selfishly. They want what they want, and that’s it. Some are compromised in the pursuit of their desires by their morals or ethics, or the restrictions of society’s laws. Others… not so much. They’re seen as villains, but in their own minds, they’re just getting what they want.
Not quite as unpredictable as the upcoming alignment, but not as restricted as their lawful cousins, neutral evil characters are wild cards. They’re often as charismatic as they are ruthless, as fun to be around as they are chillingly dominant. They strive to be masters of their domain, and really could care less about things that aren’t the things that they want.
Look no further than Eric Northman of HBO’s True Blood for a fantastic example of both a Neutral Evil character who’s also a Magnificent Bastard. Even when he’s acting his most vampiric, speaking in cold, dispassionate tones about human beings like they’re slabs of meat, there’s something of a twinkle in his eye, the occasional twitch of his mouth that reaches for a smirk. We do see other sides of him, especially when it comes to his Maker, but for the most part he’s about as evil as Neutral Evil can get.
You have villains who pursue the law or their own code of honor for the sake of those laws or that code. You have villains who just want what they feel is coming to them, even if they have to lie, cheat, or murder to get it. And then you have these guys.
Chaotic Evil villains aren’t necessarily crazy. They might, however, string you up by your nostril hairs and slap you around with meter-long pieces of rebar if you call them crazy. No, Chaotic Evil villains are motivated by a desire to destroy everything they see so something new can be built up in its place. Or perhaps they’ve had a vision of Hell coming to Earth to shake the complacent religious types out of their stupor and give them something worth fighting for if their faith is, indeed, true. They have a goal in mind, but the path to that goal isn’t exactly mapped out. If it were, the map would be covered in squiggles of blood and crayon. They may believe what they’re doing will ultimately benefit the world, in some way shape or form, but for the most part? They just do things.
Which brings me to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill have all taken turns playing Batman’s favorite monstrous clown, but Heath & Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan took the insanity to a whole new level. By removing some of the more ridiculous trappings of the character and focusing on his anarchistic mindset, the Joker came across as a true agent of chaos. He wanted to show people what he felt was their true nature. His goal was to bring down the carefully-crafted artifices of civility and organization some used to hide their deepest desires. He lived out loud, which is something any artist should want to do, but did it in a very violent and very infectious way. It affected everybody around him, as he probably knew it would. He just didn’t know how. Nor did he know for certain what he’d do next – just that something needed doing.
Name some of your favorite bad guys. Where do you think they fall? How do you think they see themselves? And how might their villainy be perceived as heroism by some? Food for thought.
So here we have two stories first conveyed in novels that are now on screens. True Blood is a series on HBO adapted from the Southern Vampire Mysteries, novels written by Charlaine Harris. Twilight is the latest hot vampire commodity put to paper by Stephanie Meyer. Both deal with vampires living in the boondocks and the women who come across them. There are some similarities between the two of them, and I think it’s worth comparing the two. And not unlike the method employed recently by Benjamin Yahtzee Godzilla Croshaw, I thought we might toss these two into a metaphorical steel cage and see which one comes out on top.