“True Blood” and the concentration camp

Maybe I’m one of the few people still interested in HBO’s “True Blood,” a show a friend of mine recently dismissed for its “allegorical promiscuity.”  This is a far more devastating point than merely disliking the depiction of actual promiscuity, which is completely part of the show’s reason for being. But on the occasion of tonight’s season finale, I thought a few words on the show’s cult of sexual power might be opportune.

The real villain: an illiberal politician

The real villain: an illiberal politician

Perhaps you remember the show’s original goosing of liberal pieties: the premise that vampires had come out of the closet and were being marginalized (in the Gothic South, of course) just like homosexuals. Civil rights = vampire rights, get it? One can forgive a little allegorical slipperiness—and by which I mean vampires are actually by definition a bunch of killers, unlike (according to the logic) blacks or gays—because vampires are interesting, and you want to see what they do next.  The vampires are still the show’s best part: Bill Compton, the courtly Confederate soldier who will always betray you; Eric Northman, the Viking who combines cold suavity (coded as “European”) with hidden sentimental loyalty; baby-vamp Jessica, who continues her search for love despite her tendency to cry tears of blood; and slutty, snarky Pam, who struts around tossing off bon mots much as I imagine Choire Sicha must do at home.  Honorable mention for fantastic characters has to go to Anna Camp as Sarah Newlin, whose self-deluding mixture of Christian piety and sexual desire started out as a stereotype and who, this season, has become a simple melodramatic villainness—but is always simply radiant and delightful to watch.

The problem is that the show’s rapturous over-investment in the vampire lifestyle makes its politics completely incoherent. Vivid characters making nonsense of plot: this has to be one of the signal aesthetic characteristics of our era of serialized TV and endless movie franchises. The liberal fantasy of integrating vampires into American life is supposedly made possible because they don’t “need” human blood any more, as they can get by with the artificial substitute of bottled “True Blood.” But did anyone tell the Feds about the secret network of Vampire political identity reaching from the “Kings” and “Queens” of various American states up to the secret cultic “Authority”? The show finally got rid of this whole political subculture last season, after implying dimly that the Feds were somehow colluding with The Authority. I say, though, that those vampires can’t be both monarchists and Americans. It’s a simple question of citizenship. Give them rights and let them vote, but make them recant their foreign allegiances.

This season’s “put the vampires in a concentration camp” plot was also notable for its lack of political imagination. As in last season, the conflict between American democracy and foreign kinds of authoritarianism is mediated by the rubric of “corruption”: it’s the South, so (by a kind of associative shorthand) politicians are supposed to be able to get away with violent and selfish things more than they might in say, Maryland. But in fact, even though it is coded as “evil” and “Southern,” the moral panic that leads to the incarceration of all our favorite vampires has a bit of sense in it. For as we’ve known all along, and the show cannot stop from showing us, vampires love to bite and kill humans more than they love anything else, and the fact that some of them are cute is no excuse for that kind of behavior. It needs to be made legally actionable, or else you’ve accepted a population that you’ve removed from the logic of personal responsibility, which undermines the concept of all being equal before the law. I was also sad that there was no legal blowback from the Feds for Louisiana’s clear junking of the Constitution. Where were the head-shaking New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces, the ACLU, the forced busing and integration? Why didn’t any vampires call the FBI? True, there were a couple of Freedom Riders, who were quickly eaten by werewolves.  In general, the show wants to depict American moral panic as an outgrowth of the Southern Gothic, but doesn’t have the time or narrative sophistication to make that political point persuasive.

Camping it up

Camping it up

The larger problem is that the vampires are too damn sexy to be good liberals. In this show, sexual charisma is the ultimate drug, and the vampires’ code of “glamoring,” of centuries-long fealty to one’s “maker,” and to immortal pair-bonding is depicted as powerfully attractive. Vampires never defend their actions in terms of merely human ethics like “loyalty,” “love,” or “protection,” but in fact they demonstrate these virtues over and over again. To be glamored or turned by a vampire (especially Eric) is, according to this show, the highest and most noble ecstasy. Merely liberal fantasies like contracts, equality, and democracy have nowhere near the same appeal.  The show is so enamored of authoritarian sex that it can’t help depicting the vampire concentration camp as an intriguing sex farm of domination and submission. “Fascinating fascism,” as Susan Sontag says! Of course the concentration camp is not really fun, and ingenious torments are devised for the vampires that combine Nazi-style sadism with scientific cruelty—and are meant to depict the moral perversions of Louisiana state government when they really just serve as an excuse for more HBO-style soft porn. When the vampires are released, as (WARNING, MASSIVE SPOILER) they were last week, they take revenge on their captors in predictably bloody ways that leave you with the uneasy feeling that maybe they should be, occasionally, a little bit locked up. The invocation of liberal pieties (we’re against concentration camps!), combined with an aesthetics that romanticizes violent blood bondage, ends up as just not a convincing indictment of either American moral panic or concentration camps. Hannah Arendt would not be pleased.

“True Blood” has tried to keep its political allegory fresh by adding new supernatural subcultures and political conspiracies—and sometimes just ignored the allegory in favor of focusing on character development, which is OK too.  But the concentration camp plot is just so pointlessly troubling that it’s hard to overlook it. In last week’s episode, the apparent humanism of Terry’s funeral, juxtaposed with the bloodsport of killing in the concentration camp, was not a moment of critical reflection: it was an incoherent farrago.  You can have your vampire melodrama, and you can hate concentration camps, but in  “True Blood” you can’t do both at the same time.

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