Wednesday, 27 October 2010

True Blood Season Two (Part One)


Halloween seems to be especially big this year - it hasn't always been much of a thing in England (though both Ireland and Scotland have celebrated it for years, I think it may have originated in one or the other). I've always suspected that this is because it's too close to Bonfire Night, and we have our autumnal light-bringing ritual to mark the drawing in of the nights then. Anyway, everyone seems very excited about it this year so in addition to the Halloween-themed Buffy post I have planned for Sunday, I thought I'd get in the mood a little early with some very different vampires.

True Blood is an intriguing show. I started watching it because a couple of friends alerted me to the fact there appeared to be a maenad among the main characters. The show has a largely likeable cast (Sookie, Tara and the rather yummy Sam the bartender) and a great opening credits sequence. I've never been to the American South (though I'd love to go) so I have no idea how accurately the images here portray it, but it certainly conveys a really strong sense of atmosphere, helped by the deliciously catchy and naughty-sounding song 'I Wanna Do Bad Things With You'. (I could live without the gross dead animals though).

The trouble is, the vampires on True Blood are just too nasty for it to really work for me. They're represented as an oppressed minority, chiefly drawing parallels with the gay community (the title sequence features a church with a notice reading 'God hates Fangs' and vampires supposedly 'came out of the coffin' a couple of years ago). I can see the idea behind it - there are good vampires and bad vampires, just as there are good and bad people in any group. But the 'good' vampires here are not vegetarian Cullens, ensouled Angels or well-behaved members of the League of Temperance. Of the two main vampires, who both serve as love interests for the heroine, one locked a man in a cell and tortured him for weeks, throwing the dismembered limbs of his former cellmate around at him, and the other recently turned a teenage girl into a vampire. Apparently this was because he had killed another vampire, so he had to make one to replace the dead one. Just think about the implications of that metaphor for a moment. I really don't think implying that members of minority groups really are inherently violent and sadistic (the main love interest is also shown enjoying sex while covered in the blood of a gasping victim who hasn't died yet - lovely) is doing anyone any good, nor do I feel the slightest bit of sympathy for any of the True Blood vampires, who are all downright creepy and not remotely attractive (no, not even Alexander Skarsgard) (Later edit: I would like to retract that last statement. I get it now. Boy oh boy I get it now...).

Anyway, I started watching at episode 2, season 2 to see what this possible maenad was up to. I didn't post about it immediately because True Blood is one of those very arc-driven US shows where plot developments happen veeery slooowwly over a number of episodes, so single episodes don't necessarily move things along very far. However, we're halfway through season 2 now, so I thought I'd stop and take stock.

A maenad is a female follower of the god Bacchus/Dionysus. In real life, they had a biannual festival in which they went into the mountains and had wild party, complete with drumbeats and getting themselves into a state of ecstasy but probably without vast amounts of sex, since they were all women (I'm not saying that rules out sex, but sex was not the object of the ritual - there are other types of ecstasy). In myth, they were, of course, even wilder, tearing Pentheus to pieces and so on. They crop up every now and again, most bizarrely in Prince Caspian.

Weird shaky-thing, complete with Greek-ish costume, in case we haven't got it yet.

Maryann the maenad's main trick so far is to throw a wild party, do a weird shaky-thing with her body (a quite bizarre CG effect) and make everyone have a lot of sex while their eyes go black and they go into a trance. I'm calling her a maenad because that, according to the internet, is what she will turn out to be, though so far signals have been mixed. According to Billie Doux, the first episode of season 2 (which I missed) featured this line:

Maryann: "The Greeks knew there was the flimsiest veil between us and the divine. They didn't see the gods as inaccessible, the way everyone does today."

There was also a mural of Pan, the goat-legged god of music and shepherds. Her reference to accessing the gods makes sense for someone who is, essentially, a worshipper, not a divine being herself (though she seems to have aquired some supernatural powers). But in addition to apparently worshipping both Pan and Dionysus (nothing wrong with that in a polytheistic religion) she has the ability to force shape-changers to change, which in the ancient world would be connected with witchcraft (Circe turned men into pigs, while the witch in Apuleius' Metamorphoses turns into an owl and her magic turns Lucius into a donkey). Then things get really confused; there is yet another minotaur running around (whether there's more than one or not remains to be seen) and the ritual at her latest party involves some kind of bull's head thing.

In the latest episode, Sam told Daphne (a minion of Maryann) that he didn't want to go near drums because they only lead to hippies and cults. Daphne replied 'not this time' in the sort of knowing, evil tone of a minion about to reveal her evilness to the guy she's been duping - except that is exactly, in the most literal sense, what the drums are leading them to. The cult of Bacchus/Dionysus was one of the most prominent of the ancient religions known today as mystery cults ('cult' from the Latin cultus, worship). These were groups dedicated to a particular god who carried out secret rituals known only to members, and which new members had to undergo sometimes lengthy initiation ceremonies to join. Their secretive nature leads to all sorts of speculation from modern writers on what might have gone on behind closed doors with, of course, no evidence to contradict even the wildest ideas, because it was secret. Daphne has most definitely led Sam into a cult.

(Daphne is also a Greek name, but whether or not she has anything to do with Apollo or laurel trees remains to be seen).

The trouble with the bull's head thing, though, is that it's connected to the wrong cult. Bulls were associated with another mystery cult, that of Mithras, joined chiefly by soldiers. Bulls were also essential to the taurobolium, a rite carried out by followers of the cult of Cybele. I'm not sure, however, what they would have to do with the cult of Dionysus. And the minotaur thing is getting weird now - just what is so attractive about bull-headed men?!

Maryann's ultimate goal has yet to be revealed, but so far her parties seem to bear more resemblence to the pop culture notion of a Roman orgy than a Bacchic festival (though the word orgy does come from orgia, a Greek word for ritual connected with mystery religions). Ecstasy, sometimes including sexual ecstasy, is certainly a feature of the mythology of Bacchus and may have been a big part of Bacchic ritual (hmm, that sentence came out wrong!). But on the television - unsurprisingly - sexual ecstasy seems to be the only type that Maryann the maenad is interested in. Considering the title sequence includes images of Christian religious ecstasy, it seems rather a shame to reduce Bacchic ritual to just sex and nothing more.

Further analysis will have to wait until we know more about Maryann and what she actually wants, which so far is unclear (well, she wants everyone around her to have a lot of sex, but I'm guessing there's more to it than that). Meanwhile, I will continue to watch and hope to see more of cute Sam the bartender, and less of blood, guts or really any vampire at all! (Later edit: I would also like to retract this statement. Except for the part about Sam, I still like him too).

16 comments:

  1. It's hard to know exactly what the maenads got up to, and there may have been variations from place to place. Despite their association with Thebes, Athens and Delphi seem to have been the major events. But there are reports that they did tear apart animals that they came across during their frenzies. Of course, that could all very well be male writers getting freaked out over women going off into the woods and doing mysterious things. Or they might simply have conducted sacrifices on their own, which would have been very far outside the norm.

    If they have a bull-headed person running around, I would have said the religion in question was not Mithraism, but something Minoan. It's more Greek, they were definitely into bulls, and there is a direct connection with the minotaur. But that's expecting way too much out of Hollywood in general, let alone television.

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  2. Bulls appear in all sorts of contexts throughout antiquity, but since we're talking about mystery religions here, Mithras is what comes to mind (he is frequently depicted in art sacrificing a bull, so bulls seem to have been important in his cult). Bulls and cows were important to lots of ancient societies, there's nothing particularly Greek or Minoan about them in general, though the minotaur story is Greek/Minoan of course.

    And I don't know what kind of women you know, but I can tell you right now, no matter how frenzied I might be, I am not capable of tearing an animal apart with my bare hands! Unless we're talking spiders/ants/butterflies of course.

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  3. Hi,

    Great post! Just a comment on the vampires in True Blood though- techinically they can be 'vegetarians' if they choose to be. They 'come out of the coffin' in the show becuase they can now survive on a sythetic blood substitute called True Blood (although alot of them don't, apart from Bill and Jessica).

    Since True Blood is on HBO, it's really more about shoehorning in as much sex and violence as possible- if they can get an historically innaccurate orgy in there, then they will!

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  4. Thanks! I figured they must be supposedly not drinking humans any more - trouble is, none of the vamps on this show seem to stick to that! Or if they do, they're pretty nasty anyway. I prefer my vampires to be more like Angel or Spike... ;)

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  5. Come to think of it, Spike is probably a bad example - just stick to Angel!

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  6. In the spirit of defending fictional characters, I suspect that Eric's actions should be thought of in the context of restorative justice - since vampires are supposed to be engaged in a battle for civil rights, they currently have no recourse to the law (they don't have any provocatio while we're being classical). Eric imprisons Lafayette because he suspects that he killed a nice vampire called Eddie (he didn't) and because he's part of the trade in dealing vampire blood (which is presumably difficult to obtain voluntarily). Also, since Eric is a thousand years old, he seems to have reasonably old-fashioned views on what constitutes community service.

    I think Bill is the most rubbish character on TB, but again his conversion to 'vegetarianism' (subsistence on True Blood) is a personal decision and not one forced upon him like Angel's is.

    As far as bulls and bacchants go (now there's a title for my novel), I seem to remember from doing Euripides' Bacchae that there's quite a lot of bull-imagery. Pentheus thinks he sees a bull leading him up to the mountain, and Dionysus is the 'bull-horned god' in various places (I think in the hymn to D actually). This doesn't really fully explain the decision to have one of his followers bull up, unless she's supposed to be a kind of lady-Dionysus.

    To sum up - I clearly need to re-read the Bacchae; watch season 1 of True Blood!

    Phoebe

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  7. I clearly need to re-read the Bacchae as well! That does rather explain the bulls - I think most people, doing a quick bit of research on Bacchants and maenads, probably have a skim through the Bacchae and leave it at that.

    I love your defense of Eric, especially the idea that he's doing community service! I'm afraid Bill just seems creepy and unattractive to me, but that's probably a personal thing.

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  8. Just to throw in my two cents worth - I think TB shows an interesting return to the fear and terror that vampires used to portray in older Gothic texts. They've become kind of 'neutered' in recent years (Angel and his soul, Edward and his sparkling, etc.) and some of the violence and morally ambiguous actions in TB offer a step back towards their function as a device of terror and horror narratives.

    And also: definitely watch Season 1 - it's soooo much better than Season 2!

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  9. Yep, but that is because Bill is creepy and unattractive. It's an entirely natural reaction. Also Stephen Moyer is from Essex, so all his energy goes into doing a Louisiana accent rather than a) not being an chemistry or b) attempting any semblance of chemistry with his real-life wife.

    I imagine that Viking community service is fairly similar to what happens to Lafayette! Also, Eric is the only man alive who can succesfully carry off a tracksuit, highlights and fake blood all over his chin.

    P

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  10. I do like the idea of returning to vampires as scary things - but for me, that means not representing them as some kind of metaphor for real life minority groups, nor jumping into bed with them! Definitely a relief to get away from sparkles though.

    Will have to get hold of season 1 at some point.

    Phoebe, I'll give you the tracksuit and highlights, but no man can pull off fake blood all over his chin!

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  11. I doubt any of the women I know could tear apart a living animal either. OTOH, I bet at least one of your great-grandmothers could have wrung a chicken's neck, for example, without batting an eye. And in a state of ecstasy where that sort of behavior is expected, who knows what a person is capable of.

    Interesting note on the maenads. I saw a report a couple of years ago that said that they essentially used headbanging to induce their mania. Apparently, rapidly flinging the head and upper torso back and forth can induce some interesting psychological effects.

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  12. TV Tropes said it best when they labelled the 'vampires as a metaphor for minorities' as a failed Aesop. People fear vampires, but this is a perfectly justified fear since we have not seen any vampire that's not a bloodthirsty killer. Perhaps the closest is Jessica, the teenage girl who got turned by Bill, who is shown to show remorse and conflict.

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  13. the vampires as a metephor for minorities assessment botherss me as a minority.i dont think the vampires are supposed to represent anything other than vampires. in the commentary for the first episode of season 1 allen ball (who is a gay man) said that the vampires are not supposed to represent minorities because they eat people, and that would insunate that minorities are secretly evil. Minorities are represented on the show as themselves, human and vampire. btw that guy eric ripped apart had it comming and the only time i didnt think angel was lame was when hes evil. you are right bill is creepy and unatractive.

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  14. I'm now finally watching season 1 so I'm catching up! And I have, since writing this post, fully come to see what everyone sees in Eric (yum). I do think, though, that if Ball/the credits designers/whoever didn't want to draw parallels between vampire and minority groups, they shouldn't have included the 'God hates Fangs' sign in the credits sequence.

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  15. I've only seen seasons 1 and 2 of True Blood and later seasons may render what I'm about to say irrelevant.

    Gay humans are there in the Sookie Stackhouse novels but not in a big way (unlike gay vampires), which is reasonable enough since they are first person narratives by Sookie and I don't suppose (generalising wildly) a straight or asexual woman in a small town in Louisiana would have many gay friends and acquaintances.

    But True Blood seems to be more of an ensemble piece, though the main focus is still on Sookie. Of the main characters, Lafayette is the only gay one. He is a drug dealer, prostitute, and pornographer. He also seems as far as I can remember to be the only major character who hasn't been shown stripped off and having sex on screen (if I remember rightly his encounters with Edie and the would-be senator both take place off screen) and/or having fallen in love. True Blood seems to want kudos for having a gay man as a major character but without the risk of showing him in a positive light as a sexual person. So, I think there is more to be concerned about than parallels between vampires and gay men.

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  16. Lafayette has a long term relationship in seasons 3 and 4 so there's an improvement, tho I think the metaphor can be inherently problematic

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