Forty-five minutes north of Los Angeles, a desolate ranch is the setting for a deadly encounter. Vampires descend from the sky onto Sookie Stackhouse’s trademark yellow 1982 Honda and, as Sookie lets out a spine-tingling scream, one bloodsucker places his palm down on the hood of the car, sending its body flipping upward before it comes crashing back down.
Click the Image for a Character-by-Character Preview of Season 3
It’s the Witching Hour on the set of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood, the third season of which premieres this Sunday at 9 p.m. The setting couldn’t be more perfect: In the near-darkness of this ranch, mice scurry underfoot, the moon casts an eerie glow, a bat flies overhead, and something large—coyote, mountain lion, or perhaps a werewolf—lurks around the periphery of the makeshift set.
“TV shows grow into themselves, and I feel like this show really grew into itself last year—and now it’s just really working at full capacity,” said creator and executive producer Alan Ball.
After a rocky start, True Blood became a cultural phenomenon in its second season, luring an average of 12.4 million viewers a week and hitting its creative stride. The show became the second biggest hit in HBO’s history—No. 1 being, of course, The Sopranos. Arriving at a time when the public’s appetite for vampire fiction was at an all-time high, True Blood tapped into the zeitgeist and ushered in a post- Sopranos era for HBO.
The show itself is a blend of high and low, an existentialist melodrama masquerading as a horror series that mines human concerns within the context of the supernatural. In the hands of Ball and his writing team, True Blood plays with its Southern Gothic trappings to kick up a number of intriguing metaphors about new millennium society, toying with notions of humanity, race, religion, closeted and open homosexuality, fundamentalist terrorism, and more.
“The nugget that Alan [Ball] is interested in exploring is how people react to extraordinary things,” said Stephen Moyer, who plays True Blood’s reluctant vampire Bill Compton, on the telephone. “The show is so multileveled. You can watch it and think of it as pure bubblegum for the eyes, but you can also completely immerse yourself in the subtext, the metaphors, and the underlying mirroring of society… It is all things to all people.”
“I’m not somebody who sits down and says, ‘OK, the theme for this season is X, let’s build everything around that,” said Ball. “I try to tell a good story that is constantly surprising and emotionally involving.”
Having said that, True Blood’s storylines are insane. Last season alone, there was a frenzy-feeding ancient maenad (Michelle Forbes) who possessed the town and attempted to sacrifice shifter Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) to her god; fundamentalist Christian sect The Fellowship of the Sun—led by the psychotic Steve and Sarah Newlin (Michael McMillian and Anna Camp)—launching suicide attacks against the vamps; world-weary 2,000-year-old vampire Godric (Allan Hyde) committing suicide; and a baby vampire (Deborah Ann Woll), who discovered, horrifically, her eternal virginity.
The show’s center is a love triangle between telepathic waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) and vampire paramours Bill (Paquin’s real-life fiancé Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård). Many of the show’s rabid fans align themselves according to each of these love interests (you’re either on Team Bill or Team Eric), but that central relationship looks to get even more complicated, as Bill proposed to Sookie at the end of Season 2, seconds before he was kidnapped by persons—or creatures—unknown.
As whiplash-inducing as the plot twists were last season, things only get crazier in Season 3, as the writers layer in more dark humor and burning pathos to the mix, and top themselves in terms of sheer narrative madness.
“It’s more intense,” said Paquin, slipping in and out of her New Zealand accent. “The characters are in more emotional trouble and physical peril. Everything is taken up a notch… It’s scarier, it’s creepier, it’s weirder—if that’s possible—in all of those fabulous True Blood ways.”
When Season 3 begins, Sookie will attempt to solve the mystery of Bill’s disappearance as well as that of her own past, something she has in common with several of True Blood’s characters—including Bill, Sam, and Eric.
“Pretty much every single character on the show is wrestling with some sort of identity issue,” said Ball, “whether they are learning about their past, learning what they’re truly capable of, or finding out what they are.”
Moyer said that Season 3 will tackle “the source of Bill’s darkness and torture,” as well as his relationships with Sookie and the sadistic vampire who turned him, Lorena (Marina Klaveno), the latter of which Moyer promised will get “pretty f------ gnarly.”
And while viewers have learned a bit about Skarsgård’s breakout character, Eric, the show will delve even deeper into his past as well.
“Season 3, for Eric, is about vengeance,” said Skarsgård on the set, between bites of an apple, underneath a tree in the near-pitch darkness of the woods. “The audience will find out that something happened a thousand years ago when Eric was still a human and he lost someone. He gets presented with an opportunity to avenge that person early on in the season.”
“[His humanity] is something that Eric always tries to suppress and fight and hold back,” he said. “After Godric died [in Season 2], which was the greatest loss of his life, Eric once again just suppressed it... Sometimes you see a softer side, but he always pulls it back. He hates it when he shows weakness.”
It will also become clear that Sookie, the heroine of the show and the Charlaine Harris novels on which it’s based, has changed over the course of the last three seasons. Those romantic entanglements that bind her to both Bill and Eric will get even more complicated—Sookie has grown up considerably since the pilot.
Paquin said, “She is a lot more aware of what the real world really entails for her, which of course in vampire-land is all kinds of really crazy shit.”
So should viewers be rooting for Sookie to end up with the raven-haired gentleman Bill or the vicious bad boy Eric? Or even with newcomer werewolf Alcide (Joe Manganiello)?
“I think people should always root for Sookie and Eric no matter what,” said Skarsgård, with a mischievous smile.
“That’s a personal choice,” said Ball. “I know there are a lot of people on Team Eric, a lot of people on Team Bill, there are even some people on Team Sam and this year there will likely be a Team Alcide, so I would say there is probably somebody for everyone to root for. I will say that Bill and Sookie’s relationship probably gets tested more this season than it ever has.”
For the record, Moyer is on Team Sookie: “I think people get caught up in the Team Bill/Team Eric thing,” he said. “I think it should be the one that the audience feels is right for her. The way that our writers play that out, by tantalizing the audience and giving them tastes, it’s as though we’re [experiencing] it through her eyes.”
While there’s likely trouble ahead for Bill and Sookie, the most emotionally stable and supportive relationship this season on True Blood might just be that between gay vampires, in this case the new characters of the Vampire King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare), and his royal consort Talbot (Theo Alexander).
“He feels like human beings are not qualified to run things because they’re destroying their habitat,” said O’Hare of the 2,800-year-old Russell, kicking back on the True Blood set. “He has this weird eco-warrior bent… Russell is really, really strong and really, really crafty and really, really blind. He doesn’t see certain things coming.”
In addition to locating Bill this season, Sookie will have a lot more to deal with, including navigating the uncertain waters of the vampire hierarchy and coming face to face with the latest creature to populate True Blood’s shadowy landscape: werewolves.
While the cast and crew were loath to reveal just how the werewolves come into play, it’s clear that they’ll have a major role within the context of Season 3—and these creatures have crossed paths with Skarsgård’s Eric in the past. (“Eric despises them,” said Skarsgård. “They’re primitive and stupid and not very interesting to him.”)
For Paquin, the attraction between Sookie and werewolf Alcide makes sense. “Bill’s gone [and] Sookie’s sad and lonely,” explained Paquin. “He is big and strong and can hang out during the daytime… Yes, he turns into a werewolf, but it’s a little simpler. The warmth, the daylight thing. It’s not bad.”
Fans of Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels may recognize some of the other new additions to the cast this season: vampire Franklin Mott (James Frain), Alcide’s deranged werewolf ex Debbie Pelt (Brit Morgan), vicious werewolf Coot (Grant Bowler), nurse Jesus Valasquez (Kevin Alejandro), Lafayette’s mom Ruby Jean (Alfre Woodard), and the enigmatic Crystal Norris (Lindsay Pulsipher), among many others.
But don’t assume that these new characters will get the same spotlight that the show’s core cast gets on a weekly basis.
“From a mechanical place, the new characters are there to serve the regulars and to create stories for the regulars,” Ball said. “We don’t focus on their emotional needs as much. There is a high body count in Season 3. Not all of them are going to be around forever.”
In other words: These characters aren’t safe, not by a long shot, even if they survived in Harris’ novels.
“Ultimately, there are really no rules,” said Ball. “Gran died in the first book and it was shocking, but it was so important in terms of Sookie’s arc that I couldn’t deviate from that. However, Lafayette dies in the second book but when we were shooting the pilot and Nelsan [Ellis] starting working his magic I went, ‘Oh no, we can’t ever kill this guy.’ I mean, I could [but] there is a core group of series regulars that by this point I’m very emotionally invested in and I don’t want to see any of them die.”
“But it’s a show about vampires,” Ball continued. “Of course people are going to die.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.