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'True Blood,' After 9 Years and 7 Seasons, Finally Took On Hurricane Katrina

By Sundi Rose-Holt | Indiewire July 30, 2014 at 6:01PM

The television series "True Blood" is no stranger to metaphor, and it isn’t afraid to hit an allegory pretty hard. Previous seasons have alluded to the conservative right, prewar anti-Jewish legislation, and religious fundamentalism. Now, in its seventh and final season, "True Blood" is not only plucking the strings of the thinly veiled topic of AIDS pretty heavily, but finally got around to Hurricane Katrina in the second episode of this, its last season -- a mere six years after the series premiere in September 2008.
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Anna Paquin and Joe Manganiello in "True Blood" on HBO
Tony Rivette/HBO Anna Paquin and Joe Manganiello in "True Blood"

Perhaps it's the new guy in charge, Brian Buckner, or perhaps it’s nostalgia, but "I Found You" is undeniably, without question, a direct allegory to Hurricane Katrina. Invoking our collective memories of the disastrous storm is Bruckner’s last-minute nod to the regional lore that defines the region’s mythology, while doing so in "True Blood" form. While previous showrunner Alan Ball never really acknowledged the storm and its effects on Louisiana, Bruckner is at least tiptoeing around Charlaine Harris’ intentions, even if doing in a pretty self serving way. The season’s plot trajectory suggests a mass craze surrounding these disaster, and Bruckner knows exactly what he’s doing by marrying these themes to our memories of Katrina. The allegory is a plot device that relies heavily on the public pathos attached to those memories and acts as a shortcut in alerting the audience on how to feel.

Harris took a different approach to Hurricane Katrina, addressing it immediately and prevalently in books six and seven of the series. In "All Together Dead," Harris explores the implications of the storm through vampire politics, disrupting territories and forcing migrations -- staying truer to the realty than the HBO series. Harris’ character Amelia, was a Katrina refugee that stayed with Sookie after the storm, painting Sookie as sympathetic of the survivors instead of critical to the governmental support and afraid of the public reaction. Harris’ books play less to the hysteria of the disaster, and more to the human reaction to loss, resulting in a softer, more humane reaction to the storm.

READ MORE: Review: 'True Blood' Season 7, Episode 6, 'Karma' Takes the Fast Lane to Boring Town

Hysteria and mob mentality; however, is far sexier than compassion and empathy, so Bruckner is capitalizing on those aspects instead of falling in line with the books. But it’s not as gross and exploitative as it sounds. Katrina gets the same "True Blood" treatment as all the other season-long extended metaphors: ham-fisted camp with a ton of excessive gore. Allegory has become a staple in the "True Blood" universe, and I am happy to see Katrina treated as democratically as all the other issues covered in the last six years.

Each season has seen the show take up one social issue or another, all predicated on the vampiric representation of one marginalized group or another. The larger parallels have closely mirrored the struggles of the LGBTQ community, and Ball made no secret about likening the vampire’s fight for civil liberties to those of the gay community. This season is no exception, offering scenes that are about as on-the-nose as you can get. However, in "I Found You." the show is detouring a bit into a more regionalized issue, and even developed a promo for the show using scenes almost exclusively from the "I Found You" episode, which focuses on the deserted town of Saint Alice. 

In past seasons, the vampires have always represented some disenfranchised segment of the population, and the things that happen to them are usually allegorical, in some part, to a real world entity -- the Westboro Baptist Church, Nazi Germany, the fundamental, conservative right-- but this season, the "big bad" isn’t an entity as much as it is a disease plaguing the vampires. Hep-V is the highly contagious disease causing the vampires to die a slow, merciless death, but not before acquiring an insatiable and violent hunger for human blood. In a more obvious, and True Blood-typical  interpretation of the existence of Hep-V, viewers can draw the evident connections between this disease and the AIDS virus, but Bruckner is asking us to consider the Hep-V virus as something outside of this obvious parallel; something equally as sinister, but wholly different in its carnage.

Bruckner is suggesting, outside of the reliable LGTBQ metaphors, that this disease and its epidemic proliferation represents Hurricane Katrina, and its debilitating symptoms are analogous to the days and weeks following the storm. While, we’ve only seen three episodes, "I Found You" lays a strong foundation for the apocalyptic plot arc calling on our memories of the public hysteria brought on by the catastrophic storm, thus enjoining those memories with the experience of this season.

The dialogue is written in specific reference to public sentiments following the storm in 2005. After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and then the levees broke in New Orleans, headlines began telling a bleak story. The LA Times reported "New Orleans Slides Into Chaos," while the New York TImes warned,  "Despair and Lawlessness Grip New Orleans as Thousands Remain Stranded in Squalor." As things worsened, Time Magazine began to question, "How Did This Happen." The dialogue in "I Found You" mimics these headlines, almost verbatim, and the characters are playing out the national conversation about the dissolution of the community into those taking advantage of the chaos versus residents who struggled to restore order.

Joe Manganiello, Anna Paquin, Sam Trammell and Ryan Kwanten in "True Blood."
John P. Johnson/courtesy of HBO Joe Manganiello, Anna Paquin, Sam Trammell and Ryan Kwanten in "True Blood."

The first scene after the opening credits features Sookie, Sam, Alcide and Andy discussing the attack on Bon Temps by the crazed, Hep-V vampires from the previous night (and previous episode). Feeling bewildered and raw from the attack, they try to make sense of the previous night’s massacre, Alcide asks, "Where are the feds in all this?" To which Sam, the newly appointed Mayor, replies, "We’re definitely fending for ourselves." For anyone who watched Katrina coverage during those first few days after the storm, this scene recalls the emotional climate of the immediate moments of the aftermath.  That exchange mimics the dozens of political commentators that railed against the American governmental response, and that conversation successfully sets up the following scenes from Saint Alice, the town in which the Hep-V vampires made first contact.

Once Sookie figures out the infected vampires came from Saint Alice, a town a few parishes over, they visit the town to investigate. As they arrive, it becomes clear that the town was abandoned in panic; that some grave disaster has befallen the town and its citizens. The eerie quiet coupled with the camera pans of the deserted streets and  boarded up storefronts are marked allusions to the footage of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

The group surveys the forsaken streets and businesses with hand-scrawled messages of prayer and warning: "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death" and and emphatic "SOS" painted atop one of the houses. Sam climbs to higher ground to get a better look at a message spray painted on the ground, and reads, "FEMA  Help us." It doesn’t get much more forthright than that. Saint Alice is performing, in the "True Blood" universe, as an allegorical stand in for 2005 New Orleans.

In one of the vacant homes, Alcide and Sookie find a diary left behind by a young girl, and Sookie reads the girl’s sad story of the end of her life. Just before the diary ends, probably signalling her death, she wrote, "How can this be happening? That our own government would leave us for dead?" The diary’s author gives voice to many of New Orleans' residents who were stranded, and Sookie promotes the narrative constructed by the rest of the country when she asks, "Why would this family stay here? Like sitting ducks?" Not coincidentally, this mirrors the conversation that unfolded across America as news broke about the conditions in New Orleans.

Anna Paquin in "True Blood."
John P. Johnson/courtesy of HBO Anna Paquin in "True Blood."

In typical "True Blood" fashion, the Saint Alice scenes call up Katrina without much subtlety. However, some of the other scenes offer more sophisticated evidence of the connection to Katrina. For instance, Sam’s appointment as Mayor and the subsequent dissent of the town, is a nod to the embattled ex-mayor Ray Nagin. Just as Nagin faced looting, violence, and the breakdown of societal boundaries, so does Sam (although we can only hope Sam turns out to be a better mayor than Nagin, especially given his recent legal troubles).

In opposition to Sam and his jurisdiction, there is a group of dissenters that are distrustful of the new establishment. Although Bon Temps’ rebels are made cartoonish in their villainy, there is no doubt that their fear of the governmental authority looks  a lot like that of the citizens of New Orleans and the surrounding, affected areas. The parallel is striking; especially when members of the town form a mob to raid the local police station in order to steal their weapons. The mob, intent on rebelling against the current authority, announces they are there to demonstrate "part of our second amendment rights to not be fucked over by our government" -- a common sentiment of those affected by the storm.

Matters of race coalesce in the character Kenya, the African-American deputy who relents to the town’s demands. She is talked out of her position of authority when someone reminds her she was passed over for promotion because she is "a woman of color." Kenya, as the only recurring African-American character, chooses to abandon the established laws and join her community as they form new rules for a changing (perhaps devolving) society. Katrina stirred up a lot of ugly American attitudes about race and its effects, and "True Blood" uses Kenya as a vehicle for that element of the allegory.

It’s hard to see past the Hep-Vamps as anything but overt stand in for AIDS and HIV-positive community, but this particular episode deviates in an important way. Looking at how the television series and the book series diverge in their depictions of Katrina, it is apparent that both both couldn’t survive without the regional mythology and history that resulted from the storm. Integrating a natural disaster with that of a supernatural disaster calls absurdity and the randomness to both, and "True Blood" has always maintained a certain sense of absurdity. Even if it took six years to get around to it, "True Blood" is honoring the legacy of Katrina in the only way it knows how -- with tongue-in-cheek camp.

This article is related to: True Blood, HBO, Alan Ball, Anna Paquin, Anna Paquin