MILDRED PIERCE, PARTS 4 & 5: Glendale Sucks!

If you are one of the five people who has been keeping up with my Mildred Pierce recaps, please accept my sincerest apologies for the delay. The final two installments of Todd Hayne’s miniseries clocked in at 2 1/2 hours and I simply could not stay awake to watch the final half hour on Sunday night.

Laguna Beach - the L.C.

Parts 4 and 5 of Mildred Pierce are all about location: where characters live, where they want to live, and how where we’re from indelibly marks us. So it is fitting that Part 4 opens with a establishing shot of the ocean. Seagulls alight on the beach and then fly away again. We soon find out that this is Laguna Beach (before it was Laguna Beach). Mildred (Kate Winslet) and Lucy (Melissa Leo) have come here to check out a new location for her restaurant. From their conversation we discover that Mildred has already opened a second restaurant in Beverly Hills and that the Laguna location would be her third. Mildred plans to serve her signature chicken and waffles dinners, the dinners that have served her so well, but Lucy has a different idea. Lucy explains that when people are vacationing at the beach they want “a shore dinner”: fish, crab, lobster and maybe a steak. Mildred balks at the idea but Lucy is insistent. When the restaurant opens later in the episode, Mildred is surprised to see that her wealthy patrons want to eat outside on the patio. Moments like these reveal the divide between Mildred, hard-working but always working class, and the upper class clientele she serves. She might be serving them food and taking their money, but she will never truly understand them. The distance between Glendale and Pasadena is too great.

Veda, who is now 17-years-old and played with haughty perfection by Evan Rachel Wood, is all too aware of this distance. When her piano teacher dies suddenly, she must seek out a new one. Of course, Veda being Veda decides that she can only work with the best, a snooty Italian conductor, Carlo Treviso (Ronald Guttman). Halfway through Veda’s audition he gently closes the piano cover, as she is still playing, which is a total dick move. She flees the audition, sobbing (as she did in Part 3), and Mildred attempts to comfort her daughter, but her encouraging words enrage Veda, “You think I’m hot stuff, don’t you?” she spits, “Well I’m not, there’s one like me in every Glendale!” Veda’s point is that she is a big fish in a little pond, just like her mother. And if her mother were more cultured, more high-class, then she would realize how average and ordinary her daughter’s talents are. In other words, Mildred’s love and admiration for her daughter mean nothing to Veda because of who Mildred is: she is Glendale. And Glendale is filled with middle brow people with middle brow tastes, people who don’t know the first thing about “real” piano playing talent or the necessity of wearing tight turtlenecks. Did you know, by the way, that Veda hates Glendale?

Veda

Veda hates the ordinariness of Glendale/Mildred because she fears (or possibly knows), that deep down, she might be Glendale too. Mildred’s success in the restaurant and pie business is the result of hard work, sacrifice, intelligence, and perseverance, all qualities that Mildred values. However, it is precisely these qualities that Veda hates. Because anyone can work hard. Anyone can persevere. But only a few special people are born with true class and true talent. Veda desperately wants to be one of those special people and hates her mother for not bestowing this specialness on her at birth. This becomes painfully clear during my second favorite scene of the miniseries. Mildred has just discovered Veda’s plans to blackmail the son of a Hollywood director and she questions why her daughter would need this money, “I’ve never denied you anything, anything money could buy I’ve given you.” Veda replies:

“With enough money I can get away from you and your pie wagons and your chickens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from Glendale and its dollar days and its furniture factories. Women who wear uniforms and men who wear smocks. From every rotten, stinking thing that reminds me of this place or you!”

Oh man, what a speech! Where to begin? First, Veda borrows Monty’s (Guy Pearce) words when she refers to Mildred’s “pie wagons,” the chain of restaurants that have created the life of privilege Veda now enjoys (and resents). She is a young Monty in the making. Veda also elaborates on what she hates so much about Glendale: people work in Glendale. There are furniture factories and department stores with … gasp … dollar days! Obviously, Veda would never buy anything on sale. But what is most interesting about this speech is Veda’s anger over “women who wear uniforms and men who wear smocks.” Veda clings to old-fashioned notions about gender. Specifically, she resents that her mother has taken on the role of breadwinner in her home, that her mother emasculated her father, and that Mildred takes “what she needs” from the men around her.

So Mildred kicks Veda out, Mildred is sad, and we get lots of sad, long takes of Mildred alone in Glendale, staring longingly at photographs of her two departed daughters. And what has Veda been doing all of  this time? Apparently, Veda is a magnificent singer, a rare singer known as a coloratura soprano. She is so magnificent that mean old Treviso begged her to be his student. I am willing to buy that Veda is suddenly this amazing singer. But I do find it odd that, with all of her training and exposure to music instructors, Veda has only discovered this rare talent at the age of 18?

Monty and his turtleneck, BFFs!

After so many months apart, Mildred is desperate to win Veda back. She runs into Monty (Guy Pearce), her old flame, and she makes the impulsive decision to purchase his withering estate. Monty even adjusts the price to account for all the money he borrowed from her years ago. What a great guy! He also gives her some oral sex, which she clearly appreciates, but then Mildred has to ruin all that sex and purchasing of expensive real estate by deciding that she and Monty should get married. Really Mildred? Really? Monty agrees, but only because he senses that to say no would mean that the real estate deal would fall through. And damn it, tight turtlenecks don’t come cheap!

Veda and Mommy, together again

Did I mention that this final segment of the miniseries was 2 1/2 hours long? That is a lot of melodrama! So let’s summarize quickly, shall we? Mildred and Monty get married. Veda shows up at the wedding reception and agrees to move back in with Mommy, now that Mommy is living in Pasadena in a sweet mansion. Mildred gazes longingly at Veda while she sleeps as if she can’t believe that her baby is home again. Veda gets to sing at the Philharmonic. Monty is spending all of Mildred’s money on fancy liquor, jodhpurs, and turtlenecks. Mildred is falling behind on payments and her creditors are pissed. Wally, for some reason, has turned on Mildred (WTF Wally?). Burt (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Mildred decide that they need to borrow money from Veda to save the business and Burt tells Mildred that she’s got to ask Veda for the money now, in the middle of the night!

Bad, bad daughter

So Mildred rushes home to look for Veda and can’t find her. She heads to Monty’s quarters (apparently Monty and Mildred no longer sleep together) and guess who’s in bed with Daddy? Yep, it’s Veda! [My favorite scene of the whole miniseries] This revelation is not a surprise for those familiar with the novel or the 1945 film, but Evan Rachel Wood manages to make it shocking by her sheer defiance. As Monty attempts to put the blame on Mildred (he claims that Mildred used him as “bait” to lure Veda home), Veda simply reclines in bed, smoking a cigarette with those blood-red nails of hers. Then, to drive home the point that she really hates her mother, Veda gets out of bed, stark naked, and walks slowly over to the vanity. This is a real “fuck you” walk. It says “I’m young, I’m skinny, I’m beautiful, and I just stole your man. Suck it, Mommy.” She then begins to slowly brush her hair, eyeing her mother through the vanity mirror. Monty approaches and puts a robe around Veda’s shoulders, which is the final straw for Mildred. She lunges at her daughter, knocking her to the ground, and begins to strangle her. She only stops when Monty pries her hands from her daughter’s throat. Then, in a moment of perfect melodrama, Veda dashes down the steps to the piano, and tries to sing. All that comes out is a hoarse moan. Veda collapses on the very expensive Oriental rug, gasping and crying.

My husband and I pretty certain that Mildreds house in Glendale is the same house used as the Walsh family home in Beverly Hills 90210

When we next see our characters, it is a few months (weeks?) later. Mildred and Burt have just returned from Reno, where Mildred got a divorce and then remarried her ex-husband. Because, of course. They decide to move back into the Glendale house, which will, in the 1990s, become the home of the Walsh family of Minnesota. Veda shows up to wish her parents well. Her voice is nearly healed and she’s headed to New York City (at last, no more Glendale!). Apparently, her old sponsors, Pleasant Cigarette, dropped her after her mother strangled her, which conveniently freed Veda up for a far more lucrative contract with Consolidated Foods. So what we are supposed to understand is that Veda was hoping her mother would attack her? That being caught in flagrante delicto was the only way for her to get out of her old contract? I find it all to be very far-fetched. but it’s enough for Mildred to finally decide that she is done with Veda. Weeping over Veda for the last time, Mildred retreats to the original pie wagon, where Burt urges, “To hell with her.” Mildred agrees, “All right, Burt, to hell with her.” Then they decide to get “stinko,” which is an old-timey word for getting shit-faced drunk.

Overall, I found this ending to be very unsatisfying. I understand that the HBO version is a faithful retelling of James M. Cain’s novel. However, I much prefer the ending to the original Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz), in which Veda murders Monty because he refuses to marry her, and Mildred attempts to take the blame. No matter what Veda did, and no matter how angry Mildred became, she never gave up on her daughter. And maybe this Mildred hasn’t given up either. Maybe getting drunk and declaring “To hell with her!” is the only way Mildred can deal with her daughter’s betrayal.

Mother and daughter, before daughter slept with mothers husband

So, for those managed to read through this very, very long recap, what did you think? Did you enjoy this miniseries? Was it worth 5 1/2 hours of your life?

MILDRED PIERCE PARTS 1 & 2: Food and Women

Let me begin with a confession: I have been anticipating the premiere of HBO’s adaptation of Mildred Pierce ever since I first heard about the project last spring. Then, there were just a few tantalizing shots of Kate Winslet in red lipstick, looking both stern and forlorn (which is exactly how poor old Mildred must always look). There is very little director Todd Haynes could have done in the premiere to discourage me from watching the rest of the series. Luckily, however, Parts One and Two, which aired last night, were solid (for a look at some more tepid reviews, check out James Poniewozik and Alan Sepinwall).

I am a huge fan of  the first Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel of the same name. The film is amazing for so many reasons: Joan Crawford’s Academy Award-winning performance, its explicit (and fairly radical) commentary on the limits that gender places on women,  that beautiful, beautiful cinematography, etc. But Mildred Pierce remains one of my favorite classic Hollywood films because it deftly blends film noir with the maternal melodrama. If you are an aficionado of American film genres as I am, then you know that film noir and melodrama are considered to be “modes” of filmmaking, rather than coherent genres in their own right. Unlike the gangster film or the Western, these two modes cannot be defined by a specific setting, nor do they have consistent plot formulas or conventions. Rather, these two modes of filmmaking transcend generic boundaries, so that we can speak of noir-science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) and Western melodramas like Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee). In other words, noir and melodrama are like a cloak that other films (generic or not) can try on as way to compliment, but not consume, their own unique elements. So while Mildred Pierce is a drama about the plight of the American woman of the 1930s and 1940s, who is constantly subject to the whims of the lecherous, selfish men around her, it is also a tortuous account of a mother sacrificing everything for the happiness of her children (maternal melodrama) and a murder mystery that begins at the end and then winds its way backwards to discover the truth (film noir). This is an amazing combination. For me, that’s the cinematic equivalent of carrot cake cheesecake. Have you ever had that? They actually mix carrot cake together with the cheesecake!

The original MILDRED PIERCE is a lot like this delicious cake

Since I mentioned cheesecake, let’s move on with this review. After its simple and decade appropriate Art Deco credits (love!), Part One of the miniseries opens with a pair of busy hands making biscuits and pies. We see close ups of perfectly crafted pie crusts awaiting their bright lemon custard fillings and stiff white meringue toppings. Yes, this is food porn. Indeed, throughout the first two parts of the miniseries, Haynes gives loving attention to food. Some might view these scenes as slow, but I enjoyed Haynes’ “elastic attitude towards time,” to quote Matt Zoller Seitz’s recap in Salon:

TV has permission to do this — settle into a scene the way you might settle into a warm bath, and linger. And yet it rarely avails itself of this privilege. On most scripted TV dramas, as in most movies, the mentality is more often “Just get on with it!” All climax, no foreplay, as it were.

Yes, we gets lots and lots of food foreplay here, but it serves a purpose. As in all melodramas, Mildred Pierce‘s mise en scène serves a specific narrative and thematic function. In his famous essay “Tale of Sound of Fury,” Thomas Elsaesser argues that the melodrama is an expressive code, a form of dramatic mise en scène. Specifically, in the domestic melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s, the scope of action is restricted. All of the turmoil is happening inside the characters, rather than outside. Characters want to speak and act, but social decorum, class restrictions, and pride prevent them from doing so.  And so the mise en scène becomes a vehicle for helping to express the tense emotions roiling just below the surface. In the image, below, for example, Mildred is carefully decorating a cake as she carefully points out to her husband that most folks wait to water their lawns until later in the day (so that the water isn’t dried up by the heat of the late day sun). But Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) has watered the grass early in an effort to meet up with his mistress. She lays out her reasoned argument, bit by bit, as she adds small decorative details to the cake (a cake she must make because her husband is no longer supporting the family financially). Thus, in Mildred Pierce extended, loving shots of food offer us insight into characters, their experiences, and their emotions.

Cake porn

Along the same lines, the opening shots of Mildred’s impressive pastry skills signify not only that Mildred is talented, but also that she is a hard worker and a perfectionist, two traits that are central to her character’s development over the course of the story. Furthermore, it is significant that Mildred’s talents are definitively domestic. When Mildred goes looking for work after good-for-nothing husband, Bert, leaves her to fend for herself and their daughters, she discovers that she has “no skills.” Her head hunter reminds her that as a housewife she is only qualified for domestic work: waitressing and housekeeping. But what we know, and what it takes Mildred about 75 minutes of screen time to realize, is that her seemingly useless “feminine” skill set will eventually lead to the creation of an empire. An empire of PIE!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To return to the mise en scène of food: one of my favorite shots of the miniseries so far is an extreme close up of the ham sandwich Mildred orders after a discouraging day of trying to find work. Mildred has spent her morning pounding the pavement and becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the only jobs available are in the service industry. Mildred, you see, is a bit of a snob. As she explains to her neighbor/confidante, Lucy (Melissa Leo in another “feisty role”), she has something inside of her, pride or possibly nobility, which makes it difficult for her to accept a job in which she must kowtow to class-based roles and take commands from others. This, we are told, is why young Veda (Morgan Turner), her first born, is such a shit; she’s her mother’s daughter.

Mildred and young Veda

Anyway, at this point, we know that Mildred has little money to buy food. In an earlier scene Mildred calls a customer to see if she wants her usual order of baked goods, while fixing her daughters breakfast. When the woman declines we see Mildred pause, and then decisively cut a sausage in half, placing a serving on each girl’s plate. Mildred’s breakfast is a single triangle of toast; she starves herself so her daughters can eat. Therefore, I was relieved to see Mildred order herself a ham sandwich. When the meal arrives, Haynes offers an aerial shot: the bright white plate matching the white bread, the bright pink of the ham, and a dish of mostly-white coleslaw. Unlike the elaborate, sustaining meals we have seen Mildred prepare in her own home, this meal is devoid of color, and we can only assume, flavor. As Mildred chews her sandwich, she looks around the diner, overhearing a conversation in which two men discuss the Great Depression and how the lack of jobs is only going to increase. This is the turning point for Mildred — does she want a lifetime of tasteless sandwiches or is she going to swallow her pride and do whatever it takes to feed her family?

Moments later, a job opens up in the diner and Mildred takes it. Yes, this job is in the service industry, but unlike the housekeeping position offered by Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis), a cruel snob, this job is filled with female allies. True, head waitress, Ida (Mare Winningham) bosses Mildred around, corrects her techniques, and ultimately tells her she did a terrible job on her first day. But we know that what Ida is actually doing is helping Mildred. She’s making her into a good waitress, and Mildred needs to be a good waitress.

This leads me to the second thing I loved about this mini-series: its focus on women. This is a world in which men use women to fulfill their sexual desires, keep their homes clean, raise their children, and support them in their careers. When they’ve had enough, the women are tossed aside to become “grass widows,” an American institution. Men control and limit Mildred’s actions: Bert leaves her financially destitute, Wally (an unrecognizable and totally awesome James LeGros) takes advantage of her new status as “grass widow” (though we get the sense that Mildred was a little bit horny and didn’t mind this too much), and Mildred is dependent upon people like Bert, Wally, and Monte (Guy Pearce) to finance her restaurant. Nevertheless, Mildred Pierce celebrates the bonds between women. Her neighbor, Lucy, fills in the holes left by Bert’s absence: she makes excuses for leaving “left overs” in Mildred’s fridge so that the proud woman won’t go hungry and she (rightly) urges Mildred to keep her new job as a waitress.

Wally has eaten too many pies

*SPOILERS LURK BELOW! PROCEDE WITH CAUTION!*

And then, of course, there are the bonds between mothers and daughters. This female relationship forms the heart of Mildred Pierce. Motherhood is what motivates Mildred to get past her own pride, look for work until her heels bleed, refrain from bad-mouthing her husband in front of her daughters,  and to spend any extra money she earns on food and clothing for her daughter (notice that for most of Parts One and Two, Mildred can be seen wearing just one “nice” dress). When Ray dies at the end of Part Two (I won’t say much about this since, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I have difficulties watching and dealing with the death of children on film and television), we know Mildred’s fate is sealed. The love she had for her two daughters will now be channeled into one, all-consuming love for Veda. That’s the thing about maternal love. It may change forms, but it doesn’t disappear. And love like that can be dangerous (see, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved). So far I have yet to pick up on the noir aspects of this story, but with Mildred’s and Veda’s unhealthy relationship established at the end of Part Two, the twisted tale of jealousy and deceit that ends in murder is just around the corner.

A Few Other Things:

* When Mildred is sitting in the diner eating her nasty ham sandwich, we hear two young women discussing Greta Garbo. One of the women mentions that she loves Garbo so much she could watch her sleep. Then both women declare in unison, “Garbo snores!” This conversation is intended to serve as a contrast to the more “serious” economic discussion the two men near them are having. But it’s also a great little nugget for film buffs who remember the tagline from Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930), “Garbo talks!”

* I am (or rather, was) smitten with Mildred’s youngest daughter, Ray (Quinn McColgan), because she is almost exactly like my own daughter: a motor mouth who will talk and talk and talk, even when no one is listening (she, too, is her mother’s daughter). Ray is always recreating scenes from films, such as when she performs the famous moment when  James Cagney is shot in Public Enemy (1931), “I’m not so tough!” That’s one of my favorite movie scenes (and is at the center of the arguments I make about the links between gangster films and melodrama in the first chapter of my book).

"I'm not so tough!"

* Todd Haynes is killing the cinematography so far. Everything is a feast for the eyes. I swooned over the 30s era fashions while my husband swooned over the automobiles (yes, I see the gender breakdown there, but I’m being honest).

* Once again Kate Winslet’s boobs appear on screen. When I mentioned this to my husband he noted, “Well, those boobs won her an Oscar. Maybe they’ll win her an Emmy too.” Leave it to the software programmer to come up with the most cynical yet succinct summary of Winslet’s career that I’ve ever heard.

So what did you think of Parts One and Two of Mildred Pierce? Too long? Too slow? Will you watch again? And most importantly, did it make you want to eat some pie? Please share your thought below.

Evan Rachel Wood Ain’t MY Vampire Queen

Like many True Blood fans I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), vampire queen of Louisiana, whose existence had been leaked through various entertainment news sources weeks ago. Last week I was tantalized by the sight of her lavish home and the image of a pale female foot, bathed in a stream of blood. And as a fan of Wood, whose portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen (2003, Catherine Hardwicke) blew me away, I was sure that the young actress was well-equipped to handle the role of an 1100-year-old vampire queen.

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But last night I found myself underwhelmed. I don’t blame Queen Sophie-Anne’s failure on the writers–who gave her choice lines like “I haven’t been interested in men since Eisenhower was President”–or the costume designers–who gave her beautiful white gowns and bathing suits to luxuriate in (plus a vintage copy of Vogue to read!). No, this character fell flat due to Wood’s lackluster performance (though EW’s Ken Tucker disagrees with me).

Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be more than 1,000 years old, but Wood plays her like a precocious child playing dress up. Such a role is certainly challenging–Wood needs to convey the sense that she is an old soul even as she lives in a teenager’s body, a state of endless arrested development. But it has been done before and done well. Here I can’t help but think of Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Claudia, a mature, blood-thristy vampire trapped in the body of a sweet, prepubescent girl for all of eternity, in Interview with a Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan).

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I believed Dunst’s performance–indeed, I found it to be highly disturbing. Dunst expressed her frustration with her small, child’s body and its incompatibility with her adult hungers. You could see her age in her eyes and in the way she carried her body. Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be elegant, regal and a commanding presence (she is the QUEEN after all) but as Wood plays her she is more like an annoying celebutante in the vein of a Paris Hilton or a Lydia Hearst. Blech.

paris_hilton

I am not giving up on Evan Rachel Wood (girlfriend did look hot), but for now I remain unimpressed.

P.S. Not enough Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) in last night’s episode. Just sayin’.

I’m Thinking More MEAT!: Some Thoughts on True Blood, Episode 10

True Blood seems to get better with every episode that airs. When it premiered last fall I was unimpressed and was close to giving it up. My new Southern friends here in North Carolina assured me that Sookie Stackhouse’s (Anna Paquin) accent was laughable (what did I know?) and the series’ vampire plot seemed like Buffy-lite. But slowly the show found its footing. And now I’m obsessed.

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I attribute much of the show’s allure to its mastery of the slow burn. What I mean is this: while many programs with rich, soapy plots (The O.C., Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl)) rush through their storylines, anxious to bring them to a climax before audience interest wanes, True Blood is a true tease. Mysteries remain mysterious and flirtations go on and on and on (I am particulary taken by the brewing attraction between Sookie and Eric [Alexander Skarsgard]). Furthermore, we are always finding out something new about the show’s characters–they evolve and become more complex with each episode.

Maryann Forrester’s (Michelle Forbes) story arc is another great example of True Blood‘s deft storytelling technique and character development. Maryann first appeared at the scene of Tara’s car accident at the end of Season 1, cradling a pig and looking devious. The writers made us suspicious of her character then, but buried her secrets behind Maryann’s sweet, disarming demeanor. In this way we were much like Tara (Rutina Wesley); we know something isn’t right about Maryann, but what is it? That she smokes too much weed, buys too much delicious fruit, and parties too hard for a woman in her 40s?

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It is not until almost halfway through Season 2 that we find out that Maryann is an immortal supernatural being and somehow tied to the god, Bacchus. She thrives on unfettered human drives like hunger, lust and violence. The scene in last night’s episode (“New World in My View”), where Maryann crafts a pyre of meat and flowers while the sounds of buzzing flies fill the air was the apotheosis of the excess she had been slowly and cannily directing all season long. It was a satisfying moment.

The best scene of the evening, however, had to be when Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) (who really deserves an Emmy for his work this season) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) (who will always be Frank Sobotka to me) outwit Maryann’s angry mob by outfitting Jason as the “God who comes.” These two characters are consistently portrayed as the biggest morons in the town of Bon Temps, but they are able to (momentarily) save Sam Merlotte’s (Sam Trammell) life by using their wits. So there’s something else rattling around in Jason’s brain besides the drive to drink beer, screw and kick ass? Good to know.

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An honorable mention goes to Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis) (any scene with Lafayette is a great scene as far as I’m concerned), who banded together with his estranged aunt (Adina Porter) to yank Tara free from Maryann’s spell. At one point Lettie Mae prays for her daughter’s salvation but trails off in despair and, without missing a beat, Lafayette finishes her prayer. Lettie Mae turns, looking surprised. “Jesus and I agree to see other people. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk from time to time” he responds in his usual deadpan manner. So Lafayette has religion? Yet another nuance we can add to his already rich character.

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And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “the Queen” (Evan Rachel Wood), who Bill (Stephen Moyer) visits just before the episode ends. We see only her white leg, covered in a stream of blood, before the screen fades to black. As always, True Blood, like any good tease, leaves me wanting more.