"Oh, great, now I have to deal with witches," exclaims bubbly sexpot Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) a few episodes into True Blood's fourth season. It's one of the show's patented moments of narrative self-consciousness, a hyperactive wink that acknowledges, but in no way critiques, the HBO program's supernatural self-indulgences. Since its premiere in 2008, the series, which, it should be noted, was originally a show about vampires, has expanded its ranks of mythological creatures so much that even the original characters seem to be growing weary.
Indeed, at the end of last season, Sookie's best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), cut off all of her hair and skipped town after sometimes-lover, sometimes-shapeshifter Sam Merlotte revealed that she was one of the only actual human beings left in Bon Temps, Louisiana. As her car sped away, we were left trying to keep track of the catalogue of monstrosities—vampires, werewolves, were-panthers, shapeshifters, fairies, maenads, evangelical Christians—to which we'd been hastily introduced over three seasons, and it was hard not to commiserate with Tara's frustrations. But shockingly, it turns out that witches, led by the explosive Fiona Shaw, are just what the doctor ordered.
When True Blood first premiered, it was a refreshingly sardonic reprieve from the preposterous sincerity of the Twilight franchise. In contrast to the arias of repression that propel those books and films, the series was a blood-drenched, deep-fried ode to excess. Creator Alan Ball and his band of sexy faux-Southerners had arrived to tell the world that, not only will sex not kill you, it will set you free. Even more, the "God Hates Fangs" sign that appears in the show's opening credits serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that True Blood is partially an allegory for the LGBT rights struggle in America, and, that even before the full emergence of the Gaga cult, True Blood was insisting that we're all monsters, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Over the years, however, Ball's ideological commitment to never kicking any supernatural being out of bed has led to some narrative problems. The introduction of Michelle Forbes as a voyeuristic, cannibal sex goddess in True Blood's second season resulted in a subplot so bloated and silly it nearly collapsed in on itself like a dying star. And while the third season brought the extraordinary Denis O'Hare aboard for a series-stealing performance as the vampire king of Mississippi, that season also introduced a ridiculous number of superfluous new beasts, including a tribe of meth-addicted were-panthers that would've been best left on the pages of Napoleon Dynamite's high school notebook.
So, it's understandable if audiences are hesitant to add another ingredient to the gumbo. As the fourth season begins, Sookie is again dithering between the devoted, duplicitous Bill (Stephen Moyer) and the evil, though appealingly emo Eric (Alexander Skarsgård), a contextually understandable indecision that still strains audience credulity due to the outrageous charm differential between the witheringly debonair Skarsgård and the constipated baritone Moyer. She is also, not incidentally, dealing with the recent pun-soaked revelation that she's a fairy. Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) is still working through his anger and species-management issues, Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten, adorable as always), is still embroiled with his band of white-trash panthers, and Tara is exploring options outside of Bon Temps, crossing her fingers that she doesn't turn out to be a secret elf or something.
But the plotline that really gives the new season its pulse springs from one of last season's most authentically satisfying tangents. After experiencing occult visions while under the influence of vampire blood and his super-hot new boyfriend, Jesus (Kevin Alejandro), Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) realized, believe it or not, that he might be in possession of some magical powers. Having already begun to explore the murky swamps between love and animal compulsion through the revelation that vampires can become chemically dependent on fairy blood, True Blood turned the chemistry between Jesus and Lafayette (one of the show's most compelling romances) into a meditation on, quite literally, the magic of love.
As the new season begins, Jesus—who, naturally, turns out to be a witch—has led Lafayette and his formidable powers into the warm, creepy embrace of a coven led by a witch/medium named, fittingly, Marnie. Played by the great British actress Fiona Shaw, Marnie is a new kind of True Blood antagonist. Neither aggressively sexy like Forbes's MaryAnn nor ingratiatingly mad like O'Hare's vampire king, Marnie is a mysterious shade on a show filled with outsized character types. Alternately cooing like a possessed child or booming like an angered god, Marnie is a captivating, showstopper of a character and a challenge to the show's hedonism in all its forms.
Marnie and her circle of witches bring a novel dose of instability to the otherwise unchecked expansion of True Blood's roster of boogeypersons. Without giving away too much, it's fair to say that witchery, in its various forms, exists outside the prevailing logic of the True Blood universe, or, at the very least, exists in opposition to it. The possibility that these characters can exercise some measure of control over the supernatural elements that seem to copulate like rabbits in the show's writing has allowed the producers to take stock of the world they've so haphazardly populated.
The radical shifts in dynamics that the coven seems ready to provoke could very well catastrophically alter the makeup of True Blood, and the inevitable havoc waiting to be wreaked could easily go the way of the second season's inexplicably boring murder-orgy plot. But for now, Shaw and her adherents are poised to bring some critical leavening to a series that maybe could use it. Season four still might end with the introduction of a band of lusty minotaurs or cokehead sasquatches, but, as it begins, we should be encouraged—and thanks to Shaw's boffo performance, delighted—to see True Blood thinking, even for a moment, about controlling itself.