But if Bill represents a judicious but secretly bloodthirsty superpower, then Maryann (Michelle Forbes) is a rogue state teeming with terrorists and corrupt generals -- maybe somewhere in the tropics (Indonesia?), given Maryann's penchant for fat joints and fruity drinks. For the barely restrained hedonists among us (I think that's all of us, actually), Forbes is a joy to watch. That woman was born to play the role of smug, sybaritic seductress, sighing happily over her lush spread of fruits and pastries and fresh coffee, then rolling up a gargantuan spliff to share with Tara. Whether she's charming the otherwise surly crowd at Merlotte's into dancing and carousing like a Dionysian trollop or wandering through her lavish grounds in a delighted haze of self-satisfaction, Maryann represents a complete surrender to carnal desire. Of course, without any boundaries or rules or structure to guide the proceedings, Maryann's pleasure dome is sure to devolve into chaos, and there's not much doubt that, given her glowering looks and habit of hanging out with enormous pigs, Maryann represents chaotic evil, and not chaotic good.
So let's pretend we're Dungeons and Dragons geeks for a minute and figure this out: If Maryann is chaotic evil, then Bill is lawful neutral (highly honorable but prone to good or evil behaviors depending on the circumstances), Eric could be characterized as lawful evil (morally corrupt but at least beholden to higher laws), the Christians might be thought of as lawful good (although their rules of kindness and charity are often twisted to enact vengeance against sinners, made reprehensible by their habit of having way more fun), Sookie is chaotic good (confidently breaks the rules based on her own pure-hearted but sometimes misguided instincts), LaFayette, like any scrappy, self-serving survivor, is chaotic neutral, and Jason can only be summed up as highly suggestible.
But the more we try to package and label these characters in order to understand them better, the more they slip out of our grasp. What do we really mean by "good," and what good is a good that's used to justify an evil? What honor is there in respecting laws that were created by inherently corrupt, self-serving individuals who, through cultural reproduction, aim (consciously or unconsciously) to maintain the supremacy of an elite few?
Of course, the show's opening credits, a montage of blood and snakes, preachers and pole dancers, rotting creatures and ruby red lips, make it clear that this state of moral confusion and ambiguity is the whole point. "I used to get so mad when people judged vampires just for being different," Sookie tells Bill on another one of their harrowing late-night drives through the swampy hinterlands. "It's like they were judging me, too. I told myself their fear was nothing but small-mindedness, but maybe that's just what I wanted to believe, because the more open my mind gets, the more evil I see."
Bill, looking paler than ever, responds with his usual slightly condescending but patient tone. "Sookie, most of us, vampire or human or otherwise, are capable of both good and evil, often simultaneously." So there you have it: good and evil, at the same time. Civilized and chaotic. Polite inquiries masking a barely containable, savage rage. "Not to be disrespectful, but if I don't get this money, someone is going to die." Hmm. Maybe "True Blood" is a little less cartoonish and over-the-top than it sometimes seems. Or maybe we're too overwhelmed or distracted or disenchanted to recognize the true nature of this cartoonish, over-the-top, morally mixed-up world we're living in.
Heather Havrilesky is Salon's TV critic and author of the rabbit blog. Her book of autobiographical essays, "Disaster Preparedness," is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. You can find more of her columns here.