The seventh and final season of HBO’s vampire drama “True Blood,” which premiered on Sunday, has the usual quotient of flesh-ripping and fountaining blood, as I suppose befits its subject matter. But it also featured something else rather refreshing: an extended conversation.
After a nasty attack by diseased vampires on the town of Bon Temps, Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll), who was turned into a vampire when she was 17, volunteered to guard Adilyn Bellefleur (Bailey Noble), the daughter of the local sheriff. Adilyn is a halfling, the product of a liaison between a human and a faerie, and as a result, her blood is particularly alluring to vampires. For that reason, Jessica needs to guard her from afar, rather than taking up residence inside her house.
It is awfully boring for these two young women to sit there — Adilyn in the house, Jessica on the porch — waiting for something bad to happen, and after a while, Adilyn opens a window so that she and Jessica can chat. They are both magical creatures, and Jessica has had life experiences, including living with a man and exposure to extreme violence, that Adilyn has not yet encountered. But for all their differences, they are both teenage girls, and in the summer night air, they begin chatting about their lives and loves, drawn into rapturous descriptions of Jessica’s boyfriend and Adilyn’s crush.
It is the most human scene in the episode, and for all the tsuris around the main characters, the most interesting. HBO and other cable networks have more latitude to show unobscured sex and extreme violence than their broadcast counterparts, and they have made full use of it in recent years. As bared breasts and disembowlings become routine, though, the most emotionally engaging thing about these shows has become their willingness to linger on long conversations between their characters.
Take the finale of “Game of Thrones,” which was full of patricides, invasions and enthusiastic embraces of incest. The best parts of the episode were two conversations that bracketed a tremendously choreographed sword fight.
The first discussion involved Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), who stumbled into one of her quarries, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), the daughter of the late Cat and Ned Stark (Michelle Fairley and Sean Bean). The grown woman and the little girl are both bearing swords and recognize each other as similarly out of place. “Who taught you how to fight?” Arya wants to know of Brienne. “My father,” Brienne tells her. “Mine never wanted to,” Arya says wistfully. “Said fighting was for boys.”
It is conversation that interrupts their growing rapport before it is wrecked by violence. Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) recognizes that Brienne is carrying a sword given her by the Lannisters, among Arya’s sworn enemies. “There’s no safety,” he tells Brienne, exposing her promises to Arya as a lie. “You don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her.”
After a vicious clash between the two contenders for the role of Arya’s protector, as Sandor lies dying, talk is all he has left. He tries to goad Arya into killing him, confessing to killing her friend, insisting that he should have raped her sister so “at least I’d have one happy memory. Do I have to beg you? Do it. Do it. Just do it.” Their conversation, and Arya’s refusal to give Sandor mercy, are as brutal as the actual clash between the two renegade, adult fighters.
There are plenty of other examples. “Orange Is the New Black,” the Netflix women’s prison drama that has become a cultural phenomenon, has plenty of activity. Because its characters are confined to prison, though, they have less mobility than their free-world counterparts, and so much of what they do is talk, whether it is in the kitchen, the shower line or across tables in the visitors’ room.
The subjects are often trivial, but that does not mean that words do not have weight. The stories one inmate spins about her wedding are a way she anesthetizes herself against the truth: that she is a stalker whose object of obsession does not love her back. A conversation between a journalist and a radio host fractures the relationships an inmate has built with the women incarcerated with her. A shtick two inmates develop to satirize upper-class white women gives them an elliptical language they can use to repair their relationship after their worst fight.
I can think of any number of other, less talky-by-design shows where conversations still sparkle. “Sons of Anarchy” is defined by creator Kurt Sutter’s sadistic creativity, but my favorite part of the biker drama is the discussions between gang queen Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) and her friend Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie). “Scandal” spices up whenever Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) sits down for dinner with her menacing father (Joe Morton). “True Detective” broke out on the strength of its cops’ conversations in their beat-up car.
Talk may be counted as cheap. But in a television environment where sex and violence have often been treated like the most valuable commodities, it is a well-written, beautifully acted conversation that can turn a mediocre episode into a great one.