Image copyright: HBO
Night time. A man stands in front of a window, listening to the thundering rain outside. He slowly opens his shirt and gazes outside, until he notices another presence in the room behind him. "You found me," Eric says, with no surprise. He walks over from the window to Jason, makes him a drink, listens impassively to the other man's pleas for understanding. "I can't get you out of my head," Jason sighs. After a physical struggle, they end up on the soft white linen of a four-poster bed; they kiss. Eric moves his mouth to Jason's neck, his chest, and down his body while heavy breathing fills the candle-lit room...
Two male characters in a love scene together - pretty ballsy (forgive me for the pun, and the bad romance novel writing) for a mainstream network TV show, right? Sure, you could say that, until the moment where Jason woke and it turned out to be 'just a dream' - phew! Cue 'comedy' worried look from Jason Stackhouse, slumped over in Church, oops. Roll opening credits!
This was the start of last night's True Blood, episode two of the latest (and last) season of the hit TV show about vampires being 'out' in the modern American South, living among werewolves, witches, fairies, and shape shifters and fighting against ignorance and fear from their often bigoted human neighbours. The Bon Temps township includes people of a variety of races, sexualities, and religions along with the range of supernatural species. The characters get naked together, commit gory violence against each other, and perform sex scenes that get pretty explicit by regular TV standards (it's a HBO show, after all). Until you get to the gay men of the show. They've got in on the violence, sure, but the sex stuff? Not really. Unless it's a dream sequence, and the audience are encouraged to laugh when it finishes, either in surprise it happened or relief it stopped, I'm not quite sure.
The latest 'two of the male characters look like they might have sex - oh, it's not really happening! Fooled you!' gay-tease dream sequence felt tedious, it being the fourth example in the show's run so far. There was the much-talked-about season three opener with 'shifter Sam Merlotte and vampire Bill Compton almost taking a shower together, before the dreaming Sam woke up, alone in bed: still straight. There was season six, where Jason almost ended up in a human + vampire/fae/Shaun from East Enders clinch with Ben Flynn, before waking up, sweaty and panicked. Hoyt Fortenberry also showed up in another of Jason's sex dreams (Jason sleeps a lot, by the way).
'Queer baiting' - a taste of equal representation for LGBTQ viewers, that stops before the straight audience gets too uncomfortable - is what this is called in increasingly annoyed viewer circles. In True Blood terms, it's the disparity between the numerous scenes of Jason shown having sex with interchangeable female characters, stacked against the chaste relationships Lafayette Reynolds is given. It's seeing Sookie Stackhouse making time with every supernatural species in Bon Temps, while Lafayette ...doesn't. And it's a tactic being employed in a crop of current genre shows - Penny Dreadful introduced its version of Dorian Gray with a multi-gender mass-orgy, swiftly followed by a bloody hook-up with a consumptive prostitute (otherwise known as Billie-Piper-doing-a-terrible-Irish-accent) filmed in lurid and exhaustive detail. When Dorian seduced the wolfish Ethan Chandler, however, there was a brief kiss, some shirts removed and - bang - a hasty cut to the closing credits before it went any further. No one woke up from a dream at least, so we were getting somewhere, I suppose.
Game of Thrones has also previously got in on the action with a lame attempt to lure a Queer audience. This series, with seven breasts and at least one bared female groin per episode (approx. I don't have an exact number to hand), had Loras Tyrell tamely shaving his paramour Renly Baratheon, some off-camera oral sex noises, and a bit of fully-clothed rolling around on a bed a season later. Slim pickings, indeed. Had Renly not been murdered by a shadow-monster shortly after, I can guess the story would have involved a lot of female nudity, somehow, and not a hint of Loras/Renly unclothedness.
Not that sci-fi and horror is completely prudish about gay sexuality or LGBTQ people - genre shows and movies have always been an ideal space for exploring societal changes going on in the real world, with physical difference being used to symbolise and stand in for any marginalised group of people. But isn't it time to go beyond all the careful metaphor and supernatural special effects to signpost gayness? Back in Bon Temps, will Jason be allowed to finish any of his dreams this season, and will the rumours of Lafayette finally getting a love scene come to fruition? It remains to be seen over the coming weeks, but one thing is for sure - queer baiting is getting very old, very quickly with a section of us here in the audience, and it might take more than bait to keep us hooked in the future.