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True Blood and Virtue Ethics
In the sleepy town of Bon Temp a man moved back into town after having left a number of years before. This man is no ordinary man; he is a vampire and the first one to make himself known in the small community. This is the beginning stage in which the True Blood television series takes place. True Blood is the story of Sookie Stackhouse and her on-again-off-again vampire boyfriend Bill Compton. Bill is of the living undead and has been for over a hundred years, but he is not like any other vampire. In this paper, I will show that Bill Compton is a virtuous man.
The virtuous man is a term from Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Aristotle’s virtue ethics are ethics based upon the personality of the person rather than the consequences of his actions or the rules of his society to determine the correctness of his actions. In virtue ethics, the virtuous man is one who acts in the middle of the ethical road (“the mean”) in all situations; so, for example, the virtue of courage is the mean between cowardice and being foolhardy. As a virtuous man, he always acts in a way that is the mean of the extremes of possible actions. Throughout the television series to date he has made it a point to always act within the mean of virtue when proposed with a situation. This has puts him at odds with some within the human community who see him as a devil made flesh, as well as with the vampiric community, who also sees him as an oddity who does not follow the normative morals of the vampire community. The vampire community in True Blood is an insular society that utilizes a feudalistic system of government which prizes social conformity, obedience to older vampires, and stresses a sense of duty. There are a number of characters that at times even look down on him for his virtue, but Bill has made a point to not live his life by the standards of the community in which he lives.
Living outside of the norm for his nature and from the community of vampires is what sets him apart from the rest of the vampire community and from the humans that he very much wants to be close to. In the world of True Blood there is an international organization of vampires whom have existed for time unknown but they have just recently come into the spotlight as they have “come out of the coffin”. This euphemism describes the moment when the whole of the vampiric community made itself public concurrently with the drink “Tru Blood” coming to the market. “Tru Blood” is a beverage that is a synthetic form of blood. “Tru Blood” allows a vampire to never have to feed from a living host again. This drink is what Bill subsists off of, as he is then no longer required to hunt humans.
This drink has allowed the vampire community to reveal themselves. Since their grand reveal, the vampiric community has taken to political action. The apparent goal of their political activism is to insert themselves as a minority community within government structures. This community though does not want to take on the ethics of the humans, who they look and act like. Instead of taking on the values of the culture, they are instead creating new values based on their previous internal culture. They make use of only their own justice system with regards to inter-vampiric disputes, and they actively follow no authority other then the structure of the community from which they came. This is what makes Bill so interesting and such a special case. While he submits to the right of rule from the vampiric community, he lives his unlife according to his own ethical choices rather than by the community standards. This quality is what appears to attract Sookie to him.
One of the first initial clues that Bill pursues Aristotelian virtue is how he presents himself. While other vampires such as Erik or Pam try to present themselves as modern alive humans, Bill does not follow this trend. Rather than taking the styles of the modern era he presents himself reminiscently of the days when he was alive. While he dresses very simply and conservatively, the way he talks and carries himself is that of the refined southern gentleman. He also uses an older form of English from the Civil War era, in which he used to live, and practices some of that time’s social conventions, such as calling upon a woman to court her. This may be because of his relative youth as a vampire, being only 150 years old, but what he symbolizes on the screen is that he is not alive and from the past. One could almost say that the character of Bill Compton is the virtue of means between the living and the dead. There is no virtue in his mere existence, but he avoids the extremes of other vampires, who try to look very dead and ancient or who try to appear modern and living. He is a balance between the two. While this is not a virtue, it is indicative of his ethical approach.
In the first two seasons he faces a number of ethically ambiguous choices with his protection of Sookie, the first of which is his how he deals with the Rattrays. The Rattrays are a pair of immoral and drug addicted delinquent outcasts. In the opening episode, we see that they are trying to draw blood from Bill. Vampire blood is a very powerful drug. Sookie saves Bill and this is the start of a relationship. In the second episode, we see that they have returned to gain vengeance on Sookie, and this time Bill saves her. We have seen that they have now struck twice, both times for the sake of personal gain. Bill acts courageously according to the mean by how he deals with them. As a virtuous man, he does not act as a coward and refrain from taking justice on them. This also does not mean that he is foolhardy. All that the human police find is the appearance that a tornado swept away their trailer and that they died of natural causes. Bill had used his vampiric powers to kill the pair while making it appear as a freak natural occurrence. This is his form of the virtuous mean; he did not act rashly by punishing them for what could have been a one-time occurrence instead he waits until they act foolishly in attacking an innocent person. He uses rational thought to think through the consequences and finds the most reasonable way for them to be dealt with. While murder is considered bad within the human community within a vampire community it is a common occurrence, which is why Bill only kills people as a response to their extreme actions.
The second time that we see him kill a person is again in the protection of Sookie. In the episode, it is revealed that Sookie has sexual anxiety because when she was young her uncle had molested her. When Bill finds out that no action was ever taken against her uncle, he yet again takes matters into his own hands to see that justice is finally served. Yet again, when Bill kills Sookie's uncle he does so in a manner to make it look like an accidental occurrence to all authorities. From his actions we can see that he has a great sense of loyalty towards Sookie. He does what is necessary to protect her from those who would try to do her harm. This shows that he has a great sense of loyalty. This loyalty though does not edge on being non-virtuous. In his loyalty towards Sookie he is not obsessive nor is he inattentive to her needs. From his loyalty to her and from his actions to protect her, they are able to grow a great sense of trust between them. Bill, while breaking the social conventions of modern governments with vigilante justice, was once more avenging the honor and bodily rights of Sookie. Bill only needed to resort to vigilantism due to the lack of physical evidence as Sookie was never able to get justice when young. He then hid his deeds from the human authorities as they did not deal with her uncle when Sookie was young and because the actions of a vampire would be unwelcome. As well, while Bill’s form of meting out justice may seem harsh to a normal society, it is actually considered quite tame by vampiric standards. Thus, he represents the mean of the two worlds of justice.
As we see that he has virtue with regards to how he treats his girlfriend, we also see he displays virtue in how he acts towards the community in which he is a member, in this case the vampire community. During the course of protecting Sookie, another vampire dies, and it is Bill's responsibility to make another vampire to replace the one that is gone. The vampire that he creates is a young woman named Jessica who lived a very sheltered life. When we see how he treats her, he teaches her many of the key ethics that Aristotle teaches. He teaches her about the weakness of the will. In this regard he tells her that she has a great deal of power but that she must restrain her power through force of will. We see that Bill has great control of this will. Bill only drinks “Tru Blood” rather than the blood of humans, and he teaches Jessica that she should also only drink “Tru Blood.” Jessica though often acts out due to being driven by her emotions. He teaches her that while she should have self-esteem, she should not have the vanity that other vampires display. At the same time, he discourages her whenever she shows a lack of self-esteem. This is another example of the virtue in the mean between self-control and self aggrandizement.
The most apparent virtue that Bill the Vampire shows is his temperance. As previously stated, Erik and Pam like to appear as modern humans. While beautiful, Erik’s and Pam’s appearance shows their indulgent and excessive nature. They wear the finest clothes and they always act in an extreme nature. Whenever they do anything, it always is big. Erik sleeps underneath a nightclub that’s renowned through the state as a place of decadence, and when he is first seen on camera he is surrounded by an entourage and sitting upon a throne. Contrarily, Bill lives in a modest house, wears simple clothes, and usually acts with great restraint. At times he will get angry, but he does not act upon the anger when it is not prudent to do so. When Jessica, Bill’s ward, stays with Erik she starts to take on some of Erik's indulgent nature. This is quickly tempered when Pam delivers Jessica to Bill's house to start teaching Jessica about the willful restraint that he wishes for her to have. This includes how she dresses, how not to lose her temper, and if she does, how to best deal with her emotions without a need for excess or simply running away from the situation.
Through these examples we can see some of the virtues that are most apparent throughout the show. There are other virtues that Bill displays which are subtler such as cunning, caution, prudence, patience, and justice. While some of these virtues seem to be inherent in Bill’s character, some seem to be a fluid mixture of the vampire and the human culture. Unfortunately, though acting as a virtuous man according to Aristotle, his virtues often run contrary to what Sookie would like. Sookie believes that people are generally good even though she has had countless run-ins with terrible people; she has faith in people nonetheless. Due to their difference in ethical beliefs, she has reprimands Bill for doing what he thinks is the right thing. The greatest example of this would be when he killed Sookie’s uncle because of what the uncle had done to her. Sookie was horrified that confiding in Bill of her abuse had led to her uncle’s death. Bill was doing the right thing according to the Aristotelian virtue and acting as the virtuous man which is how Sookie was soon able to come to terms with the passing of her uncle.
- “Pod Life” by Carol Farber
- True Blood: The Complete First Season. Executive Producers Alan Ball. HBO. Sept 7th 2008. DVD. 2009 True Blood: The Complete Second Season. Executive Producers Alan Ball and Gregg Fienberg. HBO. June 14th 2009. DVD. 2010.
- Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Thomson, J., Trans. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004.