Premiering in 2008, True Blood is probably best described as an urban fantasy/horror soap opera set in Louisiana. In the series, vampires have come out of the coffin (yes, there are a lot of parallels to queer experiences). Synthetic blood, known as Tru Blood, allows vampires not to rely on feeding on humans, which of course even millennia-old vampires are fine with. They're like, "Sure, yeah. I don't need human blood anymore. This synthetic ish is the tits!"
Just kidding! The point of the whole series is that though Tru Blood allows vamps out of the closet, that doesn't mean they've all taken on a vegetarian lifestyle. And little do humans know that vampires are just the tip of the supernatural iceberg. Werewolves! Faeries! Shapeshifters! Gods! Mediums! Witches! Oh my.
The series, an adaptation of The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, centers on Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). Sookie has lived in the small town of Bon Temps her whole life and despite being a total babe, she just can't seem to keep a man. It might sound weird to bring that up, but it's kind of the inciting incident of the whole series. Sookie can hear others' thoughts and, as all-gender minorities can imagine, hearing men's thoughts is… horrifying. Sookie finds herself attracted to a strange man whose thoughts she cannot hear and finds out — gasp! — he's a vam-pyre.
As soon as Vampire Bill, as folks in Bon Temps call him, makes googly eyes at Sookie in the bar where Sookie and Tara (Rutina Wesley) work, Tara realizes she has to help her friend come to her senses. Spoiler: it doesn't work. However, Tara spends a large part of the series trying to help Sookie not only deal with the vampires, but get away from them when they start getting murder-y and, frankly, white supremacist AF. (Season 4 is just so weird.)
As a queer Black woman portrayed by a queer Black woman, Tara — and by extension Wesley — carries so many representational banners both within the series and in fandom. She gets to be powerful, self-assured, and unforgettable. At the same time, she survives childhood abuse, being possessed by a god and forced to eat human organs, the murder of her boyfriend, being kidnapped and raped repeatedly, her own death, becoming a vampire, living among vampires, being held in an internment camp, and the rising of a demon queen. All on screen.
Tara goes through hell and manages to do so while being unapologetically herself. She tells people what's on her mind — including calling Bill out on his family owning slaves. She is comfortable with her sexuality — loving men and women is just part of who she is. She fights for the people she loves — even when it kills her. Twice.
It can be difficult to watch many of Tara's storylines on True Blood. Time and again she is treated as if she is disposable, as if she is there to make Sookie's life better. (And, of course, she is! She was created to be the sassy Black sidekick who speaks her mind and helps keep Sookie in line.) Time and again, Tara rises to the occasion in impossible situation after impossible situation, becoming heroic in her ability to endure suffering — first metaphorically and then literally.
While there's something to celebrate in Tara's resilience, as a white person I've had to become aware that it's still an issue that she has to be so damn resilient in the first place. "It is not the job of Black women to fix problems they had no hand in creating," writes Jenn M. Jackson in Teen Vogue. "And they certainly don't exist at the leisure of community outsiders looking to exploit them for labor and expertise."
Yet, that is how Tara is treated in True Blood. She saves Sookie, she helps Pam, she carries the burdens of all the people around her who don't have half the savvy and self-awareness she does.
No character on True Blood suffers through more brutality and dehumanization than Tara Thornton — and no character deserves to be celebrated more for her survival, her strength, and her self-determination in the face of fate. Ultimately, it's not what anyone decides about Tara or forces Tara to become that defines her. She defines herself, eventually learning to enjoy being a vampire and even falling in love with her maker. (I ship it.)
And, though Tara's death at the beginning of Season 7 is devastating, and a frustrating recurrence of the Bury Your Gays trope, that's not how we remember her. We remember Tara as the heart and soul of a series that often wanders into the unrelatable. We remember her as a fierce friend, a compassionate lover, and an infinitely hopeful survivor. We remember the way she smiles at Eggs, how damn sexy she looks as a cage fighter, the way she makes vampires look even cooler, and the passionate way she kisses Pam. We remember her as a powerful Black queer woman who is so much more than Sookie's sidekick.