July 14, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Of all the strange things that have occurred on True Blood (premiering June 10 at 9 p.m.), this has to be the oddest: Former adversaries Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) are sipping cocktails and sharing a love seat like a couple of old besties. Is this a Bon Temps bromance in the making? Not exactly, but with so much in common this season — having both been rejected by Sookie (Anna Paquin) and each facing the threat of true death for having offed American Vampire League spokeswoman Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck) in the season 4 finale — it pays for them to show a united front when meeting with the Man. Here at Authority headquarters (think of it as the White House for vampires, if our nation’s capital were buried underground and teeming with cold-blooded bloodsuckers), Eric and Bill are getting their introduction to Roman (Christopher Meloni), the leader of the vampire nation, who wears expensive suits and plays golf in his free time.

In exchange for keeping their lives, Eric and Bill have agreed to hunt down Russell (Denis O’Hare), season 3’s villain extraordinaire, who now represents a huge threat to the Authority after his escape from concrete confinement. ”It’s a little Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid this year,” explains Skarsgård. ”Out of necessity they start to…I wouldn’t say like each other, but kind of get along. Which is…awkward. But it’s a matter of survival.”

Well, it wouldn’t be another season of HBO’s most watched drama if something weren’t at stake, right? This year, it’s the future of peace-loving, Tru Blood-sipping vampires, who face a growing threat from religious extremists like the Sanguinistas, who believe humans were created by God for one purpose only: to serve as a hearty meal. ”Sanguine is from the Latin word for blood, and I was trying to find a name that sounded like a real movement,” explains creator and executive producer Alan Ball, who found inspiration for this year’s story in the presidential primaries (or at least the scarier parts of them). ”My first instinct about going into religion and politics was from watching Michele Bachmann, who thinks she has a direct line to God. What would happen if she became president? A lot of right-wingers would like to see a theocracy in America. From there we thought, ‘What would a vampire theocracy be and how would you justify it? What kind of impact would it have on humans?”’

So Ball went on the hunt for his supreme leader. As serendipity would have it, on the other side of the country Meloni was finishing up his 12-year run on Law & Order: SVU after negotiations to continue on the procedural didn’t exactly go his way. ”I wasn’t playing games — I told them what I wanted,” explains Meloni of his talks with NBC. ”There was nothing wrong with those people, nothing wrong with that show. But there was something in my heart.” And apparently, it was the desire to don fangs and wield a stake. Despite his peaceful persona, Roman has a mean streak, and he’s fine with resorting to violence to get what he wants. (His tough-on-crime administration likes to shoot liquefied silver into the veins of his vampire victims. Ouch!) That’s not the only torture featured in season 5. Now that Debbie (Brit Morgan) practically blew Tara (Rutina Wesley) to smithereens in the season 4 finale, Sookie has to imagine life without her best friend. (Spoiler alert! Wesley returns for the new season, but we can’t say how…or as what.) ”Tara is like the sister she never had. They grew up together,” explains Paquin. ”Where we pick up is where she was in that moment, in complete and utter panic. She’s already lost a lot of people in life and now she’s feeling helplessness and fear. It’s horrible.”

The other players in town, meanwhile, have their own overwrought problems: Hoyt (Jim Parrack) won’t let up on Jason (Ryan Kwanten) for bagging his babe Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll); Terry (Todd Lowe) encounters some strange demons related to his time fighting in the Iraq war; and Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) continues moping about the absence of her beloved maker, Eric. Perhaps she can commiserate with his hot sister Nora (newcomer Lucy Griffiths), who has a very…unusual reunion with her brother. And Alcide — whose hunky alter ego, Joe Manganiello, used the hiatus to play a stripper named Big D— Richie in Magic Mike — may finally have a chance to get his paws on the now-single Sookie. Says the actor, ”Let me just say that all of the preparation I did for Magic Mike will help for this season of True Blood.”

Does Alan Ball have the best job in TV or what? Still, the showrunner made a jaw-dropping declaration this past February: Should HBO order a sixth season of the drama (which is all but assured, barring a real-life vampire apocalypse), True Blood scribe Mark Hudis will take over as head writer so Ball can develop new shows for the network. (HBO, like Entertainment Weekly, is owned by Time Warner.) The news didn’t exactly come as a surprise to the cast — there were rumblings of it last year — but it’s been a bit of a bummer nonetheless. ”Without question, he’s the grand master,” says Moyer. ”He’s like the wizard behind the curtain.” Explaining his decision, Ball says, ”There are other things I want to do, and working at this pace after so many months has caught up to me.” He’s quick to assure that viewers will barely notice a ripple in the Bon Temps continuum: ”I feel like the show runs very smoothly and the other writers are on top of their game. So it won’t be much of a change.”

At least news of his departure was tempered by word of an exciting new arrival: Paquin and Moyer, who married in 2010, are expecting their first baby in the fall. Mindful of their True Blood family, Moyer says the pregnancy was timed so as not to affect production on a sixth season, which would likely begin in November. That also means there are no plans to take a huge leap from the Charlaine Harris novels and have Sookie show up pregnant. But one thing that is sure to change sooner rather than later: the détente between Bill and Eric. ”It’s always been this way,” sighs Moyer, who says he’s enjoyed playing nice with SkarsgÅrd’s Eric. ”If I’m having a really good time with someone, I know there’s going to be fallout.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sookie, Bill, Eric, Lafayette, Sam and the other residents Bon Temps deal with vampires, werewolves, fairies, and shape-shifters—not to mention romance and drama
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