Orr: What. The. Hell. Since when did the whole world go Game of Thrones?
I did not remotely see this coming. I mean, Ray is dead, right? He has no direwolf to warg into, and despite her hippy-dippy upbringing I’ve seen no evidence that Ani is a Red Priestess. What a stunner.
Still, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. I find myself imagining the alternative televisual universe in which Hawkeye Pierce stepped on a landmine in the second episode of M*A*S*H* and Sam Malone was fatally stabbed in a bar fight in the season one finale of Cheers. Enough already.
Not that the signs haven’t been there. In the season opener Ray explained—perhaps unwisely—that he “welcomed judgment.” It just came a lot faster than anyone anticipated. It’s noteworthy, though, that this episode confirmed what the first suggested: that Ray did indeed use the information provided by Frank to find and kill the man who raped his wife, all those many years ago.
There was also of course the scene at the bar, right before that last one, in which Ray basically told Frank he considered suicide a viable option, and then informed the Mysteriously Scarred Waitress that “I think the only way I get to take a vacation is if I croak.” (Why did you have to tell him to take a vacation, Mysteriously Scarred Waitress? Why?) Finally, when Ray entered the apartment, there was Caspere’s radio itself playing Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” as if it was talking directly to him.
That final scene offered an immense jolt to an episode that I otherwise found modestly disappointing relative to the season premiere. Let’s start at the beginning, with Frank in bed with his wife, Jordan, discussing water stains on the ceiling and childhood entombments. I don’t know about you guys, but I found this whole bit slack and familiar. Maybe there was a two-minute scene in there, but five? Maybe a more charismatic actor could have pulled off that lengthy monologue. But Vince Vaughn is no Robert Shaw, and his childhood basement is no U.S.S. Indianapolis.
On top of everything else, I didn’t think the monologue’s central metaphor—comparing the decaying ceiling to imprisonment in the dark—even made sense. I mean, if that basement was “paper maché,” six-year-old Frank could’ve just clawed his way out, right? That said, the fade from the water marks to the burned-out eye sockets of Ben Caspere was pretty striking.
The next set of scenes, in which Paul, Ani, and Ray all got their marching orders—both overt and covert—was handled pretty nicely. Theoretically, Ani and Paul are on one side, trying to gather information for the state’s investigation of Vinci, and Ray’s on the other, trying to obstruct them on behalf of the mayor and police chief. Dramatically, though, the show seemed more interested in pairing Ani and Ray, with Paul inhabiting a separate universe all his own. (More on this in a moment.)
Better still was the subsequent scene between Ray and Frank, in which it was made clear that despite all the law enforcement attention on the case—state investigators, Ventura county, Vinci PD—the only person who is principally interested in actually solving Caspere’s murder is the gangster whose money he stole. The scene also included one of my favorite exchanges of the series to date. Frank asks Ray, “Who’s your best informant?” and Ray replies, “You serious?”—as in, I’m looking at him right now, big guy.
Which brings us to Paul’s mom, Oedipal nightmare that she is. Ani may have the guru dad and the mom’s suicide; Ray has the murder of his wife’s rapist (who was almost certainly also the father of “his” son); and, as the two of them discuss in the car, they both have their share of “bad habits.” But Paul? I can barely keep track of the Dark Secrets he’s accumulating. Let’s see: super-creepy mom, prone to inappropriate touching and harping on about what a sex god he is; some traumatic experience that he suffered while working as a mercenary for Black Mountain Security (“I don’t talk about what happened in the desert”); and extensive, as-yet-unexplained scars that pre-date his military service. Finally, is it just me, or did the show go out of its way to highlight his “dynamite anecdote”—not his words—about the “fag” at the bank hitting on him? Is it a coincidence that after his girlfriend threw him out, he was standing on his balcony watching a car drop off what I assume was a male prostitute? I mean, how many more issues can the show saddle the poor guy with?
We got to watch Ani and Ray take two car rides together, one of the closest narrative echoes we’ve had yet of Rust and Marty last season. The dialogue was better the second time around (“The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one can kill the other with their bare hands”) than it was the first (“I felt like I was smoking me ... Maybe a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick”), but in neither case did it seem like Peak Pizzolatto. However he intends to throw the (remaining) characters together, I think he can do better.
Ray’s biggest scene—prior to the final one—was the confrontation with his ex-wife, in which she informed him she was planning to sue for sole custody of the kid. Colin Farrell did great work here, alternating between rage (“I will burn this fucking city to the ground first”) and anguish. Farrell’s outward sloping eyebrows have always been among the saddest in cinema, humanizing his otherwise matinee-idol looks. But now I’m just going to upset myself again. (Why Mysteriously Scarred Waitress? Why?)
A few last thoughts before I hand this off to you guys. First, I loved the Caspere’s creepy, ascot-wearing psychiatrist, Dr. Pitlor, who—oh, my god! It was only in looking up his name this very minute that I discovered he’s played by defining early 1980s pop cheeseball Rick Springfield (né, I also just learned, Richard Lewis Springthorpe). What a wildly unexpected third act. Ric Ocasek, I could’ve envisioned. But this? Never. One can just imagine his diagnoses: “You suffer from underlying attachment disorder, compounded by misallocated narcissistic desire. You think that you want Jesse’s girl, but in fact you yearn for yourself.” (Yeah, I went there. Sue me.)
What I was going to write before I went entirely off the rails because Rick Springfield(!!!), was that I love the way Dr. Pitlor and, to an even greater degree Mayor Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster) brought a powerful dose of Lynchian weirdness to this episode. Perverse? Unquestionably. Depraved? Quite possibly. But while the show’s principals are wearing their troubles like hair shirts, these performers are at least having some Grand Guignol fun with their roles (as Matthew McConaughey did on occasion last season). Last week, Sophie, you noted the essential ridiculousness of the show. Pitlor and Chessani are two characters who are actively embracing it. I particularly love the giant can-cups from which the latter drinks whatever it is he drinks. And he visibly relished uttering every syllable of the episode’s best line: “Innuendo is nobody’s friend.”
Two final observations: First, it’s hard to imagine that two references to Guerneville in ten minutes can be a coincidence. The hamlet on the Russian River in Sonoma is mentioned both as where Ani’s dad’s old commune, the Good People, was located in the 1970s; and later, as the location from which episode one’s missing woman, Vera (who’d mentioned working a “club circuit” in Sonoma), called her roommate to ask if anyone was looking for her. Those facts are either connected or they make up a whale of a red herring. Second, having that gloomy alt-rock singer (Lera Lynn) appear in the bar last episode to sing “This is my least favorite life” was one thing; bringing her back for a return engagement tonight was overkill. If she becomes a regular feature of the show, I’m going to be extremely disappointed. This is supposed to be True Detective, not Ally McBeal.
What did you think, Spencer? Is a Rick Springfield revival sorely overdue? What additional tragic backstories can be attached to Paul’s character? And is Ray really dead? Or is Pizzolatto just JonSnowing us?
Kornhaber: He’d better be dead. Not just because Velcoro surviving two short-range shotgun blasts would turn True Detective into a work of fantasy or sci-fi. Nor just because it would be nice and daring for this young show to nix the star actor who’s gotten the most screen time so far. Nor just because the end of “Night Finds You” made for one of the most terrifying TV viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and I’d hate to see it undermined as a cheap suspense stunt.
The real reason: Velcoro deserves to die. Because by now it’s clear that our mustachioed city cop’s obsession with being a manly protector-warrior is really a fatal flaw. When he counsels “head up, strong,” to his son in the first scene of the season, he’s really talking about ugly, pointless violence: brass knuckles to a defenseless dad, humiliation for his “fat pussy” kid, and murder for his wife’s rapist. The notion that his lethal vengeance was justified “by any natural law” amounts to a sick joke, one in which an abstract honor code matters more than actual human lives—“Don’t you dare say you did that for me,” his wife cries. The punchline is that playing the big strong man has cost Velcoro all his traditional dude cred: his wife, his worth as a cop, and maybe even his son. He’s no protector; he’s a temperamental loser holding a bag of Legos outside a Buffalo Wild Wings.
Accordingly, Farrell’s performance and Pizzolatto’s writing have rendered Velcoro as beautifully repulsive: tense, volcanic, often hyperventilating like Ron Burgundy in a glass case of emotion. He speaks in juvenile terms—“Ass-pan”—that betray a mindset of sexual panic, in which phallic e-cigs and getting pantsed in front of the cheerleading squad are the scariest things imaginable. His possibly final act on Earth is a typically macho-stupid one, entering a murder victim’s kink lair in the dead of night and without backup. Bang bang. One character type over-glorified by crime fiction and most of human history, down.
Might the rest of True Detective feature the avian grim reaper visiting various other would-be hardboiled heroes? If so, the next victim might be Woodrugh, a delightfully dour reframing of the “strong, silent type” as repression incarnate. Chris, you’ve noted the layers of problems this guy has; my hope is that it all amounts to an intentionally outrageous time-bomb scheme. Load him up with every dark secret and sexual hang-up imaginable and then have him insist, as he did in this episode, “Nothing’s wrong with me.” It’s the cover-up, not the crime, that’ll do him in. If he’s gay, he’s better off befriending those handholding angel-hunks than he is slinging hate speech and beating up bank tellers. If he’s impotent, that’s no worse than walking out on someone who loves him. If he’s the victim of abuse from his mother, then, well, maybe he should stop hand-delivering her fried chicken (especially—talk about denial—if she’s not going to eat the skin!).
Frank’s manly vice is ambition as a vain hedge against mortality, as he readily admits. Vince Vaughn can’t sell the bizarre lines that Pizzolatto writes for him (The Week’s Scott Meslow pegged them as “bebop gangster jargon”), but maybe no one can. What the show did get right in casting and creating this character is that Vaughn—he of big face, shifty eyes, and nasal whine—can embody desperation, false bravado, and status anxiety like few others. I actually liked the basement story he told at the episode’s start, simply because it was so chilling. But you’re right, Chris, that the larger metaphor of paper maché and water stains was nonsense. Maybe it’s meant to be nonsense, akin to when Ani’s father called Athena the goddess of love. Frank’s out of his depth, and his flowery language and angry outbursts only betray him. Never let them see you hungry? He’s told basically everyone he’s come across that he’s starving for an Old Californio legacy, both in terms of wealth and children.
Ani’s creepy quirks result from a woman trying to live in a world ruled by screwed-up men of the types described above. Or maybe she just has a traditionally masculine flaw of her own. Call it hypocritical hardness: She armors herself with knives and freezes out everyone around her, only to let loose off-duty with alcohol and gambling and—horror of horrors—some probably-not-just-for-work examinations of Internet porn. Whatever’s going on with her, she’s my favorite of the major characters for how she cuts through the BS, as much with McAdams’s jaded squinting as with her words. Her verdict on Caspere’s house was terse and true: “The guy really thought about fucking a lot.” And her reply to the therapist’s comment about “social theory” had me jotting down “AWESOME!” in my notes:
“Five kids living there growing up. Two in jail. Two committed suicide. How's that for social theory?”
“And the fifth?”
“She became a detective.”
(Though, hmm—as we saw in the premiere, her sister’s not in jail or dead. Maybe she wasn’t raised with the Good People. Or maybe, just maybe, we can’t trust everything the characters say … )
I know it sounds like I’m already going off the deep end with this season, reading a subversive allegory into what’ll probably just be a well-shot retread. But, hey—you can’t help but start theorizing about a show that requires you to pause and rewind every few frames in order to follow the story. Before Birdman showed up, the episode was an hour-long exposition dump, too talky and dense with proper names to follow in real time. I’m actually fine with that: In this age of TV, a lot of viewers are looking for something to obsess over, so long as it’s fascinating. Obviously, what’s grabbed me so far are the characters more than the mystery.
Maybe you, Sophie, would be able to piece together where we’re at with the Caspere crime? Or—speaking of blasting apart symbols of masculinity—should we just avoid talking about him so that we never have to revisit a certain horrifying image from the autopsy sequence?
Gilbert: Birdman! On first watch of this episode, I started hoping that this season’s freaky-deaky sex cult was going to be ornithological in nature, thanks to the bird head on the seat next to Caspere that you noted last week, Chris, and the smaller version (maybe the handle on an umbrella) that was visible in the final scene right before Ray went to turn down the music. But on second glance, there were four animal heads hanging on the wall in Caspere’s Hollywood hooker palace (as well as a swing, which was the second sex swing I’ve seen in pop culture this week, thanks Magic Mike XXL) and one appeared to be missing. Quite why the shooter decided to wear it if he knew he was going to off Ray is anyone’s guess, but the house appeared to be wired for all kinds of things as well as insulated for sound, so maybe he didn’t want the footage showing up on TMZ.
But really, though, having the main character shot point black in the chest by a person wearing a giant eagle head when we’re all just two episodes in? Time better be a flat circle.
Count me among those who liked the opening Vince Vaughn monologue this week, even though I agree with you, Chris, that paper maché was a poor choice of analogy. Why not drywall? Or darkness? Or a handful of pulpy rat corpse? What on earth could be made of paper maché in Frank’s glass-walled mansion? The story implies that his childhood was a terrifying, neglected, traumatic one, not the kind that makes you think of forming piñatas out of paste and torn up newspapers. That said, Wikipedia tells me that paper maché is also often used to make masks, so maybe there’s a link between Frank’s achingly terrible story and Birdman after all: hopefully a creepy-ass California crafts circle.
The metaphor, though, was glaring: As a child, Frank was terrified that he was being eaten alive by predators, and now, as an adult, he feels exactly the same way. From what I could gather from the many, many complex scenes of exposition, Caspere, Frank’s business partner, told him that the land Frank wanted to buy ahead of the redevelopment project in Vinci was $10 million, took $5 million of his cash, and is now dead. The money is gone, and Frank has nothing to show for it, apart from the knowledge that the land only cost $7 million, so Caspere was presumably bilking him. Frank’s houses and the poker room are double mortgaged, and the odious, odious mayor of Vinci (so cartoonishly evil that he wouldn’t be out of place in a Frank Miller strip) made sure to let him know that vultures are circling to take over the club unless he keeps upping the mayor’s kickback. What to do? If you’re a local crime lord, presumably, the answer is let off some steam by threatening a guy on the street who’s just been pepper-sprayed and beaten by your associates.
So we have Ray, shot in the chest by a bird. Frank, nibbled at by rats, and not quite sure whether he’s alive or stuck in the world’s grimmest virtual-reality experience. Caspere, whose genitals were cut off and eyes burned out with hydrochloric acid. Paul, picking the breading off chicken for his Jocasta. And Ani, looking at escorts and porn online, and apparently the only person in the Vinci vicinity who’s remotely interested in solving the case. (Did anyone else suddenly feel like they were watching The Wire when the motley crew assembled in what appeared to be an old aircraft hangar, and an old surly drunk immediately asked if he could take the rest of the day off? Also: The state official was Brianna Barksdale!)
On the one hand, there’s a fun irony in Frank being the only person with the instincts and the contacts to actually investigate the murder. But it also underscores Ray’s fundamental uselessness and lack of motivation as a character leading up to the final scene. Without his son to care about, he’s just a cop who’s really, really bad at his job. His final interaction with Frank at Los Angeles County’s most depressing bar seemed to imply that he was considering ending it all. “The reasons for all this, all that, might not exist for me anymore,” he said. “Everybody’s got the one option if you want it bad enough.” Frank’s response was to sling a couple of hundreds on the table and tell him to pull it together, but the fact that Ray left the cash behind states that he’s got not much left to care about, least of all money. Where else could things go for him? Maybe his lonely trip inside the Hollywood house was part of an extended deathwish—one that unfortunately might have come true earlier than we could have predicted.
Like you Chris, I loved the surreal vibe throughout the episode, and found it way more engaging than the dialogue, which veered between stilted and Deepak Chopra. “There are all kinds of secrets in the world,” said Rick Springfield. “All kinds of truth.” Later, Ray tried to persuade Ani to be less blunt by telling her that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. “The fuck I want with a bunch of flies?” she asked. “You don’t have flies, you can’t go fly fishing,” replied Ray. HBO: You are premium cable. You can do better than this. You’ve assembled a fine team of actors and they deserve better lines than, “I’m a piece of shit, but that boy is all I have in my shitty life.”
What could possibly happen next week? I have no idea, so here instead are some of my favorite lines from “Night Finds You,” without context.
“You pull off that e-cig. I tried one once, felt like it was smoking me.”
“I’m waiting for this Velcoro burnout to make like Rockford?”
“A good beating promotes personal growth.”
“Just so you know, I support feminism. Mostly by having body-image issues.”
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