Orr: More than a third of the way into this season of True Detective, I’d say that the two best scenes so far were adjacent ones, albeit ones in consecutive episodes: the last scene of episode two—the man in the bird mask appearing out of nowhere, the stunning (apparent) death of a principal character as the radio plays “I Pity the Fool”—and the first scene of tonight’s episode: Ray and his father in the bar, and yet clearly someplace else altogether, someplace otherworldly. “Where is this?” Ray asks. His dad replies, “I don’t know. You were here first.” Is this Ray’s dying vision? Is he a ghost who will watch the season unfold from beyond the grave?
Well, obviously we now know it wasn’t either of those things. And I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. But before I do, I want to spend a little more time on that first scene, which I found utterly mesmerizing. I mentioned an occasional David Lynchian quality to the show last week, but this scene turned the Lynch dial up to eleven. It was more Twin Peaks than Twin Peaks at its Twin Peaksiest. At first I thought the campy crooner was an Elvis impersonator, but then I realized it was a Conway Twitty impersonator—a natural enough mistake given that when he started out, Twitty was a virtual Elvis impersonator himself. (Singer Jake La Botz nailed Twitty’s version of “The Rose” so perfectly that I wondered whether he was lip-synching.)
Meanwhile, the brief exchange between Ray and his dad was so evocative and dense with meaning. Father, like son, was a cop, and one also accustomed to letting his fists do the talking. Ray’s line “my father made me nervous,” was a direct echo of what Ray’s ex told him about his own “son” last episode: “Chad gets anxious when he’s around you.” And in his father’s appraisal “You’re small … You ain’t that fast,” we get a hint of the kind of upbringing that might lead Ray to think it’s okay to call his child a “fat pussy.” In any case, I thought this was the best scene of the season so far. I hope we get more of this surreal, creepy but beautiful vibe in coming episodes.
As for the rest of the episode, count me disappointed. First of all there’s the irritating little bait-and-switch by which Ray turns out not to be dead after all. First off, as a simple matter of physics, Ray would be dead, rubber buckshot or no, from a blast at that range. Those riot loads are meant to be used at a minimum range of 30 feet; that point-blank shot would have perforated Ray like toilet paper, rather than giving him a “couple cracked ribs” and a bad case of pant-wetting. (If he were alive, Jon-Erik Hexum could tell you what firearms do at close range, even without a live load.) If the show intended for Ray to be alive, it could have at least given him a vest.
Second, why would Birdman not kill Ray? These guys—whoever they are—are already rather flamboyant murderers, after all. Maybe a plausible explanation will be offered for this down the road. (The shooter is really Frank, or someone from Vinci PD, who wanted the camera drive but also still wants Ray alive, or something along those lines.) But for the moment this feels like it was done purely for audience shock value.
Which is, of course, the worst part. Two weeks after the murderous Game of Thrones finale, HBO shows us a guy shot at point blank range followed by a closing, credit-sequence dirge (What a wonderful day to lose it all / What a wonderful day to choose to fall), and then the following week says Nope! Rubber bullets! Completely lame. One step short of Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower lame. At least now we know that Jon Snow is definitely coming back.
Okay, I’m done. And truth be told, I would’ve badly missed Colin Farrell if he were well and truly gone. I didn’t love the scene with him and Frank in the bar, but I do like the idea of him drinking water instead of whiskey in order to stay mad. (Not that this has seemed to pose a particular challenge to him so far.)
Following that bravura opening and Ray’s resurrection, tonight’s episode didn’t seem to me to accomplish very much. Frank became the latest (and final) principal character to have sex issues, when he threw his hissy fit at the IVF clinic. We discovered that Mayor Chessani likes pictures of himself and that his family is as depraved and entitled as he is. (Nice exchange, though, between Ani and the trophy wife: “You guys have a party last night?” “No.”) Ani broke up with Steve, confirming the intimacy problem of which we were already aware. We learned that Ray’s dad is an alcoholic, a toker, and a racist, which didn’t add much to what we saw in that first scene. Ani’s boss wants her to seduce Ray. Ray’s boss wants to get Ani fired. Frank is shaking down old colleagues for cash. And somebody named Stan whom I don’t recall meeting is now dead. It all seemed like a lot of passage work that didn’t move the story forward meaningfully.
The Big Reveal, of course, was that Paul had an affair with a man back when he was stationed in Iraq. I assume this was supposed to be a surprise, but as we discussed last week, it already seemed over-determined: Paul needed Viagra to have sex with his girlfriend; he complained about “fags” hitting on him; he has a weird, sexualized relationship with his mom; everyone is constantly talking about his good looks; fellow officers thought it was a funny notion that he’d solicit a blowjob; etc., etc., etc. It was like a checklist of clichés about closeted gay men. I really hope this is not going to be a major storyline.
Two small observations before I get to that final scene with Ray and Ani. Is it just me, or did the obnoxious, pony-tailed director of the “collapse of civilization revenge flick” bear a notable resemblance to season one director Cary Joji Fukunaga? Friendly joke? Secret bad blood? You be the judge. Also, remember that odd bit in episode one when Ray was talking into his recorder about having wanted to be an astronaut? I thought of it again when he was showing Ani his models of fighter jets and the space shuttle. And then it hit me: Of course! His dad was Gus Grissom!
Finally, regarding the chase with Ray and Ani: What is with this criminal conspiracy? Last week, they shot Ray with a couple of non-lethal rounds. This week, they make a point of following Ray and Ani so that they can blow up the getaway car almost directly in front of them. It’s like they want to get caught. Again, maybe some explanation for this will be offered later, but at the moment it seems pretty nonsensical. And what’s with all the fancy masks? Last week it was Birdman; this week, Babyface. Forget questioning prostitutes. If I were trying to break open this case I’d send a patrolman to every costume shop in the greater L.A. area.
What did you think, Spencer? Was Ray’s (fake) death a cheap stunt or a clever reversal? Should they have thrown in a scene of Paul listening to his Barbra Streisand collection? Does drinking tap water make you more or less angry?
Kornhaber: Cheap stunt. But also, a missed opportunity. As I said last week, it would have signaled some bold intentions (and streamlined the story) had True Detective spent two episodes building up the ultimate tough/flawed cop only to kill him for foolhardiness. Nic Pizzolatto and HBO had other ideas, possibly influenced by an affection for bolo ties—fine, fine. But to follow an audience fakeout with dream sequence about daddy issues—seriously? Is this what they’re teaching in MFA programs nowadays—more dream sequences, more daddy issues?
I think we’re meant to suspect that the masked attacker was using buckshot “like a cop” because he was in fact a cop. Lieutenant Kevin Burris of Vinci PD started meddling at the blast zone before Ani could show up; back at headquarters, he asked to make sure Ray hadn’t seen the person who shot him, while also steering the detectives away from looking into Caspere’s land deals. Later, Ray’s dad talks about what a “hard charger” Vinci police chief Holloway was and how he acted with impunity in the old days. It certainly seems possible that one of these guys was digging around Caspere’s kink den, possibly trying to stay ahead of the state investigation, when Velcoro broke in. So they grabbed a mask off the wall, rubber-bulleted their patsy into unconsciousness, and then left with the hard drive.
Just a theory, perhaps the result of more consideration than this show has earned from its audience. Another theory: Might the kitschy strangeness of that Conway Twitty routine signal that, after the grim foundation lain by the first two episodes, this season’s turning toward something more surreal and darkly comic? Imagining that this show is trying to be silly certainly might help me stay invested after tonight’s installment. Even setting aside the visit to a post-apocalyptic movie set, this was an hour seemingly designed to inspire Velcoro-like groans: Frank putting on the second angsty blow-job face of the season; the antics of the mayor’s jive-talking son and literally airheaded wife; Taylor Kitsch lowering his voice and using the word “bro” when hanging out with what seems to be his foxhole ex. I do think it’s possible that we’re living in Ray’s coma hallucination now, in which he gets to save Bezzerides from a truck as a Kabuki goblin taunts the two of them from the other side of the freeway.
Or it’s possible that we’re seeing what happens when this show switches directors mid-season for the first time ever. Justin Lin saw a super-serious procedural in Pizzolatto’s screenplays; Janus Metz Pedersen might see parody. Disagreements would only be fitting: For all we complain about True Detective’s lack of subtlety, it remains an ambiguous work—which is to say, no one really knows WTF they’re supposed to be watching. Are we meant to be dazzled by or to laugh at Frank’s diction when he talks about “stridency” and posits Osip’s decision “as being connected not just to Caspere but prefiguring Caspere, in a causal sense?” (Not to mention his henchman’s ridiculous reply—“he looks half anaconda and half great white.”) Is Pizzolatto trying to write nonsense when Ray replies “I got shot—that’s something” to Ani scolding him for not telling her about the West Hollywood house before entering? There’s obviously a lot of care put into giving each character his or her own way of speaking; Bezzerides, blessedly, doesn’t incorrectly sling SAT words like the dudes around her do. But if the guys are meant to be mockeries of pretension and false sophistication, the joke doesn’t work—no one on Earth talks like Frank, save maybe Pizzolatto.
The one thread of true intrigue on this show so far is about the cops’ ever-tightening web of conflicted interest. I loved how blithely a state official told Ani to hit on Ray; I loved the unhinged way that Mayor Chessani sputtered that he wanted Ani to “walk the plank.” And I was interested if not shocked to see Dixon, who seems totally checked out but is nonetheless listening in on vital discussions about Caspere’s death, trailing Woodrugh. But so far we don’t know how our main characters feel about being manipulated to manipulate their partners; Ani seems like she has enough knives already—what would she even do with a bonus for ratting?
At least Ray seems to be changing a little. The near-death experience made him want to live, maybe. Or it at least made him want to get his dad blazed. His weed delivery gave us a chance to learn that Papa Velcoro worked under the famously militant LA Police Chief Daryl Gates and that he has a remarkable sense of timing when it comes to deciding to throw out his badge. He’d been watching Kirk Douglas’s Detective Story, a 1951 film noir about an abortionist-hunting cop (yikes) who’s eventually devastated to find out that his own wife had an abortion. That plot reminds me of Rich Cohen in Vanity Fair characterizing this season of True Detective as an Oedipus Rex story, supported by Pizzolatto saying “the detective is searching and searching and searching, and the culprit is him.” Could that detective be Ray, and could the deep, mysterious horror of the season be connected to his murder of his wife’s rapist? More importantly: Do we care enough to speculate?
Gilbert: Spencer, I think you’re right that the point of Ray being shot and nearly dying (at least from the audience’s perspective) was to give him some kind of incentive to carry on—a literal and metaphorical kick in the gut that drags him out of his sad sack, whiskey-soaked bar naps and makes him angry enough to do something that isn’t self-pitying. The doctor even came straight out and asked him, “Do you want to live?”—to which Ray had no response. On the one hand, this is a necessity for viewers, because there’s very little that’s less interesting to watch than a dude with demons drinking himself to death. On the other, if my near-death experience involved a Conway Twitty-impersonating lounge singer crooning about love as a river, I would definitely, definitely want to come back, so it’s hardly surprising he has a newfound will to live, cholesterol checkups and all.
I like your point, too, that this could all be Ray’s coma hallucination. In an echo of Frank’s speech last week about wondering whether he actually died in the paper-maché basement with the rats, the signs in this episode seemed to be pointing at the fact that Ray, too, is dead. “I see you, running through the trees,” his dream-father said. “You’re small. The trees are like giants. Men are chasing you … they killed you.” Then there was Frank’s statement to the Mysteriously Scarred Waitress when she asked if Ray was okay that “somebody murdered him.” Is Ray dead? Is Frank dead? Is Vinci purgatory for lowlife gangsters and corrupt cops and poor neglected Kelly Reilly? It’s hard to conceive that the show would suddenly become so uncharacteristically supernatural, but then again, Woodrugh’s favorite street hustler in angel’s wings showed up again this week, so who knows?
There was some poignancy in Ray’s confession to Ani that, thanks to a wounded sternum, his “heart aches,” as well as his look of abject terror immediately after she left him sitting in the side of the ambulance. Ray says it’s anger that’s fueling him, but it seems more likely to be fear—fear of his father, of losing his son, of being investigated by the state, of dying. The show hasn’t given us many reasons to feel sorry for Ray up until this point, so the scenes with his father were pivotal. And slowly, he and Ani seem to be learning to trust each other—I guess pulling someone out of the path of an oncoming truck would help with that, but even before then, both seemed unwilling to get involved in the departmental witch hunts targeting each other.
There wasn’t a lot for Ani to do this week, so I’m hoping for more in the next episode, but there were still a number of reminders of how much harder it is for her to do her job as a woman. First, the blasé manner with which the state investigator (also a woman) suggested she sleep with Ray to earn a promotion. Second, when she told her partner that the case was treating her great, “like a cheerleader on an oil rig.” Third, the mayor’s invocation of her as a c-word for daring to enter his house without a warrant. All of this seemed to culminate in her great dismissal of the hapless guy from episode one after he crudely insulted her: “You talk to me like that again, you’re gonna need a little baggie to carry your teeth home.”
Good comeback, but also: foreshadowing! Because Frank, in one of the episode’s most unconvincing scenes, pulled out a pimp’s gold teeth with pliers and then emptied them out into a drawer back at his house. I’d been feeling reasonably charitable toward Vince Vaughn up until this point—he’s doing the best he can with horrible, horrible dialogue, as you both pointed out—but the confrontation in the back of the club spelled out the problem: He’s unable to radiate the menace the role requires. “You put them crazy eyes on and everyone’s supposed to just shit their pants,” said the pimp, before the camera cut to Vaughn looking not so much crazy as sheepish and scared, like an eighth-grader who accidentally finds himself coerced into fighting the biggest kid in the class.
That said, there were moments in “Maybe Tomorrow” where he seemed to harness some rage, like when he was yelling at his Wall Street-type assistant, who always looks comically out of place in the badass-gangster scenes. But on the whole, he rarely comes across as frightening. Rachel McAdams, as Ani, seems infinitely more like the type to cut someone just for the hell of it, while Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh also seems liable to fly off the handle, and we know Ray can harness his inner psycho. But Frank doesn’t seem to possess the kind of cruelty and greed that would make someone hit up an old associate for 25 percent just because he can, let alone engage in amateur dentistry without an anesthetic.
I do want to talk briefly about the incredible carnage in the mayor’s house, because you know his son’s going to play into future events, even if the nitrous oxide-inhaling trophy wife doesn’t.* In a previous episode, the mayor referred to his proud spawn as being “unable to handle the deep trip,” which implies I guess that drugs have turned him into a maniac—the kind who styles himself like Rachel Dolezal and pushes half-naked women out windows. But that Bel Air house! The oil portraits! The mess! The contracts left lying around referring to land titles on the mayor’s desk! This isn’t over, even a little bit. Also, who was the man with the mustache in the second oil painting by the door of the house? He looked familiar to me, but he wasn’t the mayor.
Before the next episode, which is titled “Down Will Come,” here are some questions to consider. What was Caspere doing with Porpoise LLC and Catalyst LLC, his weirdly named companies? Why were there diamonds in his safe deposit box? Between Clint Eastwood and Kirk Douglas, what is it with the bygone matinee idols? Why is Dixon trailing Woodrugh? What was the point of the vague storyline about the car stolen from the film set, if not to jokingly mock “some collapse of civilization revenge shit”? Who was Stan and how did he die? (His eyes, too, appeared to have been burned out.) When Woodrugh and Frank walked past each other in the club, they seemed to recognize each other, but they’ve never had scenes together, so was it recognition or just hostility? And finally, most bafflingly, Ray subscribes to Popular Science and reads Meister Eckhart? There are a lot of people whom I might buy as dipping into the mystical theology of a 12th-century German priest, but Ray, sorry to say, isn’t one of them.
* Commenters say the Mayor’s wife was inhaling from an “obvious weed vaporizer.”
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