Each week following episodes of True Detective, Spencer Kornhaber, Sophie Gilbert, and Christopher Orr will discuss the murders and machinations depicted in the HBO drama.
Gilbert: To start on a positive note: “Other Lives” was a huge improvement on last week’s episode. The plot now seems to be heading somewhere, the dialogue was more like words people might say to each other (and less like mystical fortunes dispensed by Zoltar at a fairground), and there was even a moment of levity—maybe the first of the season—when Ani attended her mandatory sexual-harassment seminar and got some kicks out of disrupting the assembled group of perverts by talking about penises. (“Let her share, man.”)
The bad: Lera Lynn continues to play music to a crowd of three people in the only California bar you can openly smoke in, events are still convoluted to the point of Donnie Darko, and the enemy won’t quite reveal itself, in the words of Frank. After the climactic shootout at the end of episode four left everyone apart from Paul, Ani, and Ray dead in the street, the episode jumped two months ahead, possibly to avoid too many obligatory scenes of the traumatized trio drowning their PTSD in the bottom of a whiskey bottle (I, for one, am grateful, but with only three episodes left to wrap this up, it’s more likely there just wasn’t time). Ani has been sent to work in an evidence lockup. Paul is working a desk job investigating insurance fraud. Ray has shaved off his mustache just as we’d gotten used to it and is now working full-time for Frank, who’s sold his mansion and moved to a smaller place in Glendale.
Given all this, you might assume the dream team of Bezzerides, Velcoro, and Woodrugh has been disassembled permanently, but conveniently for plot’s sake, the attorney general of California, Richard Geldof, is running for governor. Geldof previously was hellbent on having Paul investigate Caspere’s murder to dig up dirt on Vinci PD and the mayor’s office; but now the state’s attorney Katherine Davis believes that Geldof’s newfound war chest is a sign of collusion between him and the town of Vinci, and so wants to reassemble the dream team to find out what really happened to Caspere, who was involved, and why.
Herein lies the central problem with True Detective season two, which is that huge complex plot points are dispersed in conversation in a matter of seconds, while other matters (the Semyons’ ability to have children, Frank’s money troubles, Ray’s relationship with his son) are essentially beaten to death by Pizzolatto like Rick Springfield delivering unwanted psychological evaluation. Yes, establishing character complexity is important. But would it be worth sacrificing a scene or two of Frank and Jordan discussing their willingness (or not) to adopt in order to explain a little more effectively what’s actually happening? Or are we supposed to just buckle up and ride the metaphorical carriage until it runs off the rails?
There were a number of big reveals in this episode, but the one that seems to finally be carrying the show to a conclusion was the news that the long hinted-at sex parties involving expensive call girls and powerful men have been run all along by Tony Chessani (the mayor’s son) and Ben Caspere, with some help from Dr. Pitlor, who provides the women with plastic surgery. Caspere also had a sideline using the girls to establish blackmail files on all the men involved including (possibly) a California state senator (echoes of True Detective season one). Blake, Frank’s blond, Patrick Batemanesque assistant, is also involved—revealed after Ray followed his car and saw him greeting Pitlor and Chessani with three blonde call girls. And there was some kind of development regarding a waste-management company, which has been helping plant heavy metals in the ground to make its land seem less valuable.
But the development that shook Ray the most was the news that his wife’s rapist was arrested several weeks ago in Venice, which implies quite strongly that whomever Frank persuaded Ray to murder in retribution for her attack wasn’t actually the man who raped her. His wife, horrified by the fact that Ray had lied to her for all these years about offing the guy who assaulted her, and by what happened to their marriage because of it, is suing for a paternity test, which will presumably prove that Chad isn’t his son. And Ani and Paul, following a tip to the address where the missing girl from episode one last called her sister from (an address Caspere’s GPS had also visited), discovered a torture room in a woodshed covered in arterial blood and surrounded by vultures.
What does all this mean? It seems unlikely at this point that the supernatural elements hinted at in the first few episodes will be realized in some grand occult reveal, which is a bummer. Yes, the birds again, and yes, the “commune,” and yes, Ani’s dad still might be involved, but it’s more likely that the season is simply about the municipal corruption involved in a California town with fewer than 100 residents, and the various ways in which criminals and established politicians alike have enabled the co-option of land that public transportation might soon make more valuable. After season one, with its ritual murders and sinister symbols and crazy incestuous siblings and drug massacres and kidnapped children, you could be forgiven for being perhaps the teensiest bit disappointed with this. I know I am.
Chris and Spencer, what did you make of Ray’s brutal beatdown of Pitlor, and Paul’s fight with his mother, and Ani’s apparent commitment to going undercover? Why was the man up north dressed like Jesus and carrying a cross? What’s on the hard drive Ray’s been tasked with finding? Why is the title music suddenly different? And why, why, why, does Pizzolatto keep making Frank say thinks like, “It’s like blue balls. In your heart”? Poor guy’s got enough to deal with without it sounding like he’s doing pornographic slam poetry.
Orr: I agree that this was a major improvement, Sophie. After an episode of stasis and soap opera culminating with a wildly over-the-top gunfight, tonight we saw some genuine signs of plot progression. There were a few groan-worthy moments, but also several that made me feel more engaged in the show than I have in at least a couple episodes.
Let me start with one (enormous) quibble. Pizzolatto was pretty clearly using last week’s insane bloodbath in two ways: first, to try (very unsuccessfully) to demonstrate that he could outdo the classic, single-shot scene with which his former collaborator Cary Joji Fukunaga closed episode four last season; and second, to serve as a narrative hinge for this season, like the backwoods shootout with Reggie Ledoux in the last episode five. As I wrote then, “One story has concluded, and another is beginning to unfold.”
The problem is that the (apparently case-breaking, and definitely life-changing) Ledoux gunfight had a body count of two, both of whom were redneck criminals. Last week’s body count was more like—hell, I doubt you could even tally it without an itchy pause finger and an abacus. But it had to include at least half a dozen cops and a dozen or more innocent civilians. This would be a huge story, the kind involving not just gubernatorial candidates, but presidential ones (plus presumably the sitting president). It’d be a touchstone for the usual national debates regarding police violence and gun control. No one—no one—would care any more about Ben Caspere or missing persons, or anything else True Detective is ostensibly about. We’d have to segue into House of Cards (or maybe Veep) material.
Added to that, the only survivors of the across-the-board massacre were: the Ventura County detective heading the operation, who a) was under investigation for sexual harassment and had been relieved of regular duty, and b) had ignored warnings by superiors that she should wait for a state task force to arrive; a state trooper who a) was also under investigation for sexual harassment and relieved of regular duty, and b) was possibly implicated in war crimes committed by the mercenary force he used to work for; and, finally, a Vinci detective who was under investigation by the state for pretty much every crime that exists up to and including murder. The idea that any of them would ever again carry a badge or firearm is ludicrous. Can you imagine the outcry from relatives of the civilian victims? Ani, Paul, and Ray would be lucky not to be looking at serious prison time. You can’t throw a catastrophe of that magnitude into the show and then say, “two months later,” and pick up the story more or less where you left off.
I agree with you, Sophie, that overall there was probably less bad dialogue than in some prior episodes, but some of the dialogue was so bad it almost made up for it. I was still furiously scribbling down Frank’s line about how his enemy “stymies my retribution,” when he sprang that all-timer you quoted: “It’s like blue balls, in your heart.” If Blue Balls In Your Heart is not the name of at least six college bands by week’s end, I say we scrap the whole higher-education system.
I think one of the lessons of this season so far is that you can put over-articulated mumbo-patter into the mouths of designated weirdos—Rust Cohle last season, Mayor Chessani and Dr. Pitlor this one (I kinda loved the latter’s profoundly ill-advised line to Ray: “Your compensatory projection of menace is a guarantor of its lack”)—but it’s a total disaster when you give it to a relatively normal, working-class hood like Frank. “I was born drafted on the wrong side of a class war”? Umm, no. And unlike you, Sophie, I was also not a fan of Ani’s “big dicks” scene. I agree the show needs more humor. But this joke was (so to speak) a limp one.
And as long as we’re on the subject of sexual dialogue, can I say that just about the only thing I’d like to watch less than another fertility/adoption discussion between Frank and Jordan is another fight between Paul and his mom? She says that if she weren’t so big-hearted, he “coulda been a scrape job.” He retorts that she’s a “poison cooze.” Someone get Hallmark on the line. They’re missing Mother’s Day gold here.
But on to the good stuff. As long as I’m offering quotes, I should give a shout out to Ani’s crucial line: “What do we keep hearing about? Escort parties? Powerful men?” Amen, sister! This is exactly the question I’m confident every True Detective viewer has been asking for at least three episodes now. Finally, we seem to be getting a little progress on this front. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still want to recommend a TD drinking game in which everyone has to take a swig at each mention of sex parties “up north.” Spencer, you’re a Southern Californian (I’ve only lived in the Bay Area): Do people really use that phrase all the time?
In any case, that torture hut out in the woods of Guerneville didn’t make a lick of sense, but it did supply a jolt of the creepy horror that was so crucial to the first season of the show and has thus far been sorely missing from the second. I’m still disappointed that Pizzolatto decided to dispense with the whole “secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system” that he’d originally intended as a frame for this season. But even a few garden-variety psychopaths would move the series away from being a straightforward police procedural (which it’s very bad at) and toward the kind of gothic drama at which it mostly excelled last year.
Also: What the hell’s going on with (the late) Teague Dixon, Ray’s old drunken, lazy partner? (I basically like to think of him as Pizzolatto’s “ode to Buzz Meeks.”) A couple of episodes ago, we saw him surreptitiously taking photos of Paul. At the time, it seemed like he might be doing dirty work for Vinci PD’s shifty Lieutenant Burris (neatly played by James Frain). But when Burris showed up on Ray’s doorstep asking questions about Dixon, it seemed to complicate that scenario. And Dixon’s knowing about Caspere’s missing jewels before they showed up in the safe deposit box is a nice little mystery. It may well turn out these questions are more interesting than their solution, but for the moment count me intrigued.
My favorite development of the episode though—one of my favorite developments this season—was the discovery that Ray killed the wrong man when trying to avenge his then-wife’s rape. I particularly liked the way the revelation unfolded. First, Ray wondered why his wife was so angry at him during the custody hearing. Second, he learned that her long-ago rapist had been caught, with the (I think) assumption that she was furious with him for killing an innocent man. Third, they talked and it became clear that, far from holding him responsible for murder, she thought he’d just made the whole thing up in order to impress her. Fourth, he realized that Frank had set him up. And fifth—well, for that we’ll have to wait and see how his visit to Frank’s humble new abode plays out.
That is, if I can force myself to watch another episode, given the “scenes from next week” revelation that Ani is going to go undercover as an upscale hooker at one of the sex parties we’ve been hearing so very much about. Really? Pizzolatto seemed to take to heart critiques regarding the feeble female characters of season one. And while there have been disappointments so far this season—Kelly Reilly has been given a lot less to do than expected as Jordan; and Rachel McAdams’s Ani has bordered on a caricature of masculinity, but with ovaries—the idea of the show’s tough female cop having to pour herself into a slinky gown to act as sex bait is lame on another level altogether. I’m not sure, but I may have just barfed up an episode of Silk Stalkings. Let’s all hope there’s room under that dress for her to conceal at least a couple knives.
A few last observations:
If we must have deranged shootouts with mass civilian casualties, can they at least take place in the bar, where that impossibly tedious melancholy singer might plausibly be caught in the crossfire?
I’m sorry, but there’s no way Dr. Pitlor would be reading Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. The dude would have memorized the book verbatim 40+ years ago.
Evidently, disgraced attorney Matt McCoy (a.k.a. Pete Monahan) did such a good job defending Pied Piper in HBO’s Silicon Valley this past season that now he’s cross-representing the naughty starlet who accused Paul of soliciting a blowjob. Look for him to have his own HBO legal series any time now.
When Ray was tailing the prostitutes he picked up with Blake at Dr. Pitlor’s, was that Frank’s erstwhile business partner, the Russian gangster Osip, examining them on the receiving end? Perhaps not, but it looked like him from a distance. Mayor Chessani did say that the outside interest looking into the Frank’s poker room was foreign, right?
How is it, given all the grief that Ray and Paul gave Ani over her e-cigarettes in the past, that neither one seems to notice that she’s rather flamboyantly gone back to analog? Seriously, guys. You’re supposed to be detectives.
So what did you think Spencer? Are we getting back on track (at least relatively speaking)? Do you have any more clue than Sophie or I why that guy was lugging a cross down the byways of Guerneville?
Kornhaber: To answer your earlier question, about how Southern Californians talk about the rest of California—well, it’s all about context. If you’re going to Sonoma for wine tasting, you say you’re going to Sonoma. If you’re going to Sonoma to mingle with custom-siliconed Eastern European prostitutes in the presence of powerful politicians and secret cameras, then you say you’re going “up north.” Like the popularity of Del Taco in a region filled with authentic Mexican food, it’s just a culture thing. I can’t really explain it.
I agree that this episode represented improvement from the last few weeks, when it seemed like the show was trying to test out a modified version of Velcoro’s latest maxim: “Pain [in the form of repetitive storytelling and unintelligible dialogue] is inexhaustible. It’s only people who get exhausted.” The plot had become so calcified not even the central characters knew how things might move ahead—everyone just knew that things needed to move. Hence, Velcoro tonight again spoke for the audience when addressing the second newly toothless character of the series: “Hooker parties. What you'd call affluent men. Caspere attended. Go.”
It’s during that same brutal beatdown scene that Pitlor revealed his job is to “make eights into 10s,” a statement that underlines this show’s gender philosophy pretty starkly. Human trafficking is the literal practice of men turning women into sex objects and business assets at the same time. Add to that the revelation that “certain traditions of the Chessani patriarchs” drove the mayor’s wife mad (perhaps in the same way that Ani’s mom lost it), that Frank possibly took advantage of Gena’s rape to get Ray to off an enemy, and that precious few people care about missing women such as Vera and Irina Rulfo until their disappearance becomes connected to larger mysteries involving powerful men, and the season’s a veritable encyclopedia of exploitation.
What does that mean for the main female characters? For all her bro-knifing skills, Bezzerides’s getting punished essentially for refusing a man’s advances; at the resulting counseling session, she deflected some actual harassment by delivering dirty talk that got the guys in the room panting. Later, to solve the Caspere case, she urged her sister to reconnect with the dangerous underworld she’d escaped from. It’s a big ask, one that could end in—what was Mayor Chessnani’s phrase? “Pimpish results”? To fight the bad men of the world, it seems, Ani’s got to play their game.
Meanwhile, Paul’s mom, Cynthia, stews with resentment about having sacrificed her career for a son who didn’t even make the most of his handsome white maleness. It’s bizarre to have a 2015 show so strenuously insist on homosexuality as a shameful secret for someone like Woodrugh, but at least this episode tried to explain where some of his issues come from. He can’t let himself be himself in part because—or at least deep down he might think it’s because—he’d be falling short of the expectations that his mom saddled him with.
But his disappearing cash seemed like a pretty clear metaphor: Keep things in the closet for a long time at your own peril. Certainly, as the dinner scene with Emily and his soon-to-be-mother-in-law showed, opting into life as a married father to prove something to yourself is a recipe for misery. As for Cynthia: If she were a man, would she have really taken the world by storm? In the universe of the show that’s maybe even more sexist than our own, it seems possible. But on the other hand, gambling addictions such as hers afflict members of both genders—and Vinci Gardens Casino now offers hookers for its male customers.
All season long, over the course of way too many scenes, that casino’s owner has clashed with his wife. If Frank and Jordan’s fights add up to anything, they add up to a woman trying to insist upon her worth outside of her ability to bear a child. Frank can only handle the idea of her infertility after losing a fortune and having Jordan point out the ways that he’s broken his contract with her. Once he’s able to ratchet down his ambitions—for her, and temporarily for himself—the Semyons are able to find some peace in a modest Glendale bungalow whose ceilings are free of water stains. Lovely.
Of course, this is HBO, so the episode ended with that peace in mortal peril. When Ray arrived at the door, Frank lied about being alone, which may or may not have been a good idea. Certainly, Jordan might need protection; Ray, I fear, won’t be very kind to the the wife of the man who lied to him about his own wife’s rape. As we saw in the scene with Dr. Pitlor, just because the mustache is gone doesn’t mean Ray’s capacity for violent rage is gone. Perhaps he keeps it in his bolo tie.
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