HBO

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.


Kornhaber: Bang bang bang. Brrap-brrap-brrap. Splat! Ah, the sounds of a drama trying to jolt itself out of midseason-slog mode with some classic-HBO violence. True Detective pulled this move before; episode four of the show’s first season, remember, was the one that closed with a now-famous six-minute tracking shot around a stash house. There were quite a few more camera cutaways for tonight’s abortive raid, but the intention behind the scene was likely the same—offer a slick, scary break from the show’s otherwise numbing drip of mumbled dialogue and industrial blight imagery.

The Vinci firefight had it all, if “it” is law-enforcement action tropes: machine-gun sprays, building explosions, a bus in crisis, a human shield, and a dead supporting character. Intense stuff, yes, but a few important things were missing—like villains that we knew, or stakes that we really understood. This was part of the point, no doubt; our true detectives walked into a far more dangerous situation than even their military-style equipment would have prepared them for, thanks to some mysteriously persistent and mysteriously vicious dudes who’d clearly been stockpiling bullets. The characters were disoriented, so the audience was disoriented.

However, the show’s storytelling style needlessly made that disorientation worse. Only after rewatching a few scenes at Vinci HQ was I able to piece together the chain of events: a pawn shop acquired items that Ben Caspere owned; fingerprints on those items belonged to the criminal Ledo Amarilla; one of Dixon’s confidential informants told him where Amarilla would be. That’s not too complicated, but the show made it seem like it was. Nic Pizzolatto reportedly read an entire homicide detective’s manual when writing the show’s first season, and he’s clearly excited to show off his fluency in cop talk. The result is that any time there’s a substantive discussion of the murder case on screen, viewers have to head to Wikipedia’s Law enforcement jargon page. Or did you two already know what it means to “follow up with canvas, split those KA’s up with the other dicks”?

My other takeaway from a second viewing of the briefing scenes was more suspicion about the Vinci police and elected officials. Last week, I wrote about the show seeming to hint that one of the city cops had shot Velcoro from under the bird mask; this week, Lieutenant Kevin Burris asked whether Bezzerides & co. really needed all that firepower, and Mayor Chessani made extra-sure to tell everyone to be safe. I think we’re meant to wonder whether they, with Dixon’s help, walked the state investigation into a trap. Poor, slobby Dixon then got popped, which might mean he wasn’t actually in on the conspiracy, or it might mean that the men in charge saw him—and likely see Velcoro—as a mere pawn.

How bout those gunmen, though? They’re all dead now, but at least they showed video-game-villain commitment till the end. It must be said, though, that in an episode where Frank delivered more than one racial slur about Latinos, there was something a little uncomfortable in the fact that our mostly nameless baddies were basically cartel cartoons. Then again, racial awkwardness might just be an accidental result of Nic Pizzolatto’s apparent quest to touch on every person, place, or thing that one would associate with a gritty-modern-California story. Tonight, in addition to the previously seen hippy enclave and some spooky surfer-girl decor, we got dying avocado trees, a legal pot shop, and an apartment complex overcrowded with immigrants. I think it’s cool that this show is trying to document my home state in such detail, but there’s something pathetic and obvious about the way it hopscotches from one symbol of the Once-Golden State to another. As is the case with so many facets of this show, it’s impossible to forget the writer wants you to notice his writing.

I’m not going to dive deeply into the many redundant scenes in which we were reminded yet again that Frank’s desperate or that Woodrugh’s a repressed emo kid (though I did love Taylor Kitsch's symphony of "fuuuuck"s). But what did you two make of the sexual-impropriety charges against Bezzerides? Last season, Rust and Marty could only really solve their case once they’d been kicked off it, and I could imagine a similar plot line shaping up here. But, again, I can’t help but notice the hand of the writer, to the detriment of the story. If Pizzolatto’s going to make his first kickass female character hand over her badge, of course it's got to go down in the most button-pushing and sexualized way possible. “This would not be happening to a man,” Ani protests—have at that one, Internet!


Gilbert: I will go out on a limb here and say I enjoyed the gunfight. Explosions! Seemingly self-replicating gangsters with assault rifles! Bus-riding peaceful protesters caught in the crossfire! Dixon’s head blowing off! Actually, I didn’t enjoy that so much as the blissful fact that for 10 minutes or so, no one was talking.

Was the dialogue in season one of True Detective markedly better, or was it just better suited to the meandering vagaries of Rust and Marty? The writing in season two has been getting measurably worse each week, to the point now where I’m wondering if Pizzolatto has a drinking game set up with his friends and a thesaurus, and whether he randomly throws periods in short sentences just for giggles. “There’s some word. You got gambling debts,” said Ani’s sergeant. “Sometimes your worst self. Is your best self,” Frank told Ray. Maybe the scripts are actually delivered each week in poem form, or as song lyrics scribbled on the back of rolling papers. You mentioned the strings of SAT words last week, Spencer: In “Down Will Come” we got “louche,” “predilection,” and “coercion,” not to mention an odd analogy about blinking dust out your eye and a bonus riff from Frank on “whatever they call MDMA these days.”

The episode was a catastrophe in cliché from start to finish, but I’m still interested despite my best instincts, not to mention the knowledge that True Detective tends to hint at elaborate, supernatural conspiracies involving people in power and then ends up blaming everything on an incestuous handyman with hoarding issues. The new family member introduced this week (at least in vintage-photo form) was Theo Chessani, the mayor’s father, and apparently an acquaintance of both Ani’s aura-visualizing cult-leader father and Rick Springfield’s Dr. Pitlor, who took care of Chessani’s wife when she was institutionalized for schizophrenia (but not well, given that she hung herself). I love the idea that Bezzerides senior and Chessani and Pitlor are all embroiled together in some shady Vinci schemes, which is clearly what the show wants us to believe, but it’s almost certainly going to end up being something much less intriguing. Speaking of which—will we ever find out what happened to the missing girl from episode one?

Given that this is by all accounts a detective drama, it's a little hard to identify exactly which mystery needs to be solved at this point.  Does anyone actually care who killed Ben Caspere apart from Frank? The plots involving soil pollution and Metro extensions and dead avocado trees are beyond opaque, while Vince Vaughn seems to have a clause in his contract that mandates each episode feature him hitting up at least three shady characters for money, whether at a housing project, a bakery, an empty nightclub, a black-tie event, a construction manager’s office, or (tangentially at least) the side of the road. We get it. He’s broke. His legitimate business ventures seem to have died with Caspere, and so now he’s back embracing Vinci’s dark side. “The things I’ve got coming, I could use you in a fuller capacity,” he told Ray, shortly before he reemphasized it. “The things I’m planning, black rage goes a long way.” The things I’m hearing, someone needs a script doctor.

Frank isn’t the only problem, although he’s the one given the most screen time. Paul, for all Taylor Kitsch’s efforts, is bewilderingly vague. He’s gay, but he doesn’t want to be, and cries real tears of horror after waking up in his former best friend’s apartment and being lovingly offered sports and waffles. He’s spent his life doing what “they” tell him, whether in the army or in the police force, but after all that, he concludes that “it doesn’t matter.” The reporters who ambushed him outside his hotel briefly mentioned revelations about “war crimes” regarding Black Mountain, but the moment was fleeting and never referred to again throughout the episode (Paul briefly told Ray about the ambush, but not much more). Now his ex is pregnant, and the prospect fills him with joy, because he really looks forward to a life of popping Viagra and hiding in the bathroom for 20 minutes at a time? The preview for next week’s episode promises some kind of escalation of conflict with his mother, but the character at this point just feels like a mess of different hangups all curdled together.

It wasn’t all bad, to be fair. Rick Springfield is definitely coming back. Kelly Reilly and Mayor Chessani’s American accents are flawless (both are Brits). Ray has an amazing stash in his glove compartment. Ani’s sister seems to be getting her life together. (The charges against Ani feel like one distraction too many, and yet another reminder that the mayor is a “very bad person,” as his daughter helpfully spelled out.) And Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell continue to try to polish jagged, muddy dialogue until it shines like steel. For all the jokes about #TrueDetectiveSeason2, it’s hard not to think that it would have been a much better show if it could have focused on just two characters, rather than give time and energy to so many different stars. I’d watch Ray and Ani drive around southern California and talk about e-cigarettes for days, particularly if Ray’s enormous aura comes along for the ride.


Orr: I would love to disagree with you guys here and make the case for this episode’s greatness. But like you Sophie, I feel as though the show has declined episode by episode since the start of the season—to quote my favorite under-the-radar joke from There’s Something About Mary, “Each day’s better than the next”—and tonight was the episode in which, for me at least, it really went over the edge.

You guys have already nailed many of the particulars, so I wanted to pull back and talk a little more broadly about why this season has been so disappointing relative to the first one. When True Detective burst onto the scene last year, it was big and strange and mesmerizing. There were the marvelous narrative-temporal gymnastics, somersaulting backward and forward between 1995 and 2012. There was the wild, Lovecraftian mystery behind the actual murders: Carcosa and the Yellow King, the black stars and the five men. (Sure, none of this actually led anywhere, but it was utterly fascinating right up until the final episode.) And finally, there was Rust Cohle, a sometimes maddening but mostly riveting updating of a great literary archetype: Holmes, Stephen Maturin, and in some ways even Don Quixote.

Was any of it ever moderately realistic? Of course not. Did it matter? Same answer. It was a larger-than-life exercise in Grand Guignol style and sensibility. Realism was beside the point.

The central problem with this season, as I see it, is that it’s lost that hallucinatory ambition while gaining little or nothing in the realism department. With the exception of an occasional and seemingly random detail—Caspere’s burnt-out eyes, the bird-headed assassin, Ray’s Conway Twitty death-dream—Pizzolatto has basically given us a straightforward police procedural. This season was initially billed as concerning “the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system,” but somewhere in the process—from the looks of it, rather late in the process—Pizzolatto discarded the idea in favor of “closer character work and a more grounded crime story.” And, to date at least, the tradeoff has been a losing one.

It’s true that none of this season’s characters have the magnificent implausibility of Rust Cohle. But that doesn’t mean that any of them are actually plausible. As you guys have both noted, their dialogue often sounds like some late-night game of hard-boiled one-upmanship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (“Never lost a tooth. Never even had a fucking cavity.” “You took her knife. You said you didn’t want anything else.”) Every one of the principal characters is still being oversold by Pizzolatto. It’s just not clear that any of them are worth buying at this point, in part because they’re so undifferentiated. Ray and Ani and Paul and Frank all have parental issues, and sex issues, and intimacy issues, and violence issues, and (with the possible exception of Frank) substance-abuse issues. They’re almost interchangeable apart from the facts that Ani’s a woman, Frank’s a crook, and Paul is sexually confused. And, as you note, Sophie, there are just too many of them to be allotted the individual attention that Rust and Marty received last season.

As a result, I’ve found this season to be a kind of fictional-representation version of the “uncanny valley” phenomenon: neither realistic enough to be persuasive (like, say, The Sopranos or The Wire), nor enough of an outright fantasy (like season one) to be enjoyed on its own terms, however unrealistic. I’d love for this to change, but with each passing week it seems less likely that it will.

A few more specific observations before I sign off:

Spencer, you cited the pawnshop-to-prost-to-pimp police work leading up to that final bloodbath; and Sophie, you pointed out the need for Frank to shake down every single human being he’s ever met (“Tommy Johnson! Remember that time in fourth grade when I stopped those kids from giving you a swirly?”). What struck me was the degree to which almost every other scene in the episode tonight was pure soap opera. Ray secretly giving his “son” his father’s badge; Ani getting confronted by the other police colleague she slept with and then dumped; Frank and Jordan squabbling over babies and ex-boyfriends; Paul waking up with his old beau with no memory of getting there and then discovering his ex-girlfriend is pregnant and then immediately proposing marriage. It’s a good thing Rick Springfield is going to be coming back: The show may need his hard-won General Hospital expertise. Maybe it will turn out that he’s secretly Ani’s dad?

Also, enough foreshadowing about the upscale sex-circuit parties “up north,” already! Time to weave this plot thread into the overall narrative or snip it off.

As you noted, Spencer, the finale of episode four last season was the bravura single-shot depiction of Cohle and the Iron Crusaders’ disastrous drug robbery, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Can it possibly be a coincidence—especially given the reported bad blood between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga—that the finale of the same episode this season seems so like an effort to top that last one? If so, it could hardly have failed more spectacularly. Fukunaga’s scene was an elegant exercise in technique. Tonight’s (directed by Game of Thrones contributor Jeremy Podeswa, of skirmish with the Sand Snakes fame) was all sound and fury, signifying—well, I guess we’ll find out next week, but I know where I’m placing my bet.

This episode also seemed like a repeat of last year’s mid-season hinge: Some random, low-level bad guys have been killed, the case is closed! Or is it? In the scenes from next week, Ani even helpfully asks, “You really think we cleared the Caspere case?” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say no.

I think we are now at the point—actually past the point—where Ray and Frank’s meetings in the bar have jumped the shark, especially the showy, extended, over-the-shoulder shots of one and then the other. And for the third time in four episodes, we get that same tediously melancholy indie-folk singer. As I noted a couple weeks ago, this is not Ally McBeal. Why don’t you give us a few more evenings with the Conway Twitty impersonator?

Finally, one more scenes-from-next-week quote, this one courtesy of Ray: "Pain is inexhaustible. It's only people that get exhausted." Especially TV viewers. And given the direction the show is taking, count me among them.

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