Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
And that’s to say nothing of the smaller twists that the show tosses out episode after episode and then drops almost immediately: the Mad Max-like movie set from which the Caspere murder car was stolen; the baby-masked bad guy who torched said car and was then chased by Ani and Ray through Depression-Era Hobo Town; the deliberate poisoning of the land with heavy metals—remember, this supplied the first shot of the entire season—so that it would sell for less; etc., etc. … Fill in your own favorites from the dozen other intersecting and frequently mislaid story lines the show has offered up so far.
Again: Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.
That’s the problem: I get like five of them with every episode of True Detective I watch, and I can hardly keep up with how many each of the principal characters have accumulated at this point. Off the top of my head ... Ray: killed his wife’s presumed rapist and lost his family; got shot and got a second chance; participated in the bloodiest shootout in modern law-enforcement history; learned he killed the wrong guy and lost his family even more. Ani: raped as a child by a Manson-y character who offered a VW van and a promise of unicorns (at least based on tonight’s evidence); mother committed suicide; participated in bloodiest shootout in etc, etc.; pretended to be a hooker, stabbing multiple people and (apparently) killing at least one. Paul: Mysterious Burns; Horror in the Desert; Terrible Sexual Secret (plus: bloodiest shootout). Frank: Dark Rat Basement; his I Went Legit But They Stole All My Money Anyway act; Whatever Other Things He Mentioned To Stan’s Kid But Hasn’t Shared With Us. (Yet.)
And then there is Stan, of course, of “Who the hell is Stan?” fame. (Don’t worry: Every single living watcher of the show asked the same question after episode three. Here’s the best answer I’ve seen—which is to say, barely an answer at all.) Leave it to True Detective to offer a long, wildly unnecessary sequence tonight featuring the wife and son of a tertiary character we essentially never even met.
Do you guys share my sense that creator Nic Pizzolatto hurriedly wrote enough material for about 30 episodes, and then even more hurriedly—like, 52 Pickup hurriedly—grabbed cards here and there and assembled them into some vague semblance of a deck?
Tonight of course brought in a couple of additional subplots that we may or may not ever hear from again. It turns out that Caspere’s missing diamonds (anyone who can follow the way they’ve meandered in and out of the narrative deserves an award) were stolen from a jewelry store during the 1992 riots, in a crime that left the shop’s owners dead and their kids traumatized and lost in the child-welfare system. (Quick! Which now-adult characters do those kids resemble, if any?) Also, let us all welcome our new violent, nameless Mexican heavies, who enjoy Mexican standoffs—the irony!—and seem loosely if at all connected to the passel of violent, nameless Mexican heavies who were killed two episodes ago.
So what’s the point of continuing to watch True Detective? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the season’s only eight episodes long. But the broader answer, pace Vulture, is not that it’s a straightforward hate watch, at least not for me. It’s that it continues to alternate small successes—a neatly written scene here, a couple of good lines of dialogue there—with increasingly unexpected failures. A show that’s consistently bad in the same way is boring. One that keeps finding new ways to be bad can be fascinating, especially if the bad is mixed with the good and, occasionally, very good.
I liked, for instance, the opening scene, with Ray and Frank pointing pistols at one another under the table like Han Solo and Greedo in Mos Eisley. “I’m gonna put my other hand up now. Don’t you fucking shoot me, Raymond” may have been Vince Vaughn’s best line reading of the season so far.
The scene in prison with Ray and his wife’s rapist even had a certain hard-boiled, B-movie vibe, until Ray (that is, Pizzolatto) ruined it with the howler, “If they don’t give you life, I will have every inch of your flesh removed with a cheese grater, starting with your prick.” As the world’s foremost hater of Game of Thrones’s resident torture-fiend Ramsay Bolton, let me offer credit where due: He’d never throw out a line that lame. Seriously, between this and his “buttfuck” threat back in episode one, Ray Velcoro may be the most embarrassing threatener-of-violence on TV today.
That said, the point at which the episode went irrevocably off the rails for me was in the transition from Ray’s awkward visit with Chad to his subsequent bender. The former had a touch of the humor that you, Sophie, have correctly lamented has been lacking all season. “We can watch Friends. It’s always on,” explained a boy who might have been born before the series went off the air. It is, in its way, a beautiful vision of cultural continuity: a show so generic yet genuine in its watchability that one can imagine our great-grandchildren putting it on the screen when they’re too lazy to look for anything else. But the segue to Ray cranking up the New York Dolls while pounding Cuervo and strip-mining a mountain of coke was as jarring and jagged as a phono needle scraping across an LP.
And that’s what the rest of the episode felt like for me. (One exception: Another hint of comedy when Ray suggests that Ani take Paul’s transponder and “stick it somewhere …” [Pause. Appalled look.] “… like in your shoe.”) After that, it seemed we were essentially ping-ponging back and forth between a second-rate Eyes Wide Shut and a third-rate Mission: Impossible.
A few last small observations on this last act of the episode and then I’ll turn it over to you guys.
1) I’m not a doctor, but just this once I’m going to play one on the Internet: I’m pretty confident that you can’t vomit out an aerosol spray that has already hit your bloodstream. Why make it an aerosol—the whole point of which would seem to be that it’s not something that makes its way down your alimentary canal—if you’re subsequently going to treat it like a pill or drink anyway?
2) Ray and Paul barely step within earshot of the premises before standing directly outside the office where Catalyst Group exec McCandless gives the most complete explanation to date of the season’s overall financial conspiracy to our old friend Osip. The only bigger coincidence would be if …
3)… Ani suddenly (if implausibly) becomes sober just in time to notice that the woman she’s been seeking, Vera, is passed out directly next to her. Convenient! Why not add ten—or five—seconds of her investigating (or escaping) before this encounter takes place?
4) Can you guys remind me again why Vera is important? Yes, way back in season one, when Ani was serving an eviction notice on her sister, the latter said she was missing. But when Ani checked with Vera’s previous employer (Ani’s own dad’s Panticapaeum Institute), her fellow maids said she’d left the job for one that offered more pay for fewer hours. There’s been no sign to date that she was abducted or kept against her will or physically harmed. Yes, these drug-fueled sex parties are disgusting, and something horrible happened to someone (not Vera) in that shack in the woods. But why does it seem such a moral absolute to save Vera and not any one of the dozens of other women at the party? Vera does have some connection to the diamonds. (Please refresh my memory here, guys.) But it’s remote enough that I can’t recall anyone seeing fit even to mention it tonight. And, again, her rescue seemed in any case less procedural than existential.
5) That Texas oilman seeking to get inside Ani’s dress was a caricature worthy of The Muppets. Seriously: Take Tex Richman, remove singing, and add perversion. Not an improvement.
6) It’s incredible for a prestige (or perhaps formerly prestige) HBO show to feature a line as bad as the one I’m about to cite; it’s more incredible still for it to be the final line of an episode. So I submit, without further comment, highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh’s gimlet-eyed observation: “These contracts—signatures are all over them!”
As much as I enjoyed that, however, I confess it paled in comparison to the subsequent scenes-from-next-week announcement: “Only. Two. Episodes. Left.”
As noted, I’m not exactly hate-watching, but neither am I love- or even consistently like-watching. I would be delighted if this season of True Detective ends well. But I’m looking forward to it just ending.
What about you guys? Please feel free to remind me of the details regarding Caspere’s diamonds. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on that grotesquely unsettling sex party. Only. Two. More. Weeks.
Gilbert: Contracts … covered in … signatures. The show’s given us some nightmarish imagery through the past six episodes but this almost takes the cake. I think it’s important to note also that Paul uttered this line right after Ani blurted out that she thought she’d killed a man in the party, while clutching her throat after nearly being strangled. But yes, by all means worry about those contracts, and their signatures. Given the contracts’ provenance at the depraved drug-fueled orgy, he’s frankly lucky signatures is all that was all over them.
More on the orgy later, but I want to start with Frank. This was the first episode of the season in which he showed some flickers of actual personality, and also the first in which Vince Vaughn didn’t come off like a 45-year-old who’s accidentally been cast in Bugsy Malone. Maybe I’m just sentimental, or feeling sad about the admission that Ray’s one of his only friends. But the scene with little Mikey in Stan’s backyard was undeniably touching, even sandwiched as it was by Ray’s awkward attempts to bond with Chad over model airplanes, pizza, and Friends. It was also the first time Frank’s hard-boiled wisdom seemed sincere rather than painfully forced: If you use it right, the bad thing, it makes you better, stronger. It gives you something most people don’t have … That’s what pain does. It shows you what was on the inside. The inside of you, it’s pure gold.
This is lovely, at least until we remember that Frank pulls men’s teeth out, makes a living out of drugs and prostitutes, and stabs criminals with screwdrivers and nail guns to get information he can use to make himself richer. In my head at least, his insides look like the interior of that cabin in the woods with the arterial blood and the vultures and the torture chair, only less homey. So it doesn’t really matter how much he seems to care about dead Irina Rufo, or however sympathetic the show wants to make him—he’s still a terrible, very bad man, regardless of his seemingly sincere intent to be a good father, or his traumatic childhood. But maybe, just maybe, Frank’s breezier quality this episode was Vaughn relaxing into the role a bit and going with his natural instincts rather than staying true to the corned-beef dialogue. Regardless, it was an improvement.
Speaking of traumatic childhoods, the episode was fairly heavy on its emphasis that the diamonds really do matter, with Paul uncovering not only their dubious origins but also their tragic history (the owners of the store were murdered while their two children hid inside cabinets and watched). The details of the case, recounted by a grizzled LAPD veteran still haunted by the fate of the kids—they ended up in foster care—along with the fact their names were revealed (Leonard and Laura) means that this might matter? If there’s time?
Maybe, given the earlier accounts of being police in L.A. in the ’90s, Ray’s father was somehow involved? Like you said, Chris, there are so many loose ends whipping around that it’s impossible to imagine them all being tied up by season’s end, not to mention a shedload of unnecessary detail. For example: The jewelry store was owned by a husband and wife proprietor. The wife’s name was Margaret Osteren and she was pregnant when she was murdered, on April 30, 1992. The diamonds are worth $2.5 million. I don’t know about you both, but I almost fell asleep during this scene, not because it was boring, but because my brain wanted to immediately reject all the new information.
This, I guess, is True Detective season two: endless amounts of information uttered almost as an afterthought by characters who are near-impossible to understand, and then a few ambitious and cinematic scenes where hardly anyone speaks at all. The orgy sequence was extraordinary in its tonal dissonance, seemingly incorporating elements from a hundred different sources, none of which made sense together. The glaring string-section soundtrack that appeared to have been lifted directly from a John Huston movie. Ani’s twisted Cinderella makeover (total wasted opportunity IMHO, since Tim Gunn had to have been involved). All the briefly glimpsed sequences of bacchanalian horror starring real porn actors, and the nice orgy etiquette of Champagne glasses for Champagne, martini glasses for Viagra.
Also, like you mentioned, Chris, Ray, and Paul all dressed in black, pummeling security guards beyond what’s appropriate and deciding that a huge depraved orgy is the perfect time to eavesdrop on conversations about land ownership. (Did you guys know the full moon is the best time to ratify alliances?) And the countless hordes of silver-haired Uncle Pennybagses leering at the girls while mentally throwing their money in the air and cackling. Was the Texas oilman who prizes “dialogue” over all else a stand-in for Pizzolatto?
Regarding Ani, I’m not sure why they gave her a transponder if she wasn’t even going to try to use it, but the flashbacks to her abuser were nicely stylized, even if totally ridiculous. Who knew “pure Molly” induced hallucinations? If so, why weren’t any of the other pros freaking out, apart from (conveniently) the one in the corner of the bathroom who turned out to be the missing girl from episode one? Some people just can’t handle their vaporized club drugs, I tell you. Between this and Ray’s extended anti-cocaine PSA (the one that left him sobbing on the carpet and smashing up his coffee table and the model airplanes), it was not a good night for narcotics.
Spencer, what did you make of the orgy, and the torture, and the giant coke blowout, and the conveniently located missing hooker? (Like I don’t ask you that question every Monday morning.)
Kornhaber: Good questions about hallucination, Dr. Gilbert. I think in most cases if you’re seeing things while on MDMA, it’s new colors, not old predators. And nice catch, Dr. Orr, about inhalation vs. ingestion. On Twitter, the writer and editor Adam Sternbergh aired some other brainteasers raised by the randy rich-people rager. Such as: Is an orgy really the place to finalize paperwork on a $12 million land deal, full moon or no? Would pasty titans of industry really be so eager to get sexy together? “Is it weird to look over and see like Newt Gingrich naked?”
We may never have an answer to these questions. But even so, I actually found the soiree to be a fairly neato piece of television—perhaps because, as has been said about all great True Detective Season 2 moments, it featured almost no dialogue. The Hitchcockian score, the camerawork that peeked but didn’t leer, and the image of that disturbing yet likely scrumptious hog’s head felt like the work of a better show, one whose creepiness hooks you along rather than tires you out.
But in the real True Detective, moments that should be fascinating only highlight the show’s deep failings. Six episodes in, there’s nearly zero narrative momentum and the stakes remain low, which means that there was almost no reason for suspense when Ani headed to the party other than a humane concern that she might get hurt. Before it all went down, I couldn’t even have told you what the undercover mission hoped to accomplish. If, as it now seems, the goal was to locate the mansion so the boys could break in, the team could just have camped out at the Ventura meetup spot and then trailed the hooker-party bus—no wigs required. But as is so often the case in the True Detective universe, the deeper why doesn’t matter. Cause does not equal effect. Things just… happen.
Like you, Chris, I wouldn’t say I’m “hate watching.” I’m more, say, puzzle watching; for however weak the plot is, I do want to know where it goes. Increasingly, it seems like early hunches about Lieutenant Kevin Burris being shady were correct: At a slender six feet tall, actor James Frain fits the description Irina provided about a cop who asked her to pawn the city manager’s goods. (The other contender is Paul, whose involvement in the murder would be a cool twist if the show could justify it in a coherent way, which it can’t.) Sophie, you pointed out that Velcoro’s dad was in the LAPD at the time of the ’92 riots; so too was Vinci’s current police chief, Holloway. Maybe he grabbed the jewels back then, and maybe he sold them to Caspere to keep him from unleashing the blackmail material on the hard drive, and maybe he and his lieutenant Burris then had to get rough with the city manager—or at least cover up some of the details surrounding his death.
But the bigger mystery of the show isn’t about who killed Caspere. It’s about what in the name of Santa Muerte Nic Pizzolatto has been thinking this whole time. He obviously has a lot of ambition—but ambition to accomplish what? To create a postmodern film-noir mashup, like Quentin Tarantino tackling Raymond Chandler but boring? To keep anyone from hiring Vince Vaughn as a dramatic actor ever again? Or, given all the philosophizing his characters partake in, is Pizzolatto trying to … gulp … say something?
If he is, that something probably has to do with parents and kids. Frank’s conception troubles and traumatic youth are all-too-well documented, as is Ani’s angst over her upbringing. In this episode, Ray gave up custody of his son in exchange for not having his paternity questioned, as if the title of “father” is all that justifies his existence. Paul, meanwhile, bragged about having a baby on the way … just after he learned about two childhoods ruined by the kind of violence he’s often exposed to. Add it all up, and childbirth starts to seem less like a miracle than a supremely risky act of narcissism.
It’s not hard to see a link between that point of view and the rest of the show, in which everything supposedly beautiful about life has been destroyed by the act of living. California is so lovely that, as Katherine Davis says, you’d be lucky to die there—but the land is now poisoned. Working hard was going to be Frank’s ticket to a solid future—but he was thwarted by people he trusted, like Blake, Osip, and Caspere. And love, the thing that supposedly conquers all, led Ray to destroy a few lives and has been turned into a commodity by the Russian sex-slave ring. Maybe the noble thing really is to deny our programming, stop reproducing, and walk hand in hand into extinction. Or maybe the noble thing is to switch off this mean mess of a show and turn on Friends.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.