Orr: Well, thank goodness we all know that Lieutenant Burris shot Paul Woodrugh with a rubber bullet, right? I wonder what song Woodrugh will hear a country cover of during his pre-awakening dream sequence. I’m rooting for Johnny Cash’s version of U2’s “One.” (Seriously: This is what happens when you cheesily undo the death of a principal character, as True Detective did after episode two. It becomes hard for viewers to take any tragic turn too much to heart. It’s the exact opposite of the upping-of-emotional-stakes that takes place when you actually kill them.)
But let me rewind to a little earlier in that particular storyline to unpack the torrent of wildly implausible and thoroughly unnecessary narrative detail that was unleashed upon viewers tonight. Please correct me if I’m wrong, guys, but as I understood it:
Woodrugh was set up by his war (and bed) buddy, Miguel, who hooked up with him “on orders” as part of a blackmail scheme by his old mercenary outfit, Black Mountain, which wanted to make sure that he “kept confidentiality” in light of the damaging (but never described) news stories that have been circulating about the company. But coincidentally, Black Mountain has now re-branded as Ares Security, a company whose only client is the Catalyst Group, which has been up to its eyeballs in the crooked land deals and sex parties Woodrugh has spent the whole season investigating. Still more coincidentally, Teague Dixon, Ray Velcoro’s erstwhile partner and a halfhearted task force member, was tailing Woodrugh for his own, individual blackmail scheme and photographed him getting intimate with Miguel. After Dixon died during the episode four bloodbath, Police Chief Holloway, by yet another “happy coincidence,” found the photos Dixon had taken of Woodrugh. Still later, Holloway and assorted Catalyst Group muckety-mucks were at the sex party from which Woodrugh and Velcoro stole the land deal contracts. So now Holloway shows up with Ares Security (again, formerly Black Mountain; sole current client: Catalyst) to use the photos to make Woodrugh return the contracts.
I struggle to think of any time I’ve witnessed a more remarkably compressed presentation of convoluted (and completely uninteresting) plot details on the big screen or the small. But sadly it was all too characteristic of tonight’s show, which should have been titled “The Episode of Infinite Exposition.” Almost as dense as that last scene was another in which our three principals accomplished more police work in two minutes than they had in the previous five episodes, solving the ’92 diamond heist and their own setup at the shootout, while name-dropping secondary and tertiary characters at machine-gun pace: Holloway, Burris, Dixon, Caspere, Chessani, Amarilla, Tascha ... About the only chance I had to catch my breath was when Ani was mispronouncing “fiefdom.”
Then there was the scene in which Ani showed Ray the photo with the woman Vera had identified as “Laura.” Ray corrected her: It was Erica, Caspere’s former secretary, whom we met briefly a couple times early on. (What’s less significant than a tertiary character? A quaternary one?) But wait! Woodrugh had already very awkwardly snuck in the information that one of the orphans from the ’92 robbery had been named Laura. Two Lauras, across the span of 25 years, in the Southern half of California—it can’t be a coincidence, can it? Ray and Ani seem to think not, and I wish I doubted their assessment of show creator Nick Pizzolatto’s plotwork this season. At this point, I’d put Laura/Erica at even odds to be the crotch-blasting, eyeball-burning, bird-headed assassin that the show has basically forgotten all about since episode three.
This is what happens when you devote two-thirds of a season to scene after scene after scene of Frank and Jordan’s Baby Problems, and Frank Shaking Guys Down, and Look How Fucked Up Ray and Ani Are, and Melancholy Singer in the Dive Bar Yet Again—and then you suddenly realize that with only a couple episodes left you haven’t offered even a rudimentary outline of the central plot. At this rate, I half expect next week’s finale to consist exclusively of a flow chart explaining the innumerable interconnections between Caspere, Chessani (pere and fils), Holloway, Burris, Osip Agranov, the Catalyst Group’s Jacob McCandless, Attorney General Geldof, Dr. Pitlor, and whatever other largely interchangeable baddies I’m forgetting. (Interchangeable, that is, except for Pitlor and the elder Chessani, who I think should get their own HBO show together. Did you notice the wicked irony with which the latter told a blonde in the bar that his family was a political dynasty, “like the Kennedys,” just seconds before asking her to “hum my balls a little.”)
Amid tonight’s incessant exposition, I had only a few other observations to share before passing on the torch (I should note here that usual round-tabler Sophie Gilbert is out of the country this week, and David Sims will be filling her mighty shoes):
1) The show’s title is a reference back to the long-lived pulp magazine True Detective, and from the start the series was intended as a kind of smart, ironic take on the genre. (In this, it’s not unlike Shane Black’s great 2006 movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which resurrected Robert Downey Jr.’s career. But rather than opt for satire, Pizzolatto emphasized the mythological and grotesque.) Over the course of this second season, however, True Detective has seemed more and more like the tossed-off, seat-of-the-pants pulp that inspired its title. (Or, worse, a serial novel: The killer was that nameless receptionist from chapter two!) The self-seriousness of the show and its increasingly disappointing literary ambitions do it no favors here.
2) On a related note, after an unusually good episode last week, Frank got stuck back in his gangster-with-a-thesaurus box tonight. He had his moments, especially as a silent, safe-emptying arsonist. (If she were here, Sophie would note, correctly, that the show is at its best when everyone stops talking.) But some of the dialogue Frank was saddled with tonight would exceed the capacities of any actor, living or dead: “I figured I’d drill a new orifice and fuck myself for a change”; “Please…articulate…the percentage you would require…to transact with me” (this line felt as though it had been Google-translated to Farsi and back more than once); “Guy’s been around the last three months less than my wife’s period.” I wish you well in your bid for dramatic respect, Vince Vaughn. But you’ve chosen the wrong muse in Pizzolatto.
3) Last week, I noted that the Big Rescue of Vera from the sex party was based on essentially no evidence that she wanted to be rescued, apart from her failure to return her sister’s phone calls. I really liked that the show ran with this idea tonight, but I fear that it’ll be yet another example—like last week’s terrific slow-reveal of the truth about Ray’s vigilante murder of his wife’s presumed attacker—that ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.
4) So obviously it wasn’t Vera (narratively peripheral, but given considerable moral weight) who was torture-murdered in the shed in the woods. Instead we learn that it was Tascha, who was narratively peripheral and morally weightless. This is an appalling devaluation of the gory-ritualistic-murder coin. Last season, there was an entire mythology undergirding such atrocities. This season, it feels shamelessly and incoherently wedged in: Why would powerful, secular sex-partiers deal with a snitch this way? My best guess—and only a guess—is that the cabin is a remnant of the “secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system” storyline that Pizzolatto abandoned in the process of writing the season. In any case, it doesn’t fit at all.
5) I’ll leave this mostly to you guys to discuss if you like, but let me offer a moderate yuck for the Ani-Ray hookup. No, it’s not nearly as gross as it would have been if he’d acceded to her Molly-fueled tackle early in the episode. But it’s still a scene I think the show hasn’t earned, especially with the two of them spending most of the evening dutifully explicating plot points.
6) Despite my overall negative assessment of tonight’s episode, I will offer one unqualifiedly positive take. When Frank, describing Tony Chessani to Ray, said, “The kid’s a twist,” this was a clear reference to the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing—and anyone familiar with my feelings for that film will know just how happy this made me. (To any skeptical of the reference, I cite the show’s equally obvious shout-out to Blood Simple back in episode one.)
There’s a lot I left undiscussed here: Frank’s brutalization of Blake; Woodrugh’s crazy, but apparently successful, idea to stick his girlfriend in a motel room with his wildly jealous mom (note: I sincerely doubt that motel offers room service); the discovery that Ani’s dad does not seem to be a psychosexual co-conspirator; etc.
I’m also guessing that the ending means that we’ll never learn exactly what horror befell Woodrugh in “the desert,” let alone the provenance of the extensive burns that pre-dated his military service. Nah, I’m kidding. He’s obviously still alive. Right?
Kornhaber: Oh, Chris, how can you joke at a time like this? A dastardly villain just murdered an all-American hero! Think of the many boys and girls who’d bought Officer Woodrugh action figures capable of the exact same emotional range Taylor Kitsch has shown this season! Think of all the wonderful moments we’ve spent watching this troubled but noble war veteran doing things that amused us, intrigued us, and built our investment in his success! As with the Starks and Seattle Grace Hospital surgeons to fall before him, TV Land mourns.
Kidding, kidding. Unfortunately, the only emotion I felt decisively upon Woodrugh’s demise was admiration for the camerawork that made Burris seem like a jungle cat silently moving in on prey. Look, TV shows don’t need to make you unequivocally “root” for their characters, but the craven, vindictive, and cold Woodrugh stands as a great example of a protagonist-in-name-only; until he died, I hadn’t realized just how little interest I had in his survival. When the show cut to Emily crying at Splendor in the Grass, I did feel sad for the two women and one unborn child he had stashed away in that motel. But my sympathy for them is also antipathy toward Paul—he died less to stop an injustice than to cover up a same-sex tryst whose existence would have shocked no one in his life.
Okay—beyond noting how difficult it is and will be for True Detective to produce moments of true emotional power after alternately numbing and annoying the audience for seven weeks, I’m going to try to not carp too much today. Despite the many “huh, what?” moments you’ve so accurately chronicled, Chris, for me this was the most consistently engaging hour of True Detective Season Two because, well, things happened. The story moved. Dots were connected.
In fact, so many dots were connected that it feels like Pizzolatto is overcorrecting in response to complaints that Season One kept its character backstories entirely separate from its murder mystery. As Vinci Confidential nears its end, it has started stitching its many threads into one big, gnarly dreamcatcher. Woodrugh’s romantic and professional associates reemerged in the Catalyst security force; Ani’s family provided intel and her partner helped protect them to make up for his complicity in her harassment proceedings; Ray’s troubles with his son and ex-wife have allowed him to consider leaving the country, and his framed-rapist saga has turned out to be a result of Blake’s criminal entrepreneurship; Frank’s many scenes of shakedowns are starting to pay off as he puts together a getaway/revenge plan. Most of this is not plausible, little of it is easy to follow, but all of it is is kind of fun to watch come together.
The most notable connection moment, or perhaps just the most horrifying, was the one between Ani and Ray. Shall we count the layers of awkwardness and trollish gender politics here from screenwriter and characters alike? First, there’s the fact that Ani threw herself at her partner right after surviving a prostitution party that made her flash back to her own sexual abuse, as if the combination of drugs and stimulation and sadness at the hands of men were too much to handle without comfort from… another man. Then there’s the fact the season’s main female character has now hooked up with just about every eligible cop she’s spent time with (well, not poor flatulent Dixon), even as she continues to be judgmental towards other women’s sexual activity. And finally, what ultimately brings Bezzerides and Velcoro together is bonding over sexual assault (Ani’s own, Ray’s wife’s), in yet another example of Pizzolatto believing trauma to be the only determinative thing about anyone’s personality or relationships.
But you know what? This might be the first time this season that we’ve seen two people do something simply because they wanted to and it because it made them feel good. If they end up on the same plane to Latin America as Frank and Jordan do in the next episode, all setting out to find a new life far away from Vinci, well, there are worse endings imaginable.
The other notable thing about the detectives’ spitswapping is that it checked off one of the last remaining paperback-romp tropes that this season hadn’t yet tackled. Chris, unlike you I’m still not convinced that True Detective isn’t going for satire (overproduced, tonally bizarre satire). There were moments this hour where the show seemed thrilled to be nonsensically cool, like a child giddily making up a story while playing with toy guns. I mean, the unveiling of secret tunnels under Vinci? The slow-mo glass bashing of Blake’s face? Not one but two sequences of Frank finding creative ways to light his casino on fire? His hilariously redundant shopping list? The emoji-laden blackmail text message to Paul? (Less cool, but definitely, um, striking: usurious Hasids and the revelation that the greedy gang boss is Jewish?) Let’s hope for everyone involved that most of this stuff was done with a wink. At the very least, let’s revel in the fact that none of it was boring.
David, I’m eager to hear a fresh perspective on this show. Or maybe you’re in the same mindset that this roundtable has been all season, a mindset that Ani’s dad nicely summarized tonight—“goddamn everything.”
Sims: Well, I’ll say this, Spencer. Last night’s was the first episode that suggested an actually exciting plot direction for the future. Unfortunately, I think it was intended as a joke—Jordan proposing running away with Frank from their life of middle-management crime, and Frank responding, “Do you see me managing an Applebee's?” “I worked at one once,” Jordan says. “They give you a shift meal.”
I’m sold. A spinoff where Frank chokes out waiters and wars with rival fast-food joints sounds a good deal more entertaining than the various plot crescendos we suffered through in “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms.” Just don’t let him near the gas taps.
I’m noticing some muted praise for this episode simply because it finally advanced the plot after six weeks of meandering, but before reading Chris’s explanation of what was going on with Woodrugh in those shadowy tunnels, I really couldn’t have told you much about what happened and why. The appearance of Lieutenant Burris (James Frain) as Woodrugh’s assassin wasn’t too much of a shock, but mostly because I figured Frain had to pop up again since even Nic Pizzolatto wouldn’t waste a character actor that strong on a background role. I’ve tapped Burris as the chief Birdman suspect from the beginning, but whether I’m proved right or not, it’s hard to know how that revelation could have much impact on the viewer. Unlike last season’s “Spaghetti Man,” there’s no villain here (real or imaginary) who carries any supernatural weight. When our heroes finally started connecting the dots of this conspiracy, the only thing I really learned is that I should have been paying attention to everyone’s last names.
Honestly—I wish Ani could have held up an actor’s headshot every time Ray mentioned someone just so I could keep track of which shadowy bureaucrat or gangster they were name-checking. In between True Detective’s first and second seasons, Pizzolatto seems to have forgotten that a conspiracy isn’t an inherently interesting thing. So Vinci’s public officials, private military contractors, Russian mobsters and, uh, the Mayor’s son are all involved in some cosmic criminal boondoggle involving stolen diamonds and the ’92 L.A. Riots and missing people and who knows what else. But to what end? They want to cash in on land parcels and push our anti-heroic crime boss out of power? Who cares? The lack of personal motivation was underlined by Vera’s complete disinterest in being rescued from last week’s orgy. Pizzolatto has been so concerned with making each of his characters so flawed and self-involved, there’s barely a hint of heroism to the whole enterprise. Whether those land parcels get sold or not, the world will spin on, undeterred.
Perhaps that’s why “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” decided to advance Ani and Ray’s romantic entanglement, which until now had lain very, very dormant. I’ll admit I was more invested in their traumatic union than I was in Woodrugh’s demise (talk about an unlikable protagonist), but only because I think Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams have consistently tried their damnedest to throw some sparks off of every gnarled, overwrought piece of dialogue they’re handed. In another world, this could be the TV episode of the year—a turbo-charged bottle episode, with our heroes locked in a motel room unfolding the dense mystery and their brewing attraction to each other. Instead, Ani and Ray’s union felt as forced as all of the expositional dialogue they were spewing—it’s the seventh episode of eight, so time to wrap everything up, right?
I’ll give a little more credit to Ani’s confrontation with her father, not because of the similarly stilted dialogue (“Goddamn everything” indeed) but because McAdams and David Morse really did try to sell their conversation as an emotional breakthrough. While I’m not invested in the core conspiracy, I do like the leads enough to hope for some personal development, and I’m warmed by these little moments (such as Ray watching Friends with his son last week, as absurd as it sounds). It was beyond too late for Woodrugh, and the other stars might be headed for a similarly bleak fate in next week’s finale, but at least Ani got a vague admission of guilt and regret from her father rather than some garbage about auras. Season two of True Detective mostly feels like a lost cause—whatever Osip, Burris, and the rest of them are up to, I can’t imagine a plot twist seismic enough to reel me back into this sprawling conspiracy. But maybe there’s room for a few more personal triumphs in next week’s feature-length finale. Maybe Frank will finally buy that Applebee’s franchise.
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