For all those who gave up after the first three frankly boring episodes of this season of True Detective might be feeling a bit remorseful at this point. After last weeks marked improvement over the previous four episodes of the season, I was expecting one of two things to happen: 1) A return to the complicated and histrionic plotting of the first half of the season, or 2) an acceleration of narrative resolutions that began with last weeks episode. After less than a minute into the episode, I knew we had gotten option 2.
We pick up right where we left off last week. Velcoro (Colin Farrell) has confronted Semyon (Vince Vaughn) because Semyon gave Velcoro a false tip leading to Velcoro killing the man he thought was his wife’s rapist. The episode starts with the two of them sitting at Semyon’s kitchen table, drinking coffee, and pointing guns at each other under the table. From the perspective of a perceptive and intelligent viewer, you know neither of these men are getting shot. It wouldn’t make sense in the context of the story. But nonetheless, the tension is exquisite. Farrell exudes a frantic desperation that makes him seem entirely unpredictable while Vaughn lets the panic bubble just below the surface of his calm exterior. It’s an immensely well crafted scene and it’s indicative of the remarkable uptick in quality that this season has experienced since the last ten minutes of episode four.
Part of the reason for this is a de-muddling of the byzantine plot points of the first half of the season. Bezzerides (Rachel McAdames) gave herself a clear directive to infiltrate a sex party, Velcoro had to come to grips with giving up his son, Semyon had to continue his shadow war with the Mexican gang and Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) was…uhh.. well he mostly sat this one out, pathos wise. Everything was very clear and it made the action and dialogue crackle with an intensity we haven’t seen yet this season. This was brought into sharp focus when Semyon goes to the home of one of his men who was killed earlier in the season. His name was Stan and I have no idea who he was. His crying widow and shell-shocked son didn’t inspire any sort of sympathy in me, mostly because I had exactly zero idea who it was they were talking about. I had to look it up. He was the guy who, like Caspere, got his eyes burnt out earlier in the season. Who knew? But when Frank went to go comfort the son and gave him a very moving speech about what a good man his father was, I was touched. This is mostly due to Vaughn’s strong acting, but also to the writing. Yes, it was a bit schmaltzy, but it set up a relationship between the two of them that may cure Frank and his wife’s fertility woes. Perhaps Frank is about to become a father figure to this boy?
Speaking of father-son relationships, the next scene between Velcoro and his estranged son was deeply painful and brought a poignant rhyming between it and the previous scene. Whatever you say about Pizzolatto, he knows how to highlight theme and structure in his storytelling. The supervised visit between the two of them starts with Velcoro showing how completely oblivious he is to his sons interest and ends with the two of them watching Friends in silence. Ouch. Frank got a hug from the other kid, and he wasn’t even his son. This leads Velcoro to go home and go on a whiskey and coke fueled bender that was viscerally difficult to watch and reiterated what a virtuoso actor Colin Farrell is. He does stunning work here as he collapses to the floor, sobbing and clinging to a photo of his son. It’s heartbreaking and when he calls his ex-wife to tell her he won’t contest custody, we can feel his anguish and his regret. It’s a fascinating salvo to Farrell’s other stand-out scene in the episode, when he confronts his wife’s rapist in jail, threatening to take a cheese grater to every inch of his body. It’s vicious and terrifying and we have no doubt that he plans to do precisely what he says. It’s a testament to Farrell’s acting that we can whole heartedly believe that he would torture this man and also that he would sacrifice his relationship with his son for the kids benefit. Velcoro contains multitudes and Farrell displays them with a sort of violent grace.
The main set piece of this episode was an Eyes Wide Shut-like scenario in which Bezzerides takes on her sister’s identity as a high class prostitute going under cover at one of the lavish sex parties that have been mentioned periodically through out the series. Her effort to search the party for clues about Caspere are deeply hampered by the salacious men milling about and the pure MDMA she has been given so she can “have a good time.” As she wanders through the party, she experiences the sexual anarchy through a cloudy haze of drugs that starts to bring about memories of a strange man from her childhood that we presume molested her. The score becomes hazier and a bit frantic, evoking feelings of dread that give the whole scene a sense of urgency. McAdams excels here as her panic becomes more and more pronounced and she realizes she might be in over her head. But then she finds Vera, collapsed and drugged in the corner of a bathroom, and the scene snaps into high gear. She drags her through the house, pushing away horny men until a bouncer tries to impede her exit. In a desperate attempt to escape, she ends up killing the man with a knife she had snagged earlier and runs through the house, Vera in tow. Meanwhile, Woodrugh has found a series of documents in the house that directly tie to Frank’s botched land deal and we get a meager understanding of why he was thrown under the bus. Apparently, the new land deal is far more lucrative for the seller than the deal made with Caspere using Frank’s money. And so, it would seem, this is the reason Caspere had to die. Woodrugh finds Bezzerides and Vera and they escape to the road where Velcoro picks them up and they drive into the night under a full moon, the mystery now split wide open.
With only two episodes left in the season, the show is accelerating at a satisfying pace. We finally, finally have a relatively clear understanding of what transpired to lead to the death of Caspere and all that’s left is for our detectives to lay a plan to bring the men responsible to justice. We also got the added bonus of watching Bezzerides realize that she killed a man and witness her at the most vulnerable we’ve seen all season. McAdams communicates so much with her heavy breathing and frightened eyes, it’s a joy to see her getting a bit of business that she can really sink her teeth into. The main theme of the series continues to be loss of innocence and flawed people trying to protect the innocent by doing bad things. There was a lot of death in this episode, most of it senseless. But our characters are struggling with it, and now that we know them so well, it’s actually rather compelling. There was no flabby exposition here. No talking heads, telling us what we need to know. Everything was pure character development and plotting. Threads of the mystery continue to be tied up while out heroes accelerate to what is almost certainly a spectacular and bloody conclusion. Things are starting to pay off and the patient viewer is being rewarded for slogging through the uninspired first four weeks.
And I still say I was right about the first half of the season: it was bland, confusing, and a chore to get through. I believe I said this in some form last week, but Pizzolatto is definitely playing the long game here. In the so-called “Second Golden Age of Television,” much of the prestige programming we watch is meant to be consumed one of two ways: either piecemeal over the course eight or ten or twelve weeks, or to be binge watched over the course of a couple nights. The problem with this season of True Detective is that it is very clearly not made for the people who sit down every Sunday to watch the latest episode. There are so many details and characters that pop in and out with lightning speed that seem to have little bearing on the immediate episode, but have huge ramifications for episodes to come. We’re clearly supposed to be keeping track of all these details, but it’s next to impossible when a line about diamonds mentioned four weeks ago is used to propel the plot forward. That’s why I have a feeling this season is going to age extremely well. Not because years of ruminating and the distance of time will clarify the odd choices, but because when viewed altogether, the picture will become much clearer. It’s like watching twenty minutes of a two hour movie every week. Of course you won’t get the full enjoyment. That’s not how it’s meant to be watched.
Tags: Colin Farrell, Nic Pizzolatto, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, True Detective, true detective season 2, Vince Vaughn