Review: True Detective Black Maps and Motel Rooms – A Fan’s Lament

And down we go, spiraling into the darkness of the penultimate episode of this season of True Detective. By my tally, a total of nine people lost their lives this week, one of whom was a tad more shocking than the others. Now, obviously I’m going to give full spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the episode, stop now. Not sure why you would be reading a review for an episode you haven’t seen, but here we are. All gone? Good.

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Yes, the stakes have been raised considerably since last weeks sex party sting operation and Paul Woodrugh, played with a deep melancholy and (mostly) poignant pathos by Taylor Kitsch, is dead. This marks a first for the series. Never has TD had a top billed star eat it on screen. He didn’t even get to make it to the finale. Before we jump into the details of this week’s episode, I want to spend a little time on Woodrugh’s character and why his death is the perfect metaphor for this season so far.

The revelation that Paul Woodrugh was gay a few episodes back was a jarring one. Very little groundwork had been laid to point us towards this conclusion, except that he seemed kind of distant towards his finance. That’s about it. I mean, boy, he was angry and seemed like there was always something bothering him, with all that motorcycle riding and what not, but nowhere was it implied that the reason for his angst was his sexuality. The fact that he was gay was never meant to be an interesting facet of his character or a tangible way to show us as an audience how this character would cope with the inconvenience of his identity. No, Woodrugh’s sexuality was a plot point. A way to get him into a situation where he could be blackmailed. I imagine that you could replace this secret with any number of things that might be deemed “shameful.” Drugs, sex addiction, gambling, alcoholism, cross dressing, being a Nickelback fan: any of these would have served the same purpose. Because in the end, it didn’t really matter that he was gay. All that mattered was that he didn’t want anybody to know he was gay and so he was vulnerable to blackmail. And that’s why he died. His finance will never know and Woodrugh dies without having come to terms with his own identity. Aww, that’s so sad.

Except not really. I’ve tried very hard to be positive about this show, despite it’s innumerable issues. When it became marginally better after the disastrous first half of the season, I rejoiced as if it had suddenly become good television. I wrote a couple positive reviews, which I will stand by. But the fact remains that this season was mismanaged, poorly written, and so stupendously convoluted that you’d need a doctorate in deductive reasoning to follow every single thread the show laid out for us. And I was willing to look past all of this in the name of charity and holding out judgement until the end of the season. But now Woodrugh is dead and the most depressing thing about that is that I don’t care.

Woodrugh was the most sympathetic character to ever Truly Detect. He tried so hard to be good and was so conflicted about who he was. He was a classic noir archetype with a modern twist (he’s gay!). And Taylor Kitsch played him with moments of brilliance, sprinkled among a lot of “meh” that was more the fault of the writing than his acting. Sure, his sexuality seemed more like a situational problem than something integral to his character, but it had potential to be interesting. Until it didn’t. Because he died. And now we have a corpse with a name over the opening credits and god damn it, I don’t care. If Pizzolatto had invested as much time in understanding Woodrugh’s inner demons as he did putting the words of E.M. Cioran in Matthew McConaughey’s mouth, we might have had a truly fascinating character. Instead, we get a guy who we feel kind of bad for, but never really knew. It’s indicative of this whole season: plot before character. Narrative before pathos. It’s a show that is somehow emotionally sterile while being filled to the brim with people collapsing into tears and blowing each others heads off.

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So let’s zoom out a little bit and try to untangle the wiry jumble of plot points that have been teased out. After last weeks infiltration of a really icky orgy, the group returns to an isolated hotel so Bezzerides and Vera (the missing person from earlier in the season) can detox from the drugs they were given and so Velcoro and Woodrugh can pore over the documents they stole which connect Catalyst and McCandless to Osip. Don’t know what any of those things are? That’s fine, no one else does either. Basically, it’s the macguffin that proves there was a whole lot of corruption in every level of local government. Velcoro goes to Davis (the groups handler and district attorney) only to find her dead and is forced to go to Frank for help. Woodrugh discovers that Velcoro and Bezzerides are wanted to for murder (Bezzerides for the security guard she killed at the party, Velcoro for Davis) and is contacted by an “unknown caller” who has pictures of him with another man. Frank gives Velcoro some information that, along with the documents, leads the group to this neat little theory: a group of corrupt police stole a bunch of diamonds during the ’92 riots and used them to buy influence in the city of Vinci. However, Laura, a girl who was orphaned during the robbery, tracked them down, posed as Caspere’s assistant, and killed him. Everything that has occurred up to now has been the Vinci PD trying to cover their tracks. Meanwhile, Frank interrogates Blake (I don’t know) and gets him to admit that Osip (another guy) was going to push him out of his business. So Frank kills Blake and pretends to go along with Osip’s proposal to buy him out and make him a general manager. Then Frank kills a security guard and burns down his properties, presumably to spite Osip. Woodrugh is lured into an underground tunnel, fakes out his blackmailer, kills all of his guards, and then is shot in the back on his way out.

And, oh, Bezzerides and Velcoro have sex.

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I gave that last one a new paragraph so I could illustrate the nature of that interaction in the context of this show: an outlier unconnected to anything and seems to come out of fucking nowhere. Another example of plot over character.

Here’s the funny thing about this episode: I actually really enjoyed it. Frank had the best arc he’s had all season. There were several very intense, well-executed action/fight sequences. The general menace and hopelessness of the situation was very effective. Hell, I think it’s the best episode of the season so far. But that’s a very low bar to jump. The best episode of this season doesn’t even come as close to as good as last season’s worst episode. Now I don’t want to get bogged down in comparisons, because that’s not the point. The point is that I was willing to let this show disappoint me time and time again because of the stupendous first season which continues to be one of my favorite seasons of TV ever. If this show didn’t say True Detective over the swirling road ways of Southern California, I would have stopped watching after the first episode. Yes, this episode was thrilling, well-constucted and cannily acted. It’s everything the season has been leading to so far. The problem is that what it’s lead to is middling at best, downright bad at worst. If this is what we’ve been holding out for for the whole season, it was not worth the seven hours we invested. Who knows, maybe the finale will turn it all around. Maybe it’ll tie the pieces together in a way that’s so satisfying, it’ll make me rethink the entire season.

But I doubt it.

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