Everything you need to know about the inconsistencies of True Detective—its strengths and weaknesses this season—can be summed up by the two standoffs that occur in this episode. The first follows directly from the previous episode, and bears the weight of the entire season, as Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) sit across a kitchen table from one another making brief pleasantries over coffees that go untouched on account of the guns they’re both holding on one another beneath that mundane kitchen-table surface. The second, between Frank and the suave drug-runner (Benjamin Benitez) introduced without fanfare in last week’s episode, is treated as a joke, and ends almost as soon as it begins: “Well, that’s one off the bucket list. A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans.” There’s admittedly a bit more to it than that, as it comes out that this man has a connection to the deceased Rey Amarillo’s crew, and provides proof that Amarillo was set up—by a “white cop”—to provide plausible closure to the Caspere investigation. But without giving us so much as the man’s name (his henchman is a silent, posturing cross between Kato and Tonto) or motivation, these scenes are hacky and stylized. This is True Detective at its worst, and toward the end of the episode, a riff on “The Monkey’s Paw” is proffered, with the man delivering to Frank exactly what he promised: a glimpse of Amarillo’s woman, but of her corpse, freshly butchered by the dealer’s crew in a moment of needless, show-off cruelty.
On the other hand, the sequence between Ray and Frank is terse and effective. The dialogue is still a bit too stilted (the lack of sweetness between these two is indicated by banter like “You want milk? Sugar?” “Black”), but both men at least have clear motivations, made all the more immediate by the guns they have trained on one another. As in the first season and Matthew McConaughey’s rightfully lauded performance, both Farrell and Vaughn are able to make the most of Nic Pizzolatto’s words (Scott Lasser is also credited here), especially the more eccentrically worded or pretentiously philosophical ones, when they’re grounded in the real, human circumstances of these characters. What might otherwise be as floaty and unsubstantial as a Zen koan takes on real weight when directly applied to the question of whether Frank took advantage of the rape of Ray’s wife to get leverage against the then-good cop, or if Frank was attempting to uphold his own sense of decency by passing along flawed information. In either case, Frank points out that that soul-selling vengeance was already in Ray, which Ray admits to when he tells Frank that he didn’t even pause to ask the suspected rapist questions before killing him.
“I would have been different,” he feebly suggests to Frank, trying to paint the man as the devil, but Frank brushes this aside: “Of all the lies people tell themselves, I bet that’s the most common.” That these mundane truths come to light over coffee in a kitchen makes the scene all the more effective: This is how close the line is for Frank between a shootout and a coffee klatch, and there’s something sad but true when Frank tells a departing-in-peace Ray that “You might be one of the last friends I’ve got left.” Outside of Frank’s wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), and perhaps one or two bodyguards, Frank’s played tough for so long that he’s got no real relationships.
Another distinguishing factor of this season’s inconsistencies—none of which are deal-breakers, so much as extremely apparent in this episode—is the repetition of known information. Perhaps that’s a factor of using different directors for almost every episode (Miguel Sapochnik is at the helm here), or maybe it’s the complexity of having four central characters and a twisty, hard-to-serialize plot. In any case, there’s yet another scene in which Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) are told point-blank by their superior, Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt), that she doesn’t care about murders—even those as savage as the one that left a forest cabin soaked in blood—unless they’re directly correlated to the Caspere case…and only then because they’ll help to prove that the former attorney general is corrupt.
There’s also a particularly heavy-handed parallel set of sequences in which Ray and Frank both get chances to be father figures to children. Frank delivers money to the widow of his murdered employee, Stan, and winds up delivering vague platitudes to the man’s son about how “hurt can make you a better man” and how “pain shows you what was on the inside.” Meanwhile, Ray squirms under the gaze of the court-appointed officer who’s legally mandated to observe his visitations with his son, Chad (Trevor Larcom), the distance between them on the sofa feeling like it’s a mile wide. Chad shovels down pizza and can’t meet his father’s sincere yet intense gaze, and suggests that he “guesses” he’d miss spending time with Ray if the situation changed, and mumbles a half-assed “K” when his father tells him how he’ll always love him. Chad’s choice of father-son time says it all, as he’d rather watch a simulacrum of actual connection on the television: the sitcom Friends. In that light, perhaps this sequence is artificial on purpose, a knowing wink against the way television usually portrays sequences like this, but at the same time, just as it’s a copout to tell someone that you “guess” you love them too (you either know, or you don’t), it’s also a sign of weakness when a show has to keep insisting and repeating certain truths to the viewer. There’s only so much True Detective should have to actually show the viewer, and it’s almost always stronger when it withholds.
This point is proven by the fallout of Ray’s failed visitation with Chad: The man returns home with a bag of coke, bottle of alcohol, and three packs of cigarettes (all the vices he’d given up while attempting to fight for custody) and brokenly binges on them all. It’s an excessive sequence, but it’s justified by the fact that it’s demonstrating excess. Moreover, Sapochnik doesn’t show the moment at which Ray wrecks all the precious, painstakingly crafted models in his apartment, cutting instead to the quiet moment after that when he resignedly calls his ex-wife, Alicia (Abigail Spencer), agreeing to give up his parental rights and stay away from Alicia and Chad so long as she doesn’t tell Chad the results of the paternity test. As Ray’s drug use suggests, he would rather live with some semblance of an illusion than be forced to live entirely in the real world. Ray, then, is the titular “Church in Ruins”: As he sits in the wreckage of his home, his life, pawning away his own rights in order to save his idea of fatherhood, he’s the perfect image of a man who’s lost his religion. (There’s a hint of this coming, too, when Ray visits the man who actually raped his wife—whom he thought he killed 11 years ago—and sees a bit of himself reflected through the visitation glass. Ray says, “I needed to look in your eyes. It was you.” To which the rapist replies: “My eyes look the same as yours, you ask me.”)
The final sequence of “Church in Ruins,” like the end of episode four’s protracted shootout, is also more than a little sloppy—cathartic more than logical, and too imitative of filmic orgies (think Eyes Wide Shut) than real in and of itself. Again, given the California setting, that might be an intentional choice, with these rich and powerful men being given not what they actually want, but what years of glamour and Hollywood have convinced them is ideal, but it has the effect of lowering the stakes and making it all seem contrived. Before Ani leaves for the party, she’s given repeated warnings by her sister, Athena (Leven Rambin), of how dangerous these parties are: “You get on that bus, whatever your plan, it’s fuck or run.” (Her sister also gives her a painting of a woman drowning on dry land, emphasizing the way in which Ani goes out of her way to keep people away—something she can’t exactly do at a party in which easy sex is expected.) However, Ani shows up with a transponder hidden on her body and manages to pocket a knife from the dining room table, just as Paul and Ray are able to thwart multiple security guards on the grounds, going so far as to waltz in a side door and steal documentation between the head of Catalyst, Jacob McCandless (Jon Lindstrom), and the Russian mobster, Osip (Timothy V. Murphy), who’s apparently decided to go through on the land deal, but without his former partner, Frank.
Their clichéd escape, in which the guards fire on a fleeing Ani and the missing person she’s liberating, but miss every shot seems like a James Bond device—humorous, then, as they’re escaping one supposed male-fantasy (the orgy) by means of another (the action film). That the sequence takes place in an over-the-top drugged-out sex party only makes this more apparent (they’re living the drug-fueled fantasy of being invincible), but perhaps the consequences for their actions (Ani killed a guard, and did so while using her sister’s name to get in the door) are simply waiting down the road. In all, though, the episode never gets as high as its characters, and fumbles the ball even as it confirms things we already suspected, most egregiously when Ani continues to hallucinate the face of the man who raped her as a child as she stumbles through the mansion. Less is more, and while True Detective must eventually start providing some of the answers to the many questions it has presented over the first two thirds of the season, it can surely find a more subtle, realistic way to do so.
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