[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Season 2 of True Detective has been a season of many questions. Not simply those being asked by Ray, Ani, Frank, and Paul of the numerous different crimes and conspiracies they are following, in an effort to make sense of the byzantine narrative, but questions about the merits of the narrative itself. To Pizzolatto’s credit, the plot has been grand – a monstrous California crime drama overflowing with multiple plot threads and ancillary characters, each with their own storyline and set of individual wants. But early on, season 2 felt grand in a way that, because of how so many of its characters were not fully realized, made its structure far more difficult to pin significance onto, or, more importantly, a real reason for the audience to be invested – outside of their fondness for season 1, or desire to simply see this modern-day noir to its conclusion.
The question that ‘Black Maps and Motel Rooms’ leaves the audience with is this: Can the engaging events of the episode make up for the issues that permeated the previous six? The answer is no, but it does spice things up in a way that, heading into next week’s 90-minute finale, one might feel a sense of anticipation rather than a sense of obligation.
Imagine if you will, the plot structure of True Detective season 2 is like the demoralizing wad of tangled cords and lights you are faced with when it comes time to decorate you tree or house each Christmas. No matter which way you pull on what seems to be the right strand, the whole thing just seizes up, becomes an even more impregnable gob of twisted wires you can only see the external parts of. The penultimate episode doesn’t so much as loosen the hellish knot as it simply runs a sharp blade over it, cutting deep into the heart of the tension keeping it from unspooling.
In other words all these disparate elements – the death of Caspere, the Catalyst Group, Frank’s money woes, Ray killing the wrong man, and, last but not least, the incongruous blue diamonds – are finally laid bare, and some semblance of sense is made of them. Then there’s the business with Paul’s military buddy and his connection to Holloway, who, of course, is in Chessani’s pocket and a big enough part of the tenuous conspiracy that he would find Teague’s photos of Paul compelling enough to try and use them to recover the documents stolen from the sex party. There’s a line about the whole thing being a “coincidence,” which it most certainly is, but at this point, seems forgivable, since it brings Paul’s arc to an end and raises the stakes for Ray and Ani.
What’s interesting is that so much of the episode relies on exposition and characters explaining what’s going on to one another, and yet it’s far more convincing and engaging than any of the previous dialogues about water stains, the inexhaustibility of pain, and the “pure gold” Stan’s kid is made of. The reason is, this dialogue leads the audience to answers, and it works as the catalyst (no pun intended) to get these characters to make choices that matter in terms of defining who they are in a way that goes beyond the trite, overused exclamations of Paul saying, “I’m just trying to be a good man” and Ani telling Ray, “You’re not a bad man.” What the show so clearly doesn’t understand is how unnecessary it is to have characters apply such a simple binary to their character. For one thing, most of them – Paul especially – is so flat (despite everything Kitsch has tried to do to make him interesting) that expressing a desire to be good is about as useful as the coke and whiskey binge Ray went through last episode; it’s all surface-level expression that doesn’t carry any real significance.
Yes, Paul chooses to protect his friends by killing his old military pals, and ultimately pays for that choice with his life, so you could say his declaration of wanting to achieve “good man” status is a result of that. But all that matters in the end is the action, not the statement. We can infer who Paul is by the choice he makes that leaves him dead (really dead this time, not Ray dead, like at the end of episode 2), so why waste time with what is quickly becoming the most overused line of dialogue for dark, gritty television dramas, when there’s decisive and tragic action to be had just right around the corner?
The other side obviously comes from Ani and Ray’s intimate night together in a sleazy motel, drinking whiskey out of plastic cups. The scene is handled nicely by director Daniel Attias, who frames each shot remarkably close to the actors’ faces, forcing the notion of intimacy and desperation to push for elbow room with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in on the two, as they realize there’s really no way out; they’re outmanned and outgunned. And as evidenced by Davis’ murder, the people calling the shots are always one step ahead of them. Paul’s short-lived victory, in which he overtook four highly trained assailants, resulted in a Departed-esque execution by Burris (James Frain), just when he thought he was home free. If anything, his death seems to be a portent of things to come for Ani and Ray.
So, in its own way, the hook-up between them was indeed as unsurprising and derivative as all the “good man” claptrap. But given the circumstances that suggest they might be the last opportunity one another has to make a human connection, the cliché of two very attractive people falling into bed with one another is mostly forgivable.
Perhaps what works the best about the episode is that Vince Vaughn’s character finally begins to make some sense, and now that he’s got mourning Stan out of his system, he can go about the business of burning the businesses Chessani’s son and Osip pulled out from under him, after they screwed him out of the land deal that was to be his ticket out. As much fun as it would be to see the next episode dealing with Frank running an Applebee’s in Ventura, chances are he wouldn’t be able to get away with beating and then killing his staff, like he did Blake, in what is likely going to be the best scene Vaughn was a part of this entire season.
With Ani getting her family out of town – after an admittedly good sequence in which she and her father seemed to genuinely feel the weight of what his lifestyle cost his child – and Paul securing his mother and fiancée in a hotel room, the finale is poised to be a propulsive 90 minutes. HBO’s Mike Lombardo recently encouraged naysayers to reassess the season after its conclusion. It seems unlikely that True Detective will completely rectify the problems it’s had all season long in the span of two (and a half) episodes, but if this languorous storyline can finish on a high note (one that looks to include Colin Farrell riding an escalator in a denim getup and cowboy hat), then at least it will have something to hold over season 1.
True Detective will conclude season 2 next Sunday with ‘Omega Station’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: