[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last week's True Detective ended with a bang, and fittingly, the third episode opens with what is arguably the most engaging thing to happen so far this season: the show finally allows itself to get weird. It's to Pizzolatto's credit that 'Maybe Tomorrow' doesn't immediately answer the question of Ray Velcoro's fate, after he was the unlucky recipient of two shotgun blasts to the chest, courtesy of a sneaky fellow in a crow mask. Instead, the opening sequence between Farrell and the great Fred Ward (whose presence as Ray's father immediately suggests the apple didn’t fall far from the Velcoro family tree) stretches out the question of whether or not the series would follow through with the bold choice of killing the guy who is arguably the most compelling character it has in season 2.
You can be of two minds with regard to the cliffhanger that was Velcoro's shooting. On one hand, it was an exciting way to end an episode that was already demonstrably better than the premiere. The threat of losing Colin Farrell felt very real and perversely exciting in the moment. The idea that the show would execute such an unflinching maneuver so early in the season suggested a confidence in the storyline very few people (save for Pizzolatto, of course) likely had at the time. Then again, on the other hand, killing Ray off would ultimately have been little more than a storytelling stunt, a way to generate some buzz early on. All the character building the show had done up to that point would essentially have meant nothing. It might have been a clever sleight of hand trick, if there were enough time for the audience to get to know and care about Ray beyond his father-of-the-year antics, his wry sense of humor about body image issues, and his propensity to "get wet from a number of bad habits," but so far, that's all Ray really is: an emotionally tortured not-quite father who carries around his addictions like he's under the impression they're this year's must-have accessory. And considering Ray's anachronistic love for the bolo tie, one can plainly see how unconcerned he is with whether or not anything else about him is up-to-date.
There are certainly some believability issues in terms of how Ray survived relatively unscathed – cracked ribs, soiled pants, and "broken heart" aside – and the script is quick to go into "shut up" mode, telling the audience Ray was shot with non-lethal riot shells. Afterward, the question of survivability is quickly dropped. And maybe that's for the best, since True Detective is more interested in (and more interesting when it is) exploring the ramifications of an action, rather than the action itself.
As such, watching Ray go through the motions of anger, fear, and superficial change – corollaries of his near-death experience and unsurprising diagnosis from his physician – helps the series dive deeper into the psyche of a character who was very nearly written off. In a sense, the audience is made to feel as appreciative of Ray's survival as he is, and, for a moment at least, can see the edge-maintaining glass of water as half full.
But those issues are secondary to that opening sequence between Ray, his father, and Conway Twitty (or a Conway Twitty impersonator; it's honestly a little hard to tell whether or not a guy like Velcoro would dream of the real thing or not) banging out one hell of a rendition of 'The Rose.' The cold open is illusory and funny – two things that have largely been missing from this season so far. Moreover, like the scene at Mayor Chessani's house, Ray's dream cracks the window on the narrative and lets the breeze roll in so the characters can breathe a little bit and the pervasive cloud of True Detective-ness (or Bezzerides hot boxing the car with that damned e-cig) isn't so chokingly thick.
Besides, there's a hint of mysticism in Farrell's conversation with Ward. The line about having his father's hands and looking down at a set of broken, bleeding knuckles is a bit on the nose, but still kind of a clever little two-step with cliché that the show sometimes executes well. And Ward's dialogue is cryptic in a Twin Peaks sense, as though talking about "trees like giants" and his son being cut to pieces by an unnamed "they" will come to mean something more than a particularly portentous bit of interplay.
All of this is to say the opening half of 'Maybe Tomorrow' is arguably the best thing about True Detective in what has so far been a contentious second season. It's so good in fact that one can more easily forgive the other elements of the story that don't quite work, or don't work quite as well.
There's a dynamic developing between Ray and Ani that hints at something closer to an actual partnership, especially after they chase a suspect through a homeless camp (proving once again that True Detective can make thrilling use of genre clichés from time to time) and Ray pulls Ani out of the path of an oncoming semi. The added pressure of knowing Velcoro's days on the force (and on Earth) are quickly running out makes their potential connection appealing, largely because the expiration date stamped on Ray's forehead can be read so clearly.
While Ani's thread benefits from her interaction with Ray, Paul and Frank's threads don't receive the same boost. Taylor Kitsch has been given precious little to do so far this season, so seeing him "put those looks to use" – as Ani suggests in one of two increasingly common examples of True Detective's self-awareness – segues into the slow-burn non-question of his sexuality and the equally slow-burn mystery of what happened while he was a soldier overseas.
Paul may be an outlier, but at least the questions swirling around the character make him somewhat interesting. Which is more than can be said for Frank Semyon, who has increasingly become a void in the storyline. When he's not sucking the life out of a scene with a truly awful monologue about his childhood, Frank somehow finds a way to make beating a former underling, Danny Santos (Pedro Miguel Arce), and pulling his gold teeth with a pair of pliers about as interesting as listening to him talk about rats and darkness.
It doesn't take a cliffhanger to appreciate how much season 2 is riding on the character of Ray Velcoro and Colin Farrell's fine performance. There are still five hours of True Detective left, and while the season hasn't captured the public's attention like its predecessor, at least it's clear what's working and what's not. If the season's going to work at all, it'll need to find a way to make the other three characters rise to Ray's level. And considering how low he is at this moment, that shouldn't be too hard, right?
True Detective continues next Sunday with 'Down Will Come' @9pm on HBO.