[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
It would be safe to say that 'Other Lives' works as a soft reboot of True Detective season 2. After last week's thrilling but ultimately empty shootout, the season finds its characters all in a new position – but not really. Ray, Frank, Ani, and Paul have all been moved around the board somewhat; their circumstances have changed. There are new jobs, new uniforms, and new water-stain free houses in the suburbs, but these are superficial changes that only signify the passing of time. Of all the changes, perhaps the most notable is that Velcoro no longer works for the Vinci P.D.; he's now working as a security consultant for the casino. Oh, and he shaved his mustache.
As someone who has more or less enjoyed the slow burn, Big Sleep-like incomprehensibility of the real estate plot Frank Semyon is supposedly tied up in, and likely has something to do with the gruesome demise of one Ben Caspere, 'Other Lives' can be appreciated for its willingness to spell out what exactly is as stake and where the primary players are meant to be positioned. But while the fifth installment of an eight-episode season works to straighten out its own narrative, modifying itself on a mostly cosmetic level, the episode nearly disappears in a cloud of smoke from the grease-fire of its unctuous dialogue.
It's almost as if Nic Pizzolatto was rummaging through a notebook of bad hardboiled one liners and decided episode five would be where the noxious fumes from lines like Frank's "blue balls in your heart" would negatively affect the least amount of people possible. And given the increasingly unenthusiastic response to this season, he may have been wise to burn off those lines now.
But this is a large cast, and as such, the episode is generous; it isn't about to let Frank hog all the glory in the "did he really just say that?" department. So the audience is also treated to a bottom-of-the-barrel moment in the Woodrugh family trailer, where the $25K Paul left Afghanistan with (and has never been mentioned until just now) has gone missing. Apparently, Paul's paper-thin character of a mother found it and spent it all, playing the "I thought it was for me" card, which leads to some name calling and screaming, before Paul storms out to drink some vodka-infused iced-tea.
And while her scenes may not resort to name calling, Ani still doesn't have it much better. As much criticism as Pizzolatto has taken for his inability to write women, the idea of having him script a scene set in a sexual harassment group with only one woman participating is like watching a bus load of clowns run through a mine field: It's going to get messy, and you'll never be quite sure whether the intention was to make you laugh or not.
As he has throughout the run of the season, Ray fares the best, but only because his hardboiled dialogue is uttered into a recorder, which he hopefully listens to before sending it to Chad, deciding his already messed-up son doesn't need to hear his dad saying stuff like, "Pain is inexhaustible; it's only people who get exhausted." It's not that Chad doesn't need to hear it because the line is a bummer and maybe the boy is a little too young and innocent to hear how the world is going to chew him up and spit him and his LeBrons out; he doesn't need to hear it because it's one of those lines that sounds poetic, but doesn't really tell the kid (or anyone else listening) anything of value.
In between the vapors coming off the dialogue, 'Other Lives' is busy giving off something else: a distinct feeling of familiarity. The episode plays like a rehash of 'The Western Book of the Dead,' but with the characters vaguely aware of more than they were before. All the same beats are present and accounted for, slightly rearranged for viewers' consumption. There's the team-building moment when Ani, Ray, and Paul come together, this time under the auspices of the one virtuous official still hoping to get to the bottom of Caspere's murder and to clean up the corruption in Vinci. Then there's Ray's pummeling of Dr. Pitlor – which mirror's his manhandling of ass-pen's father, but without the memorable threat of what will be delivered upon his return.
Basically, it feels like True Detective is back at the starting point. It has delved into the personal lives of its characters and come up with a bevy or procreant quagmires that range from Jordan's infertility, to Cynthia's regret at having a child, to Gena demanding a paternity test just to get Ray out of her life. There are new wrinkles to be sure. The realization that Frank pulled Ray into hell on a bad (deliberate or otherwise) tip creates the potential for some much-needed conflict, but where does that leave the rest of story?
Frank tells his wife he was "drafted" into the wrong side of a class war, and you get the feeling that this is what Pizzolatto is trying to say with season 2: That no matter how much they would like it to be otherwise, people find themselves conscripted into darkness. That could be a compelling narrative to explore, and to a certain degree it has been; it's just a shame the season hasn't found a way to enlist the services of the larger storyline as well.
True Detective continues next Sunday with 'Church in Ruins' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: