[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
'Church in Ruins' is a unique episode for True Detective, in that it is the clearest example of what the show has been reduced to: a densely plotted pastiche of James Ellroy-isms and moments of chaos intended to spark interest in a lagging storyline. In 'Down Will Come,' there was the frenzied and narratively incomprehensible shootout with the seemingly conspiratorially named Lito Amarillo. Now, two episodes later, the season gives us the much-ballyhooed orgy sequence; details of which emerged online before filming even started.
In the series' short history it has acquired a certain reputation with regard to its treatment and depiction of female characters. The idea that it would, at some point, feature a grand orgy, in the vein of something like Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, was a massive red flag. It smacked of the showrunner's increasing propensity to lean heavily on shallow but visceral events to punch up its already mountainous sense of self-seriousness. But it also suggested, perhaps the issues of character that plagued season 1 (outside of Rust Cohle and Marty Heart) weren't about to be resolved; they were about to be worsened.
What was surprising about the sex party, then, wasn't necessarily that Nic Pizzolatto and co-writer Scott Lasser placed Ani Bezzerides – under the context of her being incredibly eager to unravel the hazy California conspiracy she is apparently investigating – in a situation where something awful was bound to happen to her. It was that director Miguel Sapochnik (director of last season's visually stunning Game of Thrones episode, 'Hardhome') created an unnerving nightmare of a sequence that was, given the immense build-up and attention paid to it in and out of the characters' expository dialogue, admittedly and mercifully rather tame.
Sapochnik framed the sequence entirely around Ani's worsening state, after she was given Molly in Binaca form, while waiting at the sort of craft services table you'd expect to see at Charlie Sheen's house. The framing of the sequence meant that the focus was entirely on Ani; meaning most of the actual orgy took place in the periphery. Many of the shots felt reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's framing of Harvey Keitel's drunkenness in Mean Streets, which expanded the visual show's visual in an interesting fashion. There was no overt sense of theatricality to the party; instead dead-eyed men just stared at drugged women with the same vacant intensity the bidders on Storage Wars do an unopened locker.
These moments were interspersed with the revelation that Ani was molested by one of her father's friends when she was a child. The revelation is obviously horrific and off-putting, but considering the season has been interested in exploring a thread about the failings of fathers, it wasn't so much a twist as it was an inevitable discovery of just how broken these characters already were before we met them. Knowing something would emerge from the darkness, as a way of defining Ani for the audience, was as foreseeable as her slashing someone up with one of those knives she understandably handles with greater care than any of the relationships in her life.
But again, that points out another failing in the structure of season 2. It is too often reduced to a series of mini-events, all loosely related to one another in such a way that they don't so much form a single, cohesive narrative, but rather a storyline more akin to something like, say, a tattered spider's web. There are distinct threads, but too few of them connect in a way that suggests a substantial structure.
And that goes for the characters, too. One of the main problems with season 2 is there are simply too many ancillary characters. And the story has done a remarkably poor job of explaining who they are and why they're important – not just to people like Frank, Ani, and Ray, but, more importantly, to the audience. How many people had to really think about who Vera was before realizing she was an important person for Ani to save?
Moreover, it doesn't matter how many times Frank laments the loss of poor Stan, or how many times he and Jordan venture over to Stan's widow's house to tell his henchman's kid he's got "pure gold" inside him, if we don't know why Stan was important outside of Frank telling us so, all of these scenes are a wash.
And that's too bad, because Vince Vaughn gives what is likely his best performance of the season during this episode – though it's not really his conversation with Stan's kid; it's more his non-verbal responses to things like Ray pointing a gun at him in his own house, and especially the world-weary mask he dons after finding Irina with her throat slashed by the drug dealers he's unwittingly fallen in bed with.
There's a nice symmetry to Frank and Ray's untethering that would have been a boon to the storyline had it been defined much earlier. While Ray confronts the man who ostensibly ruined his life over some coffee, Frank comments that maybe Ray doesn't have the stomach for this kind of work anymore. As the episode progresses, each man falls deeper into a quagmire of their own making. Ray bounces between yet another failed attempt to connect with his son and a massive coke binge (set to the tune of New York Dolls' 'Human Being'), while Frank connects with a child in mourning, only to find himself at the mercy of men who commit an act of violence he simply cannot comprehend the purpose of.
Ray's binge is the sort of inelegant depiction of a man in crisis that seems to be very much a part of Pizzolatto's wheelhouse. And while the moment itself is cartoonish and unnecessary – given there are only two episodes left, and the story is still mostly undefined – it does at least demonstrate how great Farrell has been all season long, and how he has essentially been propping True Detective up on his shoulders.
Ultimately, it's Ani and Frank's discovery of an evil that goes far deeper than anything they thought they knew that resonates the most here. Both character threads tie together the idea of a boundlessly evil and corrupt state of California, where men are driven to obtain power and wealth, and the longer they have it, the more it contaminates them, the more they resemble the polluted land Frank was supposed to have purchased through the all-but forgotten Ben Caspere.
On the upside, 'Church in Ruins' ends with a much-needed burst of energy, leaving the main characters in possession of information that may finally shed some light on the overall mystery and provide the necessary drive to propel the narrative into its final stretch. Things were better in places – mostly due to the direction – but it's hard to see season 2 rising above anything beyond passable at this point.
True Detective season 2 continues next Sunday with 'Black Maps and Motel Rooms' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: