'True Detective': Stunning Action or Superficial Mayhem?

[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]


There is a good chance we might be seeing a trend in True Detective that, should the series be renewed for a third season, would mean a major, series-defining set piece which, for better or for worse, defines each season at the halfway mark. In season 1, it was, of course, the gorgeous – if not perhaps overly praised – single-take shot of Rust Cohle's attempt to survive the chaos erupting within the projects. In 'Down Will Come,' season 2 defines itself by again utilizing the visual intensity of a chaotic situation, this time turning it into a frenzied cacophony of gunfire and twisted metal.

Director Jeremy Podeswa takes almost the exact opposite approach to Cary Fukunaga's smooth seamless shot by using rapid-fire edits to create a frenetic sequence that is brilliant to look at and perversely violent to watch. What begins as a raid on a sweatshop, following some solid detective work by Woodrugh and the soon-to-be-dead Teague Dixon, quickly descends into pandemonium, when one of the raid's targets begins indiscriminately firing on the police headed his way. As the shootout turns into an intense and protracted series of violent encounters, questions begin to emerge as to how this seemingly routine bit of police work could deteriorate so quickly, and what the fallout of this massive departmental screw-up will be.

What's interesting beyond the visceral nature of the shootout – and the fact that Paul Woodrugh finally finds himself in a situation he's both physically and experientially equipped to deal with – is the sudden convenience with which it all goes down. There's a pervasive sense Ani Bezzerides is being sent paddleless up the same expletive-creek Velcoro is, and that, in one form or another, it all has to do with the investigation into Caspere's death – one that increasingly feels like it is not meant to be solved.

The violence and the spectacle run dangerously close to being just that: spectacle. This is largely due to the fact that characters we have never seen until this moment are responsible for half of the mayhem. The criminals' allotted screen time affords them little chance to do anything other than look menacing, kill a bunch of cops and innocent bystanders, and finally wind up dead themselves. But, and this is just speculation after reading into what appears to be a few carefully placed clues, it seems that the automatic weapon-wielding criminals were likely meant to kill two birds with one deadly accurate hail of gunfire.

For starters, Mayor Chessani and his cohort of clearly corrupt Vinci police were present as the task force prepared for the raid. And his parting words to Ani sounded merely snarky at the time, but then turned oddly prophetic once the shooting started. Secondly, the explosion Velcoro attributed to a "cook house" – that also grabbed the attention of the media – felt as deliberate as the torched Cadillac outside the transportation guy's house at the end of last episode. All of this could simply be misdirection by Pizzolatto, as a way to excuse the inclusion of a thrilling action sequence, but that would also mean the sequence itself would be rendered ultimately empty – though perhaps not without consequence. But the manner in which the aforementioned elements were considered suggests the reason behind the bedlam is another part of the mystery that continues to slowly unravel.

It's almost as though Pizzolatto and co-writer Scott Lasser were intentionally putting the cart before the horse – giving us the end result of a series of actions we have yet to see or fully comprehend. This altered emphasis seems to be a recurring structural element this season, as True Detective continues to present moments before informing the audience why they are important. The scene with Caspere's dead body in the back of the Cadillac, Ani's meeting with her New Age guru father, and the funny but seemingly innocuous introduction of Dr. Pitlor (Rick Springfield) all carry with them the same sense of importance-in-hindsight that this episode's defining moment may yet prove to have.

For better or worse that unconventional rejiggering of importance is True Detective just being itself, making the episode's thematic arc of characters contemplating their true nature – or at least acknowledging the duality at war within themselves – once again feel like the series is as interested in – if not entirely distracted by a fascination with – responding to itself as a product.

Over and over again, Velcoro, Bezzerides, Wooodrugh, and Semyon were asked to recognize a side of themselves they have otherwise pretended was not there – or at least was not the predominant facet of who they are as a person. Frank sums it up best (and by best, I mean in the affected way so much of the dialogue can sometimes come across – especially from Vaughn) when he says, "Sometimes your worst self is your best self."

Being a career criminal who has returned to the life he thought was behind him makes Frank the perfect person to deliver such a nugget of wisdom. All the words ring true, but in different ways for each of the self-loathing characters at the center of this still-opaque murder mystery. Though there's little evidence to suggest it, we're led to believe Velcoro (perhaps because of his massive aura) was probably a good guy before his wife's assault led him down a dark path from which he (and his redlining liver) will likely never return. But, like it or not, maybe Velcoro's propensity for being a thug is an indication of who he was meant to be, and the action that led him to Frank's doorstep may have simply been the excuse he was waiting for to explore his base nature.

The same could apply to Bezzerides, who seemingly became a detective to spite her father. But it certainly applies to Woodrugh, who finally gets some meaningful screen time with a little substance to go along with it. Kitsch handles his morning of regret with aplomb and the interplay with Farrell is engaging from a character standpoint – that is, Velcoro having a moment of charity by sharing the contents of his pharmacopeia, while Woodrugh comes clean about the rumors swirling around him. But perhaps Kitsch's best moment is opposite Emily (Adria Arjona). You can see the moment Woodrugh recognizes the unintended pregnancy as a grounding force that will legitimize the person he wants to be, and superficially push him further from the man he actually is.

If this feels like a bit of a stretch, it's because True Detective hasn't provided much else to go on. But there's still something about the way the season has been intentionally making moves and justifying them later that continues to be intriguing enough to give this disjointed exercise in noir the benefit of the doubt, especially as it moves into the second half of its undefined narrative. If all the pieces can somehow fall into place, season 2 still won't come close to attracting the attention of season 1, but it may be able to tell a stronger story.


True Detective continues next Sunday with 'Other Lives' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below:

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