So, how do you top something like the all-owning, status-quo destroying shootout of last week? You play it entirely as setup: the lethal violence we saw there leads to a series of sledgehammerblow emotional scenes in this episode. At times, “Other Lives” resembles Breaking Bad‘s “Crawl Space” or The Shield‘s “Of Mice and Lem,” hours of television that don’t give you any space to contemplate or even react to one scene before the next one comes crashing down, emotionally exhausting and exhilarating all at once.
Before we get there, there’s twenty funny, uncomfortable minutes set largely in courtrooms, group seminars, and depositions. Something that’s always been part of Pizzolato’s vision comes really clear all through this episode: he has both an unkillable pulpy sense of aggressiveness and masculinity and an exact sense of how far that won’t get you in today’s world. Pizzolatto’s characters are of the HE GETS RESULTS YOU STUPID CHIEF! variety, but they have to face disciplinary charges, sexual harassment seminars, and custody battles, and they simply don’t know how to handle themselves in those worlds. However, we do get the utter magnificence of Rachel McAdams saying “girth, too. I really wanna have trouble handcuffing the thing”; there is no better test for the viewer than that moment. If you weren’t cheering her, this show may not be right for you.
It’s sixty-six days after the shootout; the first season had three time frames (1995, 2002, 2012) but allowed for crosscutting and narration between them. Here, like Fargo‘s first season, we just jump ahead with no presentation of anything in between. It’s an effective dislocation because most of our main characters are behaving differently. Ray looks healthier; he resigned from the force and has gone back to strongarm work for Frank. It’s a great touch that he says he’s been sober sixty days, implying that he got fullscale shitfaced for six days after the shootout. Frank and Jordan have downscaled to a suburban house in Glendale (L. A. residents will immediately get the reference) and he seems at least a little relaxed, as if falling back to who he was has calmed him. Ani’s stuck working the evidence locker but gets perked up by the chance to work on the case of the missing woman that she learned about in episode one. Paul’s working insurance fraud and planning a wedding with Emily and spiking his iced tea with vodka.
Towards the middle of the hour, “Other Lives” breaks into a series of two-hander scenes that keep escalating and then Pizzolatto blindsides us with a revelation way more effective than a shotgun to the chest. First up are Paul and his mom (Lolita Davidovich), another O’Neillian scene of past hatreds and present damage. She’s taken his $20,000 stash from Afghanistan (really Paul, leaving it with her for four years? What did you expect?) and leaves him with the goodbye line “you ruined my career, you ungrateful asshole.” It’s so Paul that he has to work himself up to say “cooze”; Paul has been disconnected from his emotions for so long that he’s both enraged and still trying to express that rage. Another great touch is her line “you’re a good-looking white man,” one more way Pizzolatto understands the racism and sexism of our world without having much confidence that anything can be done about it.
Then it’s Frank and Jordan’s turn. I haven’t said much about Kelly Reilly’s performance as Jordan simply because she hasn’t done much, but here she gets to do a double monologue with Frank (it’s not really a conversation) about childhood, about adoption, about their future. She’s warm without yielding one inch and for the first time, Frank cracks a little. Any doubts we’ve had about Vince Vaughn should get cancelled by this scene, because he does one of the most necessary things an actor can do, react. Reilly and Vaughn work so well here, and it’s the first time I really bought their love for each other. It makes the later bedroom scene work, because this one already set the ground for it.
Next up: Ani and Ray at the Black Rose and yes I am glad this is a regular thing. (Anyone hoping that Paul has the rehearsal dinner here?) Lower key and therefore so enjoyable, this is my favorite McAdams moment so far. Except for Paul, all of our main characters seem liberated by falling out of power and pursuing interests outside any kind of bureaucracy. Ani works her expressions and her cigarette like Lauren Bacall here (although “girth, too” would be more of a Barbara Stanwyck line) and Ray gets the second-best line of the night, about Paul at the shootout: “he was a fucking god-warrior that day.” We get back in this scene to perhaps the best part of season one: the sense of real characters just sharing time, the sense of two people who understand each other and the spaces in which they live and work.
Over half the episode passes before the plot takes its next major step. Ani, Paul, and Ray meet with Michael Hyatt at the scene of the shootout and they’re all thinking the same thing y’all were in the comments: it was a setup. Hyatt wants to reinvestigate Caspere’s death, covertly this time. Ani jumps at it, Paul agrees a little more reluctantly, and Hyatt bargains Ray in with the promise of custody for his son. It’s a straightforward scene that’s a simple pleasure of genre fiction: we know the investigation has to continue so we know what has to happen here. Then, with no warning, Hyatt drops the bomb: Ray’s wife’s rapist was caught, the identity was confirmed by DNA test (she said “it matched the [rape] kit,” and did anybody else think she said “kid”?) and director John Fowley just stays locked on Colin Farrell’s horrified face. A lot of us suspected this, that whoever Frank sent Ray after wasn’t actually the man who raped his wife.
With the plot cranking up and pulling videos of politicians, a massive land deal for the rail system, prostitutes modified by plastic surgery, generations of corruption into its vortex, and the possible discovery of Caspere’s death site at the end, the L. A. Confidential feeling is strong here. Ray continues on his rage streak and delivers an Ellrovian beatdown (complete with gloves and sap) on the psychiatrist (Rick Springfield), who’s also connected to the past of the mayor and his son. (Ellroy has done so much in his recent books with fathers and sons, and L. A. Confidential was really the beginning of that.) That we’ve seen this kind of thing before doesn’t make this less exciting though, largely because everyone plays it with such conviction.
It’s Ray’s scene with his ex (Abigail Spencer), particularly the end, that so seals the sense here of masculinity and its limitation, especially played against the following scene of Frank and Jordan deciding to adopt. Ray’s ex wants the paternity test to finally put, as she says, the fiction that they were a family behind them while Frank and Jordan want to make a new family, no matter the question of blood. Ray isn’t just hurt here, he’s completely lost; the act of killing his wife’s rapist has defined him (destroyed him, she says) and now it meant nothing. (When the episode ends with Ray at Frank’s door, it means Frank really does owe Ray a life.) Ray finishes the scene with a perfectly cliched noir line: “he set me up–Frank” and there can’t be anything bleaker than her reply: “I don’t know what that means.” The structure of Ray’s masculine drama, with its loyalties, revenges, and beatings, ends up being worse than wrong; it’s simply useless. We’ve seen for five episodes now Ray’s sense of himself as a man, and how that made it necessary for him to kill, and we see now, finally, how that act has robbed him of everything.
Reviews for this season of True Detective will appear weekly Sunday night/Monday morning.