Comparing the classical, effective opening scene of “Church in Ruins” to the largely weak rest of the episode makes clear what True Detective does best, and what its weakness is. The first scene is something I have never gotten tired of, the scene of recognition. Doesn’t matter if it’s here, Unforgiven, The Shield, Kurosawa, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Michael Mann, I will always love the moments when people have to face the truth of who they are. And if it involves two people holding guns on each other under a table, so much the better.
Part of what makes this work is the mostly complete calm of Ray, and the absolute calm of Frank. Something that’s apparent here isn’t just how carefully Frank controls his volume and vocabulary, he also controls the rhythm of his speech. He can’t lose control of anything, can’t give away weakness to anyone but Jordan (and then, maybe). (That’s something we see again in the later scene with Irina’s corpse.) He uses that control to spin Ray’s claim back on him, and to land on the fundamental theme of this season, when Ray says “I would have been different.” Consciously or not, Pizzolatto echoes the great line from Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men: “it might all have been different, Jack. You got to believe that.” Frank sinks that and says no Ray, you would not have been different. You always are the thing you are, and I just let you become that thing. “Own it,” says Frank, maybe the true end of drama, to force you to know who you are and always were. Jordan coming in with her own gun serves as a perfect button.
That scene sets up one of the better moments later in the episode, when Ray calls his ex Gena and surrenders custody of his son. As Gena, Abigail Spencer has been this season’s MVP, playing hurt but also playing rationally, the one who knows that revenge doesn’t heal you, the character who’s chosen not to be defined by her pain. She’s the negative space that surrounds every other character, and she reminds us that not everyone in this world has to be chained by the past. Spencer conveys this so well in a few lines. Pizzolatto may not be interested in the stories of people who can heal, but he knows well that they exist and uses them to draw his other characters more clearly.
That scene serves as a highlight for a mostly weak later episode, although I sort of liked Frank extracting information via nailgun; he seemed relaxed for the first time. He was equally good talking to his late partner Stan’s son. (Vaughn continues to be the best of the cast, subtly shading in emotions because Frank can’t afford to express them.) Pizzolatto has strengths and weaknesses similar to Kurt Sutter in Sons of Anarchy, in that he does well in the moments of confrontation and revelation but has difficulty plausibly getting to those moments. Unlike Sutter, Pizzolatto has the sturdy framework of the procedural to fall back on, so he doesn’t indulge in the wild plot leaps of Sons. True Detective has the opposite problem: too many moments in this episode feel generic. (The punk-scored jump-edited coke-and-tequila binge would have gotten either a “eh, too clichéd” or “Colin, we need to see your ass” from Sutter. The edit at the end to the trashed apartment worked, though.) In the first season, the procedural beats took us to so many interesting places and people in Louisiana, but neither Pizzolatto nor his directors (here, Miguel Sapochnik) can do the same for contemporary California; the loss of the strong vision of Cary Fukunaga has become clearer throughout the season.
That reliance on cliché, on overused tropes, sinks what should be a great final sequence, as Ani infiltrates a sex-‘n’-drugs party in Northern California with Ray and Paul tracking her. We’ve got Russians from the Guttural Accent Gang and guards who somehow never check in with each other and windows that don’t have magnetic alarms and documents stashed in easily opened desk drawers and a couple of bad guys (Osip the Russian and [I think] Corporate Dude who wants the hard drive) in the right office at the right moment. We’ve got Ani loaded with MDMA and seeing the world through filters, we’ve got businessmen fucking young women, both of which kept making me think I was watching Taken. We do not have the kind of spatial awareness Jeremy Podeswa brought to the shootout in “Down Will Come.” Worst of all, we’ve got Ani hallucinating what looked like her rape when she was a child at the compound, and this leading her to kill one businessman and one guard.
As great as Ani’s ownage was, particularly the guard bleeding out before he could choke her, this isn’t encouraging for her character. Earlier, talking to Athena, Ani sounded a lot like the best of Rust Cohle; someone who’s simply and honestly not afraid to be alone. Her history with her father and with the compound, and McAdams’ performance, made Ani thoroughly believable and engaging. To place rape as part of her backstory comes off like cheap psychology, especially since that leads to her stabbing someone. Ani was undercover at the party and trying to leave, Ray and Paul were knocking out guards–if someone had to die as a plot point, there were other ways to get there.
Still, we do have two episodes left and I’m not sure how this will play out; we may simply never come back to that moment. Ray, Paul, and Ani get away with a bunch of documents (and hey! With the missing Vera, because apparently things would have been too plausible if Ani didn’t just run into her) and two potential murder charges for an easily identifiable woman. Whatever things this episode did wrong, setting up the final hours wasn’t among them.
Reviews for this season of True Detective will appear weekly Sunday night/Monday morning.