There aren’t a lot of ways a complex, Los Angeles-based story of crime, cops, and corruption can end. The final act isolates our protagonists, separates them from whoever they love, force them to discover that there’s no one they can trust. Call it predictable if you don’t like it, and inevitable if, like me, you do like it; the narrowing down of options forces True Detective and its characters to become what they really are, and creates the best episode of the season and the series to date. Whatever Nic Pizzolatto and his directors could indulge in, that’s gone; all that’s left is to be honest and act on it.
Vince Vaughn and Frank get the most from this. All season, Frank has been in lockdown, trying to be something he’s not; there have been little moments when the gangster he was leaked out, but that’s all. He was formal, stiff even, like another former gangster, Jay Gatsby, “an elegant roughneck, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Director Daniel Attias does some great lighting when Frank plays blackjack by himself, keeping it two notches about Gordon Willis-level shadows. It’s intriguing without overtly calling up The Godfather–that’s not who Frank is. Pizzolatto’s dialogue is at its most artificial, and most effective here: “in the midst of being gangbanged by forces unseen I thought I’d drill a new orifice and fuck myself for a change” is just a stone classic sentence, Norman Mailer via Quentin Tarantino. Finally, the true Frank appears, getting the information from Ray and ripping the furniture as prelude.
Then Frank kills his right-hand man, Blake. Attias does an effective fakeout here, with the slow-motion shot of Frank glassing Blake; it’s showy enough that it takes us out of the sequence. Then we go to Ray discovering their runner, Davis (Michael Hyatt) has been killed and then it’s back to Frank and Blake and we’ve been yanked right back in. Frank comes back to who he has always been here, and who he has always been is a vicious, sadistic killer, the kind who will let you think you’ve gotten a reprieve just so he can put a bullet in your liver, because he wants to watch you die. Slowly. This man was never a businessman, never even a crime lord; he was and is a killer and this was what he held back for six and a half episodes. It’s magnificent and it’s horrible, and it’s what great storytelling can do.
The fallout of the party lands on everyone. In the hotel room immediately afterward, Ani tries to come down and talks about what she did, even if she isn’t fully aware of it; like Frank will in a few scenes, she discovers something that was always there (“I’ve been waiting my whole life for that.”) Rachel McAdams gets so much to play here and does it so well, shifting between emotions and memories so quickly and subtly. We can see her thoughts play across her face even when she’s not aware of them.
Ray doesn’t have anything directly to do here, but he’s so good and so necessary to this episode. Fitting the title, most of Ray and Ani’s scenes are two-handers in the motel room, something that plays into Pizzolatto’s theatrical instincts. Ray backing Ani away from drugged sex at the beginning sets up the growing intimacy between them for the rest of the episode (the two of them sharing a cigarette is a key moment there), leading to something real at the end. Both Farrell and McAdams do so much with their eyes in these scenes, and the dialogue reduces to sentences that are more direct than they’ve ever been (“You’re not a bad man.” “Yes. I am.”) Someone send this episode back to 2004 and show The Shield how to do this and save it from the worst scene in its entire run.
Much less time than you’d expect gets allotted to the details of the conspiracy; there are the obligatory documents and computer screens, and Pizzolatto and Attias have an efficient moment when Paul sees a be-on-the-lookout notice for Ray and Ani. The conspiracy is about what you’d expect: land was getting bought up for the rail deal and the Russian partners were going to screw Frank out of everything; the raid in “Down Will Come” was almost certainly set up to get rid of Dixon, who was on the trail of the diamonds, which were part of the heist during the 1992 riots and, most importantly, everyone is in on it and Frank, Ray, Ani, and Paul have no one they can turn to anymore.
All this and some powerful moments for its supporting players. Ani’s partner gets to say goodbye to her, Paul’s mom and Emily get to watch Splendor in the Grass and share a pizza, Ani’s dad (David Morse) gets to acknowledge how she was taken and (possibly) raped as a child. (Whatever I think of this plot, and now it isn’t clear whether or not she was raped, McAdams and Morse commit to it fully. There’s nothing more you can ask of actors.) Jordan, Frank’s wife, gets to see Blake’s corpse and isn’t thrown for one second. Only Vera, the kidnapped woman who doesn’t particularly want to be rescued, doesn’t do well here; “you feel me?”-type dialogue belongs to David Simon and his team and no one else.
It all comes together–the plot, the characters, the themes–in the last twenty minutes, with a tense action sequence cut together with Frank burning everything down (if we’re doing James Ellroy references, these scenes are from Blood’s a Rover), Ani and Ray having sex, and Paul finally caught by members of the Catalyst Corporation, his former partner in Black Mountain and lover, and Chief Holloway. I haven’t praised composer T Bone Burnett enough in these reviews; a lifetime of producing has given him the ability to mimic any kind of music, and quickly. Last week he wrote a dramatic Angelo Badalamenti-style orchestral work for Ani at the party; here, he does a late 1970s Brian Eno/Tangerine Dream electronic piece for the three storylines playing at once. Attias brings some Zero Dark Thirty effects with lights and guns illuminating a night space, and goes even farther with an incredible top/bottom split shot as Paul yanks his former lover and current enemy down from his hiding place. It’s a great scene and some great fighting, but it’s just not enough; ownage never is in this world, not for Raymond Chandler’s characters, Ellroy’s, or Pizzolatto’s, as Paul finally gets shot dead by Burris (James Frain), probably the “white guy” Irina mentioned last week. Kitsch hasn’t impressed me as much as the other actors here, but damn if he didn’t get a forceful last moment, and he demonstrated the theme of the season: “if you’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you.”
Reviews for this season of True Detective will appear weekly Sunday night/Monday morning.