Nothing good or true grows in the Southern California of True Detective. It is a world of contaminated lands and barren wombs, unchecked corruption and hollow progress. Anything that takes root is a lie, be it profoundly crooked Frank Semyon’s doomed quest for legitimacy or profoundly confused Paul Woodrugh’s desperate want to be husband and father to pregnant Emily. If it had an “aura,” it would match Ray Velcoro’s — green and black, and so huge you can’t miss it… just like the show’s on-the-nose symbolism. Behold the hostile soil in Frank’s backyard, rejecting the avocado seed the way Jordan rejects his own.
This season of True Detective has been a flawed one, for sure, and the first four episodes haven’t been the equal for the first four of the show’s rookie year. But “Down Will Come” was the first outing that really didn’t do much for me at all. (And it’s not just because there weren’t any cryptic masks for me to decode this week, although I must confess: Huge friggin’ disappointment there.) Yeah, sure, there was that blood-pumping shoot-out to close the story. It was terrifying. The panic of heroes as they were pinned down by machine gun fire. The moment when one of the gunmen opened fire on the bus. The body count. But it lacked the bravura, subtext, and character-driven drama of the last season’s mid-point climax, the single-shot set piece, tracking Rust Cohle’s hellish trek through a Louisiana housing project. It was a furious, noisy sequence, but it failed to connect with the significance it was straining to reach. Which kinda sums up the entire season so far, actually.
If anything, “Down Will Come” showcased the season’s most alienating aspects in the most alienating ways. As much as I am provoked by the hard-boiled existentialism and intrigued by dystopian Vinci and its western wasteland environs (the show’s version of Southern California is its best wretched character), it’s hard to care about a worthless world that doesn’t want to be saved, and maybe shouldn’t. I’m this close to abandoning hope that a character will pop or a relationship will emerge to engage my emotions. It’s a lot of waiting around for miserable people to get the balls to confront their painful pasts or resolve their conflicted presents, or get so miserable that they finally change their ways, or just destroy themselves, already, and take Vinci down with them. It bothers me that Ani Bezzerides doesn’t have eyes to see what we see: That the conspiracy she is investigating is the secret origin story of her own f’d up life and her own f’d up world. (The closest she got to this epiphany was when she learned that Mayor Chessani, Dr. Pitlor, and Caspere spent time with The Good People, her father’s commune, in the early eighties. “Jesus, that’s some f—ing coincidence.” You think?!) She, like everyone else, has a complicated relationship to the notion of self-knowledge, enlightenment, etc., but the show is struggling to make that idea dramatically interesting.
And the dialogue this week: Ugh. Every time Frank opened his mouth, I braced myself to groan. I think the idea with Frank is that everything he does is about escaping and transcending his base stock, but he’s so hopelessly flawed and his strategies are so meaningless that every expression of this desire is doomed to fail, including his language. But his pretentious words and his convoluted phrasing come off, well, pretentious and convoluted. Even his pulpy tough talk is silly. The stuff with the sugar and the cavities? It’s hard to give him any benefit of the doubt when other characters talk this way, too. Like this one from Ani, recalling a vivid, random memory of her mom: “Those moments, they stare back at you. You don’t remember them, they remember you. Turn around and there they are. Staring.” I think this line might be telling us something important about Ani — this abdication of responsibility for her own memory is suspicious — but the truth is, I really don’t know what the hell that’s supposed to mean.
In general, “Down Will Come” left me feeling more discouraged than ever about this season. Maybe the best line of the night came from Ray’s blotto’d partner, Teague Dixon: “You know what? I could give a s—-t!” I’m not there yet. But I’m close.
NEXT: The recap proper. New and improved with brevity and snark!
True Detective season 2 episode 4
“Down Will Come”
The One That Made Me Go “Meh”
Actually, the major development in “Down Will Come” — a greedy pimp, Ledo Amarilla, was tagged as Caspere’s killer; he was blown away in the shoot-out — reminded me more of the fifth episode of True Detective’s first season, the one in which Cohle and Hart raided Reggie Ledoux’s bayou compound and convinced themselves they had found their Yellow King, when really they had been subtly steered toward patsies by a conspiracy trying to mask the truth. (That doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of that spectacular hour of television, and it also doesn’t begin to explain why that development was so compelling, i.e., because Cohle and Hart screwed up that siege so badly and tried to cover up their tactical and character failings… but we’re recapping this season, not last season. Unfortunately.)
I’m not going to do my usual elaborate blow-by-blow this week, because the procedural portion of the story was basically about clarifying, expanding, and paying off stuff we already knew. So instead, a briefier-than-usual summary, beginning with…
Death Caddy Aftermath. Ani and Velcoro took stock of their murky sitch and (to paraphrase one of my fave Ray phrases) “affected more transparency” after impounding the charred remains of the vehicle that transported Caspere’s corpse to its dumping spot. Ray voiced my suspicion: The conspiracy wanted to frame that Mad Max-y film driver for Caspere’s murder. (Sorry, bad guys.) But firebombing the car left the detectives with no evidence to process. (Sorry, good guy.) Ray reiterated his informed belief that their investigation was empty gesture Kabuki — that Vinci doesn’t want the Caspere case solved, that the state’s probe into Vinci corruption was a shakedown. He tipped Ani to Mayor Chessani’s desire to see Ani destroyed for investigating him and his family. Ani made it clear she didn’t care. She’s a detective. She’s here to solve a murder. She’s going to do her job and do her work, because in this world, jobs and work are all we have to give us meaning, whether they’re worthwhile or worthless. Perhaps our detective heroes will see through this lie by season’s end, too.
Hookah Lounge Revelation. Ani and Ray tailed Chessani’s daughter — we saw her last week looking troubled and studying a map in her room — to a shisha bar and tried to interview her. Ani bonded with the girl over analogous tragedy and one of the season’s recurring motifs: Absent, crazed, or dead moms, literal and figurative, victims of this world’s wicked patriarchy. Mama Chessani became schizophrenic when the daughter was young, Mayor Chessani had her committed to a hospital in Nevada, and she hanged herself while under the care of a dubious physician — a certain leathered looking Dr. Pitlor. Chessani’s daughter described a lawless family culture, led by an immoral paterfamilias (“My father is a very person”), where the organizing principal is do-what-thou-wilt chaos. “There are no rules, you see. That’s how it’s always been.” High school essay assignment: Compare and contrast the Chessani daughter’s positive need for rules to Paul Woodrugh’s negative relationship to rules. How does one example help the development of true self? How does the other hinder? Give me 1000 words in the comments section, plus an apple. TEACHER NEEDS AN APPLE.
Speaking Of Deadbeat Dads and Kooky Teachers… Ani and Ray trekked north to the Panticapaeum Institute to quiz Ani’s spiritual guru pops (his version of West meets East California fusion: God everywhere!/Everything is meaningless!) about Dr. Pitlor. The Svengali Bezzerides confirmed that Dr. Pitlor did indeed spend time among The Good People back in the eighties, for the purpose of studying “dynamics of communal living,” although he mostly kept to “the Chessani lodge.” Ani did a spit-take. Waitaminute. The despicable Mayor Chessani lurked in the background of the painful hippie-dippie NoCal childhood I refuse to remember, too?
Sorta. The “lodge” belonged to the current’s mayor’s father, Theo, though the son was sometimes there, too. Ditto: Ben Caspere. What to make of all this? I’m still kicking around a theory that Caspere’s murder is part of a subversive heroic-redemptive scheme to finally collapse the corrupt kingdom that is degrading, dehumanizing
Western capitalism and paternalism Vinci; maybe the motivations or even the plotting of said scheme dates back to The Good People days. I’m also wondering if Ani’s dad ain’t her dad. Could she have more in common with Mayor Chessani’s daughter than she thinks?
We’re on the road to nowhere… er, Fresno! Ani and Ray next motored up the 5 to central California to check out land that had been scouted by both Mayor Chessani and Caspere. The scene made it sound like Ray had no idea why they were going to Fresno until he asked Ani shortly before arriving at their destination. Which is ridiculous: It’s, like, 219 miles between Los Angeles and Fresno. You think Ray would’ve popped this question well before Bakersfield.
Anyway, they find the plot of land seen fleetingly in the opening shot of the season, the field of grass lined with markers with pink ribbons and a “No Trespassing” sign. Ani and Ray met with an EPA guy who revealed that the land of interest to Caspere and Mayor Chessani was contaminated due to mining run-off. Farmers had given up and moved out due to the poisoned, infertile ground. I was going to speculate that maybe mine run-off has nothing to do with it, that perhaps Mayor Chessani or Caspere or Frank has been secretly dumping Vinci chemical waste up here in order to drive down the value of the land so they could purchase it cheap. Too far fetched, right? But hey, anything is possible in True Detective. LIKE 219 MILES OF SILENCE.
NEXT: The Hangover
Interludes: Paul Woodrugh. The sexually confused motorbike patrolman woke up in the bed of his army pal with a head full of grog and no memory of what happened the night before. The friend was happy to fill in his blanks. You really let yourself go! Don’t be ashamed! Release your true self! Paul resisted these healthy messages. He ran away to seek out his highly metaphorical motorbike. His highly metaphorical motorbike was stolen. “I don’t know who the f–k I am anymore,” Paul told Velcoro. He had always been a good soldier, whether it was for the Army, or Black Mountain Security, or California Highway Patrol. Obeyed orders, followed the rules, leaned into their codes of masculinity, all to contain/deny/numb the chaos of his internal life. All of that — whatever “that” is — was failing him now. Ray made like he understood. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. Later, Paul met with Emily at a diner in hopes of reconciling. She told him she was pregnant. He told her that was the Best. Thing. Ever! They could get married! They could be a family! They could create a culture with a set of rules and expectations that would keep him on the straight and narrow, or at least, just straight, and crowd out those oh-so-icky desires to be with a man! Never has a man so willingly wanted to be balled-and-chained. So to speak. Anyway, they hugged. Cue lonely Nighthawks shot.
Interludes: Ani Bezzerides. She met with her sister, Athena, and they talked about their mom, and how much they longed for her. Mom — an actress who killed herself, if I recall correctly — liked to whittle sculptures out of driftwood. Ani kept the knife. Athena kept the art. This was a nice twist on Ani’s fixation with blades, that it’s more emotionally complex than wanting an “equalizer” in a world of stronger, predatory men, that it represents some way to identify with her mom, even though weaponizing this totem represents a warping of Mom’s symbol; she was an artist, not a warrior. Ani asked if she could take some of the driftwood figurines. Athena said no. Ani told her sister she needed to get out of the sex worker biz lest something bad happen to her. Athena said she was only going to turn tricks for two more months then go straight. Promise. Famous last words?
It was Ani’s dubious sexual choices that brought doom down on her later in the episode. Remember Steven Mercer, the cop she was bedding earlier in the season and whom she brutally dumped last week? He filed a complaint against her, accusing her of coercion, as Mercer was her subordinate. We learned this wasn’t the first time Ani had sex with a colleague: She also had a one-night stand with her partner, Elvis. Once. Ani was suspended from the sheriff’s department pending the investigation, though she was allowed to remain on the Caspere task force. She and Elvis had words with each other before she split. She blasted him for disloyalty. He basically copped to being hurt that she never gave him more of a chance after their one-night stand. She tore away, leaving him in the dust. Poor Elvis. Your sweetheart has left the building.
Do you find Ani’s complex sex life interesting or demeaning? We remember from the premiere, when her father said that her relational and sexual history — a failed marriage; many boyfriends and hook-ups — was animated by issues with men, and issues with him in particular. I like the idea of a female character whose sexual being is as psychologically fraught as, say, Don Draper’s. But like a great many other things on this show, this idea deserves a bit better than what we’re getting.
Interludes: Ray Velcoro. Ray gave Chad his dad’s cop shield, the one suspended in a box of plastic. Then Ray said: Now, with the power of the cosmic cube, you can command the laws of reality itself! And then Chad said: Golly gee, Thanos! Thanks! And then The Avengers came, and there was a big fight, and Black Widow and Ani had a long talk about being problematic expressions of so-called “strong womanhood” in the pop firmament of 2015, and then everyone danced. Actually, Ray and Chad hugged, and Ray disappeared into the shadows. Creepy. And just like Thanos.
To be honest, I like Ray’s arc this season. I initially thought we were going to get eight episodes of tortured descent into the depths of anti-hero hell. Instead, I think the show is trying a tortured ascent out of it. Final destination: Unclear. Said Frank: “I like this new soberish Ray.” So do I.
Yes, Frank Semyon was in this episode… But I’m trying very hard to forget it, because it was either really bad or really tedious. Seriously, guys, the opening sequence, with Frank and Jordan and the gardener and the avocado trees and infertile dirt and Jordan’s infertility issues and Frank’s appalling attitudes about adoption and various other things… I mean, that was terrible, right?
NEXT: Let’s talk about Vince Vaughn.
I know there’s a strong anti-Vince Vaughn sentiment out there. I like him in this role more than most, but I do think a different actor might be able to do better by the character and the (often horrible) dialogue written for him. The big idea with Frank is that he’s a criminal whose attempt to go legit has failed, and now he feels he has no choice but to reclaim his old life and re-embrace his worst self to regain what he’s lost so he can try again. But the storytelling — the writing; Vaughn’s performance — has done a poor job making us feel this internal conflict, or presenting it as a conflict. All I get from Vaughan is intense ruthlessness. There are shades to it, but not many. None of this is helped by the lack of variation in his storylines. Once again, we got another episode in which Frank visited old underworld contacts to either reclaim old business or strike new alliances in order to secure cash. Once again, we got another episode in which Frank punished once of his subordinates, suspecting him of betrayal. I want more of the Frank that looks up at wash stains on his million-dollar ceiling and shivers with night terrors as he ruminates about rats nibbling on his fingers. Sure, that was overwrought, too, but at least it gave Frank some depth and texture.
In general, when I consider the performances and even the writing of this season, I recall a Roger Ebert line: “It’s never for a moment deeply felt — it’s just deeply acted.” Basically: Lots of people trying really hard to make something work that doesn’t.
Firefight. While Ani and Ray were driving hither and yon accumulating clarifications and more questions, Paul and Dixon continued trolling pawnshops to see if Caspere’s abductors/killers had tried to sell stuff stolen from his Vinci home or purloined from his person. They struck gold in El Monte, where they found a store hawking a silver watch that matched Caspere’s timepiece and had three sets of prints on it: Caspere, a prostitute named Irina Ruflo, and her pimp, Ledo. The latter became the target of the investigation. One of Dixon’s (alleged) confidential informants tipped him to this: Ledo often crashed at a warehouse owned by Ledo’s cousin. (I say “alleged” because I think we should be wondering if Dixon engineered this entire Ledo frame.) Ani assembled a tactical team and moved to arrest Ledo. “Let’s be careful out there,” said Mayor Chessani, a Hill Street Blues reference, I’m sure. Ani shot him a withering look.
Now, it just so happened that at the exact time this was all going to go down, a protest was taking place in the vicinity of Ledo’s warehouse. They were picketing the new rail system at the center of the Semyon-Caspere land-grab scheme. As a consequence of this pricy project, Vinci and a number of other cities in California were curtailing conventional bus routes and slashing budgets on other transportation services. I’m not exactly sure why we got this bit of business, or why this protest was happening here. (Because so much of the labor employed by Vinci’s industrial quarter relies on public transportation? Okay let’s go with that.) It could be that the show just wanted to find a way to bring together as many relevant story elements as possible for a scene that represented a climactic break in the saga. It certainly set up a situation in which Vinci’s blue collar, underclass folk were made casualties of a white collar, upperclass conspiracy — an idea that did lend the sound-and-fury some quality subtext. Also of note: The presence of local TV news crews covering the protest, conveniently on hand to cover the tactical operation — and disaster — about to unfold.
Approaching the warehouse, Ani and company were ambushed by a sniper perched on an upper floor. They returned fire — and the very top floor of the warehouse exploded. (Meth lab?) Ledo’s gang returned fire and claimed casualties, including Dixon; we got a lovely shot of a quarter of his head getting blown off. This went on for awhile. Pedestrians, protestors, cops and bad guys went down in bloody bunches. Eventually, the gunfight came down to Ledo vs. Ani, Ray and Paul. Ledo tried to get away by taking a guy hostage… but then he (weirdly) decided to bail on the plan and put a bullet in the hostage’s head. Suicide by cop? If so, Ray and Paul obliged. Ani and Ray were left winded and distraught; they had never experienced anything like this before. Not so Paul. The good soldier stood calm and at attention, looking more at ease than he’s been in quite awhile. The image froze, then faded. Cue the music. Cue my “Meh.”