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True Detective recap: Church in Ruins

Orgy! Orgy! Orgy! (And some other things.)

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Lacey Terrell/HBO

True Detective

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:

“Church in Ruins” was the first episode of True Detective this season that I enjoyed from start to finish without much reservation since episode 2. Maybe TV recapping Stockholm Syndrome is kicking in and I’m starting to fall for my captors, but Vince Vaughn’s pretentious don’t-call-him-a-gangster gangster didn’t leave me too bothered or baffled with his pretentious patter, while Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro didn’t make me laugh when he talked outrageously tough. (Memo to Chad: Give the cheese grater an extra rinse the next time you make pizza.)

Maybe it’s because it’s more fun watching the detectives proactively work a case instead of getting dicked around by the powers that be. Maybe it’s because it’s a relief to see a couple of the “heroes” start confronting their hollow selves and moving out of the ashes of their wrecked lives. Or maybe it’s because “Church in Ruins” had a better control of tone than other episodes, or at least, it had fewer scenes where tone could go haywire. There was a lot of cop work (which I think the show does very well), especially for Paul Woodrugh, whose overwrought battle with denying his battle with sexual orientation (plus a dozen other identity issues) didn’t get any screen time this ep. It was like peeking into a separate reality and watching a version of the season in which Paul was only a young detective trying to earn his stripes and the respect of his peers. I might like that Paul better.

And then there was the orgy. Was it as good for you as it was for me? The widely teased bacchanal succeeded by not embarrassing itself; it was neither ridiculously sensationalistic nor just plain ridiculous. The sequence was engrossing on multiple levels—none of them kinky. We got a heist thriller and we got a rescue mission story wrapped within a descent into the sexual underworld of the show’s cracked mirror version of California. Like the erotically charged dream story Eyes Wide Shut, the perilous, reckless journey assayed by Ani Bezzerides was a psychic mystery. Conscious and subconscious realities blurred, forcing to fight for her sanity, for her sense of self.

All the nasty stuff was fuzzy. The hard-core humping was obstructed or fogged via shots capturing Ani’s Molly-hazed point of view. And then there was the furry-faced demon she kept seeing throughout the party, the bearded devil from a memory she’s had locked away since childhood, a memory of being lured into a VW bus by a sexual predator with the promise of hunting for unicorns. No doubt Ani was recalling her years among The Good People, the commune run by her hippie, spiritual guru dad. The circumstances of this sex party, with all its exploited or delusional women and the mind-altering psychotropics, pried loose this suppressed experience, and made it seem like this foul man was there, at the party, among the elite, wealthy wolves feasting on the prostitutes purchased for their consumption. In a way, he was: In Ani mythology, The Bearded Man is All Bad Men, her demon BOB.

Ani managed to survive this Kiss Me Deadly annihilation, this threat to body and mind. She got out with a prize, her mirror twin, Vera, the long missing maid who had apparently crossed over into hooking. She even got to gut a corpulent cretin or two on her way out—small catharsis for the evil done to her by the beast that took her innocence. Way to slay the man-monsters, Switchblade Buffy!

Ani and Ray and Paul blazed toward the horizon in a Mustang like heroes riding into the sunset—except it was the night, with a full moon hanging in the sky, and not all of them felt like heroes, especially Ani, disturbed by her loss of blissful ignorance, by her painful enlightenment. We left her in an indeterminate state, on a question: What now? To borrow from Lacan: “What, then, does he who has passed through the experience… who has traversed the radical phantasy… become?” Or, as Dr. Frank Semyon might say: Time to become what you were always meant to become. Ani Bezzerides: Eyes wide shut no more.  

Before we get to the full recap, a brief orgy of theoretical and tangential thinking suggested by the show’s actual orgy:

+That aforementioned BOB bit of business was, of course, a reference to the scruffy demon rapist of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. BOB was a native to an otherworldly realm known as The Black Lodge. He raped and killed Laura Palmer via his human proxy, Leland Palmer, Laura’s father. The whole sex party sequence in “Church in Ruins” reminded me of Audrey Horne’s infiltration of One Eyed Jack’s, a backwoodsy casino-brothel, in season 1 of Twin Peaks. Audrey, posing as a prostitute, had to hustle to avoid discovery by her corrupt father, Benjamin, who owned the joint. During Ani’s hallucinatory ordeal in the Black Lodge Bordello, I kept waiting for Ani’s own father to show up…

And maybe he did? We might wonder if The Bearded Man is a specific entity; or some fantasy, constructed by Ani’s subconscious, to mask the real culprit; or if that entire “memory” of being lured by The Bearded Man into a hippie mobile to go hunting for unicorns is a myth, representing her feelings about her father, her childhood, etc. Or: The Bearded Man might represent multiple bad men from her Good People past. Mayor Chessani. Dr. Pitlor. Caspere. Dad? There was that icky moment when Ani spied a man pleasuring himself while he was watching another couple having sex. When she looked again, Masturbating Creep was replaced by The Bearded Man. If Bearded Man = All Of Ani’s Bad Men, perhaps what was being represented there was that Ani’s father knew about Ani’s rape or witnessed it.

+I watch too many shows about rape and incest. Brief break while I take a shower and see my therapist.

NEXT: Why was “Church in Ruins” called what it was called?