True Detective recap: Other Lives
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Yay?
“Other Lives” launched the second half of True Detective‘s love it/shrug-at-it second season by skipping ahead in time and putting its protagonists on the offensive. They’re finally on the road to revelation regarding Benjamin Caspere’s savage murder, finally knocking at the door of confrontation with sinister truths about themselves. I’m not sure the drama was all that improved (that scene between Paul Woodrugh and his mother… I mean, was I supposed to be laughing?), and the dialogue was never more ridiculous (I can’t rationalize or apologize for Frank Semyon’s way with words anymore, not after “blue balls of the heart”), but at least “Other Lives” left you feeling like you were getting somewhere. Including the end.
On the leading edge of this heroic transformation was Ray Velcoro, whose activation came with some ironies, like how he’s not truly a detective anymore or how he remains a bullying bag-man. He’s just not a bullying bag-man for both the bad guys and the good guys. Putting some of that retrograde Kirk Douglas tough-guy stuff to redemptive use, Ray knocked some teeth and some answers out of Evil Rick Springfield, a.k.a. Dr. Pitlor, the Hugo Strange in the Gotham of this batty California Gothic. (Dad would be proud, Ray. So would Flannery O’Connor. The violent bear it away.) He also learned something we suspected since the premiere: The original sin that caused him to fall from decency and damned with anti-hero identity — murdering the speed-freak that raped his maybe pregnant wife — had been a set-up fabricated by that devilish snake Frank Semyon, who sought to own his soul. The guy he killed wasn’t the rapist, just a patsy. The episode’s conspicuous literary reference was Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, a book I don’t pretend to understand and don’t remember much about (I tried to read it in a night during the Lost days), but I know it’s major theme is seeing reality — layers of reality, actually — as it really is. That was Ray, developing eyes to see through the veils of his world, and to see the other life he might’ve had had he not been corrupted or corrupted himself. These were unpleasant epiphanies, but important ones. It made him what Castaneda might hail as “a man of knowledge.”
There was something of that “time is a flat circle”/eternal recurrence stuff in “Other Lives,” too. Jumping ahead to January 2015, three months after the wild shootout that culminated last week’s episode, we found the characters in different places, different jobs, or different homes. Ray even had a different face… in that he had shaved the moustache. (In True Detective’s symbolic language, bare face = the removal of his mask = Ray is ready to see himself, and present himself to the world, as he is, for good or for ill.)
Yet while they were living other lives, they were still under the sway of their past ones if not reliving aspects of them (poor don’t-call-him-a-gangster gangster Frank, back to being a drug-running pimp), reincarnated souls working out their karma. Or dharma. Both? (Memo to self: Brush up on your Eastern religions, you hopelessly Western clod.) The more things change, the more things to stay the same. Everything came full circle when Ray, Paul, and Ani Bezzerides were recruited to join a new task force, an off-the-books squad working clandestinely for a crusader within the attorney general’s office to find Caspere’s killer and expose corruption. Avengers (Covertly) Assemble! These were the goals of the original task force, of course, except now everyone is on the same page and the team is working in secret. Occult agents waging war against the insidious conspiracy that rules their world? Call them: The Invisibles.
True Detective Season 2, Episode 5
Ray Velcoro. We found him 60 days sober and getting him cleaned up for a day of doing dirty work for Frank. Officially he’s a security officer at the Vinci Gardens Casino, but really, he does a bit of everything for Frank, most of it under-the-table underworld stuff, like collecting rents from the illegals living and squatting at the ghetto apartment complex Frank reclaimed last week. But he’s a good-hearted goon: We saw him giving a family a day’s grace when they came up $200 short on payday. He quit Vinci P.D. after the industrial quarter shootout and the subsequent shuttering of the task force. He’d been used to frame a patsy for Caspere’s murder, and more, murder him. None of that went down right, and he couldn’t abide by that.
NEXT: Ray gets his 60 days notice.
You could call Ray a hypocrite, and you’d be right, but it misses the point of his arc, which would seem to be the story of a crooked man going straight by degrees. As Ray slowly spirals upward, he’s shedding debilitating ironies and double-mindedness. He’s losing other things, too. Like his home. His old lieutenant dropped by to inform him that because Ray was no longer a city employee, he’d have to vacate the cheap municipal housing provided for him. (Recurring motif alert! File under: Foreclosure, eviction, misc. rent collection.) “Come on, Ray. You don’t want to live here anymore,” said the lieutenant, like he was doing him some profound favor, helping him in his gradual, fraught divestment from Vinci’s toxic culture. Gee, thanks, ex-boss, but where am I going to display my models and hang my ubiquitous bolo tie? Hot tip, Ray! I hear there might be an apartment opening up in the next day or so among slumlord Frank’s ghetto properties. Might want to check that out.
Ray might be losing another, more important vestige of his old life: His maybe-son, Chad. It seemed to me that Ray had given up the dream of fatherhood, but apparently not. In one of several ways in which “Other Lives” echoed the premiere and cultivated this sense of do-over/if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed-pick-yourself-up-and-try-again/eternal recurrence vibe, Ray made a play to gain custody of Chad, with assistance from his Frank-supplied lawyer. Alicia countered by following through on her threat to ask the judge for supervised visitation and a paternity test – a move which weirdly took Ray by surprise, as if he’d been ambushed. (Maybe the memory of the threat had been purged during the transmigration process.) Colin Farrell continued with the wild eyes and forced emotions that we get from him during Ray’s skirmishes with Alicia over Chad, which leaves me feeling that he’s not really feeling this story line, either.
Needing more cash to finance the legal battle with Alicia, Ray asked Frank for more work. Cash strapped Frank was reluctant at first — he’s in “war rationing” mode, you know — but then the “hot feeling in the back of my neck” started yelling REDRUM! REDRUM! REDRUM! reminded him of his Blake paranoia, and he tasked Ray with investigating his allegedly duplicitous subordinate. That night, Ray tailed Blake — he filled the dull moments recording more messages for Chad about the importance of loyalty and the inexhaustibility of pain (cut to: Chad listening to said tape, shaking his head in bewilderment) — and discovered that the noisy little know-it-all that burns inside Frank’s head was right: Blake was cheating on him with other bad guys. He was cavorting with Dr. Piltor and Mayor Chessani’s hard-partying, party-planner son, Tony. He spied Blake picking up Pitlor, Tony and a group of female escorts and motoring to a club operated by Oslip, That would be the scuzzy Russian who abruptly withdrew from buying into Frank’s scheme to acquire land throughout the new light rail corridor. He left town right after Caspere was found murdered and right before the frame job that closed the case. Hmmmm…
Ray should have delivered the findings of his field work to Frank. But two encounters with Ani Bezzerides would reframe his painful loyalty to his boss. The first, at Frank’s bar, saw Ani seek his counsel on a piece of evidence she had acquired via the return of another past life subplot, the disappearance of Vera, the maid that once worked at The Panticapaeum Institute, run by Ani’s father, and was last seen in the Northern California town of Guerneville, where Ani grew up among The Good People, the commune run by Ani’s father. (Just coincidences! Nothing to question at all. Right, Ani?) Vera had sent her sister an envelope of photos depicting a swanky party at a mysterious locale (more on that in a bit) and some rare blue diamonds — part of the collection belonging to Ben Caspere.
Ani wanted to reignite Ray’s interest in the case. Ray wanted nothing to do with it, though he appreciated the hang-out with Ani: He hadn’t realized she had been on his mind, that he missed her. Awwww! (Cut to: Jealous-worried looks from the scarred barmaid sweet on Ray.) But Ray changed his mind after the second meeting with Ani, which also included Paul Woodrugh and Katherine Davis, the crusading prosecutor determined to bring down Vinci. She had been betrayed by her boss — the state probe was indeed a shakedown by Attorney General Geldof, who dropped the matter in exchange for financing for his gubernatorial campaign — and now she wanted to find proof of collusion. Katherine offered to ensure that Ray would get custody of Chad if he agreed to join the re-assembled, hush-hush task force and use his unique skill set to serve the cause of justice. Ray agreed. She also told him something else: That Alicia’s real rapist had been caught. Ray nearly imploded from the painful implications. Memo to Chad: Forget that last memo about ‘loyalty.’ Me and Frank are so over!
NEXT: Pink hearts, orange stars, yellow moons, green clovers, and blue diamonds. Or just the blue diamonds.
A game plan took shape. Investigate the blue diamonds. Investigate the upstate connections. Investigate Irina, the prostitute who sold Caspere’s watch to the pawn shop and a key figure in the cover-up/redirect that pinned Caspere’s murder on Vinci gangbangers. Investigate Dr. Pitlor. The initial results of their work yielded one major revelation, another confirmation of something we suspected: Ray’s boozy, flatulent, now-dead Vinci P.D. partner, Teague Dixon, an unofficial fourth member of the original task force, had been subverting their work. But why? And who?
Evil Rick Springfield coughed up more details when Ray barged into his office like the hard-charging cavalry rider sculpture on Dr. Pitlor’s shelf and interrupted the strange shrink’s Castaneda reading. Dr. Pitlor thought Ray’s menace was all bark, no bite. Clearly this quack doesn’t know jack about reading people. Ray thrashed him good. Knocked those sunglasses-at-night off his face, knocked some teeth loose, knocked some choice intel out of him. Tony Chessani had political ambitions. Tony and his bad dad were using escort parties to amass blackmail material on California’s rich and famous. Dr. Pitlor’s role in this scheme: Plastic surgery. Improving the looks of the escorts, turning “8s into 10s.” Ray asked about his treatment of Mayor Chessani’s late wife/Tony’s mom, Helena, who committed suicide while under his care. Dr. Pitlor — evidencing what seemed to be genuine affection for Helena — said that Helena had been driven mad by certain “traditions” practiced by Chessani patriarchs. “They are a highly inventive family,” said Pitlor. I really wanted Ray to ask him to elaborate on that cryptic creepiness. Instead, Ray pounded on him some more with his black leather sap. Diagnose me NOW, Evil Rick Springfield! Question: How many of Dr. Pitlor’s claims should we believe? Because I’m having a very hard time buying that all he was doing was making hotties hotter for Chessani’s blackmail ragers.
As an agent of truth, justice, and violent grace, Ray still has work to do before he can become wholly realized. In a follow-up scene with Alicia, the former husband and wife processed the news that the serial rapist who had sexually assaulted her had been incarcerated. She was baffled. So why did she tell him that he killed the guy? To make her feel safe? If so, it did the total opposite: It made her feel unsafe with Ray, and worse, his fraud poisoned him and destroyed everything they had. I’m guessing that she’s willfully denying the other possibility — that Ray did kill someone; he just killed the wrong guy — but it was hard to know given the way the scene was played. Regardless, Ray didn’t do much to correct her. And so his slow spiral toward atonement and authenticity continues its fraught climb…
Paul Woodrugh. Does True Detective have another woman problem? Last year, the women were few, and what women there were were all tramps, victims, scolds, and treacherous femme fatales, sometimes all at once. This year, there are more female characters — and there are more tramps, victims, scolds, and treacherous femme fatales. This may be a genre thing, but it’s an ugly, dispiriting thing, and the parade of grotesque representation that marched through Paul’s story line in “Other Lives” rather unpleasant. It began with another example premiere ep recurrence, the return of the Lacey Lindel, the fast-driving actress with the Lindsay Lohanish name who accused him of forgiving a speeding ticket in exchange for sex. They squared off during a closed-door settlement hearing, one of several scenes in this episode in which men were effectively put on trial for being egregiously flawed if not criminal representations of manhood. It was sometimes hard to tell whose side True Detective was on.
In this instance, the matter of PW v. LL, our sympathy was with Paul, as everything we’ve been shown would indicate that it was Lacey, not Paul, who did the propositioning, and more, that Paul didn’t go through with it. He finally had some leverage. Paul had become something of a local hero as a result of his courage and cool under fire in last week’s episode. Indeed, instead of returning to motorbike patrol, Paul had been promoted to detective, insurance fraud division, a cushy, respectable gig he didn’t want; Paul needs to be in the field, playing action hero, and maybe trying to chase a bullet. Does Paul have a death wish? Debate.
No longer able to easily trump Paul’s narrative in the court of public opinion, Team Lacey sought a deal that would allow them both to save face. Paul refused to go gently into that good compromise. He ripped into Lacey for her lies. It really bothered Paul that Lacey wouldn’t tell the truth about what happened, which was really ironic, given Paul, something of an actor himself, can’t tell the truth about his sexuality. Pot, meet kettle. That said: Is anyone else out there wondering if maybe, just maybe, PW and LL actually did have sex?
NEXT: Mommie Dearest.
Next came the scene between Paul and his trailer trashy mother (whose name, apparently, is not Nancy, as reported elsewhere, but Cynthia). It wanted the overheated queasiness of Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic, and Taylor Kitsch and Lolita Davidovich tried their best to do well by it, but by the time Paul was calling his mom a “cooze,” it had curdled into absurdity. Basically, Paul visited his mom to tell her that he was getting married to a pregnant girlfriend and to retrieve treasure hidden deep in his closet. No, not his true sexuality. It was $20,000, stuffed in an Army backpack, earned by serving in Afghanistan. The out-of-the-blue revelation of this money contributed to the WTF?! nature of the whole scene.
Mom was disappointed with the news of Paul’s marriage and impending fatherhood. “Mother of God,” she said, the invocation of Mary perhaps something of a sly joke. How the heck did my closeted gay son get a girl pregnant? Divine intervention? Prayer?! She thought he was throwing his life away, in more ways than one. “You’re a good looking white man, and you want to get into shootouts and become somebody’s husband,” she said. “If I was a man, I’d have had the world. Dumb bastard.” The more she talked, the more we realized she was talking about herself, and how Paul represents an ironic wish-fulfillment fantasy. Her narrative: She threw away her independence and gave up on her calling (she was a dancer, or maybe a “dancer,” if you know what I mean) after she got pregnant and chose to keep him. (“You could have been a scrape job!” she thundered when things turned testy.) The least he could for her is live the carefree, unfettered life she gave up for him. Paul could roll with this. He’d probably heard it before, and in a way, it flattered him.
What made him snap was the discovery that his $20,000 was gone. It was his “stake.” It was going to build his new straight arrow family man life and put down his other life, the one with all those desires he was desperate to purge. But Mom had found it and spent it… gambling. Debts. Expenses. Whatever. She felt she deserved it as compensation for her single mom sacrifice and surrendered dreams. “You ruined my career you ungrateful asshole! I carried you for nine months,” she said, “and I’ve been carrying you ever since. With your ‘weirdness.’” She accentuated the low blow with a glanced at his privates. Yep, she knew all about the boys, all about his denial. He spit his exit line: “You shut your f—ing mouth, you f—ing poisoned … COOZE!” He punched a wall and left Cynthia in tears, and me, chortling. Maybe it was Kitsch’s delivery. Maybe it was the whole thing. Regardless: It didn’t work for me. You?
*In an episode that was all about rebooting character motivations, I wondered if the money thing was placed here — or invented here — to set up something to come, like Paul comprising the investigation or betraying his pals for money.
Annie Bezzerides. We found Ani in professional purgatory, doing penance for past life sins, waiting for her next life to begin. She was forced to take a sexual harassment class with a group of men who deserved to be there more than her, if she deserved to be there at all. It depends on if you agree that she messed up by sleeping with a subordinate, and if you agree that her long-ago one-night-stand with partner Elvis established a pattern of reckless behavior. Regardless, Ani found herself surrounded by caricatures of aggrieved men bellyaching about hypersensitivity and theoretical double-standards. When it came time for her to confess and atone for her misconduct, Ani opted to subvert the whole process by drolly declaring her preference for girthy tallywhackers. The men leaned forward with tell-me-more interest. Ani rolled her eyes. You sympathize with Ani, even as you begrudge her disinterest in any kind of self-reflection at all. At one point, after asking Elvis for a favor, she promised “to do a fearless and searching moral inventory” in exchange. She was being sarcastic. Still: Would it kill her?
NEXT: A personal story about a cross-bearing Jesus that solves the mystery of True Detective, season 2. Seriously!
Like Ray, Ani wasn’t technically a detective anymore, or at least, at the moment: Part of her punishment included a long stint managing the evidence locker. So when she wasn’t authorized to follow up and investigate when Vera’s sister called and told her about the envelope she received with the blue diamonds intel. She felt obligated, since she dropped the ball on Vera’s disappearance to chase Caspere’s murder, and she was bored. But when she realized there was a connection between Vera and Caspere via the blue diamonds, she couldn’t deny the call to heroic adventure. She immediately put in for vacation time and joined Katherine’s secret task force.
Ani’s other major contributions to advancing the case and deepening the mystery: 1. Asking her stripper sister to help her make contact with prostitutes who may have worked Chessani’s escort parties (Ani intends to go undercover and work one of them; more, next week); and 2. Trekking to Guerneville with Paul to check out Vera’s last known address — an address that also popped up in Caspere’s GPS. It belonged to a cabin in the woods, with an interior that matched the photos of escort party revelry that Vera sent to her sister. Noting a murder of carrion birds circling over the property, Ani and Paul tracked their cawing to another, smaller structure. Inside: A chair splashed with blood, a rustic torture chamber. But whose blood?
Funny personal story, possibly relevant: On the way up to Guerneville, Ani and Paul passed a man dressed as Jesus Christ walking the other way, carrying a cross. I’ll be pondering the symbolic significance over the next week. Initial thought: Since he was spotted by Paul, I’m going to say it stands as an omen presaging the Road to Damascus, Pauline conversion that he keeps denying. (Let the scales fall, Paul! See the light of your true gay self!)
Now, in a really weird coincidence Ani Bezzerides could totally appreciate, this past week, a friend of mine — not a True Detective fan; she’s never seen the show — told me a story about seeing one of these highway cross bearers. She said she saw him near Big Sur, making his way to the Esalen Institute, the spiritual retreat center seen in the series finale of Mad Men… and considered by True Detective analysts as the inspiration/basis for the Panticapaeum Institute run by Ani’s father. Now, I don’t know enough about the Esalen Institute to know why it would be a destination for cross-bearing pilgrims like the one seen by my friend, or if the practice happens frequently or part of Esalen’s cultural profile. But let’s assume it is. Is it possible that the cross-bearing spotted by Paul was a clue, pointing us in the direction of the Panticipaeum Institute, and fingering Elliot Bezzerides as Caspere’s killer?
Frank Semyon. We found him in a new house in suburban Glendale, a nice home, but a far cry from the multi-million dollar modernist monstrosity on the hill. He had to sell that thing to make ends meet, to finance a new stab at the life he desperately wants. Caspere’s betrayal — denying him legitimacy and legacy, with a name and a tangible fortune he could proudly pass down to kids he doesn’t yet have — had left him with “blue balls of the heart.” The story offered hope for a second chance: The head of Catalast — the former regional railroad giant, now reborn as a nascent real estate development power — offered Frank five parcels of land in the light rail corridor if he could find the Caspere’s digital catalogue of kinky sex flicks. (Why does Mr. Catalast want the hard drive? Does he not want to be blackmailed? Or does he want to do the blackmailing?) Until then, poor little upper middle class rich boy Frank — little orphan rat-nibbled Frank — finds himself reliving a new version of an old life. The gangster. The suburban gangster. Say hello to SoCal’s answer to Tony Soprano.
Of course, we should never say the word “gangster” to Frank’s face. His increasingly despairing wife, Jordan, made the mistake, and got a ranty lecture (the latest in a series) from him about how none of his criminality was his fault, that he could only play the cards life had dealt him, that he was victim of our dystopian condition. “I didn’t ask for this work. I took it as it was. ‘Gangster’? I was born drafted on the wrong side of a class war. So f— that gangster s—-t!” Good lord, can someone just shoot this man and put him out of his misery already?
And yet, putting aside all the awful dialogue written for Frank and Jordan (and that’s a tall, maybe impossible order), and all the silly pop psychology that they lob at each other (Frank, per Jordan, doesn’t want to adopt because it taps his childhood issues), I was actually slightly touched by their story line, how for one episode, at least, as they grappled with their lot in life and argued through their conflict about having kids, they modeled the kind of transparency and intimacy, confronting and processing that’s missing from every other character and every other relationship on the show. I’m not saying I thought it was great drama. Just saying I liked the idea, and the idea was visible and felt despite the quality of the drama.
Frank and Jordan were enjoying a tender moment in bed when someone knocked on the door. An unexpected visitor, urgently wanting an audience. Frank drew his gun. Was it the vengeful Mexican drug lords that he forced out of The Lux after he defanged and chased away Santos for control of the club? Nope. It was just Ray. Frank relaxed, put down his gun and opened the door, then immediately tensed up again. Ray had a look in his eyes, the look of a man of knowledge, knowledge of things Frank didn’t want him to know. My guess is the heart-to-heart about to ensue between the two men won’t be nearly as loving as the one between Frank and Jordan. Regardless: Let the confronting and processing begin, already.