“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?
+Okay, I’m back. How did this memory get suppressed? Maybe Ani’s mind buried it deep, a psychic defense mechanism. Or maybe a certain strange doctor and former member of The Good People meddled with Ani’s brain and made her forget? I’m looking at you, Evil Rick Springfield!
+The episode was called “Church in Ruins.” So clearly, the episode was about… our post-modern condition? Where God is (allegedly) dead, where nothing is sacred (including sex, justice, or honor among thieves) (poor Irina!), and yet religion hangs on, either because habits are hard to break or there’s truth there that can’t be killed? Um… sure? The title recalls for me episode 2 of last season, “Seeing Things,” the one where Rust Cohle confessed to visions that expressed the darkness of his internal world (just like Ani) and he and Marty Hart visited a trailer park bordello and investigated a burned-down church on the outskirts of an industrial quarter, the walls were defaced with pagan graffiti. We later learned that the pastor launched a “viral ministry” after losing that building. Rust and Marty listened to him preach of a God who sees people as they are, even as they hide from Him, or themselves. (“You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knew you!”). In season 1’s sixth episode, “Haunted House,” we learned that reverence had become… well, a ruined church of a man. He had given up on saving souls and given up on faith, his heart for God ground down the wheels of a corrupt church and a sinister secret involving sexual abuse of children. Some interesting intertextuality going on there. What’s up with the fixation with pedophilia and rape, by the way?
+Actually, “Church in Ruin” took its title from a song by Lera Lynn. You’ve been seeing and hearing Lera all season: She’s the singer who’s been perched on a stool strumming a guitar and crooning melancholy tunes in Frank’s dive bar, a mournful cantor in a house of spirits. The lyrics speak of a bad romance that may have never been true at all, and vague, ominous action taken to put an end to it. Darkness for cover/church in ruin/there’s nothing left to feel/Goodbye lover, this is your doing/a heart against the wheel.
+There’s a book called Church in Ruins, too, a Christian text for and sympathetic to believers who haven’t lost their faith, but have lost their faith in the organized church. A website for the book is headlined with questions that I think closeted, disoriented, maybe-suicidal Paul Woodrugh could relate to. “Do you feel empty and confused?” “Do you just want to quit?” and “Is there something wrong with you?” Church in Ruins, the author claims, is “a call to individual men—men whose place in the religious system has left them empty, stagnant and restless—to awaken to the Father’s call to be His faithful servant and to stand outside of that system to look for other faithful men as well.” Do I think True Detective is winking at this book? Oh, I don’t know. But we see the ideas described in the sales pitch reflected in the story. Season 2 has been a story of people losing their religion, metaphorically speaking: Their flawed identities—their organized sense of self—are breaking down, like cracking masks. It has been a story about people betrayed by the organizational system of the law yet remain faithful to serving The Law. (Ani’s namesake, the ancient Greek heroine Antigone—who chose to serve divine law over society’s poor or corrupt articulations of them—could relate.) True Detective: Allegory for individual enlightenment and a new, redemptive counter-culture in all areas of society? Oh, shut up, Jeff, and just recap the thing!
True Detective Season 2, Episode 6
“Church in Ruins”
Breaking Bad Faith
“You bang down my door for a staring contest?!” The episode began with exactly the kind of scene that has come to define the season: Pulp Kabuki. Tough guy posturing interrupted by bursts of near-arch dialogue. Ray and Frank—the show’s best couple (are there Ray-Frank shippers? There should be Ray-Frank shippers!)—had a sit-down to process their fraught bond and The Big Lie at the heart of Ray’s anti-hero origin story.* September, 2004: Ray, then a cop and a decent man, acted on intel provided by Frank, then an on-the-rise underworld boss, and killed a speed freak that he thought had raped his wife. In the process, Ray gave himself over to his worst self, the poorest possible form of the hard-boiled archetype modeled by his Kirk Douglas-idolizing father, a lawless vigilante. But Frank’s tip wasn’t true. Ray learned that fact last week. It destabilized him the way, say, learning your dad wasn’t really your dad might destabilize you. Had Frank set him up, just so he could get his hooks in him and own a cop? It sure felt like it to Ray. And so he went to Frank’s house to talk it out, and then, presumably, shoot him.
*Origin stories: A big theme in this episode. Ani remembered hers, Ray rued his, Frank rationalized his, over and over. Meanwhile, Paul learned someone’s origin story—a Batman-esque tale of murdered parents—but whose?
NEXT: Chekhov’s Gun
Frank and Ray sat in the casino king’s dining room, at a table covered with cloth—a gaming table for a high-stakes game of emotional poker. Coffee cups and one hand each on top of the table. Loaded revolvers pointed at each other underneath the table. Very Han Solo and Greedo; also very spare and elemental, so very Chekhov’s gun. He blamed Frank for his corruption. Had Frank not tampered with his life, he said, “I would have been different!”
Frank rejected the indictment for many reasons. First: He didn’t knowingly give Ray bad info. He thought it was legit. Second: While he always recognized the value of having a cop in his pocket, Frank insisted he wasn’t lying when he told Ray he wanted to see a wicked man punished. “I have a sense of justice. You know that,” said Frank. Third: He refused to take any responsibility for influencing Ray’s choice, or at least, the negative outcomes of those choices or Ray’s sense of damnation. If anything, Frank believed he had provided Ray with an opportunity for self-realization. “Didn’t you use that to become what you’ve always wanted to become?” he asked. “If that’s the kind of thing that keeps you out of heaven, I don’t want to go.” If Satan needs a good lawyer in the final sorting at the end of time, he could do worse than Frank. The sequence was meta to my ears, because the conversation kicked around one of the key points in the key text of our anti-hero age, Breaking Bad. To wit: Walter White was always wildly corrupt at heart; he just needed an excuse, a catalyst, to unleash his black hat Heisenberg.
The whole scene was a bit like empty chair therapy, except the chairs weren’t empty. When Ray was railing at Frank, castigating him for dooming him to a meaningless, debased life, he was really dressing down his shadow self. When Frank was railing at Ray, providing a portfolio of rationalizations for abandoning decency for self-interest, he was really justifying the underpinnings of his own origin story, in which emotional and physical violence by an abusive father catalyzed him toward becoming a cynical, materialistic villain, the kind that doesn’t know he’s a villain, the kind that thinks he’s actually the hero of the story. Don’t we all, though?
There’s another way of looking at the scene, too: A betrayed true believer’s complaint with a fraudulent shepherd/false God. Ray: “You’ve never been in control! You f—ed me! … I sold my soul for nothing.” In Ray, we were watching a man lose his religion, such as it was. We were also watching him confront his bad faith, in the existentialist sense of the term. This is the idea that we sell-out our authentic self and moral freedom and adopt a useful but corrupt identity to fit in or reconcile our inconsistencies.
Ray seemed to believe Frank when he said he didn’t knowingly deceive him. Frank empathized with Ray’s tortured state. Frank initiated the truce. He holstered his gun in his robe and put his other hand on the table. “Don’t you f—ing shoot me Raymond!” (That made me laugh.) Ray didn’t. He put his other hand the table, too. They exchanged secrets and negotiated a treaty. If Ray would help Frank find Caspere’s missing hard drive—the one loaded with blackmail sex films and pilfered from the Hollywood house—Frank would supply Ray with the name of the goon that gave him the bad tip.
“You might be one of the last friends I got,” said Frank.
“Wouldn’t that be f—ed up,” said Ray.
Get a room, you two!
The Spirit of the Age. The unraveling of Ray’s bad faith played out over the episode. Ray went to prison to confront the man accused of really raping his ex, Alicia. He got hard boiled. Threatened to take a cheese grater to every part of his body if he ever got out. (I’d like to see that on Hannibal.) The accused protested Ray’s treatment—I didn’t do what you said I did!—but that didn’t matter to Ray. He was using the man the way one might use a prostitute, to play out a fantasy, to feel big, to get off. A supervised visit with Chad took a pin to this gross self-inflation. He bought a model for them to built, a stealth bomber called The Spirit, which for me evoked the most romantic image Ray probably has of his heroic/anti-heroic self, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a cop turned vigilante, the prototype for every dark knight vigilante in superhero fiction. Chad wasn’t interested in putting together model stealth fighters, or at least, this form of it. Why? “It kills people.” Ouch. That one hurt, didn’t Ray? Chad wanted to watch Friends. Ray wanted to talk, wanted Chad not to believe the bad reports about Ray (except they were true), and to believe that he was his father, even though it didn’t matter: Ray wasn’t worthy of the kid, whether or not they shared genes. Chad shrugged at these requests. Sure, “Dad.” Whatever. “By all means, find Friends!” Ray said, handing him the remote. Cue laughter. A funny episode of True Detective! Go figure!
NEXT: The Observer Effect.
Chad’s unwitting indictment of Ray’s character aggravated his uncomfortable meta mood: The social worker watching their interaction was distracting him, making him self-conscious, even influencing him, à la The Observer Effect. She made him feel as bad and broken as he really was. Also visible in this scene: An Edward Hopper print and a book, Gomorrah, an examination of a Mafia-esque organization called Camorra that operates both secretly and openly in Naples, Italy, with a personal narrative that blends a variety of techniques. The book begins with a quote attributed to an Italian priest: “Time has to stop being a Gomorrah.”
With that, the bottom fell out of Ray’s recent shaky spiral upward since The Birdman Apocalypse. He bought some booze and a packet of blow. He drank and he snorted and he drank some more. He raged and raged—and then clutched his chest. For a moment, Ray felt like his heart was failing him—or maybe his heart was reminding that he actually had one. He sobered up a little and wept. He regarded the hollow planes hanging in his house. He smashed them to pieces with his fists, and then called Alicia. He made a deal with her: He’d make like a friendly ghost—a self-sacrificing spirit—and disappear from her life and Chad’s life completely if she agreed to stand down on her want for a paternity test, and never, ever tell Chad the truth about his origins. She balked. She wanted the truth for herself. Ray begged, though it was hard to know if he was digging in on the entirety of his demand (no paternity test; no telling Chad), or if all that mattered was that he could live in a world where he could be allowed to believe that Chad was his son, and Chad believed Ray was his biological Dad. His faith in fatherhood = his father’s badge, salvaged from the trash. It meant something to him—inspiration to be good; inspiration toward a more authentic self; inspiration to be worthy of Chad’s respect—even if it weren’t true. Ray needed a new origin story for his life. This would be it.
Final memo to Chad: It’s time I stopped being a Gomorrah. Ciao.
Solid Fool’s Gold. While Ray unraveled toward redemption, or at least, a more courageous, honest understanding of himself, Frank doubled down on his bulls—. He paid his respects to Joyce, widow of his late, murdered subordinate Stan. He took Stan’s son aside and reiterated the story everyone told about Stan, that he had great character. (He did?) He evangelized his self-help gospel of self-creation and self-justification to the kid, telling him that the death of his dad was a painful moment that provided an opportunity for transformation, that the key to a happy, successful life was to practice the dark art of spiritual alchemy, to turn s— into “solid gold.”
Once again, Frank was talking about himself. Stan’s boy = his younger self, the one who was abandoned by his dad to the rats. The kid ate it up. Why wouldn’t he? It’s the story today’s boys are raised on. This is superhero psychology. (Interesting the superhero motifs throughout the episode: In addition to a stealth nod to The Spirit, Frank invoked Superman during his stare-down with Ray.) This is pulp hero psychology. This is extreme self-sufficiency psychology. This is conservative individualism run amok psychology. This is psychology that demonizes vulnerability and exults hardness. It is poor response to grief that risks subverting intimacy (just ask Frank’s wife) and producing more grief in the world. See: Scarred Paul, Ruined Ray, and Switchblade Ani.
We’ll see how far Frank’s philosophy gets him in the episodes to come. The remainder of “Church in Ruins” saw him make like Ani and investigate a missing persons case: Irina, the woman who pawned Caspere’s blue diamonds, then disappeared. Where did she get them? Might she know about the WAB of other treasures, too, like, say, the $5 million Caspere stole from Frank?
Frank set out on the quest by torturing a member of a Mexican gang for intelligence. Said gang: The Santa Muerte (Holy Death), named after a female folk saint, the personification of death, depicted as a skeleton with a crown or robe. (Flashback to the premiere: Caspere had such a royally bedecked skeleton in his trashed home.) (I’m tempted to hit you guys again with my theory that Caspere is still alive, that he faked his death and had Dr. Pitlor create a doppelganger corpse… ah, never mind.) Wikipedia says she offers “healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife” to her believers. Apparently, the Santa Muerte death cult is popular with Mexican drug traffickers. Again, this is a sly Breaking Bad reference: We remember The Cousins, Santa Muerte-worshipping drug cartel assassins who dressed in cowboy gear…
And wouldn’t you know it, the tortured thug gave Frank a tip on Irina’s whereabouts that led them right into a confrontation at gunpoint with the two Mexican drug-running toughs—one of them a total cowboy wannabe—that tried to muscle their way back into The Lux last week. Frank got to scratch something off his bucket list: “A Mexican stand-off with actual Mexicans,” he quipped. (See? Frank can say genuinely funny things, not just unintentionally funny things!)
NEXT: In which Frank is played the way Frank played Ray.
Just as he did with Ray at the start of the episode, Frank thought quickly on his feet and talked himself out of a certain-death jam. He cut a deal: The gang could deal drugs at The Lux three days a week, no charge, for a year, in exchange for a conversation with Irina. Frank got a phone call with this lady of the shadows, and she told him she got Caspere’s blue diamonds from a white, thin cop. (So not Teague Dixon. Most likely: Kevin Burris, the lieutenant that evicted Ray from his home last week.) Frank offered Irina $1,000 in exchange for a protected face-to-face meeting; he wanted her to pick out the cop from photos. (Look at Frank acting the detective part, working C.I.’s and running mug shots!) But when Frank and co. showed up to meet her—at what appeared to me to be the same place where that Hollywood film crew was shooting its “collapse of civilization revenge flick”—they found her dead, throat cut. The Santa Muerte duo revealed themselves, the cowboy wiping blood off a long blade. Frank was appalled, his sense of justice aggrieved. She didn’t deserve death. Oh yes she did, they said: By her own admission, she was working with cops. Frank remained shell-shocked. Their extreme vengeance? So uncivilized! Is there nothing sacred?
And he had been played. And we know Frank hates being played. It was one more reminder of his impotency; one more reminder of the limits of his superhero psychology; one more reminder of the truth Ray told him at the start: You’ve never been in control. And so an episode that took a pin to Ray’s self-inflation popped Frank’s balloon, too, and left Frank with innocent blood on his hands, the way he stained Ray’s hands with blood. Try turning that crap into solid gold, Superman!
Blue Diamonds. Not much to say about Paul Woodrugh’s battle with his own expression of bad faith, except ironically: In playing field detective and super-soldier during the orgy siege in the finale, he got to lose himself in his favorite role—superhero—and forget how badly broke he is. As a result of his investigative work, Paul pieced together an origin story. But whose?
The sad tale of the blue diamonds goes like this. On April 30, 1992, a pair of armed robbers pulled off a deadly crime under a cover of darkness—the L.A. riots, which is shaping up to be this story’s “collapse of civilization event,” the moment when a not-so-great society, flawed with institutional injustice and so much other corruption, began crumbling away into a church in ruin. So to speak. Kinda. Anyhow: These masked men raided a jewelry store during the height of the unrest and stole a bunch of blue diamonds. They then killed the owners, including one Margaret Osterman, who was pregnant at the time. What the killers may or may not have known was that the Ostermans had two other children—and they were there, in the store, at the time of the incident, a pair of Bruce Waynes baring witness to their parents’ slaughter. A brother and a sister, Leonard and Laura. She was 4, the boy, a little older. They were put into foster care; we don’t know what happened to them after that. We saw a picture of the traumatized siblings. They had light skin, dark hair, and haunted eyes. The question to us, armchair theorists: Do we know these kids? She would be 27 years old; he would close to 30. I immediately thought of the Chessani children. Like I’ve said in recent weeks: I suspect they’re playing secret vigilante revolutionaries, executing a grand scheme to destroy their (adopted) father’s rotten Gotham to the ground.