‘True Detective’ recap: Carnage erupts as homicide probe deepens

13 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘True Detective’ Episode 4: Sorry, but that shootout was ridiculous.

The streets of Vinci are strewn with dead cops and bleeding bystanders when a police raid turns into carnage on “Down Will Come,” Episode 204 of HBO’s “True Detective” anthology series. During its first season, True Detective ended its fourth episode with a single-take shootout that was praised for its audacity, craftsmanship and ingenuity. (Grantland called it “the night TV changed.”) On Sunday’s True Detective episode, the fourth of this divisive second season, another shootout occurred, this was one as messy and jagged as the first season’s was sleek and smooth.The long-awaited second season of HBO’s True Detective is here, and this will be a weekly recap of all the corpses, bottles, and soul-crushing nihilism your light grip on sanity can handle.

While the first season of True Detective (Sky Atlantic) gained near universal praise at least one individual seemed immune to its moody interweaving of police procedural cliches and supernatural glimmerings. After tracking a watch stolen from Ben Caspere to a criminal named Ledo Amarilla, the three true detectives of this story (Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch) engaged in a violent shootout with Amarilla’s associates in broad daylight. Before you read any further, I have to flail my arms and warn you that SPOILERS ABOUND IN THIS POST, so here’s Rachel McAdams chilling with some fans. It was this point, episode four, in True Detective’s first run where we witnessed what might be considered its trump card: the dizzying single take following Rust Cohle through a housing estate, bullets whizzing past his head.

If your story is going nowhere — and so far, True Detective’s second season is the definition of a go-nowhere story — you might as well sweep your arm across the chessboard, knock all the pieces over, and see where they land. Ironically, that was the show’s writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto, who, as True Detective garnered a wildfire cult following, insisted fans were over investing in the phantasmagorical trimmings and stated he wasn’t terribly interested in the serial killer storyline anyway. As this fourth episode came to a close, the same three moody cops were again sharing meaningful glances, but this time their eyes met over a massacre. It was a coincidence too far, just the latest in a sophomore season for the HBO cop anthology full of connections and concurrences that are starting to come apart at the seams. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and her special investigation unit think they may have solved the bizarre torture-murder of Vinci City Manager Ben Caspere when his stolen jewelry surfaces at an El Monte pawn shop.

That seemed to be the moment where True Detective hit “water cooler” status, becoming a TV phenomenon on a par with HBO’s other blue-chip shows. Frankly, I don’t even know what got us here — this episode completely lost me about midway through, well before they told us who the Task Force’s merry raiders were even going after and why, so by the time the raid started, I was already lost.

There were a few stakeouts, some interviews, answers giving way to even more questions, and finally we arrived at a suspect that Ray, Ani, and Paul liked for Ben Caspere’s murder, a Mexican mob figure that I’ve frankly already forgotten the name of. But did we really need yet another week of bland, grim, inexplicably meandering storytelling before True Detective got to the fireworks factory? “Down Will Come” isn’t the worst episode of True Detective’s frustrating second season, but it’s definitely the dullest.

Sent to arrest a suspect for the murder of Ben Caspere – the body that first brought them together – the trio strolled instead into a shootout with a Latino gang, by the end of which the gang, several cops and a sprinkling of innocent civilians lay dead in an LA backstreet. All I know is, as the group of 10 cops rolled up on the building in this nightmare of warehouses and factories they call Vinci, this guy opened fire with an AK-47 from a third-story window: The only people left alive are Velcoro, Woodrugh and Bezzerides. Such as little throwaway lines like “mow the lawn, I don’t want those kids getting snakebit,” presumably extant because the audience must understand that Frank’s murderous intent comes from a place of concern for “the children.” Or the motivation of whole character arcs—Paul’s story in this episode is almost comical in how overwhelmingly macho he’s attempting to be, but his spiral is played for the grittiest, most serious emotions possible. True Detective 1.0 hooked us by freighting its straight-forward murdered prostitute plot with uncanny visuals and atmospheric banter between lead actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

Everything must be fundamentally awful and deeply disappointing, exacerbated by the clear affection of his ex-lover and the clear disinterest of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, with her inspiring “I guess I love you.” I almost laughed aloud when she announced that she did not believe in abortion; of course she doesn’t. “True Detective” demands moral absolutes in order to derive meaning from its relentless, grinding sorrow. The fourth episode lacked even those modest flourishes; ignore the sky-high production values and the top-shelf cast, and you won’t find anything you couldn’t have seen on the dozens of police procedurals that came before it. In season two – featuring a new cast and storyline – Pizzolatto appears, in contrast, to be trying to simply pummel the audience with a baffling land corruption backstory and a menagerie of dysfunctional protagonists. There are plenty of reasons for viewers to be disappointed with this Vinci arc of the anthology series – hackneyed dialogue, overfamiliar themes, Vince Vaughn’s pinched facial expressions – but the one that I feel holds most sway is that it’s been a difficult story to comprehend.

Three hours in, I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member getting just a tad exasperated by Paul’s struggles with his repressed sexuality, or by Frank’s backslide into vice and racketeering. Soon the body count increases exponentially as Amarilla’s vehicle crashes into a city bus and he and his men begin slaughtering cops and civilians in a desperate but ultimately futile escape attempt. It’s a little difficult to sell a “Brokeback Mountain” level of repression and coming-out anxiety in the state of California in 2015, and either the script or Taylor Kitsch fails to make Paul’s turmoil land for the audience.

What seems remarkable at this stage is just how little we know about the contours of this case, how deep it goes, and just how many people are involved in it. It’s hard to feel too sorry for a guy who wakes up in the beginning of this episode from what is presumably a night of a lot of drunk sex—the result of a booty call that occurred just hours after Paul punched the other guy in the face, if you’ll recall. This was more like the “shootout” at Reggie Ledoux’s place in the following episode: It was wild, random, and pretty much everyone there whose name isn’t in the opening credits died. Or, to paraphrase everyone’s favourite loquacious mobster, Frank Semyon: someone hit the fucking warp drive – we’re trying to navigate through the blur.

Although his wife doesn’t think she can carry a child, Frank Semyon is reluctant to adopt one. (“I don’t do someone else’s time,” Frank complains, because every single line of dialogue he speaks is the kind of thing HBO could slap on a poster of Vince Vaughn frowning.) Paul, desperate to avoid his own homosexuality, is relieved to discover that his girlfriend is pregnant, which gives him the excuse to throw himself into a heterosexual marriage. And that ending, which was clearly meant as a major dramatic action set-piece, was ridiculous, too chaotic to follow, and ended all too conveniently.

That includes Ray’s drunkard partner Dixon, who had his wig pushed back by a Mexican gunman laying down suppressing fire as the others escaped in an SUV. And Ani — whose sexual predilections are the only ones True Detective has played coy with — discovers that her hookup/subordinate Steve has ratted her out, resulting in a suspension. (Except, conveniently, from the Caspere murder case, which takes up roughly 100 percent of her time anyway.) As the episode ends, all of the True Detectives track down prime murder suspect Ledo Amarilla, a gangster who instantly opens fire on our heroes. I assume there’s some good reason that he can’t, and it has something to do with going super-fast on a motorcycle (and then losing that motorcycle when he goes off to have sex with his handsome ex-lover; you guys, maybe the motorcycle is a metaphor), but damned if I can tell you concretely what any of his issues really are. This is where the sleepy episode suddenly jolts to life: gunshots, explosions, and corpses everywhere, with Ray, Paul, and Ani left standing alone as the smoke clears. This, increasingly, is looking like a situation where they’re all set to take a fall, with each of the trio finding their status increasingly compromised.

Evidence supporting the latter scenario arises when Bezzerides and Velcoro discover that Caspere made frequent trips to abandoned farmland in Central California. Unhappy gangster Frank Semyon – a hollow-eyed Vince Vaughn – meanwhile ratcheted up his campaign to reclaim the seedy empire he’d walked away from before Caspere’s death stymied his quasi-legitimate property ambitions.

In the first few episodes of this season, I was interested in how the Semyon marriage was oddly functional and stable, as compared to Paul, Ani, and Ray’s tumultuous love lives. As is now the tradition Velcoro and Semyon also found time to trade tough-guy verbiage in their regular boozer, a Twin Peaks-esque dive where the waitresses sport knife gashes and the music is courtesy of a doomed chanteuse. As the homicide probe deepens and grows more sordid, Velcoro warns Bezzerides that Vinci’s sleazy mayor, Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster), has vowed to destroy her law enforcement career. Paul, who can only get it up for his girlfriend with chemical assistance, has now managed to make a baby where Frank can’t and Ray probably didn’t.

Chessani’s powerful family has controlled the small industrial city of Vinci for 100 years, Velcoro points out, and he owns the biggest mansion on his street in Bel-Air. “You think men like that exist without a history of high-up friends?” Velcoro asks Bezzerides. But then, Frank’s character as he’s investigated Casper’s death has been a spiraling out of every antihero trope imaginable, as he has a meltdown about how he can provide for his family and secure a legacy for future generations. Granted, that wasn’t tough to sell when Cary Fukanaga was still with us and the setting was the bayou and the soup of the day was Lovecraftian, ritualistic murders.

Ray seems to have come to terms with the fatalism of the situation – that scene where he gave his son his father’s badge couldn’t be construed as anything other than a goodbye – but also, ironically, has a way out, albeit an unpleasant one: in their weekly “dive bar meeting soundtracked by maudlin country music”, Frank offers him the chance to “put this cop shit behind you” and join his mob. Although, if it’s any consolation, Ani’s hippie guru father thinks Ray has “the largest aura I’ve ever seen.” In spite of the criticism levelled at this series, much of it justified, True Detective remains one of the most distinctive dramas on television, even when its distinction is dialogue composed of impenetrable riddles and faux-profound non sequiturs. That’s why the state’s investigation into alleged corruption at Vinci City Hall is bound to fail, he predicts, and why Bezzerides will become “expendable” once the blame game starts. Nonetheless, the puzzle is not clicking into place as quickly as audiences may have wished and the chief pleasure remains the interaction between the damaged players.

Trouble is already mounting for Bezzerides, who’s slapped with a sexual-misconduct complaint filed by former lover Steve Mercer (Riley Smith), a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy. In stark contrast to Ray’s acuity we have Ani. “Naive,” is what Ray calls her, and it does seem remarkable that someone otherwise so cynical in their outlook could have such an idealistic image of law enforcement. Ever since a (perhaps intentionally) hilarious early sequence in which he viciously beat the father of a schoolyard bully on the man’s lawn, Farrell’s Velcoro, in particular, has owned the season. Because Mercer was Bezzerides’s subordinate during their brief affair, she’s suspected of coercion and placed on departmental leave until the matter is resolved. He stumbles around with less than one eye open, and while having a hard enough time just putting his jeans on one leg at a time, realizes that he slept with his war buddy Miguel the night before.

Her belief that only corrupt cops have anything to worry about comes back to bite her resoundingly when she gets reprimanded for a sexual misconduct complaint. And if we’re supposed to be threatened by the mask-wearing, orgy-hopping cultists that (presumably) had Ben Caspere killed, it makes sense that they’d engineer an easy patsy like Ledo Amarilla. But this isn’t an ordinary situation, rather one that has Vinci mayor Chessani’s grubby pawprints all over it, and Ani finds herself suspended and barred from her station in Ventura. Indeed, his scene out at the contaminated land near Fresno with Ani was the most this season of “True Detective” has felt like last season—it offered a whiff of that same practicality, of a partnership forged by necessity.

Though she’s not taken off the investigation into Caspere’s death, you will have noted: instead she has the dispensation of being a “special investigator”, a title that is sounding increasingly ominous. Disapproving of this sinister turn of events is his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), whose dreams of having a baby and a legitimate income source are evaporating. “Have I somehow given you the impression I have a choice?” he angrily asks her, adding that his dirty deeds are “gonna get worse” now that someone is trying to take over his lucrative poker club business. Apparently unhappy with how things ended between the two of them, officer Friend Zone dry snitched on Ani to Internal Affairs, and her own partner (whom she slept with once) twisted the knife by corroborating the story. That’s a lot to process for a hungover head: thank the heavens for Ray Velcoro’s glovebox full of hangover cures – pills, vodka, soothing words. “I just don’t know how to be out in the world,” Paul says. “No one does”, Ray replies.

Our heroes are exceptional mostly for being fucked-up; they’re not especially good investigators or particularly strong fighters, and they barely make a better team together. But time wore on, he gave us that cringeworthy monologue about being locked in the basement as a kid, and now I find myself on my phone, alternating between Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram every time he shows up on-screen. Frank’s ahead of everyone else and knows that some Mexican mob foot soldier couldn’t have possibly been smart enough to have killed Caspere and author his downfall, but other than that he’s still pinching his nickels and shaking down drug dealers and property managers, and it’s still boring.

A breakup meeting with his girlfriend turns on a dime when she tells him she’s pregnant, and he suddenly proposes. “This is the best thing that could have happened,” he says, though the look on his face is one of desperation rather than bliss. The firefight offers a tense, long sequence of these cops actually fighting crime together, instead of just trading barbs about e-cigs; what interested me was that the three of them are good at it. For much of Down Will Go the murder investigation trundles on in the manner of the opening trio of episodes, revealing telling details about the extent of Vinci’s corruption, but few tangible clues as to who killed Ben Caspere.

Which is why it seems very odd indeed when suddenly the discovery of Caspere’s missing watch at a pawn shop puts the detectives on the trail of a local pimp, Ledo Amarillo. Amarillo, for his part, seems remarkably prepared for a surprise assault, and you wonder if the nefarious plan was to ensure as many casualties on both sides as possible; fewer officers to ask awkward questions, fewer criminals to answer them. As it is, Amarillo and his crew are eventually taken out in that dramatic final firefight, along with more than a few officers, including Dixon, the schlubby cop who always seemed to know more than he was letting on. (Where did he get that tan?

After taking an episode off, Thematically Convenient Sad Guitarist makes her triumphant return — and, just maybe, offers an oblique clue in the process. The people being shot at are the almost nameless and nearly faceless Latino men—they’re identified as Mexicans, but the term is so loosely thrown around that it seems possible it’s also “Mexicans.” The episode contrasted these men with the bottom-tier workers in Vinci—the transients living in a converted hotel; the food packers lobbying for better transit conditions. When Ray asks what happened to Frank’s deceased crony Stan, the scene suddenly cuts to the guitarist as she sings, “You were there.” Do I sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist if I suggest that Ray might be working a long con, playing against Frank behind the scenes all along?

There have been lots of suggestions that Frank is this season’s “true detective”, making headway in the case where the actual investigation has failed. Here, though, he returns his focus to rebuilding his shattered empire, shaking down cake shops, motels and other businesses that he previously assumed he had outgrown. (He’s taken over Lux Infinitum as well, prising ownership – as well as the gold teeth – from former owner Danny Santos.) Normally this mafia ball-busting would be right up my street, but Frank’s endless visits to former associates have dulled quickly. Earl Brown’s character Dixon—Ray’s partner, shot and killed in the firefight—was coded from the start as being in collusion with the higher-ups at Vinci, and the tip on the gang came from his own former informants. Part of the problem is the dialogue, hammy even by Nic Pizzolatto’s standards, though you also wonder whether, were the delivery a bit more confident, you’d buy it a little more.

Furthermore, the criminals looked entirely prepared for the approach of multiple police; machine gun fire followed quickly by an explosion seems like overkill for standard sentry work. Chessani was pictured with George W Bush in an earlier episode, while the shady doctor that Ani and Ray visited had a copy of Barack Obama’s The Audacity Of Hope on his bookshelf. Maybe Vinci’s top dogs used Dixon to steer three troublesome cops into the path of a troublesome gang, hoping the whole thing would end with everyone dead. Meanwhile, Todd Van Der Werff at Vox has shared a slightly loopy, but quite fun, theory about True Detective’s two series sharing the same grand conspiracy. It doesn’t actually provide much assistance in solving Caspere’s murder, but provides some great tidbits on the real-life inspirations for the show.

There’s a sense that Ani wasn’t always the outwardly responsible figure she is now. “I should have been there for you,” she told her sister Athena. “You couldn’t be there for yourself,” Athena replied.

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