‘True Detective’ recap: Starting over, yet again

20 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘True Detective’ recap: Starting over, yet again.

As an anthology series, True Detective was tasked with starting over from its much-lauded first season with a new group of actors, a new location and a new mystery — essentially making it a new show.The morning after HBO aired “Down Will Come,” the fourth episode of True Detective’s second season, Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote something of a mea culpa.

Following last week’s insane shootout during the final scene of the episode, maybe it’s best if True Detective just takes it easy for a week, you know? And since this new show has had a lot of trouble living up to its predecessor so far, the massive shootout that closed last week’s episode was seen by many as a chance for the season to pick up some speed, to become more vital and to surprise us the way the first season did. While the powers that be have officially moved on from solving the murder of Ben Caspere — the Mexican drug gangsters killed in the fire fight at the end of episode four, aka “the Vinci Massacre,” have been ruled responsible — there are some people who aren’t prepared to do so. Judging from last Sunday’s episode, which ended with an epic, bloody shoot-out, things are about to get way more insane in the industrial wasteland of Vinci, California.

Well, that’s what we got with Sunday’s episode of “Other Lives.” It was a slow moving episode, that saw our detectives in a brand new light, mostly because none of them were truly detectives anymore, you know? So it was surprising (in a decidedly negative way) that the aftermath of the shooting — 66 days after, to be precise — brings the show to a stand-still that lasts for nearly 45 minutes of this hour-long episode. Consequently, Paskin confronted an issue that’s become a bugaboo of modern TV criticism: the idea that critics should not pass judgment until they’ve seen an entire season of TV. There you find hour after hour of spectacular, balls-out displays of the inherent incompetence, greed, and corruption of government—especially when it joins forces with crony capitalists. We learn that Ray has quit the force, shaved his fantastic mustache and is now working security for Frank, while Frank himself is fully back into the crime business, although he and Jordan had to move into a smaller house.

As has been too often noted, reviewing television shows based on a smattering of episodes is similar to reviewing a book based only on its early chapters. These two guys have always been a little bit at odds with one another, but now that Ray and Frank are going to square off , what’s going to happen to them now? Ani, meanwhile, is working the evidence room and is undergoing group counseling for sexual harrassment, where she is the only woman in a room full of sexist pigs.

This is a complaint often trotted out by creators who think their show has gotten a bum rap (a cohort that overlaps significantly with creators who think a “bum rap” is anything less than a 100 percent approval rating). It spent an inordinate amount of time on plots that are hard to care about (raise your hand if you were happy to see the speeding actress again) while only inching forward on the parts of the narrative that were truly intriguing (more time with Jordan please, kthanksbye). But as a professional libertarian (gag), I’m mostly just digging the general atmospherics, which are as thick with government pollution as they are with SoCal smog.

Complacent, hypocritical good old boy Marty Hart got his wake up call when his long-suffering, fed up wife went femme fatale and forced change by wantonly screwing his partner and leaving him. Indeed, the True Detective world, filled as it is with crooked cops and perverts in high places and massive, state-funded land grabs and billion-dollar high-speed rail boondoggles, seems ripped right from Ron Paul’s nightmares. Said partner, Rust Cohle, rethought his extreme philosophical nihilism after a monstrous reflection of his abysmal belief system gazed back and gutted him.

The characters and the actors are incredible, especially Rachel McAdams as Ani—short for Antigone, the first great libertarian heroine who disobeyed the state in accordance with higher law—Bezzerides, the sexually haunted daughter of a creepy guru and sister to a webcam performer (whose studio is mistaken for a whorehouse by the vice squad in Episode 1). Both walked away lame yet improved, born again humbled, with eyes to see hope for a better future in the darkness of the present. “My audience are the people who think God is dead,” O’Connor once said. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” True Detective aspires to similar Pulp Revelation.

It finally gets good around Page 200!” is only a recommendation for a book compared to “it never gets good.” You should read all of Paskin’s piece, which is great. He’s also right back where we saw him in the season’s first episode: Embroiled in a losing custody battle, willing to do anything to get his son back. But the key character is Velcoro’s paymaster, Frank Semyon, whose dirty fingers have been in every racket a town can offer, from drugs to gambling to booze—all of which flourish under the watchful eye and greased palms of law enforcement. (That Frank is played expertly by Vince Vaughn is kind of the cherry on top of all this.

Best-known for comedies such as Old School and Dodgeball, Vaughn is an unapologetic libertarian who introduces Ron Paul to adoring crowds, praises Edward Snowden, and stumps for Second Amendment rights like nobody’s business.) From a libertarian perspective, it’s perfect that Frank’s big play to “go legit” is to use political connections to get in on the billion-dollar boondoggle that is Jerry Brown’s real-life high-speed rail project. The state investigator offers to intervene with family services if Ray helps nail the Vinci corruption, and she also casually drops the bomb that Ray murdered the wrong guy all those years ago, since his ex-wife’s rapist was just arrested alive and well. Governor Moonbeam’s sad, never-to-be-completed legacy project is dependent upon huge amounts of federal and state tax dollars and eminent-domain abuse. Ray is a little miffed (to put it mildly) about Frank having tricked him, and after taking out some tension on that gross plastic surgeon, he shows up at Frank’s door looking for some answers. Maybe Bird Mask is someone who is watching Frank’s back and cleaning up his messes, such as his lieutenant, Blake, who also happens to go missing at inopportune times.

It has no chance of succeeding at anything other than filling the coffers of politically connected plutocrats and displacing thousands of regular people. Others have suggested that another main character, Paul, could be the killer, that he suffers from the kind of lost time and fugue states — see his encounter with his friend Miguel during the last episode — I suggested that Frank could be prone to. Founded by criminal enterprise, built on a landfill, and run by generations of greedy stewards and carpetbagger dreamer-schemers, Vinci exists to serve the wealthy, mostly white, and exploit the desperate, mostly not white.

Even lefties at outlets such as Mother Jones, who usually gush over rail projects like Matt Damon over low-flow toilets, are calling bullshit on the plan. But here’s the real genius part of True Detective: The corruption on display in True Detective is bigger than Frank, Cesere, Velcoro, or any single individual and is thus uncontainable. It’s systemic and inevitable in a world where politicians, gangsters, and businessmen form a sort of human centipede that’s impossible to disentangle or rein in. The sexual harassment seminar Ani is forced to attend at the start of this episode is exactly what I’d expect a sexual harassment seminar scripted by True Detective to look like.

Frank did business with Caspere, Ray does business with Frank and works for the city of Vinci, and Ani’s creepy hippie dad knew Caspere from back in the day. Actually, “employs” is the wrong word for what we’ve been told: Vinci is a giant sweatshop, and has fought long, hard and dirty to stay that way. When the government controls who gets to build what where and what sorts of permission is needed to run a bar or a restaurant—not to mention a whorehouse—you end up building graft and corruption into everything. The series needs to imbue its characters with more spark and life if it’s going to ask them to carry such intense material, and outside of arguably Ani, it just hasn’t done so.

But other than forced to endure the “compliments” of her fellow sexually deviant officers, Ani has been demoted since the shoot out, literally put in a cage as she’s in charge of evidence lock-up. Based on real-life Vernon, California (memorably called “a criminal enterprise posing as a city government” in the pages of the Los Angeles Times), Vinci is the bastard offspring of Dashiell Hammet’s “Poisonville” from Red Harvest and Ayn Rand’s Galt Gulch in Atlas Shrugged.

That’s enough to get her back on the unofficial investigation, and it’s a good thing, too, because who else would have thought to check out what was under some circling birds? Maybe it’s just a more straightforward conspiracy involving sex parties thrown by and for rich guys, high-powered politicians and other sorts of unsavory characters.

Hammett’s first novel, which inspired the films Yojimbo and Fistfull of Dollars, is set in a figurative ass-crack of the Rocky Mountains (“an ugly notch between two ugly mountains”) and is populated almost exclusively by lazy, on-the-take cops and civic leaders who are beneath contempt. A massive shootout, a new job, a messed-up mother, a troubled service record and a baby on the way was just not enough plot for Paul, so the show felt the need to revisit the actress he pulled over in episode one who made the false sexual harassment claim on him. The show’s disdain for female characters is never more apparent than in this scene, where the actress (who is never given a name) is just so disdainful and Paul is just so righteous. Pitlor, that Caspere and Tony Chessani, son of the consistently souced mayor of Vinci, may have been recording some “affluent men” at the ritzy sex parties in question.

As the city’s few children play in industrial waste, Vinci’s mayor hangs his hat in one of the most expensive homes in Bel Air, where his son orders around hot and cold running prostitutes. Ani follows up on that case of the missing girl, Vera — remember her from episode one? — who had some snapshots that tied her to the sex party scene. Whatever Robbins’s general leftward political commitments may be, The Brink plays like a darker, post-9/11 version of Get Smart, with American fantasies of controlling the world routinely dismissed. (If there’s a more damning way to mock American diplomacy and spymanship than casting Don Adams as a secret agent, it’s to cast Jack Black as a bumbling State Department employee who pimps for Robbins’s satyr-like secretary of state.) The Brink is the foreign policy equivalent of Veep, another HBO series that shows government at its highest levels as thoroughly unredeemable. His mother, still as creepy as ever, has gambled away his nest egg (that he apparently stole from Afghanistan, so he maybe he shouldn’t be so righteous), which is a bummer because he’s going through with his plans to marry his pregnant beard.

You could answer all the questions I listed above with a little creative blank-filling, but the bones of a detective story are often best served by crystal clarity on what motivates the characters involved in the case, which affords the puzzle at the center more room to play out. Julia Louis-Dreyfus may have helped Los Angeles pass its plastic-bag ban back in 2012, but she’s far more effective in pushing confidence in government to historic lows as Selena Meyer, the laughably incompetent title character in Veep who accidentally ends up in the Oval Office itself.

As the season progresses, Frank continues to see-saw with his wealth and status, moving back into his less-than-legitimate business practices and moving out of his mansion into a still probably very-expensive suburban home. Never in lockstep or unanimously, of course, but surely it’s no coincidence that after decades of major fuck-ups and dissemblings by politicians (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Church Commission to Iran-Contra to the Clinton impeachment to WMDs and torture to the Snowden revelations), trust in government is not so high.

Given that the investigation into Caspere’s death is “closed,” there’s pretty much no prospect of Frank getting that money back, and that’s a fact he’s having trouble accepting. So, too, the California Gothic of season 2, though it could be more so; it worries too much about being taken seriously to let the dark comedy really rip and let the freaky Birdman stuff fly. Except when they are denying any responsibility for social ills, Hollywood honchos have forever been insisting that their movies and shows effectively program viewers like robots and make us better human beings.

She doesn’t like the crime, she doesn’t like that they’ve put plans for a child on hold and it seems like she just doesn’t like her husband at the moment. Garry Marshall, the legendary creator of Happy Days, continues to falsely claim that when Fonzie got his library card, local libraries were overwhelmed with new applicants. Joe Biden—arguably the real-life model for Veep’s Selena Meyer, though she is more likely an amalgam of every vice president in U.S. history—got closer to the truth a few years back when he said that Will & Grace “did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.” Popular culture—especially zeitgeisty shows such as True Detective—reflect and inform where we are as a society. If he plays ball, she says, things can be arranged so he can keep his son — even though his ex-wife Dena is playing hardball and demanding a paternity test.

Shaped by the sins of their parents, warped by a wicked world, and damned by past choices, their madness manifests in the form of hard-boiled personas that undermine intimacy, muffle their virtue, and rob them of authenticity.* They yearn to be old fashioned tough guy heroes, but it’s a way of being that has no place in the modern world and keeps them alienated from it (see: Velcoro’s outrageous action against the father of his son’s bullying persecutor in the premiere; Paul Woodrugh, realizing last week that his want to be a simple minded G.I. Sometimes the conversations run away from the intentions of creators—David Simon is a self-described socialist yet some of the biggest fans of his masterpiece The Wire are libertarians who see in it an argument against virtually everything Simon himself holds dear—and I’ve got no idea what (if any) politics Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, has. Pitlor, whom he had observed earlier with Frank’s lieutenant Blake, what looks like Mayor Chessani’s right-hand man in the office (maybe he’s the Bird Man), and some high-end prostitutes. (Ray also observes the prostitutes being delivered to Osip, the Russian “businessman” who snubbed Frank after Caspere’s murder. Also, he isn’t quite sure that the Mexicans killed Caspere, and he suspects Blake might be involved in something else, which is why he puts Ray on his tail. Will they find the courage to peel them off and deal with what they see? “I don’t know who the f— I am anymore,” said Paul last week after a shit-faced sexual encounter with a former Army buddy.

Instead of wrestling further with the matter of his true orientation, Paul, confused and ashamed, jumped deeper into closet by proposing marriage to his pregnant girlfriend. Is Ani ever going to wonder if the increasing number of links between the mystery she’s investigating and her painful past might be more than just coincidences?

But first, Frank is going to have to deal with a supremely pissed Ray, who bangs on the Semyons’ door early in the morning. “We need to talk,” Ray tells Frank. He’s making news this weekend with his denunciation of the culture’s romance with superheroes which he helped to supercharge, much to his chagrin. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that is it, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to the times.” I see something of this alarmist perspective expressed through this season’s over-boiled toughs and certain scenes layered with knowing subtext. Example: When Ray visited his retired-cop father and suffered his racist, wrongheaded harangues about a world he no longer understands, if he ever did at all. During the scene, Dad was geeking out on the black and white flick on his TV: Detective Story, starring Kirk Douglas as a square jaw tough guy with a morally simplistic code of justice.

Detective Story was actually about questioning and subverting the archetype Douglas was playing. (Papa Velcoro is basically the Watchmen fanboy who missed the point that Alan Moore was satirizing nihilistic vigilante Rorschach, not celebrating him.) That irony goes unstated in the Ray-Dad scene, thought that irony is the entire point of the Ray-Dad scene: We are left with the impression that Ray is seeing his dad — and by extension, himself — with enlightened eyes. Pizzolatto might’ve been spelling out his philosophy of characterization in the third episode of season 1 when he made a traveling preacher preach “You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knew you” and “The world is a veil, and the face you wear is not your own.” (If Paul Woodrugh was working that detail and hearing those words, he’d be shivering and ordering doubles.) My tangent-prone brain redirects to C.S.

He’s been slowly spiraling upward ever since – staying sober, playing straight with Ani, following her lead, reflecting on his flawed father’s imprint, risking his life to chase the truth. When we met Frank Semyon, the casino owner and would-be land baron had divested himself of all his illicit enterprises, although it was almost impossible to tell, thanks to the dubious company Frank keeps and the scuzzy places he haunts.

In doing so, Frank has re-embraced his bad self, which is arguably is most authentic self, even though he’s living out the antithesis of his golden rule: “Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating.” I find Frank’s ironies within ironies fascinating, but miscalculations in storytelling have sabotaged his power and potential. Frank’s attempts at talking fancy are one more way he’s trying to better himself, transcend, go legit; the erratic execution and phony sounding-ness speaks to the buggy, fraudulent nature of his redemption scheme in general. Regardless, the show has failed to properly stage his arc from the start, and thanks to Vaughn’s too serious, mostly ruthless tenor (there have been a few, striking exceptions), there doesn’t seem to be much of an arc at all, just a flat line of ruthlessness.

It’s watchable, and not in a hate-watchy way, but in a hope-watchy way; I keep waiting for this engrossing but frustrating story to go next level, engage my emotions and not just my head, and find a groove of sustained, artful drama. I tend to overthink things (see: this essay), and I usually justify it as an expression of enthusiasm for a well-told story that is capturing my imagination. But there’s another kind of overthink, the kind we do when we’re trying to make sense of something that’s confounding us, when we’re trying to make something work that doesn’t.

But I’m worried that the show actually agrees with her dad’s critique of her choice of profession and man-eating proclivities, that she’s basically stuck in a rut of never-ending rebellion against her him and punishes the men in her life with her unreasonable father issues. The show’s depiction of Southern California makes for a great character — it’s the best character on the show! — yet paradoxically, the more I learn how profoundly corrupt it is, the less I care about it.

It certainly makes a compelling argument for that violent grace idea: Maybe the Birdman conspiracy should just firebomb the place and make everyone start over.

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