Well, that was a hell of a way to start an episode! I always appreciate some balls-out weirdness, and while that wasn’t necessarily good at least it was some real Twin Peaks shit. Right down to the weird guy in cowboy boots singing and dancing in a surreally colored space, in this case it’s an appropriately bizarre country cover of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” instead of smooth jazz but still. While it’s an odd needle drop the lyrics to fit Ray Velcoro’s self-defined narrative of his own life: “Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed”.
This scene is also an interesting way of introducing Fred Ward as Velcoro’s father. We see him in police uniform in this dreamscape before his introduction in the real world, and here he speaks about Velcoro’s father as though he’s another person (“You have your father’s hands”). He’s considerably more likable in the dream, considering he’s later portrayed as an alcoholic, racist piece of shit (“No country for white men”).
The fact that the scene is wonderfully bizarre is a bit undercut by the fact that it’s pretty much entirely unjustified within the narrative. The scene is pretty explicitly presented as a view of the afterlife, with Ray’s still-very-much-alive father telling him he doesn’t know where they are because Ray got there first, but that makes no sense because he’s barely injured. While they doctors later claim he has a few broken ribs none of the rubber bullets he was shot with seem to have even pierced the skin! I suppose the one justification you could make is that they do claim that his sternum received a heavy impact and so maybe his heart briefly stopped. Alternatively, the scene could simply be a dream sequence.
Which brings us to the larger question I skipped over: Why was Velcoro shot with rubber bullets? Assuming this is the same bird-masked goon associated with Caspere’s death, these guys have no problem with murder. Considering they killed a city manager, even killing a cop wouldn’t be outrageous for them. So was this just particularly bad writing, simply a justification for last week’s cliffhanger ending without wanting any story-based consequences (i.e. putting Velcoro in the hospital for a few episodes)? If we think that True Detective is a show that’s better than that we have to think Velcoro was left alive intentionally. So why?
One possibility is suggested by the state representative heading the probe into Vinci PD, Katherine Davis: Velcoro did it to himself. This would imply Usual Suspects-esque narrative trickery, but it would be consistent with Ray’s directive to get rid of evidence that would hurt other corrupt Vinci officials. It’s not like that hard drive was particularly hidden, so why would the group that killed Caspere have missed it the first time if they were the ones looking for it?
More likely Semyon set Velcoro up, as he’s the one who sent him in the direction of the house in the first place. This would imply that there’s a larger plan at work for Semyon, since he would be working with the bird-masked guy who killed Caspere and everything else about Semyon’s plot seems to be behaving as though Caspere’s death screwed him over.
Most simply, it’s possible that whoever killed Caspere was watching the house and/or following Velcoro. But that once again leaves us wondering why not just kill him?
Dezzerides arrives on the scene well after Vinci PD, though to be fair it does seem as though Velcoro is pretty honest with her. He claims he knew about the place based on a criminal informant, which is true although he claims this informant was a prostitute rather than a key player in Vinci corruption (who, in turn, got the information from a prostitute).
Dezzerides then takes Woodrugh off research duty and tells him to go work the streets looking for this prostitute, “Tasha”. This is pointless, of course. Velcoro could have Semyon go get him Tasha anytime he wanted. He even has the opportunity to do so, calling a meeting at his favorite little dive bar immediately after leaving the crime scene.
This calls Frank Semyon away from his appointment at the sperm bank, in a scene that makes for at least two protagonists of this season with potency issues. Considering their drinking I’m sure we could add both Velcoro and Vinci Mayor Austin Chessani to that list.
Speaking of the lovably corrupt Vinci leader, Dezzerides and Woodrugh make their way to his Bel-Air Mansion in what might be my favorite scene of the entire season so far. It’s a peek into a different type of bizarreness from the opening dreamscape: that of wealth. Chessani’s mansion is a fascinating combination of old world wealth signifiers and frat house mess. Every surface seems covered in empty bottles, cans, cigarette packs, and weed paraphernalia. Chessman’s wife looks like his daughter, dresses like a beauty queen, talks like a mail-order bride, and smokes from a vaporizer like a champ (or an old granny, since the weed is ostensibly “medicine for [her] eyes”). This sequence also contains the most off-putting five seconds of the entire series so far: Dezzerides looks around the bombed out mansion, terrible electronic music blaring in some unknown corner of the place for no one in particular. She finds a bedroom, containing a normal teen girl – presumably Chessani’s actual daughter, Betty – doing homework. Annoyed, the girl closes the door. CUT TO: A woman’s scream! A body drops from the second story of the building!
It turns out that isn’t the same girl, and all we get out of it is a scene with Chessani’s annoying son. But for a second that makes it seem as though the most normal-seeming person in the house saw a cop and immediately offed herself. It seems like anything can and will happen. All that actually seems to happen in this sequence is that Dezzerides gets a peek at some land title surveys and we learn that the initial reason they went there was some late-night phone calls between Chessani and Caspere.
Meanwhile, Semyon is struggling to keep his head above water and get his revenge on Catalyst for screwing him over in the Caspere deal. We see him pushing for more money out of investments he’s already tapped dry when he pushes a construction contractor for more payouts.
Woodrugh and Dezzerides take a look in Caspere’s safety deposit box and find some diamonds and deeds for LLCs he’d formed within the past year. We get a repeat of the scene from last week intercutting Velcoro and Dezzerides receiving direction from their respective bosses, with Velcoro’s directing him away from Caspere’s land deals and towards the hooker angle and Dezzerides’ instructing her to use her sexuality to help target Velcoro specifically.
Semyon ends things with Osip, who still has cold feet about investing in the High Speed Rail deal. He then receives the bad news that one of his underlings has been killed, and judging from the lack of eyes it’s by the same people who got to Caspere.
Woodrugh meets with an old army buddy who he apparently had a fling with, though when he suggests that maybe Woodrugh is gay and they should possibly get together they nearly get in a fistfight. They mention going to “meetings” probably for PTSD, possibly a gay conversion therapy thing, although probably not drugs because they’re drinking. Mysteriously, someone appears to be taking pictures of this altercation. I can only imagine someone will try to blackmail him with those, but what they could possibly find in those pictures that’d be incriminating? It’s not like fist fighting an old buddy is illegal, and if the plan is to blackmail him over his homosexuality then some pictures of them fighting would hardly prove that.
So far the Woodrugh story is the most boring out of all the plot threads, but I’ll say one good thing about it. The pacing of the way the story gives out information on it is very well handled. We’re all familiar with Brokeback Mountain, so the concept of a hyper masculine dude hiding homosexuality it isn’t some new and exciting story. However, the show has kept the information from the audience expertly, only revealing one little detail per episode: in the first we saw he was impotent with his girlfriend, in the second we saw him checking out some men, in this episode we get an implied backstory to a gay relationship. The scarcity of information makes the storyline more intriguing than it really has any right to be.
Velcoro and Dezzerides are pointed in the direction of a Cadillac used on a movie set. The point at which the show focuses on that Mad Max-looking extra was my other high point/disappointment of this episode. For one shining moment I hoped that this season was going definitively over-the-top and doing a full “Tremor Bros.” from Smokin’ Aces subplot. PSA: If you haven’t seen Smokin’ Aces, go watch it immediately! It’s like they took an average C+ hitman movie and dropped three War Boys from Fury Road in the middle of it for no discernible reason, and that’s awesome.
There’s no telling whether we’ll see more of the film plot line later or if this is it, as right now there were only some vague connections to the Caspere mystery. He was apparently at some parties and worked a tax break for the production, so there’s certainly the possibility that this was just a way of getting a little LA vibe into the show but I really hope we see more of it.
Velcoro’s ex uses the fact that she knows he’s being investigated (since she was asked about him) to offer him money to avoid litigation and just walk away/disappear. This happens virtually in front of Dezzerides, though it’s unclear how much she knows.
They follow the Cadillac link to the kid who owns it, and it looks like someone is stalking Velcoro because while they’re interviewing him the car gets torched. They chase the white-masked arsonist on foot through a shantytown and onto the highway, Velcoro saves Dezzirides from being hit by a truck and asks her to tell him what info the state has on him. She says she doesn’t know, though it’s unclear how true that is.
Woodrugh works the hooker angle, following the thread to Lux Infinitum. This appears to be the club where Semyon got the information in the first place. Coincidentally, Semyon actually happens to be there again and literally bumps into Woodrugh but I don’t think there’s any significance to it. He does find out about Tasha the prostitute, though.
Semyon is working the same angle, just a few steps ahead of the law. He – somewhat hilariously – hands printouts of Caspere’s face to gang leaders, telling them to ask all their associates and customers if they know of him. They rightfully laugh in his face, the dude who told him about Tasha in the last episode (you remember him, charming fellow with “fuck you” engraved gold teeth) especially so. Semyon fights “fuck you” and rips the gold teeth out of his mouth. I’m not sure I buy this development. Everybody in there has guns, is a leader, owns businesses and/or politicians. We’ve seen Semyon’s gang of guys is only a handful strong, he’s mainly transitioned to legitimate business. It’s not like he’s actually able to strong-arm the other gangs into doing his bidding in anything but the most literal sense of an arena of gentlemanly combat. It appears as though at least one point of this season is masculinity-as-performance, with the impotency and posturing going around. Maybe this fight is a reflection of that, because in the end it’s pretty clear that Semyon has no power.
And this is where I’m going to talk about a few things that didn’t work in the episode. First of all, comedy. Ray pisses himself when he’s shot. As if that wasn’t hilarious enough, Dezzirides calls him out on it after their little powwow on the scene. This kind of ball-busting humor works best when the person does something embarrassing, and being shot in the gut at point blank range with a shotgun is pretty much the least embarrassing possible situation in which to piss yourself. It’s not terrible, but considering they expect it to be so hilarious we laugh at it twice it should be considerably funnier.
And speaking of expecting us to laugh at a joke twice, apparently they’re trying to make that “sucking a robot’s dick” thing into a runner. Woodrugh laughs at the mere appearance of Dezzerides e-cig as though vaping is hilarious in and of itself, which you could be forgiven for thinking if you follow Rob Delaney on Twitter
The first season derived most of its humor from the odd couple pairing of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, not really relying on simple jokes but amusing character interaction when it came to lightening the show. This season has kept its detectives apart for most of its running time, and thus hasn’t built up any significant character groupings with which to recreate this dynamic. I’d say the most amusing duo so far has been Taylor Kitsch and “Cool Story, Bro”-cop in the research bunker. And that was really just the one scene.
It’s becoming apparent that Pizzolatto doesn’t really have an ear for traditional one-liners, but he’s had a bit of luck with ridiculous singular lines of dialogue (“I’ll rape your father with your mothers headless corpse on this goddamned lawn!”) and situations (Chessani’s mansion). Probably the thing I found funniest in this episode was the fact that the deeply closeted Woodrugh was assigned to hit the streets locating the heterosexual female prostitute Tasha… and ends up spending the night hanging out with a bunch of gay male prostitutes, seemingly without even realizing what he’s doing.
The other problem I had with this episode was, shockingly enough, some basic film grammar stuff. For starters, there are two scenes that cut away from themselves only to cut right back. Not to communicate a time lapse or anything, just because the writing awkwardly didn’t know how to jump to the next point. One happens with Dezzerides and Woodrugh in the car on the way to Mayor Chessani’s mansion and the other happens in the dive bar between Velcoro and Semyon. Velcoro’s about to fill him in on what happened, cut to the waitress setting down a drink and Semyon essentially saying “Thank you for having just told me that information, which the audience didn’t see but happened in the brief time jump between the last cut and the waitress setting down the drinks.” Ideally the screenwriter/director/editor would want to structure that so we have another scene happening in between those cuts, smoothing over the weirdness of the time jump transition, but that doesn’t happen here and it makes each of these scenes feel amateurish. This is an issue I remember dealing with when writing my first script in class. It’s literally Screenwriting 101 stuff.
However, overall this episode pushed the show even further into the realm of entertaining schlock. I mean that as high praise. Raymond Chandler and his many imitators became one of the cornerstones of modern storytelling, but they were entertaining schlock first and foremost. Over-the-top characters, locations, situations, sex, drugs, and bizarre murder were their bread and butter Most of my criticisms of this season are hoping the show goes even more in that direction. What I’m saying is, let’s tie the post-apocalypse movie plot line further into the main story and wind up with this: