True Detective Review – S02E06 – “Church in Ruins”

The last episode of True Detective, “Other Lives” (which I’m sorry I missed reviewing, by the way), ended in a cliffhanger promising a showdown between Velcoro and Semyon. I can already tell that the thing I’m going to think of when I think back on this episode in the future isn’t their standoff, but the sequence in which Ani infiltrates the elites’ sex party.

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This sequence stands out visually with its distinctive red lighting, blurred vision effects, hallucinations, tuxedos and nudity. It also benefits from focusing on Rachel McAdams, probably the most compelling of the actors in the main cast. Plot-wise, it also represents the payoff to several season-long teases: Bezzerides obsession with knives, the elites’ sex parties, the missing person case. This episode represents the biggest development in the season on that last point, since they’ve officially solved one of the two on-the-books cases we started the season with.

This party is what a hack political cartoonist would draw in order to label “The Patriarchy”: a group of tuxedo-clad old white men smoking cigars while washing Viagra down with champagne, wheeling and dealing in the company of drugged female sex-trafficking victims. A black woman authority figure sends a woman – who it is revealed throughout the course of the sequence has also been traumatized by sexual abuse which was the result of a very different kind of patriarchal system – to rescue a Mexican-American sex-trafficking victim.

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Over the course of the mission she stabs the fuck out of a violent man, and the form her rescue takes is delivering the victim into the arms of a gay man. In the blogosphere’s Internet Outrage Machine True Detective has taken a fair bit of flak for being a regressive, possibly misogynistic show, and (pending the last two episodes, of course) I’d actually agree with that on the macro level. While a single sequence can be described on the surface level as blisteringly progressive as the above description sounds, True Detective is still a show largely concerned with issues of white male masculinity both in the negative and as a glorified ideal. However – credit where it’s due – sequences like this one seem to show that Pizzolatto is at least trying, and the result is one of the most memorable parts of this season.

Not that there weren’t any problems with it. While it was the most visually distinctive sequence in quite a while, it achieved that through the brute force of colored lighting and blurring effects. This is neither beautiful cinematography for its own sake nor effectively communicating story through camerawork. Similar sequences were done better everywhere from Bates Motel to Twin Peaks. In a sequence like this you generally want to emphasize either the seediness of the action or the shock of whom it is performing those actions. Either focus in order to make visceral some disgusting detail of the action, or go the Eyes Wide Shut route and emphasize the ornate location this is taking place in. The blurry, unfocused cinematography of this scene limits us to many quick, unclear peeks at various small groups of people that cut away before we can get an idea of what they’re doing. This does at least communicate that Bezzerides has been drugged, but the fact that she’s drugged never effects the plot in any way!

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Yes, the hallucinations she saw were probably intended to be the result of the drugs, but plot-wise that’s unimportant since it makes sense that she’d be thinking about that incident during this encounter anyways. Effectively those hallucinations act as simple flashbacks.

In fact, everything pretty much goes according to plan. She gets in, gets hit on by a guy, leaves him, finds who she’s looking for, leaves with her, gets stopped, kills the guy who stopped her, they run out. Technically they got found out, but things go pretty well overall. Which is the most boring way a scene can play out. Hell, as a bonus Velcoro even gets some secret files.

Now that I’ve praised and shat all over that sequence I guess I should acknowledge that, shockingly enough, other things happened in this episode!

 

“Church in Ruins” starts by defusing the bombshell that “Other Lives” ended on by having Ray and Frank simply talk out their problems. Sure, they do that with guns under the table (Hitchcock would be proud), but basically all Frank has to do is say that he genuinely believed he’d given Ray accurate information all those years ago and they’re good. I think I can finally see why they cast Vaughn in this role, though. His character is supposed to be a fantastically smooth talker, between getting out of being murdered by Ray here and constantly negotiating deals everywhere else. Since the quick-talking dealer is the stock type that Vaughn is famous for it makes sense that they’d want him for this, even if he’s only intermittently got the acting chops to pull off the heavy scenes.

Speaking of heavy acting scenes for Vaughn, we get to see both sides of that in the scene with his dead henchman Stan’s family. It’s an interesting dynamic they portray here. These aren’t just nameless henchmen, they’re people Semyon knows by name, has had a long business relationship with, whose families he knows personally. Vaughn is particularly great in the scene with Stan’s son, showing there’s a little hope for Semyon as a father yet.

On the other end of the fatherhood spectrum is Velcoro. After a disastrous visit from social services brings out the fact that his son doesn’t like building models, objects to violence, and would rather just watch Friends (a show Ray appears to consider girly) than do what his father wants, Velcoro takes the kid back to his mother early and binges on booze and coke. He appears to be freaking out about his inability to relate to his supposed offspring and the fact that it seems likely he’ll lose him. Finally, he calls his ex-wife to tell her he gives up. She can have custody of the kid so long as she doesn’t tell him his true parentage.

Or maybe he hasn’t given up quite yet, given his visit to the rapist in prison. He practically quotes this season’s theme song: “You know me, you just didn’t know you did.”

Although Woodrugh doesn’t anything showy in “Church in Ruins”, but does manage to discover that the blue diamonds weren’t in the system because originally stolen over twenty years ago in the ’92 LA riots. Meanwhile, Semyon pulls double duty and moves the investigation forward by taking on a terrible deal with the Mexicans in order to meet with Ledo Amarillo’s associate. This unfortunately gets her killed and fortunately (in Semyon’s eyes) leads to a Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans!

So don’t let it be said that this episode was too serious to continue this season’s corny joke thread.

 

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