As it reaches its season midpoint True Detective‘s seams are showing, and time is quickly running out.
You don’t take on somebody else’s grief.
True Detective’s second season represents the worst problem facing someone who writes about television: complete ambivalence. True Detective is neither interesting enough for me to have a deep affection for it, nor awful enough that it would be fun to crush each week as a hate-watch. It’s right in the middle of the road, eliciting no strong response in either direction as though the show is neither something to be loved or hated. Rather, it feels week after week that True Detective is something to be endured.
There’s a real chance that I’ll look back on “Down Will Come” as the episode that finally ended my interest in True Detective. The first three weeks of the drama have been a mess, but there were gleams of hope that the show might finally escape its sophomore slump and find itself. Colin Farrell has been exceptional, and he needs to immediately begin a second career playing drunk cops. Paul Woodrugh’s closeted homosexual storyline could be an interesting look at the nature of masculinity in a rough-and-tumble American culture. California Noir has an entire history of awesome. Unfortunately, however, none of these things seems to be uniting into an interesting story. Instead, it continues to drag at a snail’s pace, with a series of police interviews and uninteresting revelations. That kind of thing can be excused in the opening episodes of a season, but it gets considerably more ridiculous as that season arrives at its midpoint.
It’s a definite problem when I’ve seen half of the episodes in a given season and I can’t tell you half of the characters’ names. Nor can I describe exactly what the investigation has uncovered after three episodes of inquiry. The latter problem could possibly be forgiven. As I said last week, it feels like the central investigation of the show is not the disappearance and murder of Ben Caspare, but the mysteries to be uncovered in the show’s four leads. But that problem isn’t being resolved either. Instead, the writers (read: Nic Pizzolatto) are content to deal out mini-fragments of uncertainty that haven’t led anywhere.
Sure, “Down Will Come” did finally seem to confirm that Paul Woodrugh is running from his homosexual urges, but that’s the lone revelation in a woods full of breadcrumbs that lead nowhere. Speaking of Paul, what exactly happened in the desert while he was in the military? An entire mob of reporters and photographers seem to know since they confronted him outside of his hotel. Even Ray Velcoro might know. But the audience doesn’t. It remains one of the show’s many plot points shrouded in darkness. And what of Ani Bezzerides? Aside from the fact that Pizzolatto seems content to never develop her character, we haven’t uncovered anything about what really made her reject her father’s hippie philosophy and become a cop. Nor have we ever learned what those hints of a desperate pornography addiction lead to. And God only knows what’s going on in Frank Semyon’s shady business practices. I’d be at a loss to fully explain what the man even does. He’s a racketeer/crimeboss/casino mogul/real estate developer or….something?
Imagine, instead, if we got a chance to understand what makes these characters tick, and then we spent the rest of this short season dealing with the fallout from those events and actions. Remember, True Detective is an anthology series. The eight episodes we get with Velcoro, Semyon, and the gang this season are the only eight episodes we’re ever going to get with these characters. That isn’t long enough to merit this amount of heel-dragging. It’s almost as though Pizzolatto isn’t sure what he wants his characters to be, and he’s decided to leave them as mysteries instead, hoping that viewers will fill their empty vessels and hints of mystery with meaning. He needs the home audience to do his work for him.
The one thing that’s genuinely interesting about “Down Will Come” is the firefight that makes up the episode’s final fifteen minutes, but I’m not sure I mean that in the way you’re anticipating.
When Bezzerides, Velcoro, and Woodrugh finally track down the man they believe to be Ben Caspare’s killer by way of the dead man’s pawned watch, it’s supposed to be the big break that the investigation needs. They can arrest the man who they see pawning the watch on the shop’s closed circuit recordings, and the case will be over. But when the cavalry arrives to make the arrest, conveniently armed to the teeth, all hell breaks loose when the property they surround turns out to be the hideout and cook lab for a gang of equally armed criminals, and a firefight involving hundreds of bullets, an explosion, and even a car crash ensues.
True Detective’s first season also mid-pointed around a police vs. criminals shootout at a drug den, but there were some strong differences between these two scenes, and they’re representative of the differences between the staggering first story and the current flagging mess of Season 2.
Season One’s “The Secret Fate of All Life” featured a shootout that stood for more than a simple spray of bullets. Intercut with Rust and Marty’s testimonies about the fight to their superiors, the shootout with Reggie Ledoux marked the revelation that the two officers were unreliable narrators who were willing to lie to cover for themselves. Rust and Marty fabricated their stories and planted evidence to ensure the legality of their actions. Under director Cary Joji Fuknuaga’s guiding hand, the intertwined stories and an array of visual tricks gave meaning to a scene of violence. For all its glory, the firefight isn’t even the highpoint of that episode. The later time jump where Rust Cohle discovers some previously missed clues and realizes that the killing Ledoux wasn’t the end of the mystery resonates far deeper. It’s one of the things that makes “Secret Fate” True Detective’s all-time best episode.
“Down Will Come” simply isn’t “Secret Fate’s” peer. It’s not even close. Aside from the fact that this year’s shootout plays straight without any subtext, it’s also a complete mess. The messy staging lacks any spatial awareness, and it’s impossible to make any three-dimensional sense of what’s going on. Characters are constantly peeking out from behind cars and corners, firing bullets in random directions, and then running to a new location. “Down Will Come” was directed by Jeremy Podeswa, the man behind the equally problematic fight scene at the Dornish Water Gardens in the Game of Thrones episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” and that actually reveals a lot. Podeswa is a skilled director, and has done great work on other action series like Homeland and The Pacific, so what’s going on here? It’s another troubling decision.
As muddled as the sequence is, it’s even worse when you don’t know what it’s all for. The big question here is “why?” What purpose does a complicated gunfight serve when you don’t understand why it’s happening? We don’t know enough about the case to comprehend the battle’s importance, and we aren’t invested enough in the characters to care what happens to them. Even if a director had managed to orchestrate an amazing, technically skilled sequence, these problems of character and purpose would still be front and center. None of our leads were ever in danger, somehow becoming the only three people to survive the battle, but if any of them had caught a slug to the heart would it really matter?
How much longer can True Detective tread water? Again, this week marks the midpoint for this story, and these problems are huge issues at this point. Coupled with the inherent darkness that the show revels in, it’s fair to question if this is all worth it. As Frank Semyon opines in the episode’s opening moments, “you don’t take on somebody else’s grief.” He’s not wrong, especially when there’s such a weak payoff.