Spoiler alert for "True Detective" Season 2, Episode 5, "Other Lives."
Flash forward 66 days after the "Vinci massacre," and our gang of true detectives has been forced to reboot their lives. Ray is working for Frank and still battling for custody of his son, Paul is investigating insurance fraud and contending with a vindictive mother who stole his $20,000, Ani was transferred to the sheriff's office and must attend sexual-harassment workshops, and Frank wants to weasel his way back into the Catalyst land deal by recovering the hard drive stolen from Caspare's apartment. But don't worry: They'll work on the case on confidential terms. Meanwhile, Ray pulverizes Dr. Pitlor in order to confirm that Vera, the missing girl from the season premiere, attended Caspare and Chessani's orgies. Finally, Ray learns that Frank lied about the identity of his wife's rapist, leading to a knock on the door that even the increasingly corrupt Frank wasn't anticipating.
Did this dismal season of "True Detective" manage to refresh itself along with these characters' predicaments? We're still over here discussing the show, if anyone cares.
Erin: So, Matt, Sunday’s episode took a page out of last season’s book. Like the fifth episode of Season 1, “Other Lives” time-hopped, but forward instead of backward. After last week’s shootout-turned-staring-contest, “True Detective” jumped into the near future with the detectives living, well, other lives. Seeing Ray, Ani and Paul relocated to demoted positions, both within their careers and their personal battles, humanized the characters for the first time to me. The first four episodes felt like a string of detectives ambivalently investigating a murder that the season forced audience interest in. Even though Vinci closed the Caspare case, the three detectives got more done in Sunday’s episode than in the previous four. Ray put his anger management to use on Dr. Pitlor’s perfect face to get answers, Ani broke out the detective’s magnifying glass and circled back to that missing girl -- who was largely forgotten after the first episode -- and Paul wasn’t too impressive this week, but at least he’s discovering Det. Dixon was up to no good. Finally, five episodes in, this case is becoming interesting, but it might be too late. I’m not sure I care anymore. Are you back on board or still losing interest?
Matt: Hey, Erin. Happy "True Detective" Monday, aka my least favorite life. I'm probably more interested in the backstory of the maudlin lounge singer than I am any actual characters in the show. I suppose last night's was the best episode yet, if only because most of it actually seemed to make sense. Here's the thing: There's a fascinating plot buried in this show about a corrupt city government that records sadistic orgies for blackmail fodder among top-level officials. But having never actually met Caspare, knowing only cartoonish things about Dr. Pitlor and treating the mostly absent Tony Chessani like a "Scarface" wannabe means the whole ordeal has barely registered -- until now, when, like you said, it's a day too late. The puzzle pieces fit together, but I don't feel like jigsawing it anymore. The jig is up, if you will, mostly because it never began. Chessani's Lodge has so much potential, but in the context of an eight-episode story, we still barely know what it is.
But okay, I'll bite, because this season clearly wants to revolve around these characters' lost souls, and last night did more to channel how those troubles relate to the Scooby Gang's need for the Mystery Machine. (Frank excepted, that is. Nothing about Frank is interesting. Sorry, Frank.) You have to feel bad for Ray at this point, knowing that Frank set him up and he's been falsely indebted to him for years. That's a weird reaction to have, since there is little to convince us that Ray is a worthy father. But he and Ani are both symbolic of anger directed toward a larger system of corruption that probably did them in as gravely as they did themselves in years earlier. Paul, on the other hand, is the most transparent of them all, which has sometimes made his story the most approachable. But his boozy cliché of a mother, and watching him down his soda while silently panicking about forming a heterosexual family, rendered him flat in "Other Lives." Everyone else talks in phony circles about how they feel, whereas Paul spells it out like an aircraft delivering a message in the sky: Everyone can read it, but then it disappears and doesn't really matter at all.
Erin: That's the perfect way to summarize Paul's scenes this week, which were some of the worst of the episode, besides Frank saying, "Fuck that gangster shit." I get that Nic Pizzolatto is trying to break the mobster stereotype with Frank's sensitive, abused-as-a-boy edge -- he literally cried after his anti-gangster, anti-adoption speech -- but he remains a soggy mess of what could be a smart character. Frank isn't hard enough on the outside to actually fear him, his moments of violence emerging suddenly and cliched, and is so soft internally that any sense of a real character crumbles to pieces. But let's not waste any more time on him.
I did, however, enjoy Ani this week. Her sarcastic "I love big dicks" proclamation at group therapy was the best laugh of the episode (and maybe the only genuine laughing-with as opposed to laughing-at of this season). So far, she's the only one really attempting to solve this case, and is clearly the brains of the operation while Ray is the muscle and Paul is the ... handsome face? I suspect that Ani's demons will get the best of her, though, as investigating "Eyes Wide Shut"-esque sex parties may put her in a compromising situation, with what we know of her proclivities for kinky sex. Or maybe that knowledge will get her closer to the truth of whatever the hell is going on, as next week's episode preview seems to hint. This season, as you said, Matt, is all about lost souls, and so far it looks like the answers will only become clear as each detective faces their ugly pasts. Sadly, that's excrutiatingly obvious and overdone. I'm just banking on a good twist, and that Ray will eventually grow his mustache back.
Matt: "Fuck that gangster shit" is what I said to Frank right around, oh, Episode 2. Looks like he heard me -- too bad The Pizzster didn't. Likewise, Ani listed plotlines and repeated the words "nobody cares," and that, too, seemed like something I'd said during Episode 2. My, how some things never change. The problem with the supposed lost souls is that the show cherry-picks when they're relevant. Ani's father and sister intersect with the Caspare murder, but the former was absent this week after dropping the Chessani's Lodge bombshell and the latter is still trying to make her CalArts admission happen. When two people may have a direct hand in inching detectives toward solving a mystery, they need to be actual characters. Or at least interesting -- something other than Troubled Sister and Eccentric Father. It's why Ani's inevitable self-redemption arc -- and all of the characters' self-redemption arcs, really -- won't pay off.
The show doesn't even justify the detectives' relationships. Ray actually seemed to mean it when he told Ani at the bar that it was "good seeing you," and why? Because they bloodbath they caused a couple of months earlier united them? No one on this show has relationships, and that is still so frustrating. I want to see a Frank/Ray showdown, sure. Let's go. But why is it about a conflict that predates the show? In fact, every conflict seems to predate the show, and not in a layered, in-media-res way. It makes the show feel confusing even when it isn't. But of course Frank and Ray are going to sit across a table and glare at each other next week. What else would they do? Frank has blue balls in his heart. Ugh.
Erin: That's one of the core problems of this season. We're playing catch-up with the off-screen action, about which the characters themselves are generally ambivalent. While the unknown and unseen are the focal point of any good mystery, "True Detective" continues to play the I-know-something-you-don't-know game a little too strongly. I think most viewers are ready to throw up their hands and give up at this point. The breadcrumbs to this case -- which, by the way, became irrelevant after 15 minutes of Sunday's episode, when Frank casually asked Ray if he thinks "the Mexicans" killed Caspere, right before we're informed that the Caspere hunt is indeed back on -- are so lightly sprinkled that I'm far too hungry for good television to keep going.
In addition to the weak dialogue and hackneyed character tropes, this season is also entirely gimmick-free -- no innovative camera tricks, limited action sequences, no literary references to gnaw on. I'd usually love that, but still being bored to tears this far in, I've found myself desparately trying to make this season more entertaining. Each week I read through the "True Detective" subreddit in hopes of piecing together clues, as I did last week with a (slight) Yellow King connection. Too bad the fans are more interesting than Ray, Ani and Paul. Maybe Season 3 should be about solving a murder on Reddit threads.
Matt: That's just it. We keep trying to pick up the breadcrumbs, but the trail isn't there. I have a proposal. Forgive me now, "True Detective" devotees, but I think we should hit the pause button on these reviews until the finale. I realized while writing this that it's hard not to talk in circles about the show, and I think the urge to review it weekly is a holdover from Season 1 fandom instead of a worthwhile editorial endeavor. How much congested dialogue can a person mock every seven days?
What do you think, Erin? Should we table our "True Detective" talks? I've always thought disappointing art is better ignored anyway. There is good stuff on TV. Like "UnREAL." Or "Humans." Or "Masters of Sex." Or "Mr. Robot." We should be gabbing about those instead.
Erin: I couldn't agree with that plan more. We're beginning to seem more repetitive than those aerial freeway shots. I'd much rather stare at you from across a table than continue to desconstruct the same disappointments each week, and no one wants to keep reading that. If something mind-blowing or remotely worthy of a new discussion happens before the finale, we'll reconvene. If not, we'll see y'all again in three weeks!
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