Tuesday, July 14, 2015

True Detective season 2 episode 4 - "Down Will Come"


This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.

I thought this episode would decide True Detective's season two potential for me, determining whether or not I should have any expectations beyond standard cop procedural. After all, nearly halfway through the series nothing really big had happened so far - except for Ray Velcoro getting shot, which proved to be little more than a red herring tease. If episode four didn't introduce some juicy new material, or offer a mindblowing twist, I felt it would be time to accept that we're not going to get anything on par with season one. Instead, I am just as uncertain as ever. The season still hasn't convinced me it has something more compelling up its sleeve than the conventional small-city corruption noir plot, and the characters remain potential - perhaps they are all just too reserved compared to Cohle and Hart. Nonetheless, for reasons both subtle (breathing room for character moments) and obvious (that catastrophic shootout in the last ten minutes), I'm not ready to dismiss the season's potential. I've already glimpsed some negative headlines, but for me this was probably the best episode so far - not to say it was great.

In a welcome surprise, Woodrugh becomes the most interesting character. After angsty brooding for three hours, he finally seems unable to maintain the facade. Endless teases about his homosexuality are more or less - pardon the pun - put to bed. The first scene finds him waking up in his friend's house (it looks like his war buddy from last episode) - out in the living room he faces morning-after caresses and the winking rhetorical question, "We put out some fires last night, or what?" Oddly, the dialogue and screen action still coyly evade a blunt depiction of what the tough-guy cop is repressing. If this is to reflect the character's own refusal to truly own up to his desires, than it's pretty effective; if Pizzolatto is still trying to make us wonder, it's silly; and if the screenplay actually has some other twist in store, then it's ridiculous. Kitsch finally is allowed to show a bit of Woodrugh's sorrow, and the character becomes poignant for the first time since we've met him. The discovery that his girlfriend is pregnant is the first twist all season that truly feels earned. It genuinely surprised me and suggests all sorts of interesting potential for Woodrugh's arc. Who knew this would be the most promising material of episode four?!

Velcoro, on the other hand, has taken an odd turn, enjoyable in the moment, perhaps a bit disappointing upon reflection (the jury's out). The first episode bluntly told us he would not simply be the flawed-but-essentially-good "angry man" archetype, but every episode since has been striving to make him just that, although his mellower mood makes it more palatable. Maybe this reinforces the wisdom of slowly unveiling Woodrugh's secrets, because Velcoro hasn't really had anywhere to go since he was shot, if not earlier. Nonetheless Farrell continues to really sell Velcoro, and his rapport with McAdams is subtly respectful and even affectionate in a very low-key, believable way (he also has a nice scene with Kitsch, although it's odd to see Velcoro becoming the serene moral center of this ensemble). I like that no romance has developed between Velcoro and Bezzerides, and hope that none will, even as we learn she's slept with several cops in her department. Bezzerides...I still don't quite feel that she's gotten her due. She keeps her head down and does her job, and that's partly what defines her persona, but it would still be nice to see her truly thrown as off-kilter as the other characters have been.

We learn more about Bezzerides' family in this episode, and discover that (surprise!) her father's New Age institution may have some links with Vinci's political corruption and Caspere's grisly death. A brief exchange between the shaggy guru and Velcoro is one of this season's few genuinely funny conversations; Bezzerides Sr., it seems, is deeply impressed by Velcoro's colorful aura which "takes up the whole room." "What do you think green and black means?" a genuinely befuddled Velcoro asks the disenchanted daughter, who scoffs, "I don't know...you're a mood ring?" Although there is still some questionable pontification (my eyebrow arched a bit at the "memories have us" soliloquey), this episode generally features a lighter touch with the dialogue. Maybe that's because Pizzolatto has collaborated with another writer (Scott Lasser) for the first time in True Detective history...although this is such a rare occurrence I wonder if it doesn't have more to do with something unusual about this particular teleplay: maybe the violent, elaborate shootout that closes the episode in stark fashion?

The inevitable, and rather unfair, comparison will be with the one-take nighttime raid that closed episode four of the last season and naturally this scene can't compare. The gunfire is captured in more conventional fashion, and is a lot less imaginative in conception as well as execution (it's a raid gone wrong rather than a doubly-disguised sting operation in which a character has to both escape and take a hostage). Nonetheless, I found it terrifically effective and intense. The body count is quite ruthless - Nic Pizzolatto must really hate Metro-riding protestors given how many he executes in the space of a minute or two - but because True Detective has always tended toward minimal-but-suggestive violence this outburst of savagery is all the more effective (even the similarly high body count in season one's raid mostly consists of folks shooting at each other, rather than pedestrians caught in crossfire). And the concluding image - aside from a totally unnecessary freeze-frame - is a strong, and almost blackly comic echo of the first episode. Our three detectives are brought together again in a single frame, but this time it's because they are the only survivors of the carnage.

I imagine this convenient coincidence is going to get a lot of scoffs this week (along with the nearly video-game savagery of the civilian casualties, and perhaps the ethnic profile of the criminal gang). And I guess that's fair. But what has been troubling me so far about season two isn't that the show won't convince me, but that it won't make me care. I am not particularly concerned with how realistic or even believable this universe is, I just want it to be interesting; too often these episodes haven't generated the heat. This sequence had me paying close attention and wondering what would happen next. Likewise, the investigation became more intriguing for me this time as well. Velcoro and Bezzerides travel up to Fresno to check out Caspere's land deals and someone mentions spiritual gatherings "up north." I like the idea that maybe we'll get a wider view of California even if the little evil city of Vinci remains our focal point. One of the things that appealed to me about season one was the expansiveness of its geographical outlook, its idea that a local crime was just the tip of a statewide conspiracy. Still, this feels like something that should have been building much earlier. True Detective has so many balls in the air right now; it's frustrating that the previous episode devoted so much airtime to repetitious allusions to Caspere's perverted parties.

The awkwardly-titled "Down Will Come" may inch forward on the cops' investigation but now Semyon's storyline has stalled. Why are there two scenes, nearly in a row, of Semyon shaking down former allies - especially when we already had several last time? They begin to feel like filler after a while, repeating the same information, giving the same impression. The most generous interpretation is that these scenes formally echo the character's own wheel-spinning but that doesn't make for enjoyable viewing. It doesn't help that Vaughn's performance really seems to slip this time around. The passive-aggressive schtick, which was pretty effective when he first unveiled it in episode two, has become a dull routine - more annoying than intimidating. Semyon is substituting needling nastiness for actual authority and while this could convey his desperation and impotence, I'm not getting the sense that this is intentional. Instead, characters' reactions and Semyon's own lack of self-awareness suggest that he's still supposed to be threatening. Maybe director Jeremy Podeswa doesn't have Justin Lin's or Janus Metz's ability to coax intensity from the unusually cast performer.

The lack of Cary Fukunaga - or any continuous director - has been much commented upon in the past few weeks, especially in the wake of what has widely been perceived as a dig at season one's director (apparently parodied by the ponytailed, prickly filmmaker glimpsed in episode three). At this point it feels like a liability even if, yes, most shows switch directors all the time. The writing certainly has something to do with this as well, but season two suffers from a real lack of consistency - especially with the characters. There is no sense of picking up where we left off; each episode begins anew and the actors have nothing like the comfort in their roles that McConaughey and Harrelson evinced halfway through season one. As a result, Pizzolatto's writing comes off as less assured too. The end of this episode and the preview for next suggest that he is aping the structure of season one with an apparent resolution halfway through followed by characters struggling to figure out what's really going on. But the setup doesn't feel nearly strong enough for this sort of shift (for one thing, this bald dude who got shot in the street - I don't even know his name! - is no Reggie Ledoux). And a clean-shaven Colin Farrell has nothing on McConaughy's bedraggled 2012 visage when it comes to suggesting fallout from a case prematurely solved.

I honestly have no idea where this is going, and if I loved that feeling in season one I am uneasy with it in season two...because this time it doesn't seem like True Detective knows where it's going either. "Down Will Come" demonstrates that this season at least has the potential to go big and - maybe - go broad, rather than just meandering its way to a limp finish. Personally, I am fine with waiting till episodes seven and eight to get real breakthroughs and payoffs on the details of the investigation. Last season, episodes five and six were focused on character - putting its detectives in compelling situations and shining new light on their troubled personalities. That's where I hope the next two episodes of this season will invest their energies. Whether this can be done without the strong guiding hand of a single director remains to be seen.

Next: "Other Lives"Previous: "Maybe Tomorrow"


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't really know how to react to this episode either. On the one hand, it's easily the best of the season thus far and the lengthy shootout was indeed a powerful and intense and very well-crafted scene (though not as interesting as the long-take shootout in S1E4, if that comparison must be made). On the other hand, this seems similar to that S1E4 in that the virtuoso action sequence that closes the episode seems to have little bearing on the central plot and mystery at hand. I found that irritating how, in a tight 8-ep season, we get such a distracting if impressive detour. In S1 that episode ended up being a total diversion that didn't have real relation to the central mystery; time will tell here, but it just doesn't seem like these disposable latino gangsters will figure into things as anything more than pawns that the higher-ups who wear bird masks use to do their dirty work from time to time. It's great TV but it feels like a cheat somehow.

Joel Bocko said...

I have a feeling this shootout will be more integral to the plot. Even though in scale/force (and placement) it's parallel to the one-take Cohle/Ginger raid, I suspect that it in narrative importance, it's parallel to the Reggie Ledoux shootout. At least that's suggested by the ending, with only these 3 cops left, and the preview for next week (with suggestions that the powers-that-be are trying to wrap up the case and push everything under the rug) and I've heard people predicting that the cops will be pushed off the case and have to go off-the-book like Cohle & Hart in s1 (though that may just be wishful thinking).

If ep. 5 just follows the same formula as the rest, just with Colin Farrel now clean-shaven for a change of pace, I'm gonna be pretty exasperated. I think it's fair to say the first half of the show has been a disappointment; I'm hoping the second half is more exciting, and if it is, it will go a long way toward redeeming the season as a whole but I don't think it will undo the dissatisfaction of these first episodes (unless something really, really clever is done with all the characters established which I just don't see. It feels like maybe Pizzolatto had a 4-5 episode story arc in mind but had to stretch it out to 8 because, you know, True Detective...)

Joel Bocko said...

Incidentally, I just stumbled across this interview with Cary Fukunaga from early in season 1. I found it very illuminating about the role he played in season 1 (though of course this could just be his extreme vs. Pizzolatto's in the Vanity Fair piece): http://www.salon.com/2014/01/09/true_detective_director_cary_fukunaga_explains_the_shows_dark_humor/. Ha, didn't even notice the headline till I just pasted the link in now - "Cary Fukunaga explains the show's dark humor." That's exactly why I wanted to share it (although other anecdotes are interesting too). Fukunaga suggests that the humor of Hart's and Cohle's relationships wasn't really in the script. I also had to chuckle when I read that Fukunaga and Harrelson gave Pizzolatto "notes." I'm guessing that doesn't happen too much anymore..