Tuesday, July 21, 2015

True Detective season 2 episode 5 - "Other Lives"


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.

This episode left me confused, but with a better sense of how this season is going to shake out for better and, sadly, for worse. A few minutes in, I had really perked up. As expected from last week's preview, the shootout represents a huge turning point in the story. Finally, I thought, we're moving! No more endless repetition of True Detective's two basic templates: a) the detectives question someone who reveals that (surprise) Caspere was a pervert, b) Semyon shakes down an old ally in passive-aggressive fashion. Sure enough, the case has officially been closed (with last week's dead pimp unsurprisingly pinned as the culprit), the characters variously resigned, traded, or demoted from their jobs, and Semyon even gets a nice role reversal when two creepy goons show up at his casino to threaten him (he manages to chase them away, but we're left with the distinct impression that they have the upper hand). With everything unsettled and uncertain, we've nowhere to go but up. Again, Pizzolatto is echoing the structure of last season, as he did in the previous episode. Unfortunately, if True Detective is beginning to move, it is also tripping over itself. There are quite a lot of stumbles in this episode, a few big ones due to the writing, and many small ones due to the direction.

Let's deal with the latter first. As with every episode except the second, a new director steps behind the camera. This time we get John Crowley, and he definitely shows an aptitude for keeping the pace brisk and stimulating visual interest. A scene of Velcoro tailing Semyon's minions in the dead of night, from a remote mansion to a busy nightclub, couples distanced long shots with a pounding beat on the soundtrack, creating one of the season's first sustained sequences of truly alluring mystery. Indeed, intrigue and atmosphere are all over this episode, finally delivering what I hoped and expected after season one. Many viewers have criticized the choice of L.A., but the potential for exciting noir texture is more than abundant in this location. So far the show just hasn't known how to evoke it. Crowley leans heavily on Mulholland Drive nods from time to time (the short, ominous cowboy staring at Frank; the short-range headlamp illumination along wooded roads) and if last year's True Detective occasionally recalled the rural, small-town menace of Twin Peaks it makes sense that David Lynch's 2001 masterpiece should serve as a point of reference this time.

Unfortunately, the performances come closer to Betty's kitchen rehearsal with Rita than to her knockout audition scene. Crowley bungles almost every character in the series, some worse than others, with Woodrugh suffering the most. Kitsch is giving it his all but for reasons I can't quite pinpoint yet, his strained bluster feels funny rather than sad, and his mother's reactions are even more overwrought. Part of this is due to timing; when she shows concern and yells out the door to him at the end of their scene, it's such an abrupt (and apparently unmotivated) shift from her nasty menace mere seconds earlier than it registers only as a cliche, and one that doesn't even work on those terms. Elsewhere, with Bezzerides and her sister or the first scene with Semyon and his wife (although the second is good), performances are awkward, and the dialogue falls flat. Pizzolatto is the most directly responsible for these clunkers, but some directors have a way of elevating or at least compensating for the dialogue. Crowley actually draws more attention to their awkwardness, and both Vaughn and Kitsch in particular seem to be flailing helplessly whenever the camera focuses on them.

Meanwhile, Farrell makes some odd choices (his flustered reaction to the news that he killed the wrong rapist feels a bit off) and while he's generally solid, Crowley doesn't do him any favors by repeatedly cutting together two shots in which his expression is entirely different. Velcoro also gets saddled with the goofiest line delivery of the show so far, a portentous throwaway referring to Woodrugh as a "god warrior" (it would be hard to deliver that line convincingly, but Farrell seems visibly uncomfortable with it, so it lands even worse). This was the first time I actually had to rewind the show because I was laughing so hard I missed the subsequent dialogue. By this point, of course, we've come to expect what one podcast has dubbed "Pizzo-what?-os" but that's not when I'm talking about when I say the writing stumbles in "Other Lives." The biggest mistakes revolve around the use of state official Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt), who has barely logged any screentime until now. Without warning she becomes a deus ex machina who swoops in to reignite the investigation, uniting the three detectives at the scene of last week's shootout.

Compare this to last season, when Hart and Cohle are nominally reunited by a later investigation (introduced in the first episode and sustained throughout) and still have to make their own decision to join forces once again. Season 2's variation on this is not only clumsy in concept but in execution as the three characters stand around and stare at Davis' handheld device. Her subsequent, laughably casual reveal to Velcoro doesn't land either ("Oh, they caught the rapist - I thought your ex-wife told you?" more or less). You'd never knew Pizzolatto wrote these episodes ahead of time. They feel like they are being tossed off by a team of writers under the gun week-to-week, trying to figure out how to squeeze in the necessary information before racing ahead to the next challenge. For a show that is supposedly designed in open defiance of the writer's room, Pizzolatto endlessly falls back on its cliches.

There is no sense of a grander design, of a smooth, calculated flow to the material either on an episodic basis or as components in a serialized narrative. I already mentioned that Crowley (and Pizzolatto's storytelling, finally) keep up a brisk pace, which is good, but the flip-side is that scenes follow one another in seemingly random fashion (aside from the effective cross-cutting between the four characters' dismal downfalls early in the episode). The car is moving, but we aren't sure anyone is actually driving. In avoiding the dead space, Pizzolatto and Crowley also don't allow the necessary moments to breathe. As with Davis' rape story, Bezzerides' sister scene evokes no sense of actually being lived-in (basically "You got into CalArts?" "Oh great, awesome!" as they awkwardly kick the sand). This could be played as a failed attempt of two characters to connect but instead, due to staging, shot selection and the brevity of the exchange, it plays as the failure of two actors and especially their director.

Pity that this has turned into such a negative review. More than halfway through the episode, I was mostly having a good time and expected to introduce this piece by declaring this my favorite episode so far. Certainly it avoids the pitfalls of the previous four chapters, and next week's preview looks even more promising. And as I hoped last time, we get long stretches with the characters, watching them struggle with their own disastrous lives. Woodrugh's mother has stolen all his money from the war, while mocking his sexuality, as, um "weird" (the show's coy refusal to use the "g" word has made this storyline a self-parody). Bezzerides is relegated to cage duty and forced to endure oafish goading in her sexual harassment workshop. Semyon moves out of his big house while his wife reveals complete disillusionment with his backslide. Velcoro, now working for Semyon, is about to lose his son in a custody battle - and possibly find out he's not the father though I suspect the show will try to surprise us by going in the other direction. While some of these moments are handled much better (or much, much worse) than others, they are all potentially intriguing situations.

Surprisingly, the investigation is moving along too. The missing hard-drive (presumably stolen by the bird-man from the snuff house) comes into play, when Semyon is essentially promised back into the land deal if he can dig it up. Caspere's diamonds are linked to both Velcoro's dead partner and Bezzerides' missing girl case, while photos from the parties lead Velcoro to attack the sniveling shrink. This promising sequence is embarrassingly executed: the psychiatrist's sneering demeanor turns on a dime, the info-dump of exposition is barely disguised by the bloodshed, and Velcoro's vicious manhandling plays more like comically over-the-top fanservice than genuine necessity. For me, at least, this humiliation clears the doctor of any further suspicion as Caspere's killer. Someone else was wearing that bird mask, and I still like the idea - as others have suggested - that the bird-man was actually a bird-woman, and the missing maid has something to do with Velcoro's shooting and/or Caspere's death. Maybe she has a connection to Semyon too, and purposefully sabotaged his business ventures at the same time she dispatched her abuser, killing - pardon the expression - two birds with one stone? It all could become rather silly, but at least has the virtue of originality.

Most of all, the episode succeeds in creating a sense of openness. I really liked the scene near the end where Bezzerides and Woodrugh follow a lead to a house in the woods. They discover a cabin with a bloody chair and carion birds flying overhead; increasingly we are getting into the territory of season 1's murderous and corrupt cult, though we've still only gotten two scenes with Bezzerides' father (maybe he's the killer and they're saving him for last). There really is a lot of potential here for the last three episode but just as True Detective resolves one issue, it opens up another. Next week's quality will depend on the director as much as anything and I hope Pizzolatto is learning his lesson from the lukewarm reaction to this season. For the next installment he needs to swallow his pride and bring on a single director whose vision can complement and yes, even at times curtail his own. I don't see it happening (profiles and interviews suggest he is deeply invested in seeing himself as the heroic sole showrunner, standing astride the TV world) but it is a shame to see this much potential going to waste.

After watching "Other Lives," I am relieved that the show has stopped spinning in circles, convinced that it is not going to come anywhere near the heights of season one, and worried that nobody - not the actors, certainly not the musical-chairs directors, not even the mastermind writer himself - has any grasp on the big picture. I hope next week's episode is really good, and it looks like it very well may be. I've heard good things about the director in advance, and the preview has a number of cool ideas, like Bezzerides going undercover in the club and Semyon and Velcoro, who have the show's best high-tension chemistry, facing off in Semyon's new home while his wife hovers somewhere offscreen. (After all, Velcoro now knows he was set up to kill the wrong man over a decade ago.) But even if the next entry is stellar I think it's fair to say the idea of a consistently masterful season-to-season True Detective is a lost cause. True Detective season 1's elevated status was a fluke, or rather it came about for very, very specific reasons which Nic Pizzolatto has no desire to repeat.

Next: "Church in Ruins" • Previous: "Down Will Come"


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Exactly what I thought, just articulated in educated and more interesting way. ;) I strongly recommend you to check "Top of the lake" and "The Knick". TOTL shares the same cinematographer with TD S1 and both series has similar quality. More precisely, talented director and beatiful visuals, even though writing is maybe (sometimes) not on the par, which is again like TD S1.

Joel Bocko said...

Top of the Lake has been on my to-see list for a while, which hopefully will get some movement soon (after I watch the short series The Prisoner and Heimat exclusively I plant to start moving through several shows simultaneously. Interesting that both shows you mention have well-noted cinema auteurs behind them (I've heard that Soderbergh directed every episode of The Knick; not sure about Jane Campion on Top of the Lake). I really don't think Pizzolatto has a clue about the value of direction. That Vanity Fair article makes it sound like it's some revolutionary concept to have the writer in charge on TV when in fact it's kind of reactionary, reducing the medium to a delivery system for words rather than images.