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.
Finally! It's impossible to ask a single episode to do the heavy lifting for an entire season but "Church in Ruins" comes way closer than I could have expected after five disappointing entries of True Detective. You want Velcoro's paternal pathos to actually land, so that you can genuinely empathize with both his and his son's (and his ex-wife's) discomfort? Check. Looking for the various strands of the mystery to come together in ways that don't just involve characters discussing their connections onscreen (if we're even lucky enough to get that)? Got it. Tired of Rachel McAdams simmering in the background, giving her all but mostly wasted in a "gotta give 'em a female cop, but damned if we know what to do with her?" role? Well damn, she not only gets a piece of the action (after being sadly sidelined in the heat of episode 4) and really well-handled, disturbing character development (a flashback to childhood molestation, presumably on her father's compound, which is convincingly intermingled with her involvement with the party). Ani Bezzerides also features as the dramatic centerpiece of the show's final twenty minutes, in a fashion that has so far been reserved only for the other characters. And Chekhov's knives are not wasted.
I had fairly high hopes for episode 6, tempered of course by my frustrations with season 2 so far. But one of the podcasts I listen to mentioned Miguel Sapochnik as a really excellent director (IMDb shows one film I'm not familiar with, Repo Men - apparently no relation to Repo Man - and a whole bunch of TV credits), and after last week's build-up and the snippets in its "next time" preview there seemed to be some interesting ideas at play. The episode opens, as it must, with one of those ideas...the one that contains the most potential for disappointment. After all, what does a showdown between Velcoro and Semyon really mean when we can be almost certain that neither of them will die? Sure enough, I felt my stomach sinking as the season's biggest names faced each other across another table, this time in a Glendale suburban home rather than a dimly-lit bar. There was something a tad too contrived in the way each one placed their left arm on the table and used their other hand to aim a gun under the tablecloth. Semyon's lines were as flowery as ever, with Vaughn's clipped, Ivy League-meets-mean streets dialogue in fine form. Here we go again, I muttered.
But as the scene played out, I could feel it working. What was missing in the dialogue (tiresomely repetitious exposition for those who haven't been paying attention apparently) started to develop in the tics, brief pauses, and long silences exchanged across the kitchen. Hell, there were even moments, like when the two opponents finally relax and sip their coffee, where I laughed out loud and felt like I was actually supposed to be laughing. It's been clear since season one that Pizzolatto is less interested in creating narrative fireworks than in using scenes to explore characters and their relationships. Unfortunately, the actors never seemed to hit their stride, with director after director unable to overcome the look-at-me lines and reliance on explicit statement rather than artful subtext (and dialogue rather than behavior). Finally, in Sapochnik, the show has found a director unafraid to put his own stamp on the material, allowing it to breathe in a way that makes not only the actors but the writer look good. I was reminded that Pizzolatto's dialogue and scene structure worked so much better in the first season because they were embedded in a larger texture of gesture, sound design, and atmosphere.
Sapochnik finds the potential for these scenes between the words rather than in them and that's the key that's been missing. You can feel it when Semyon visits the house of his slain henchman Stan, and bonds with his son. Stan's complete non-presence before his played-up death has basically become a punchline in numerous commentaries (I still have no clue what Stan looked like), but remarkably the scene is actually fairly poignant. Semyon's advice could easily feel trite, not to mention entirely inappropriate (a variation on the "adversity makes you stronger" motif, climaxing - I kid you not - in Semyon telling this random child that he has true gold inside of him). But Sapochnik and Vaughn find the pacing and line reading to sell the moment. This potentially unearned sentimental touch also works because it is intercut with Velcoro's painful/(very darkly) hilarious, extremely awkward visit with his son - a great depiction of father-son non-bonding. The situation tips into full-fledged pathos immediately afterwards, when the barely-trying detective binges on booze and coke, surges with energy, crashes into despair, and then calls his wife with a weepy plea not to tell his son about his real father, in exchange for never seeing the boy again.
Well, this is vintage Pizzolatto: familial pain, blistering testosterone, weepy macho self-pity, the blurred line between noble self-sacrifice and narcissistic neediness. I suspect some critics will mock or call it out on those grounds, but all of this potentially cliched, self-important material also has the potential to resonate with and move the viewer, to honor and elevate its own ambiguity. I thought this montage was fantastic, maybe Farrell's best work on the show, and a useful reminder that quality can be determined by delivery as much as preparation. Given the season's stumbles so far (and some lingering clunkiness when the episode's script is divorced from its direction), it is tempting to credit the episode's accomplishment entirely to Sapochnik and the actors. But that isn't fair. This is still Pizzolatto's world, and he plants the seeds which others are then able to cultivate. By treating his work as something to be played with rather than embalmed onscreen, True Detective is allowed to reach its full potential.
Besides, Pizzolatto does a excellent job honing in on the mysteries, illuminating underserved character threads while ignoring less interesting ones, and delivering on key plot points (like the missing girl and the blue diamonds, which are suddenly far more interesting than they had any right to be). Semyon's underworld investigation finally offers something other than dull repetition and hamfisted exchanges when the spooky soft-spoken gangster and his silent, cowboy-hatted compatriot return to the scene. In a nice twist, the two are linked to Irina - the girlfriend of the man who was framed (and executed) for Caspere's murder. They negotiate a phone call and meeting with Semyon in return for a stake in his club; they deliver on the phone call (she reveals that a cop set her up) but the meeting turns out to be one-sided. When Semyon shows up at the rendezvous, Irina's throat has been slit by the two men, who coldly tell the clearly upset tough guy that they've held up their end of the bargain (he said he wanted to see her, not that she had to be alive), and they expect him to hold up his.
These folks are by far the most menacing characters we've met all season. And, aside from the shocking but completely anonymous civilian casualties in the shootout, Irina's death is the first violent act to truly connect on a visceral level. This is the perfect set-up for the stakes of Bezzerides' grotesque, Molly-fueled journey through the looking glass, and it reminds us that this episode is the first to make us care about any of these characters. Thus the stakes at Blake's private party actually feel higher than those of the shootout in episode 4. Not only does Sapochnik's vivid, lurid filmmaking offer a visceral kick, but the characters finally seem vulnerable, real, and worth investing in. This is especially true of Bezzerides, whose scene with her sister is so much sharper than last episode's awkward beach chat. Her undercover mission is the most effective, succinct presentation yet of her vulnerability and ingenuity in navigating a male-dominated world (a theme that was explicated in dialogue back in episode two, but sinks in more deeply when we're allowed to witness it firsthand).
If McAdams has been the most-praised cast member of season two, and Bezzerides the most admired character, it may in part be because the reserved detective has managed to sidestep the show's more ridiculous lines and act more with her face than her words. But this has also been a liability in a show defined by characters who talk (and talk and talk) about their issues; sometimes it feels like we know her less than any of the others. She has placed a wall not just between herself and other characters, but herself and us. "Church in Ruins" brilliantly tears down that wall as the detective guides us into the series' most subjective sequence yet (the only competition is Velcoro's dream in episode 3). Here again we are greeted by situations that could easily dissolve into cliche: the swooning, bleary hallucination; the flashback to traumatic childhood incident; the decadent orgy fusing elite decorum with grungy depravity. This is not to criticize Pizzolatto's choices, merely to point out that so much depends on delivery.
Rather than try too hard to ape Lynch or Kubrick's visual extravaganzas (as Janus Metz did with Conrad Twitty), Sapochnik wisely centers the scene on McAdams' alternately frightened, confused, determined, and despairing expression so that when we cut away we still have that face in mind. This is true of the entire episode, really (an interview with an old cop allows the actor to sink into the role rather than just recite backstory; lead investigator Davis' frustration with a sheriff gives some snap to a character whose importance had seemingly come out of nowhere; even Irina, whom we meet only over the phone, convinces us of her terror with her voice, allowing her murder to truly disturb us). It's what has been missing: the realization that these characters are not vessels for various themes, plot points, or lines but vice versa. McAdams does wonderful work in this sequence, and the character payoff is a testament not only to Sapochnik's patience but Pizzolatto's preparation. Here is one area, at least, where it feels like dramatic delays and wheel-spinning served a purpose.
Last season made a point of balancing awed hero worship and humbling humanization of its main characters, but this was rarely achieved within the same scene (indeed, the seesawing effect of this characterization gave the arcs an uneven, not entirely satisfactory shape). "Church in Ruins" manages to heroize and humanize Bezzerides simultaneously and if the escape from the climactic orgy seems way too easy I can live with that, because the show has done something more important: it made me believe in the soul rather than the logistics of the situation. Good work, True Detective. Now let's buckle up for the final two episodes, and hope that you can sustain this momentum. At best, episode 6 is a much-needed boost in the home stretch but even at worst it's a shining moment that reminds us of the sort of show we might have been watching all along - a peek into a lost opportunity that nonetheless is better than no peek at all.