Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective season 2 episode 7 - "Black Maps and Motel Rooms"

Monday, August 3, 2015

True Detective season 2 episode 7 - "Black Maps and Motel Rooms"


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.

Once again, my True Detective coverage has been bumped up to a Monday; this week's random post (my latest video) will go up on Thursday instead. The season 2 finale will probably go up on Tuesday next week.

"Black Maps and Motel Rooms" is certainly the most straightforward True Detective episode title in two seasons, suggesting that the show has burnt through its reservoirs of cagey artfulness and is ready to settle for straightforward procedural description. Well, so am I. I'm thankful for last week's episode but as expected it was a glimpse of season 2's potential greatness, not a sign that this greatness would be consistently realized. How could it be, when this glimpse arrived nearly 3/4 of the way into the season? Episode 7 continues the plot-heavy trend of the post-shootout episodes; similarly to episode 7 of the first season, it sidelines character development in favor of escalating the investigation and leading us to the doorstep of the killer. Although this time we are not provided with a definitive answer, most signs point toward Caspere's secretary, who was probably the orphaned girl from the jewelery heist in '92. In several significant ways, however, this penultimate episode differs from season 1's.

Clearly, the individual killer is less important than the systemic corruption this time (season 1 flirted with this idea before disappointingly demurring). But the biggest difference is in tone. After pushing its main characters' moral ambiguity into borderline Sopranos territory in mid-season, last year's episode 7 reverted back to flawed-but-heroic cop show mode with Cohle and Hart casting aside their personal problems to track down the bad guys. Although both were off the force, their teamwork inspired confidence in the face of corrupt cops, shady politicians, and eerie occult organizations. But despite the ease of Bezzerides', Velcoro's, and Woodrugh's escape from the orgy last week, this year's episode 7 paints the protagonists' predicament in grim terms. Their sole establishment ally, State Attorney Davis is assassinated (in a twist that took me by surprise) and their enemies aren't just a few corrupt cops but the entire statewide system. Bezzerides and Velcoro look physically vanquished from beginning to end (even as they grit their teeth and keep going) while Woodrugh doesn't make it to the end: he is gunned down from behind after nearly escaping a setup in the final minutes of the episode.

This is the first major casualty in the show's history (the Velcoro tease in episode 2 came the closest), but to be honest it feels less like a shock and more like a waste. Don't get me wrong; everything in Woodrugh's storyline pointed toward martyrdom, but it's hard to say what he achieves by walking into a trap set by his former Black Mountain allies, his traitorous lover Miguel, and Police Chief Holloway. Unless I missed something, none of the information he has acquired will make it to Velcoro and Bezzerides, and when the thugs take the detective's phone (with Velcoro's numbers) from his cold dead hands, Woodrugh has actually inadvertently led them closer to his friends. I suppose his entire trajectory could be read as the tragic cost of denying your identity, but in an already cluttered season it just makes the character seem more redundant. Sadly, after much foot-dragging and the occasional flicker of interest, the weakest link in season 2 is snuffed out with a solid action sequence that nonetheless registers as a dramatic whimper.

The season's other deeply uneven - but frequently much more fascinating - character is Frank Semyon, and episode 7 continues episode 6's trend of digging into his contradictions and flinty humanity. Though at times he plays like a tired cliche, at his best Semyon cuts a truly odd, compelling figure (mostly due to Vince Vaughn's peculiar, mannered, but fully-invested performance). "Sometimes your worst self is your best self," Semyon told Velcoro several episodes ago and sure enough, as he sinks to his lowest point (losing all of his assets in a humiliating takeover by Osip) the "gangster" removes the quotes from that title and strikes back in savage, savvy fashion, fully confident in his abilities for the first time all season. His ruthless beatdown and execution of the traitorous Blake isn't entirely convincing (Blake's desperate infodump is a bit too convenient, given how clear it should be to the character that his fate is sealed). But Vaughn sells the unapologetic viciousness of the violence. Two or three episodes ago, I was ready to write off this character, performance, and plotline, but now I am cautiously supportive. Kudos to Pizzolatto for his sharp departure from the buddy-cop formula of season 1; the fact that Semyon's story feels so apart from everything else on the show is something I actually like.

On the other hand, the scenes with Velcoro and Bezzerides remind us that their brittle camaraderie is probably the most interesting and unexplored relationship of season 2, a lost opportunity overshadowed by the byzantine elaboration of the mystery, the unnecessary Woodrugh character, and the more provocative but distracting Semyon saga. Their simmering, unspoken bond is a cool way of flipping the script on the opposites-attract formula (as well as the gender dynamics) of Cohle-Hart in season 1 and it's a pity the season hasn't allowed them to occupy center stage as much as that earlier duo. That said, I can't get onboard with their hookup at episode's end and it didn't seem like the actors - committed as they are to these performances - were really onboard with it either. Velcoro and Bezzerides just don't have that kind of chemistry. They click effortlessly as kindred spirits, perhaps with a bruised, buried attraction between them (even grunged up by the make-up artists of HBO, Farrell and McAdams are not ordinary-looking). But neither one is the romantic type and their need for companionship doesn't mean they would fall so easily into bed.

The show, to its credit, does not entirely suggest this is a good idea for either of them, and while it falls into the trope trap of "man and woman partnered together must eventually have sex" at least it doesn't do so at the expense of Bezzerides' character. If mistakes are made here, they are mistakes made by equals who - for all their other flaws - deeply respect one another. I'm disappointed by this development, but I'll grudgingly admit it could have been handled much worse than it is. The lovemaking is one of many developments that play more like writerly contrivance than a natural outgrowth of the material. Woodrugh's climax suffers the most from this complex. Why is everyone so ready to believe that his homophobia will lead him to betray his partners? Why is it necessary to blackmail him when he could just be tortured for the same information? How is he able to get so close to Holloway? In this scene and elsewhere, the dialogue drips with exposition, as much a frustration (because it robs these exchanges of any naturalness) as a relief (because finally we are getting answers).

Writing about the episode, its flaws become more apparent, but while I watched it I was mostly satisfied. It held my attention, moved briskly through a wealth of material, and included some moments of intensity and surprise. Basically, it felt like a well-executed but not at all atypical cop show (a cop flick if we want to be generous), and it probably helped that I was watching it live on TV rather than seeking it out on the internet afterwards: a good night's entertainment rather than an event to schedule an afternoon or evening around. This is obviously a far cry from the lofty ambitions Vanity Fair et al sold us before the season premiere, but while I never really expected True Detective to reach those heights I did expect its storytelling to be tighter and more gripping than the first four episodes. The bar is now lowered to the point where I'm just be glad to be somewhat invested in these characters, intrigued by their situations, and curious about what will happen next.

Will I be as eager to tune in for True Detecive season 3 as I was for season 2? Probably not, but next week's finale could change my mind if it does a few things right. If it's as competent as this episode, eh; if it's as singular as last week's, I'll still be skeptical that such rare heights can be reached consistently. However, if Pizzolatto surprises us by deepening and enriching the characters and their mysterious world - treating this 90-minute conclusion as a mini-feature film rather than just another episode - it would be a step in the right direction. Or if we're offered subtle clues linking season 1 and season 2, suggesting a larger story to tie together the uneven episodes and seasons, I would be willing to forgive a lot of its flaws and get truly excited for more True Detective. But I doubt this will be the case. Instead, I hope for an absorbing procedural plot (climaxing on a shoot-out at least half as atmospheric as last season's), with some good moments between the two remaining detectives, all presented with a dash of cool Bohemian Grove-type intrigue. Still, it's fun to retain that little shred of hope - at least for one more week - that I might be dazzled by something even better.

Next: "Omega Station" • Previous: "Church in Ruins"


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