As we approach the season finale, we can see the conspiracy driving True Detective is a dizzying, byzantine web of corruption, murder, and double crosses. During this week’s episode, there were times where I struggled to recall a character’s name or face, and I’m not the only confused by Pizzolatto’s story. Slate’s Willa Paskin unpacks the plot in “excruciating detail,” and the Q&A format is a canny form of criticism. There are so many unanswered questions, so many red herrings and sub-plots, that traditional discussion cannot grasp its flaws. Grantland’s Mark Harris sums it perfectly:
That piece is also a reminder that a convoluted plot portioned out to viewers in murky fragments is not the same thing as a great mystery.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) August 3, 2015
Sunday’s episode made me think of other, more successful police procedurals. Gone Baby Gone, an underrated film from a year full of great ones, embeds plot twists and clues into the script so that each additional detail has inexorable logic to it. Even an average episode of Law and Order understands the appropriate balance between complexity and basic storytelling. Pizzolatto, on the other hand, tries the kitchen sink approach of the detective genre: he includes every nefarious detail and twist he can imagine, and hope some of it sticks. The cumulative effect is exhausting, so rather than focus on the plot, I’d rather discuss the uninspired acting and formal choices.
The plurality of this week’s episode happens in a motel room. Ani realizes she’s wanted by the authorities, so she hides out while trying to make sense of the guard she killed and the woman she “saved.” Her scene with the missing woman is an episode highlight: the woman’s empowered, brazen sexuality confuses the Ani, in a similar way it does with her sister. Ani’s scenes with men, however, are either wooden or sleazy. The moment between Ani and her father is ridiculous, thanks in part to the litany of cliches and David Morse’s wooden acting. We feel no sense of desperation and reconciliation, to the point where it’s embarrassing to see Morse and McAdams contend with lines like, “God damn everything.”
Still, the most egregious part of “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms” is the relationship between Ani and Ray. Reeling from MDMA, she tries to seduce him and he shrugs it off because she’s too fucked up to know any better. This lays the groundwork for the finale montage, where director Daniel Attias uses tedious close-ups to highlight the sexual tension between these partners. At first, he zooms in closer on Ani, implying that she’s the instigator for the sex they’re about to have. Attias’ direction betrays any potential Farrell and McAdams might have for chemistry: he cuts between cl0se-ups of hands, faces, and bodies with all the subtlety of an amateur porn director (minus the nudity, of course). This is the work of a showrunner and director who have run out of ideas.
The same dearth of imagination happens in the scene where Paul confronts his blackmailer. Before we get to the shoot-out and Paul’s death, I want to focus on the disappointing twist over his army buddy and eventual lover. Pizzolatto recalls one of the worst cliches in film noir: the evil homosexual who cannot be trusted. Like the gay characters in Laura and The Maltese Falcon, the army buddy is a regressive representation, with betrayal as his defining characteristic, except those older films have the excuse of their age.
The betrayal, of course, leads to an action scene where Paul cannily dispatches for ex-military men. Attias shoots with economy and suspense, allowing us to understand how Paul outwits his pursuers, at least until Paul think he’s free and the camerawork foreshadows his death. Given how we linger on Paul’s body, I think Attias meant for the final scene to act like a surprise twist, except he shoots Paul’s finals moments so that we know there’s a murderer in his blind spot before he does. Kitsch gets an angry, defiant last line, yet the death lands with little gravitas or emotion. Pizzolatto already stretched this season thin with too many protagonists, so the death of one of them was a forgone conclusion. A genuine twist would have been Ray’s death back in episode 2, but Pizzolatto is too in love with his hero’s terse, “manly” dialogue for that (to Pizzolatto’s credit, the brief scene where Ray discovers Davis’ murdered body is suspenseful, surprising, and mostly wordless).
While the cops grow increasingly desperate, Frank also struggles to stay afloat. Blake, Frank’s number two, turns out to be his betrayer, and he reveals the aforementioned conspiracy in a way that would make a Bond villain blush (Frank’s initial assault of Blake, with a glass hurled at the side of his head, is a nice callback to Altman’s The Long Goodbye). Turns out Frank was always going to get screwed out of his money, Caspere’s death notwithstanding, so now Frank must muscle his way to a non-extradition country. Frank’s planning has an undercurrent of excitement to it: with arson and a list of powerful firearms, there is a suggestion that the finale will erupt with a shootout that will rival episode 4. But like everything that happened this season, it’s now inevitable the episode will have the same flaws: too little character development, too many conspiratorial details, and dialogue that mistakes toughness for depth.