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In this week’s True Detective, it became apparent that Nic Pizzolatto is out of ideas. The moment happens midway through the episode, in a frenzied sequence where Ray spirals back toward addiction. After effectively ending his relationship with his son – partially because the kid likes the television show Friends – Ray indulges in scotch, a baggie of coke, and macho-posturing while frenzied rock music plays in the background. Ray has his reasons, which are worth discussing, and yet the scene has so little imagination that it veers toward parody. Perhaps this realization should have happened sooner, but I stubbornly gave the show the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s time to be more discerning and critical about my viewing choices.

I didn’t recap last week’s True Detective because I was traveling, but what struck me about that episode is how it mirrored season one: in both stories, we have broken ex-cops who return to the case that made their career because something seems too pat about their original conclusion. Aside from the location and actors, the other major difference between the seasons is an economic one: instead of snuff films, we have a Bohemian Grove-style orgy where powerful men enjoy easy sex. That sequence has its own problems, both in terms of form and narrative, but before that let’s focus on the scenes that led up to it.

“Church in Ruins” opens exactly where we left off, with Ray confronting Frank about the man he believed to be his wife’s rapist. Ray learns it’s all bullshit – they caught the actual guy a month ago – so now his emasculation is complete. Angry that he “sold his soul” on bad information, Ray wants the real story from Frank, who regrets the error but refuses to take responsibility for it. The conversation is tense, yet the scene works as comedy since both men have their guns pointed at each other under the table (a dick-waving contest if there was one). The opening reminded me of this scene from Gross Pointe Blank, which also features two violent men with guns under a table, except here the laughs are intentional. The only interesting thing is how Ray refers to the man he killed: at first he says, “the man who attacked my wife,” but by the end he calls him, “my rapist.” Once again, Ray (and Pizzolatto by extension) have little empathy for the actual victim because they see cuckolding as the worse transgression.

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After the opening, Frank spends the episode away from the action: working his own investigation, he wants to find the woman who is responsible for pawning Caspere’s stolen diamonds. She ends up dead, of course, because the Mexican cartel learns she got the goods from a cop, which leads to the season’s first genuine whodunit. My money is on Detective Dixon (W. Earl Brown), who led Paul through the pawn shops with way too much ease in the first couple episodes. And since he’s also dead, Dixon’s guilt would fit in with a recurring themes of dissatisfaction and the psychological consequences of failure. Those themes are not as interesting as Pizzolatto thinks – we all live with profound regrets and failures – so once again the best way to watch this season is as a black comedy. Frank has a couple of zingers, including a groan-inducing one during a Mexican stand-off, and it’s the best thing I can say about his arc. As a gangster/detective with a sophisticated conscience, somehow Frank has less charisma than when the show started, and it’s not Vaughn’s fault.

Still, the big set-piece for this episode is Ani’s clandestine visit to the sex party. There is a lot of build-up to it – Pizzolatto’s at his best when he adds context and background for a big moment – and those scenes bubble with intrigue. Ani’s conversation with her sister is downright bizarre, particularly since she couples the line “I don’t get art” with stabbing a giant wooden sculpture that would be at home in a modern art gallery. The payoff of the scene with Ani’s sister happens during the party: reeling from Molly, Ani hallucinates a creepy man, suggesting she was molested by him when she lived on her father’s cult compound. The imagery is intermittently effective, like a poor man’s version of Eyes Wide Shut: director Miguel Sapochnik veers in and out of focus, switching the faces of the anonymous wealthy men with Ani’s molester, all while people fuck in the background. By the time Ani stabs a bodyguard, Sapochnik has an overwrought, lascivious atmosphere that’s neither sexy nor suspenseful.

There is so little menace, I found myself wondering why Ani attended the party in the first place. All the reliable information comes out Paul and Ray, who break into the compound after beating up some guards. While Ani found the missing woman she was searching for since episode one, she was not exactly looking for her, so that discovery is a happy coincidence. In other words, Pizzolatto runs into the worst problem facing the noir/mystery genre: he puts his characters into danger for the sake of his plot, not because it makes sense for them to be there. Now Ani and her sex worker sister seem more doomed than Antigone and Ismene: the inevitability of Greek tragedy has nothing on Pizzolatto’s violent whims and prudish sexuality. True Detective has two episodes left, and at this point all I want are some interesting procedural details and maybe a good joke or two. I’ve stuck with worse television shows for less.

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