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Expectations were high for Janus Metz Pedersen, the director of this week’s episode, because of what happened at this time last season. By the end of episode four last year, Cary Fukunaga directed the ballsy, intense “single take” sequence where Rust guides his white supremacist CI through hellish violence in a Texas housing project. The final ten minutes of “Down Will Come” did not have the formal daring of that sequence, although it was also intense and brutal. But before I get to the shootout that ended the episode, there’s a lot more about Pizzolatto’s point of view to unpack.

There are hints of it throughout the season, yet “Down Will Come” confirms Pizzolatto’s obsession with puritanical sexuality. Between his fuck pad and the fetish paraphernalia in his home, Caspere is an unseemly murder victim, yet the puritanism expresses itself more explicitly with the four lead characters. Pizzolatto punishes Paul after his drunken romp with his lover and war buddy: Paul feels abject disgust in the morning, then discovers his bike was stolen. I think it’s a little facile to say Pizzolatto stops Paul from “getting on the bike” because of his drunken tryst with another man, yet Paul’s second big scene confirms the season’s conservative streak: Paul’s ex Emily tell him she’s pregnant, and he sees this as a blessing. He wants her to keep the baby, and they plan to get married. Paul takes traditional values as a sort of redemption, even if the woman will end up as his beard.

Conservative sexuality defines the character moments for the other three leads, too. Frank wife’s Jordan (Kelly Reilly, in a terrific icy performance) suggests she’s infertile because of complications over a past abortion. This domestic drama between her and Frank is the bizarro version of Paul and Emily: while Paul sees a child as a gift, Jordan’s past transgression ends and hope for a similar future. Early in the episode, there is some strange, fascinating dialogue over Frank’s aversion toward adoption. He thinks it is ridiculous for someone to care for someone else’s child, then observes (I’m paraphrasing), “With your own [kid], at least they inherent your sins.” This juxtaposition of genetics and original sin is a bizarre worldview, one that adds dimension to Frank’s arc in this episode. He jettisons any hope for legitimacy, and in one shakedown after another, Frank sacrifices his redemption in order to “stay afloat.” Vaughn may not be the strongest actor this season, yet he’s given the meatiest dialogue.

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Pizzolatto takes marginally more pity on Ani and Ray, who have their own puritanical baggage. Ani has another scene where she disapproves of her family’s lifestyle: he remains a new-age dolt who eschews tradition in favor of something of which both Ani and Ray quietly disapprove. Ani’s other big scene involves an Internal Affairs complaint against her: she’s accused of an inappropriate relationship with one of her subordinates. The scene is strange and frustrating because Ani is well-aware that she broke the rules, and her mistake was to think that her former (sexual) partners were above going to IA. McAdams plays it with quiet fury, pointing out the double standards of her situation, and she gets the consolation prize that she can stay on the Caspere case. That’s the annoying cliché about “Down Will Come”: while every principle has their lives in shambles, they remain ferociously competent investigators.

At least Farrell has a chance to develop Ray beyond the wanton ugliness of the first episodes. There is a terrific moment of throwaway comedy when Ray prescribes Paul two swigs of vodka and some Pedialyte after his hangover. What’s more important, however, is the scene with Ray and his son. Ray gives his son the shield that his father wanted to throw away, and the heirloom is a way to connect them all since the kid’s paternity is unclear. Clear-headed and sober-ish (Franks word), Ray is a smart detective who understands the angles and human behavior better than seemingly anyone on the show. I’m not sure the transition is successful: Pizzolatto wallowed Ray in such debased self-destruction that competent Ray feels like a stretch. While his arc is implausible, it is a welcome alternative from the mannered edginess that defined the beginning of the season.

Of course, all the character are small potatoes in comparison to the shoot-out that ends the episode. It is a game-changer for the season: several cops were killed, including W. Earl Brown’s Detective Dixon, along with bystanders who were protesting the construction of a California rail project. In terms of storytelling, the shoot-out is horrific: Pizzolatto raises the body count and the stakes in every excruciating , to the point where it exhausts us. But for all the death, Pedersen’s direction fails Pizzolatto’s ambition. There are few clear sight lines between both sets of shooters, and that’s not lack of trying: Pedersen’s approach recalls the work of Michael Mann at his most thrilling, except Pedersen lacks the spatial intelligence, which is fundamental for creating action that values thrills over horror.

While the action is a chaotic mess, the cinematography deepens the setting: “Down Will Come” articulates how California is both a foreboding mess of concrete and impersonal sprawl, and a pastoral paradise. If the frequent cloverleaf shots represent the simmering tension of Vinci and the surrounding area, then the shoot-out represents how it finally boils over. Cops cannot preserve order here because everyone, from the mayor all the way down to the meth lab trigger man, abandon the law in order to make a buck, and the moral rot extends to the buildings that hide their unseemly extracurricular activities. Although the chief suspect dies spectacularly, suicide-by-cop style, we can be certain that one drug lab is not the solution to the systemic corruption that plagues all facets of this literal wasteland.

Now’s a good chance for a halftime assessment of True Detective Season 2. It’s abundantly clear that this season will not match the highs of the first one, but the story is now, finally, compelling enough for me to look forward to the episodes ahead. Absent the philosophizing, these character do not have the depth or chemistry of Rust and Marty, and the linear structure of season 2 lacks the shrewd panache of the dual flashbacks that define season 1. At this point, Pizzolatto holds my interest in two unlikely ways: I enjoy when the self-serious tone unintentionally veers into comedy, which is often, and I’m curious how Pizzolatto’s obsession with puritanism will play out. In this universe, the only “good” sexuality is vanilla kind that leads to children. By incorporating deeply flawed characters into this worldview, there is an opportunity for actual growth by the time it’s over. As for whether they can pull it off, a 50/50 shot might be too generous.

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