Not seen Episodes 1 to 5 of True Detective Season 2? This contains spoilers.
“You might be my only friend,” Frank says to Ray, after he’s entered his house. “Wouldn’t that be something?” replies Ray, with a glib smile. It’s one of the rare times that either have been given something witty and fun to say – and it heralds one of the stronger episodes of Season 2.
For some, the sudden upswing in tension in True Detective’s final moments will be a well-earned pay-off after slogging through the previous episodes – a reinforcement of faith in Nic Pizzolatto’s hard-boiled story-telling. But Church in Ruins’ unexpected rush of excitement is a natural trait of his chosen genre: with only two instalments to go, this is exactly the point that a noir detective thriller begins to piece together its puzzle. Watch any Chandler, Ellroy or Hammett story – or, more to the point, read them, as Pizzolatto’s writerly approach remains more literary than visual – and you’ll spend half the tale confused by the complex web of lies and red herrings, before everything erupts near the end in a deceptively simple scandal of sex, corruption or other immoral vices.
True Detective Season 2 may have struggled to craft a compelling cast of characters to solve its central mystery, but there is still an inherent pleasure in that mystery being unravelled. All that slow build-up of scale and significance even gives the interactions between our ensemble a new-found frisson and weight.
Ray and Frank’s opening conversation is a perfect demonstration of what a difference six hours can make, no matter how plodding: compare the duo’s debate at Frank’s kitchen table to their slow-paced, monotonous chats in the bar in the opening two parts. Here, Ray is sober and wiser to Frank’s deceitful plays, while the pair’s parallel problems involving fatherhood only add to the sympathy and distrust that binds them together. At the start of the season, Velcoro wouldn’t have pointed a gun at Frank under the table for the whole exchange. The fact that he does now highlights the progression in their relationship, which has occurred as a result of the plot’s accelerating momentum. And so they start to share some genuinely neat banter, as Frank argues that he didn’t know about feeding Ray false intel about his wife’s attacker – and that it didn’t matter anyway, because Velcoro was the one who made the decision to act upon it. “Own it,” Frank declares.
And yet there is still the odd clanger just waiting to boom off the page – lines of dialogue so bad that they couldn’t possibly be said by anyone in real life. “I sold my soul for nothing,” growls Colin Farrell, in a voice so gravelly it sounds like Tom Waits auditioning to play Batman. It’s these moments that destabilise the show, just as it’s starting to find a steady pair of feet – because Pizzolatto’s speech is so over-the-top and on-the-nose that, even with a strong cast (who have now settled impressively into their roles), it can’t help to ring false.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Church in Ruins is one of the most silent episodes yet too.
The key sequences smartly feature little speech, with director Miguel Sapochnik (Game of Thrones and Extant’s unexpected strong Season 1 finale) given not one but two drug-addled scenes to make the most of. The first belongs to Colin Farrell, whose sudden binge gives way to a muted confrontation with his wife, in which he begs her not to take the paternity test or tell their boy about his real dad. It’s a scene that contrasts well with Frank’s chat to ex-henchman Stan’s son, where Vince Vaughn again brings a quiet depth to his guy-gone-wrong-trying-to-go-good, giving a young boy gentle reassurance with as few words as possible. As Velcoro sits in silence with his boy on the sofa, watched by a social worker, one is visibly a decent dad; the other is a comprehensive failure.
The other key sequence involves a sex party that Ani infiltrates – because where would our seedy noir cliches be without a sex party to top them all? Rachel McAdams gives good tough girl here, as she is careful to pick up a knife from a dining table, but a swift dose of MDMA and some dubious flashbacks make it clear that things are going to go wrong – both in terms of her character’s motivations and her actual ability as a police detective.
Frank, of course, is not out of danger either: after the big shootout, he now crosses paths with the rival cartel, hoping to find the sex worker who was trying to pawn Caspere’s belongings – maybe she, he reasons, has the hard drive with the blackmail-worthy footage on it. “A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans,” he jokes, bagging his second excellent line of the week. As soon as Ani starts to talk come the climax of the episode, though, Nic’s unsubtle script undoes half of the work the genre has done for him. Now it’s in its final, improving throes, it’s apparent True Detective Season 2 has some interesting things to say about parenthood, the sins of the fathers and the rage of the children who cannot overcome them – but only if nobody opens their mouth.
True Detective Season 1 and 2 are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.
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