Well, That Escalated Quickly
If the explosive final segment of “Down Will Come” is indicative of anything, it’s that this season of True Detective is preoccupied with making the final moments of each episode as impactful as possible. “Night Finds You” had that memorable cliffhanger and last week’s “Maybe Tomorrow” ended with a thrilling foot chase that did double duty by going more in-depth with the partnership between detectives Velcoro and Bezzerides. The problem is that, for as riveting and well-assembled as the shootout that caps off this week’s episode is, it doesn’t really make up for the dreary, unexciting forty or so minutes that precede it. By ending “Down Will Come” with such a fantastic setpiece, Nic Pizzolatto and his team are really just emphasizing that they only seem capable of nailing big moments and are struggling with the smaller, more intimate plots and character work. That’s a problem when your show is predominately concerned with subdued storytelling.
Building off its brief introduction last week, Frank and Jordan’s child-conceiving troubles start off this week’s events, as Frank is adamant that they do not adopt, arguing that, “you don’t take on someone else’s grief.” If the purpose of this scene — and pretty much every Frank-related scene for that matter — is to emphasize how Frank is trying to regain his manhood in all facets of his life in the wake of his financial ruination, then mission accomplished. What the show is failing to do is make a compelling case for why we should care about Frank and his plight. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Vince Vaughn was miscast for this role, but even in the hands of an actor better able to convey the menace that this kind of character demands, it would be hard to see Frank Semyon as anything more than a perfunctory character at this point. We’re now halfway through the season and it’s felt like all Frank does is go from place-to-place making vague business deals with lowlifes. When Frank responds to a guy who questions how much sugar he puts in his coffee with, “Never lost a tooth, never even had a f-cking cavity.”, it’s hard to know whether to take it as a threat or to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of Vaughn’s attempted machismo.
While Frank and Jordan are dealing with baby woes, resident sad-sack Officer Paul Woodrugh is having the opposite problem, discovering that his ex-girlfriend Emily is pregnant. While Paul’s storyline is easily better than Frank’s, mostly due to the fact that it’s actually coherent, it’s hard not to see Paul’s unintentional (?) hook-up with army comrade Miguel (Gabriel Luma) and the subsequent reveal of Emily’s pregnancy as being too convenient from a writing standpoint (although the way Paul throws himself at Emily and suddenly proposes to her in a desperate protestation of heterosexual desire makes it pretty clear that this relationship is already doomed). Despite this hangup, Paul continues to prove himself a valuable member of the task force and the cast as a whole, as Taylor Kitsch is really starting to find the character. This episode contains no less than two separate in-car pairings between the three detectives, and Paul’s interactions with Velcoro are a highlight. Ray’s attempts at helping the younger officer recover from his stupor (we get to see the contents of his glovebox, which absolutely live up to what you’d think a violent alcoholic detective would keep around) and offers what he thinks is sagely advice. Talk about the blind leading the blind.
Getting her own piece of the relationship drama pie this week is Ani, who finds herself the target of an internal affairs investigation into her sexual liaisons with that deputy she so successfully berated last week, who has filed a complaint against her. While this scene is a little too self-aware in how it’s flipping gender roles in terms of sexual harassment in the workplace — to the point where Ani points it out to her superior — the show deserves some credit in how it’s setting up a major fall for Ani and offering real consequences for her trespass against Mayor Chessani last week. In fact, despite only making a brief appearance, Chessani and his involvement with the investigation is becoming more interesting than the investigation itself. It’s feels all but certain that he’s involved in Casper’s murder in a significant way and his ambiguous presence gives the show a much-needed feeling of looming dread. Nothing on par with the way the first season ratcheted up tension with imagery alone mind you, but considering how uneven this season has been, it’s nice to have some sort of compelling mystery to latch onto.
Which of course brings us to that shootout, which is one heck of a well-executed action setpiece. The whole thing feels like a well-calculated callback to that famous tracking shot from season one (which fittingly also came in the fourth episode) but the scope is expanded pretty significantly here. Rather than try and revisit the cool, but gimmicky wizardry of a six minute tracking shot, director Jeremy Podeswa opts for making a cinematically ambitious, prolonged street battle. The great thing about this scene, besides how shockingly quick it escalates the violence, is how confidently put-together it is. It’s not immediately clear, but the way each of the detectives handle themselves in the scene is actually informed by their personalities. Take Paul for instance, who keeps calm and collected throughout the ordeal thanks to his military background. Compare that to Ani and Ray, who are visibly rocked by the experience, especially when their fellow officers start dropping like flies.
The best thing that can be said for that absolutely disastrous shootout is that it breathes some much-needed energy into an episode that had been running on fumes beforehand. As seems to be the case at the end of every episode, the concluding moments are designed to hook you going into next week. While it’s hard to generate much enthusiasm to see more obtuse poetical speech and business deals that seem to have no baring on anything else that’s going on, “Down Will Come” leaves Ray, Paul, and Ani in one awful predicament: the only survivors of a bloody massacre that leaves dozens of people — including civilians — dead, and no closer to solving their case. That’s an intriguing proposition heading into the next episode, but unfortunately, one awesome action scene doesn’t make up for an episode that spends too much time on tangents that feel like self-parody at times and not enough time focused on just telling an interesting, somewhat coherent story. True Detective has proven that it can be something special when it wants to be, but it needs to push forward into stronger territory for its last half if it wants to avoid the sophomore slump.
- While it’s understandable that the show would want to feature singer-songwriter Lera Lynn in some capacity given that she’s responsible for a good portion of this season’s music, her barroom appearances are a laughable recurrence at this point, making Ray and Frank’s bar table sitdowns almost comical as a result. That bar needs to find another act and fast.
- It kept feeling like old guy detective (a.k.a. Teague Dixon) would reveal his knowledge of Paul’s relationship with Miguel, especially when the two of them were investigating that pawn shop. Having his brains splattered all over the pavement will make that rather difficult.
- Frank tells Jordan to go inside when that explosion happens. Could he have something to do with that arrest gone awry? If it means taking a break from his job-prospect hunting, the answer needs to be yes.
- Did you know Ray has one of the largest auras Ani’s father has ever seen? Neither did he.
- Mayor Chessani to the strike force: “Let’s be careful out there.” The biggest surprise at this point would be if he’s NOT involved in orchestrating that shootout somehow.
The shootout of the century can't quite make up for Down Will Come being largely a snoozefest.