“I Don’t Really Get Art.”
If anything, “Church in Ruins” deserves credit for being the most consistent, watchable episode of True Detective’s wildly uneven second season. While it’s not much different in terms of tone or storytelling from anything previous, this episode finally makes certain components click into place and somehow makes some of the more tedious aspects interesting, which is no small feat. After the total letdown of last week’s meandering “Other Lives”, it’s nice to just have an hour of television that doesn’t feel like it’s wasting the viewer’s time. While it’s still “too little, too late” to save the season from being an overall disappointment, if “Church in Ruins” is a blueprint for how the final episodes will look and feel, we might be able to say that the season went out on a high note.
Plus, we finally get to see Ani use her knives; that at least warrants a recommendation.
Opening immediately with the fallout from last week’s mild cliffhanger, Ray’s confrontation with Frank plays out almost exactly as you’d expect it to, but does so with a heightened tension and restraint that’s been missing from so many similar scenes this season. The best part about this back-and-forth rumination on souls (“I sold my soul for nothing”) and loyalty is that it largely eschews the metaphorical, faux-cerebral dialogue that has come to plague most conversations on this show. Instead, Ray and Frank get down to brass tacks and actually have a discussion that feels real and weighty. While it still feels like the uneasy alliance between Ray and Frank isn’t as significant as the show makes it out to be (we’ve yet to see Frank come into direct conflict with the cops), by doubling down on Ray’s “playing both sides” angle, there’s at least a possibility of some rather dramatic internal conflict among the Ray-Ani-Paul trifecta in the near future. That is, if Frank inserts himself into the main conflict at some point, rather than running in tandem with it off to the side.
In fact, the biggest surprise of “Church in Ruins” is that it actually gives Frank a purpose for once and each of his scenes are compelling in their own way. When he and Jordan are shown going to his deceased henchman’s widow’s house to console her and her child (this is the guy that had his eyes burned out like Caspere. right? For all the detail it stuffs into scenes, True Detective really drops the ball when it comes to its minor characters). While the heart-to-heart that Frank gives the young boy could have been disastrously groan-worthy, it’s surprisingly one of the most emotionally-honest scenes of the season.
Frank’s fatherly advice for how to cope with loss not only rings true, it actually makes all of that previous child-conceiving drama between him and Jordan have some poignancy. Juxtaposing Frank’s successful attempt at being a father figure with Ray’s awful visitation with his own son is an inspired framing choice that helps underscores how much variance there is between these two men and their brokenness. Frank takes his pain and uses it to try and do better, while Ray is content to go on a giant coke-snorting bender to deal with his inadequacies (although he deserves points for manning up and ending his hopeless custody battle). It’s not exactly the most original way to frame the whole “two men on opposite sides of the law, but which one is really the bad guy?” trope, but both Ray and Frank’s stories feel significant in ways they haven’t before here, which is not something that this show has been able to accomplish with much frequency.
Of course, the main source of action this week doesn’t concern father-son relations but rather Ani’s infiltration of one of those high-end sex parties that we’ve heard so much about previously. While it doesn’t quite reach the thrilling bombast of episode four’s extended shootout scene, the set-up and execution of the task force’s party operation feels like the most confident sequence of the season. It’s taken way too long, but this feels like the show True Detective season two has wanted to be from the get-go and never quite achieved. Overhead freeway shots — which have been a running visual hallmark this season — actually feel purposeful here, as we see the bus Ani has been placed on make its way to its destination: a secluded mansion that feels like a military compound in terms of security. The party itself is suitably sleazy and lurid, feeling like the L.A. equivalent of the orgy scene from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In a drug-induced haze, Ani has to stumble through rooms filled with men and women engaged in all sorts of sexual activity while confronting a hallucination of a bearded rapist (?) from her childhood. Yes, in predictable but no less-affecting fashion, Ani’s source of childhood trauma and the reason for her guarded nature, is some creepy hippie that lured her into his van as a child. It’s frankly refreshing to not have this sort of information conveyed through tedious exposition, as it makes sense thematically for Ani to be reliving her most vulnerable moment when she is almost literally stripped of all of her tools of protection.
In addition to Ani getting dolled up for a traumatic party, Ray and Paul are busy running a stealth op outside and manage to snag some rather incriminating evidence. This sequence is a great example of True Detective still managing to flub the fine details while occasionally nailing moment-to-moment thrills. There’s a moment where it’s revealed that one of the guys who walked out on making a deal with Frank in an earlier episode has been working behind his back the whole time with Blake — the associate who has been working for Frank AND running sex party operations behind his back — but it lands with nowhere near the level of shock the show wants it to. You’d be forgiven for not even remembering who this guy is (we’re not even sure on his name), but it’s been clear for awhile that the details really don’t matter in True Detective. What matters is how everything is framed and delivered and this in area where “Church in Ruins” excels. When Paul excitedly reveals the ledger of land deals he found while the team is escaping, the actual details of the discovery don’t matter; what matters is that the entire escape sequence is thrillingly-shot — Ray’s car speeding away on a full moon-lit stretch of highway may be one of the most exquisite shots of the entire season — and feels confidently made.
At this point, we’re long past the point of caring about figuring out who killed Caspere; what we do care about is being entertained and this is a feat that “Church in Ruins” pulls off better than any previous episode this season. It’s fitting that the worst and best episodes of the season are arranged back-to-back, as they both offer blueprints of how the final two episodes may play out. Will True Detective close out its second season as a bloated, meandering mess of “Other Lives?” Or will it be the confident, pulp-noir detective series that it always should have been, as evidenced by “Church in Ruin?” Either way, this remains one of the most divisive seasons of television in recent memory, and it will fun seeing how the home stretch of episodes contribute to the conversation.
- “If you were sellin’, it wasn’t me buying.” – True Detective still knows how to throw in the occassional line of hackneyed dialogue.
- “I thought I killed you. Maybe I still will.” – Ray’s description of what he’ll do to his wife’s rapist if given the chance would give Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton pause in terms of sheer viciousness.
- On the other hand, it’s kind of heartbreaking to see how desperately Ray clings to being his son’s father. Whatever anyone says, Colin Farrell is doing some career-best work here.
- No time is devoted to Paul’s story this week and it’s honestly a relief. He actually works better as the quiet, supremely lethal type anyway.
- “Stick that somewhere…like in your shoe.” – It doesn’t happen often, but True Detective occasionally throws in a bit of clever humor.
- Irena and Vera are different people…thought Frank was looking for the same woman as Ani. This show is confusing.
- Velcoro’s son has his priorities straight: we could all do with a little more Friends in our lives
Well-assembled and exciting to watch, Church in Ruins is what True Detective should be.