True Detective

True Detective Review 2.07: “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”

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A Map To A Better Series

The quality of True Detective‘s final stretch of episodes has taken a noticeable leap forward but ironically, this has the negative effect of highlighting the show’s numerous shortcomings even more. Perhaps the biggest indicator of this is the final sequence of “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” the second season’s penultimate episode. It’s an extremely well put-together piece of suspenseful drama, but its shocking conclusion just doesn’t hit with much emotional impact whatsoever. The first half of the season did a terrible job of building up the main characters and now it’s paying the price. All the production value in the world can’t change our emotional attachment to these characters if it doesn’t really exist in the first place. In hindsight, perhaps it would have served the show better if Colin Farrell’s character had actually died in the second episode; at least that would have made everything that followed resonate a little more.

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That being said, based on its own merits, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” is a great episode that not only accomplishes the seemingly impossible by actually making sense of some of the season’s more mystifying plot points (a.k.a. pretty much everything), but maintains a level of menacing suspense throughout the entire hour, as Ray, Ani, and Paul lay low after the thrilling night raid from last week’s episode, “Church in Ruins.” Forcing the trio into close proximity and cooperation based upon desperation is something the show should have done much earlier; in particular, the interactions between Ray and Ani continue to be a highlight. The chemistry between Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams is one of the season’s secret weapons, full of subtle glances and interesting power dynamics (“You’re too far out of my league anyway” – Ray, you sly dog!). In typical form, Taylor Kitsch still feels like the odd man out here, but at least he’s given his own compelling mystery to solve this week, as he is blackmailed with those photos you absolutely knew were going to be used to blackmail him with.

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Arguably the episode’s biggest strength is how it finally ties Frank into the A plot in a meaningful and essential way. While the detectives are left in an ever-worsening position that they can’t really do much to get of out of —what with seemingly every institution of power being involved in Caspere’s murder conspiracy somehow — Frank is able to make a stand against those who have been undermining him from the start and it’s quite a sight to behold. Vince Vaughn hasn’t been doing the greatest work in his role, but here he finally steps into the shoes of Frank Semyon with vigor, becoming a force to be reckoned with. His interrogation of Blake yields some important information regarding just how badly Frank’s empire has been crumbling underneath him, while delivering a sustained level of dread as Frank lays on the beatings to his former henchman. It’s still unclear whether Vaughn is truly cut out for this kind of dramatic role, but there’s no doubt that his penchant for wisecracking self-deprecation serves him well when he is forced to save face in front of Osip as the Russian takes over his clubs. As indicated by the ease with which he burns down his former clubs and caps one of Osip’s bouncers with a shot to the head, Frank is bringing a reckoning with him in next week’s finale and it’s going to be fun to watch.

While from a logical standpoint it makes complete sense for Paul and Ani to hole their family up in motel rooms or put them on the road for protection, the protracted goodbye scenes this week just don’t feel earned. It’s hard enough trying to muster up any emotional attachment to the main characters; asking us to care about the well-being of the minor ones is a hard-sell at best. To be fair, Ani does make some headway with her estranged father and sister here and we also get more detail regarding the creepy hippie rapist that Ani hallucinated last week. Turns out that she’s never actually remembered his face, which means that the hallucination was much more significant than it seemed. In typical fashion, the show doesn’t do much with this development beyond having it stated out in the open, but it does result in some closure for Ani, despite being on the lam and having a violent drunk and a former soldier with some heavy identity issues as the only people she can trust.

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Info-dumps in television are generally frowned upon because they contradict the ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy of storytelling, but if there was ever a show begging for one, it’s True Detective. Luckily, this week’s episode obliges in a big way, as Paul, Ani, and Ray sit around theorizing about what really happened to Caspere. Trying to make sense of what’s going on this season has pretty much demanded a spreadsheet to keep a record of every minor character and plot point. For instance, the guy who shoots Paul at the end is Lieutenant Burris, one of the corrupt police officers involved in the jewelry store robbery, but it’s likely that his name and identity were lost on most viewers. It’s still not really clear exactly what happened to Caspere or who killed him — the task force identifies Laura, the orphan girl from the riots, as the primary suspect — but credit has to go to the show’s writers for deciding to just start dumping much-needed information on us because it turns out to be really helpful in trying to make sense of things. Whether intentional or not, having Ani shake her head in frustration trying to make sense of it all is honestly one of the best metafictional comments on the show’s confusing nature that could have been made.

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As mentioned before, the final scene of “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” is very well-executed but simply falls short on the emotional end of things. The fact that Paul is betrayed by his lover Miguel should feel more significant, but Paul has previously been so ashamed and dismissive of the entire thing that it doesn’t really seem like it comes as much of a surprise to even him. And while Paul’s shootout and escape from the Black Mountain security crew is thrilling to watch on a purely visceral level, his subsequent death (?) at the hands of Burris simply underwhelms. It feels entirely expected and comes at the hands of a character that we’ve barely even seen. Cross-cutting Paul’s death with his fiance tearing up while watching Splendor in the Grass in her motel room feels like a cheap way to trigger an emotional response, rather than an earned bit of pathos. What does work a bit better is the extended, practically dialogue-free motel scene between Ray and Ani, which lingers just long enough on their silent faces and awkward looks that it feels like they’re either going to kill each other or start making out. Unsurprisingly, it’s the former that happens and while seeing the two get together romantically feels entirely predictable, credit must go to the show for framing it in such a strange, unpredictable way.

With only one episode left, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” gets right down to business and starts laying the groundwork for a finale that is sure to end with some blood on the scales. While it’s not quite the best episode of the season (that title remains with last week’s “Church in Ruins”), it at least keeps everything moving in a positive direction and has some killer moments to boot. While there’s no shortage of ways that True Detective has fallen into a trap of being too predictable this season, next week’s finale is poised to be a barn-burner that will probably throw a few curve balls our way. Let’s just hope that the show can capitalize on the fallout of Paul’s death and Frank’s ascendance to legitimate character status and end this uneven season on a high note.

Random Thoughts:

  • Surely the finale has to have Frank, Ani, and Ray work together and/or interact in some way. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn haven’t even been on-screen together yet.
  • “Here we are, under the bright lights.” True Detective can still hit those ham-fisted dialogue marks when it wants to!
  • Definitely expected much more awkwardness between Paul’s mom and fiance. Instead, they seemingly bond over old movies. They better put on something a little more upbeat now.
  • Vera, the girl Ani saved, fancies herself a philosophical prostitute (“Everything is f-cking.” — as far as snappy summaries of the human condition go, hers could use some work).
  • If Frank doesn’t burn Osip’s eyes out next week, it will be a major missed opportunity.
8

Filled with revelations and shocking developments, Black Maps and Motel Rooms is a great penultimate episode for a not-so-great season.

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