“I sold my soul for nothing.”
That’s Ray’s opening complaint, as we pick up from last week’s cliffhanger. He’s learned that the event he considers his personal Rubicon—when Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn) slipped him the identity of his wife’s rapist—was a setup, that he was sent after the wrong guy, to put him in Frank’s pocket. He’s ready to kill over it. The two men sit at breakfast with .45’s aimed at each other under the table.
But cool-as-ice Frank talks him down. It’s been six episodes, but Frank is finally believable as the ice-cold kingpin, not quivering an inch, and like Satan himself, convincing his minion that he’s done all this for and to himself, and the devil was only an innocent bystander. This plays with Frank’s early philosophy that as a pimp and drug dealer, he’s an innocent middle man between people and their vices. “You were selling, but I wasn’t buying.” They leave as partners, with Ray (Colin Farrell) trading the Caspere sex-party info for the identity of whoever sent Ray to kill the wrong man. That’s contingent on Ray retrieving the lost hard drive of rich-people kinko sex, so we can see how the next episodes must unfold.
Ani (Rachel McAdams) and Paul (Taylor Kitsch) are working the torture cabin scene, where Katharine Davis (Michael Hyatt) keeps them focused on the blue diamonds and the party girls. Compressed once again into eight episodes, True Detective threatens to burst open, like ten pounds of story in a five pound bag, and Michael Hyatt’s iron-clad performance helps glue the story together.
There’s a fantastic helicopter shot of the L.A. basin that resembles Saruman’s tower surrounded by a wasteland of Vinci-style industrial woe. As disjointed and minimalized the story is, I give Nic Pizzolatto and crew credit for attempting to tackle it all, and define the area with a single messy story of sex, greed, and corruption. Much like the first season tried to define Louisiana as a mess of poverty, twisted religion, and male-dominated corruption, we get a maggot’s eye view of Los Angeles this time around, if viewers have the patience to wait five or six episodes into a series.
Ray immediately confronts his ex-wife’s rapist in jail, but the scene is flat. It comes off as boring instead of horrifying. All I could think about was how much the rapist doesn’t look like Chad (Trevor Larcom), and who else in the show is freckled? Ray has supervised visits with his son, trying to interest him in model planes. There is a copy of Gomorra by Robert Savino on the table, about the Napoli mafia. They end up watching Friends, and Ray tells him “I will always love you” no matter what they say. It’s a touching scene, mirrored later by Frank with the son of his dead henchman Stan, hammering home that these men both have damaged fathers in their background and despite their terrible choices in life, try to be good fathers to young boys—while missing the point that you can’t be a good father for five minutes a day when you’re a horrible moral failure as a man the rest of your life.
Later, Ray starts drinking again, snorting rail after rail of coke between shots of tequila and beer, like a twenty-second YouTube montage from Bad Lieutenant, before calling his ex Gena (Abigail Spencer) to tell her “You win,” and that he’ll give up the custody dispute, as long as she never tells little Chad that he is not his father. The kid seems damaged enough already—trust me, from personal experience as a pizza-scarfing fat kid when I was that age—Chad already thinks he’s a human maggot who might as well be fathered by a rapist, if not a corrupt slob. So his sacrifice comes far too late.
Paul’s story gets short shift this time around; he follows Caspere’s blue diamonds, which were stolen during the L.A. riots, by a professional team who took the security tape and executed the owners of the jewelry shop right before the looters hit it. We get a story that’s worthy of its own episode compacted into backstory: the storeowners’ kids hid in display cabinet during their parents murder, and disappeared into the foster system. I’ll bet you a shiny silver dollar one of these kids wore a raven mask in Episode 1.
Back to Frank, we get a repetitive scene where he and Jordan (Kelly Reilly) give Stan’s wife a grubstake to hold her over. Her son Sam is out back, throwing a ball against a wall, in his father’s absence. Frank give another of his soliloquies, one of the better ones:
Sometimes something so bad happens that it splits your life. I got like five of those by now. If you use it, it can make you a better man. That’s what pain does. It shows you what you are on the inside. And you’re pure solid gold. I know that, and your father knew it.
Five minutes later, Frank is torturing a man with a needle punch to get a bead on Irina, who stole the blue diamonds, or for what I’m not sure. She’s a weak link to the Caspere murder, but the story is full of such weak links. He talks to her on the phone and when he and his crew go to meet her, he finds her throat cut, and the Mexican gangsters he muscled out of the Lux club are waiting with guns. (This is actually split into two scenes, but I can compress too, can’t I?) “Cross that off the bucket list!” Frank says. “A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans!” A little much-needed levity, we could’ve used a scene like this every episode. It’s confusing, and I’m unsure how this whole thread moved the storyline forward, especially when we see the gymnastics that go into the final scene.
Ani’s always been the most interesting character for me, but she takes a dive this time around with some predictable plotting. But let me concentrate on the good parts. We meet her mid-knife training, as Athena (Leven Rambin) tells her what she’ll have to do to infiltrate Blake’s rich boy Bang Bus and pass as a $2000-a-night escort. And it’s an actual charter bus, where she goes knifeless into the Hollywood hills, to an Eyes Wide Shut sex party with bowls of Viagra like M&Ms and shots of liquid Molly to get the party girls ready. Ray and Paul follow her, tracking a transponder in her shoe, and go all ninja-dark taking out sentries to infiltrate the mansion.
A fat Texas oilman takes her by the arm, and she grabs a cheese knife from a tray. We’re concerned with just how far Antigone will have to go to maintain her ruse, but her exploitation blindsides us, coming from backstory. Under the influence of the MDMA and surrounded by an orgy, Ani remembers a bearded hippie at the Panticapaeum retreat who asked her to help him find a unicorn in the woods. We see him leading a little girl to his VW Microbus in her Instagram-faded Super-8 memories, and we once again are told that the way to make a tough woman is to shove sexual abuse in her background. Ani was already tough as nails, having survived the self-absorbed amorality of her Daddy’s cult without having to give us a Charles Manson-clone raping her as a child.
My least favorite trope is that child sexual abuse turns you into a super-ninja (or an abuser yourself) … and that’s exactly what happens next, when Ani pukes up the Molly and finds Vera Macciano, the woman who went missing woman from Panticapaeum, passed out in a corner. It was gratifying to watch Ani scrote-stomp the oilman and go all Kali with her knife on a huge guard, paying off her earlier statement that any man who attacks her will bleed out before he can kill her, but for me, it was enough that she rebelled against Papa Bezzerides’s navel-gazing cult and became a warrior, she didn’t need repressed abuse to fuel her transformation.
And while that’s all happening, Paul observes Ossip and a Catalyst man talking in an office, tying this all back with the Corridor Rail Project. He ninjas his way in the door and grabs the contracts, and they all escape with Ray at the wheel of his Charger, driving like a coke-and-tequila-fueled James Bond. We have two episodes left, where we’ll see exactly how Panticapaeum provides brainwashed girls to Dr. Pitlor for plastic-surgery perfecting, before Blake puts them on the party circuit, where Caspere used them to blackmail rich land magnates, who then scammed Frank out of his share, and how that ties into blue diamonds stolen during the L.A. riots and who the raven-masked eye-burning crotch-shotgunning murderer (who uses rubber bullets on possible good guys like Ray) could be…
Are you still with me? I’m genuinely interested to see what they do with the two remaining episodes, and if we get any surprises. We have so many characters, Ray and Paul are both set up to sacrifice themselves. My bet is Episode 7 gives us more of Paul and his pregnant wife-to-be, so he can either be the lone survivor or die terribly, and have his child raised by Frank and Jordan Seymon. Place your bets.
Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.