Raise your hand if you thought Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) was dead?
With the David Lynch opener to the third episode, I had hopes of a surreal twist to the story, but instead we get “rubber bullets,” which I think is a bit of a cheat. Chekhov may not have said “if you shoot off a man’s genitals with a shotgun in the first episode, you can’t reload with rubber bullets in the third,” but it’s better than having to peel off a vest or simply survive it somehow, I suppose. Why have it happen at all? Because he’s playing with tropes once again. This is the old “tire iron to the skull” routine from numerous detective stories, where we need to knock out the hero, because…I don’t know why. It just happens a lot, when someone writes themselves into a corner and can’t figure out why the bad guy wouldn’t just kill the protagonist.
The only thing that made up for that, for me, was the sudden appearance of one of my favorite actors, Fred Ward, as Ray’s father, as a disillusioned, retired police officer who longs for the “good ol’ days” when you solved crime by beating the nearest minority into confessing. He’s dying of cancer, taking marijuana that Ray brings him. “No country for white men.” And the near-death experience has had an effect. Ray’s drinking water now. His death is a rebirth.
That may be the only new life Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) inadvertently creates: He can’t get it up for the in vitro fertilization, despite Jordan’s (Kelly Reilly) most heartfelt ministrations. They argue over it, and she stands up for herself, showing more depth of character than she’s revealed so far. This pushes Frank along in his slow return to the criminal kingpin he once was. When Osip Agranov (Timothy V. Murphy) bails on him, and one of his associates is found murdered, he digs back into the life with a true hands-on approach.
Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) take over the investigation while Ray recuperates, and visit the Mayor of Vinci’s (Ritchie Coster) mansion… in Bel Air. Just like Caspere. His wife and son are over the top caricatures of Hollywood types. Their family photo looks like a Sopranos poster, or a Kardashians glamour shot. It’s a bombastic, if throwaway scene, but Ani sees architectural documents for the corridor all over Austin Chessani’s desk.
How much you drink in a week? The doctor checking Ray wants to know.
“All I can.”
Katharine Davis (Michael Hyatt), one of Ani’s superiors, tells her that Ray Velcoro is dirty, and bringing him down will get her a promotion. She goes as far to suggest that she seduce Ray to get dirt on him, a scene intercut with Mayor Chessani calling Ani the C-word over and over, and wanting her badge, for shaking down his family. It shows that the difficulty of being a woman in the police is directed from all sides, but felt ham-fisted.
The procedural scenes began to feel like filler, but we get a little more time with the characters as Paul goes to a dirtbike race with a fellow vet (Gabriel Luna), talking vaguely about the past. They obviously shared something in “the valley” in the desert and it wasn’t combat. Paul runs from it, but Detective Teague Dixon (W. Earl Brown)—Ray’s even dirtier and more drunken partner—is filming them from a parking deck, showing another hand at work in the game.
This episode focuses on every character’s relationships crumbling or in wreckage. Ray’s wife, Gena (Abigail Spencer), says State Police are investigating him and then offers him ten grand to not contest custody of Chad (Trevor Larcom), an interesting juxtaposition, warning your ex that he’s being investigated for corruption, then bribing him a moment later. As expected, Ray refuses.
Ani breaks things off with Steve (Riley Smith), the cop she was sleeping with, and when he says she’s a “real suck ‘em and leave ‘em type” she says if he talks to her like that again, he’ll need a “little baggie to take his teeth home in.” I hope this is better than the tired cliché that strong or powerful women enjoy humiliation in the bedroom, but we shall see. So far the only kink comes from Caspere, and we learn more as Paul interviews prostitutes along the strip, including a brief scene where he sits on a park bench while someone dressed as an angel kneels in the bushes. More amusing is when he finds a hustler (Alex Rich) who wants to help him get into a club that Caspere frequented, because he won’t get in with that “angsty cop drama you’re rolling.”
And he’s dressed exactly like him. Everyone but Paul knows!
Ani and Ray trace the stolen Cadillac that Caspere was dumped in to the set of a Mad Max-type movie and learn that Caspere partied with the director, who is typically mum, flaunting his power as Hollywood elite, same as the Chessani brats did.
Things come to a head when Frank's man, Stan (Ronnie Gene Blevins), is found dead. We only get a glimpse of the body, but his eyes are damaged and he looks surrounded by blood. We can’t tell if it’s Caspere-style or a gangland hit. You’d think Frank would know about the mutilation, but it’s not commented on. He heads to his old club, and bumps into Paul, if only to show how interconnected this all is. And big Danny Santos (Pedro Miguel Arce) of the F-U gold grill takes on Frank in an almost comical scene, where the old kingpin reestablishes his dominance. Comical, because neither looks like they could fight, or would stoop to doing it, but Frank comes out on top and yanks Danny’s gold teeth out. “What kind of way is that to greet the world?”
While Ray and Ani question the Caddy’s owner, the car is set ablaze by a hooded, masked suspect who looks too much like the bad guy from Scream. We never get a look at the mask, but it’s apparently the Raven in new guise. They all barrel through a homeless camp, knocking people over and starting a fire, but he runs faster than the T-1000 from Terminator 2, and they lose him.
The episode circles back to Jordan and Frank at home, where he dumps Danny’s gold teeth into a trash can and goes to bed without making up, or making babies. If you’re going to play with tropes and crazy rebirths, you might as well have Frank conquer his erectile dysfunction and finish the episode full circle. If you’re going to begin with a Conway Twitty (Jake La Botz) death-dream, you can take a hint from The Sopranos and inject a little levity, and let your characters experience brief joy before you send them on next week’s hellride.
But what a hellride it is.
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 the upcoming 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.