“Those moments, they stare back at you. You don’t remember them, they remember you. You turn around, there they are.”
– Ani Bezzerides
There is a horror in scale. What we can understand occurs on the personal level, one where a person has a name and fits into a narrative, but when we are asked to pull back we lose ourselves to ideas of insignificance that we can’t truly comprehend. All of our super important personal shit can be all consuming, and it helps us stay blind to the idea that we live in a chaotic world in which bad things happen for absolutely no coherent reason.
The fourth hour of True Detective season two, “Down Will Come,” is remarkable in illustrating this concept. For the first time this year, the action and character drama are perfectly balanced and coherent, allowing all four primary characters their own substantial and compelling screen time. Each character has a moment of sympathy, able to pull us through the byzantine plotting as a break in the Ben Caspere leads to a violent climax that, in turn, negates all of that accrued good will by forcing our perspective to one of horrifying objectivity.
“Down Will Come” picks up right after last week’s car arson. Frank Semyon and his wife Jordan have hired a gardener to examine the trees on their property that are mysteriously dying, acting as a living metaphor for both their ability to have a child and Frank’s career. The criminal couple, after talking with the hired bewildered botanist, take their conversation inside. The talk turns from the plants to their continued failure to get pregnant and Jordan suggests that they should adopt, an idea that Frank rejects outright.
Frank asserts that he doesn’t want to take on someone else’s grief. The argument confounds Jordan, but her husband stands by his need for his own child and she begins to blame previous abortion for their lack of luck. Whatever the case is in terms of the Semyons’s baby-making abilities, the most interesting part of the conversation is its mirroring of Ray Velcoro’s family conundrum.
Velcoro’s son Chad is the product of rape, and while their lack of shared blood haunts the detective, Ray bears the burden of his child like a real father. His ability to be there for Chad is a defining quality and actually seems to be a factor of redemption. Frank’s inability to care for another person outside of his genepool positions him opposite to Velcoro and it shows throughout this episode.
Frank Semyon, a man who cannot bear the burden of another, continues his journey back into darkness. Having won back his nightclub after defanging the pimp he initially sold it to, Frank takes a tour of the properties he sold for the money Ben Caspere was supposed to use to buy him into the Vinci high speed rail racket. With each visit he muscles his way back into a position of criminal authority, partnering with promises of growth, unspecific threats and monthly percentages.
Frank’s backsliding is all believable thanks to this season’s strong focus on character development at the expense of the mystery. His visit to a cafe where he hopes to get Russian drugs running back through the Luxe begins with a visual motif tied deeply to his character. The scene opens with him staring at two coffee stains on the tablecloth where he’s sitting that look like the ones on his bedroom ceiling, calling back to his opening monologue from episode two in which he confides to Jordan his suspicion that he’s dead and that the whole world is paper mache.
Semyon’s paper mache world view is one that enables him to dissociate and do violent things because it’s self serving to the point of solipsism. His personal narrative, in the hypothetical case that he died as a child, is ultimately one in which no one else really exists. He is the impotent sun around which everything else is defined, and he’s of the opinion that the worst version of himself is the best one.
Each of the detectives are given their own personal moments as well in “Down Will Come,” despite the episode also making massive strides in terms of the Who Killed Caspere plot. Velcoro’s is the shortest, but again positions him on the high road to Frank’s depraved underpass.
Sneaking to his ex-wife’s home, Ray has a moment with Chad. Velcoro kept his father’s badge that he fished out of the garbage last episode, and gives it to his son. The gesture is heartbreaking, and though Ray hasn’t been an excellent dad, his intense and sometimes violent love for his son is incredibly apparent. There is no blood connection between Chad and his father, so Ray has opted for narrative instead of DNA. He tells his son the story of the badge in his family, connecting Chad to a tradition.
The humanity of that moment is present in Paul Woodrugh’s personal moments too. At the top of the episode, Woodrugh wakes up at his old friend’s apartment — the man who he’d trounced for coming on to him at the macross track the night before. Aparently, after his night of heavy drinking and sex worker questioning, he ended up back at that dude’s place and they slept together.
Because his sexuality is so wrapped up in his Black Mountain Security trauma, this throw’s Woodrugh for a loop. After a teary cab ride back to the Luxe where the men had met up he finds his bike’s been stolen. The bike, we’ve seen, is the only thing that can ground Paul. In the first episode it connected him to the darkness of the night sky, which is True Detective language for the true nature of all things. Without his bike, Woodrugh can’t escape the hell that is his own personal perspective.
Later, in a diner, he meets up with his ex-girlfriend Em. He apologizes for the way he treated her and she tells him that she’s pregnant. Paul takes the opportunity to propose marriage and become a father. It’s a terrible decision motivated by a myopic need to escape his memories.
We aren’t in control of those bad memories though, and that’s the focus of Ani’s first personal scene. She visits her sister and they talk about their mother’s death while Ani plays with a driftwood chachka that belonged to the deceased. The conversation turns to the nature of bad memories, and Ani goes all Rust Cohle on us and lays down an inversion. Maybe we can’t forget bad memories because they are what remember us.
The idea that the past remembers us rather than the other way around becomes a real problem for Bezzerides next time she finds herself at the Ventura County PD. She may have forgotten Steve “I can’t beleive you like butt stuff “ Mercer, but he didn’t forget her. Ani is suspended from all operations outside of the Ben Caspere case due to accusations of coercion, since Mercer was her subordinate. There are some good lines here, highlighting the real world boys club issues of law enforcement, and in the end Bezzerides is betrayed by the double standards of her job.
So, it’s apparent by now that the four characters in True Detective season two have been adequately fleshed out. These deeply flawed, unlikable on purpose characters have been developed to the point that we can see them hurt and cringe or cry for them. This is a small and comfortable human scale. It’s safe, understandable and a testament to the power of small scale narrative: if you know somebody well enough you will learn to love them in spite of your reservations.
The human scale is where detective stories live. Ben Caspere, the eyeless and dead man who is ostensibly at the center of this season, is important. He is related to and examined, sympathized with and personified — a corpse given the attention of a human being. He’s a character who exists only as conjured by evidence and imposed narrative, once unknown and then pulled into the light. As I’ve said before in these recaps, this is why detectives are heroes: they take the horrors of the unknown and reveal them.
This week, the detectives catch the lead that they believe will vindicate Caspere in this way. Woodrugh and Dixon find dead Ben’s watch in a pawn shop and follow security cam footage all the way to the conclusion that a pimp named Lido Amarillo has come into the possession of Caspere’s personal effects (and may have killed him, though that is unlikely).
A CI of Dixon’s tips the Vinci police of Amarillo’s whereabouts and a full police task force, including all our heroes, is dispatched. On their approach to Amarillo’s hideout, the cops are spotted and a gunfight breaks out. What proceeds is the negation of everything else in the episode. All of those human feelings that we were made to feel about Semyon, Bezzerides, Velcoro and Woodrugh are forced into a space of absurdity.
Dixon is shot in the face and a number of police officers are mowed down in automatic gun fire from a window. The hideout, rigged to explode, detonates and an attempted getaway by Amarillo and his crew escalates into a truly horrific massacre. Their SUV hits a city bus near a citizen protest of the Vinci public transit system. The crooks emerge and spray bullets everywhere, treating innocents like cops. Civilians are brutally and indiscriminately shot to death en masse and the camera is unforgiving.
The action, which is given the narrative weight normally reserved for a glorious high octane shootout, is framed to foster frustration. The cops are outgunned and simply not ready to deal with the level of deadly chaos their investigation has unleashed. Good guys rarely hit their target as bullets spray from the other side and constantly find homes in people. We see all of the mortal collateral damage, and as the encounter escalates the faces of our heroes are as bewildered as our own: are these civilians really being killed like this?
The focus on death runs counter to all of the episode’s personal narrative building and stakes setting. By giving importance to the nameless victims of a massacre through their recognition, action beats that would be played as cool and fun in more exploitative entertainment become much more real and horrific. This is anti-action, and it is disturbing.
Eventually the detectives do kill the shooters, but no one else is standing by the end of the showdown. What follows is a series of reactions that are rarely scene on TV, especially within genre. The detectives are made to behold the absolute absence of other lives created out of a need to learn about Ben Caspere. The nameless corpses that litter the sunny streets of Vinci City were put there because on a human level we are disturbed by what we don’t know. A field of anonymous bodies in service to the only dead guy that has an important name.
Glove Box Remedies
All in the Family – A trip to visit Elliot Bezzerides’s cult to investigate the shifty Dr. Pitler reveals some deep clues. It turns out that the mayor of Vinci’s father had his own commune back in the 70s and Elliot was familiar with it. My guess is that rather than darkness mysticism of the Good People, the Chessani family was more of a Crowley-esque masked sex magic club.
Biggest Man in the Room – I love everything that’s happening with the Good People, but by far the best moment of this recent encounter was learning about Ray’s massive green and black aura. When David Morse’s character says, “You must have had hundreds of lives,” it lands with a foreboding resonance. I really hope that this starts us on the path to the season two version of Carcosa.
Detectives, In Cars, Drinking Liquor – I mentioned it last week, but Paul Woodrugh’s PTSD is being handled really well in this show. Taylor Kitsch’s performance, while not as loud as his co-stars’, is particularly nuanced, and the scene between Paul and Ray in the car really highlights Woodrugh’s excellence as a character. The dialogue is spot on and doesn’t missrepresent Woodrugh’s struggles, while offering Velcoro’s misapprehension as a popular yet misinformed view of support.
Cake – Further to the above point, my favorite exchange from the episode has to be:
VELCORO: I read about that actress. The Black Mountain Stuff. Fallujah, Tikrit. You’ve seen shit. After that everything else should be a cakewalk.
WOODRUGH: It’s actually just the opposite.
They Set Us Up The Bomb – The final confrontation felt like a set up involving Dixon. It was already clear that he was compromised in some way, but with his CI tip leading to such a major bungle, along with the suggestion that he knew what was going to go down, I’m starting to think the late detective was deep into the Caspere conspiracy.