“This girl’s gone missing. Nobody cares. The interior’s poisoned and suddenly worth billions. Nobody cares. Bunch of people got shot to shit. Nobody fucking cares.”
– Ani Bezzerides
The most heroic action that can be taken in the universe of True Detective is to care. While it is a true anthology series, with no narrative connections between seasons, the show is always about the oppressive inhuman indifference of the world and how, against overwhelming odds, a person can at least shine a light in unconquerable darkness. Beginning with a two month time-jump, this heroic decision is at the heart of the fifth hour of season two, “Other Lives.”
Each character is faced with an unknown disguised as a closed case. The horrific shootout of last week’s “Down Will Come” served as a closing point for the official Ben Caspere murder case, the dead Amarillo having taken the blame. In the aftermath of the massacre the three surviving detectives were hailed as heroes and subsequent forensics operations uncovered articles belonging to Caspere in the raided warehouse, all covered in criminal detritus. But despite the official stamp of Vinci PD approval, things aren’t sitting well for our primary detectives and backsliding reformed mobster.
Frank Semyon in particular, needs no convincing that Amarillo isn’t the man behind Caspere’s death by torture. When Velcoro brought the suggestion to him six months ago he already had case busting questions, mainly concerning why the suspect would have given his henchman Stan the same eye-burning treatment given to Ben. Now, after six months of transition, having moved from his fancy papier mache mansion into a much more modest Glendale home, Frank has turned his suspicions inward at his own organization.
Stoking his suspicion that this whole creepy salting the earth campaign is aimed at him, news reaches Frank that the man he sold his waste management assets too died in a drunk driving accident, despite not being a drinker. The waste management plant was used to contaminate the land that Ben was supposed to purchase for the Railway Corridor scheme, and while Frank can’t fully connect the dots he’s pretty sure someone has their sights on him.
The other detectives aren’t sure either, each living a new post special detail life. The Caspere case is long behind them at this point, and it’s clear that it was a nice diversion, if not a morbid one that was more than a bit traumatic. Woodrugh is a tax fraud detective, still haunted by the sexual assault allegations that lost him his highway patrol, and forcing himself into a marriage with his pregnant lover Emily. Velcoro quit the force and is now working security detail for Semyon while losing all of his rights as a father and getting evicted from his municipal worker house in Vinci. Bezzerides has been stuck in evidence at Ventura County while going to a sexual harassment group talk session with a bunch of dick-brained lesser cops. These are their titular other lives.
While checking in on the woman she served a foreclosure notice to in the first episode, Ani is reminded of the parallel missing person report of Vera. Sorting through pictures offered as a clue to her whereabouts, Bezzerides finds new leads pertaining to the true nature of Ben Caspere’s death. Vera has pictures of the blue diamonds found in dead Ben’s safe deposit box, as well as snapshots of Caspere and a state governor at a mysterious party in the arms of many a sex worker. Back in her evidence cage, Bezzerides finds that the diamonds have gone missing.
The photos and mising evidence are enough for Ani and Paul to jump back onto a new super secret detail initiated by the state police. Velcoro is approached to join in, and after some of his signature self deprecation, is convinced by the Ventura chief through promises of having inside support in getting to keep his son in his life.
And just like that, the case on Caspere is reopened. It’s one of True Detective’s greatest challenges, to switch narrative directions multiple times in an episode due to the time constraints usually only felt by mini series, and it pulls it off brilliantly. The show is able to pull off a time jump that sticks the narrative into a period of reluctance and then put its characters right back on track within an hour thanks to the long time spent earlier on this season setting up who these people are. At the risk of being labeled slow and boring, Nick Pizzolatto chose to flesh out his unlikable-on-purpose characters and it paid off in his ability to make quick developments late in the game, without filling the dialogue with too much exposition. We know these people now, and so we can understand what drives them.
Velcoro’s decision to rejoin the hunt for the real Caspere killer is the turning point of the series. Ani instigated the decision with her new evidence, showing herself to be the most heroic of the three main characters, and Woodrugh is still running from his inner demons, but Ray is being framed as the redemption case of this story.
While Bezzerides and Woodrugh both have their shining moments in “Other Lives,” Ray Velcoro is the man of the hour. Finding himself the most tortured and and least enthusiastic about reopening the Caspere case. He’s even undergone a major physical change too, having shaved his moustache and gone clean in terms of drug use (sticking to just drinking). But despite his clean cut reform, his life is shittier than ever.
Not only is Ray being subjected to a paternity test which will most definitely see his son taken away from him, but when he finally is convinced to take the special assignment a horrible truth is revealed to him: he didn’t kill the rapist father of Chad. The scumbag was recently arrested and is looking at life in prison, leaving Velcoro with a great big, terrible question mark. If his son;es father is still alive, then who did Frank Semyon make him kill all those years ago?
Ray’s rage and panic is palpable in the initial reaction shot after the state police chief tells him why she started trusting him despite the rumours of his being a murderer. Colin Farrell, stands out in this episode more than most for his acting. The subsequent conversation between him and his ex-wife is written to be vague on the topic of what Ray actually did, but Farrell communicates the subtext with real pain.
Velcoro’s plight, combined with his halfassed attempt at personal reform, has almost done enough to erase the idea that he isn’t just tragically flawed but actually a violent and bad person. It’s still clear though, that this sad man, while never claiming to be any kind of Columbo, houses in him a terrible monster. We saw it when he beat the hell out of a bully’s dad in the first episode, we saw it again this week with a confrontation with the mysterious doctor Pitler, and Frank Semyon will be getting a glimpse sooner that he ever expected to in the very near future.
The Pitler beatdown is brutal, and unlike the brass knuckled dad fight from earlier, it is not as easy to immediately sympathize with the battered therapist. The framing however, true to the show’s anti-exploitation brand, makes the confrontation incredibly painful to watch — punctuated by the fragile surgery-built face slowly falling apart with every blow from Velcoro’s billy club. Pitler is likely involved in human trafficking and has deep connections to the Chessani cult at the center of the season’s mystery, but it is difficult to take the side of the fist literally knocking his teeth out, scattering them across his office.
In the end, Velcoro does get relevant information on the Chessani cult and the so called hooker parties that Caspere attended. It adds up to the allegation that someone at these gatherings of affluent people was collecting blackmail info from the party goers (thought to be on the hard drive from episode two) and a throwaway line about the unsavory patriarchal traditions of the Chessani clan.
Woodrugh uncovers his own bit of intriguing evidence when hitting the city pawn shops for any information on the blue diamonds. The man at the counter finds it notable that Paul is the second detective to inquire about blue diamonds and tells Woodrugh that Dixon left his card in case anything came up regarding the stones.
In the car, on their way to check out the last address Vera called from (which also was a location on Caspere’s GPS), Paul and Ani conclude that Dixon must have known about the diamonds before they found the safe deposit box. The sloppy and flatulent old detective, now dead, was an inside agent connected to a party that knew more about Caspere than the rest of Vinci PD (the chief implies this to Ray when he evicts him) and more than Frank.
As the two detectives arrive at the commune and find that no one’s home, they follow the path of circling carrion birds and uncover the biggest piece of evidence yet, which also appears to be the most grisly (aside from Caspere’s mutilated corpse, I suppose). It’s a backwoods torture chamber, covered in blood, with a chair in the middle sporting duct tape restraints.
The episode ends with Frank and Jordan Semyon agreeing finally to adopt a child. After a confrontation in that back room of the Luxe, Jordan convinced Frank to redouble his efforts in going legit, and now they lay in bed deciding to be parents. Frank stares at the ceiling of his new and modest home, remarking that there are no more water stains, when his past comes knocking at his door. Velcoro is angry and wants to talk about the man Frank made him kill.
Velcoro is a man defined by an event he had convinced himself was true, a reaction to an act of unthinkable violence that resulted in the simultaneous creation and destruction of his family. As much as our present actions and choices can transform us, our past is what gives our identity substance.
The horrors that have made Ray the sad bastard he is are the same ones that Frank is trying to bury under good intentions. But heroes in a world dominated by darkness are the ones who, despite overwhelming pressure to give up and be smothered, acknowledge the horrible nature of life and still resist apathy and base human desire. Heroes care when nothing matters, and Ray, staring down the bathrobed and gun-toting Frank, cares a whole hell of a lot.
Off The Bike – I am incredibly surprised at how much Woodrugh has endeared himself to me after a rocky start. I pegged him as the show’s least likable protagonist in episode one, but now I’d place him on par with Ani and Ray in terms of sympathy. His dinner with Emily and her mother, contrasted with the painful confrontation with his own mother, really fleshes out his personal struggle. Here is a man, uncomfortable with his sexuality and looking for a place to run from his inner demons, wearing a mask of normativity that keeps trying to fall off. In contrast to Ray’s hero journey, Paul’s narrative demands that he be honest with himself about this past. The kid could use a role model, and by the looks of things Ray could use another surrogate son.
Masuka – Any Dexter fans out there finding it really hard to watch C.S. Lee not make cringe-inducing sexual innuendos every time he’s on screen?
Driftwood – Ani’s sister is making little wooden souvenirs out of driftwood like their mom did. The scene on the beach was sweet, and very uncharacteristic of True Detective. Ani’s reaction to the announcement that her sister got into art school, while in no way over joyous, stands out as maybe the only moment in the series where someone has voiced something other than existential dread.
Eyes Wide Shut, or Burnt Out, or Whatever – Remember the big to-do made during the filming of this season when news came out that we were going to get an orgy scene that is brain-breakingly huge in scope? Well it’s finally becoming clear how that fits into the narrative. My money is on seeing it through the perspective of Ani as she infiltrates the blackmail escort party, but I wouldn’t cut out the possibility of a flashback to Ben Caspere’s last sexy stand either.
The Man in The Black Hat – Not sure how Gonzales and the shadowy man at his side are going to factor into the big picture at this point, but the pulpy fresh image of a violent cowboy dressed all in black is one that I wouldn’t mind seeing again in a more substantial scene later this season.
The Final Age of Man – Only three episodes remain. Who out there has major predictions? How’s it going to end? Who’s going to die? Most importantly: whodunnit?