“Sometimes a thing happens, it splits your life. There’s a before and after. I’ve got, like, five of them at this point, and this is your first. But if you use it right — the bad thing — you use it right and it makes you better.”
– Frank Semyon
In a sky filled with darkness, the stars looks small and insignificant. This is the image that stands as the basis for True Detective, thematically uniting its two self-contained seasons. Darkness represents the terrible things that happen to people in a world that is morally indifferent to our well being, and the stars are the small acts of heroism committed in the face of such cosmic suffering. If we pass through the darkness, and help someone along the way, knowing that in the end it doesn’t really change the terrible nature of all things, we light up a star in human defiance of the night sky.
Sure, that might sound overdramatic, but we’re talking about True Detective here. It’s a show that uses its own heightened language, is unapologetic for its staunch nihilist viewpoint and, whether you like the deliberate pace and humourless aesthetic or not, is always thematically on-point. “Church in Ruins,” the third last episode of True Detective season two, is a full-on living example of the show’s overarching thesis. Nothing matters and life is painful but that’s no reason to abandon humanity. To live heroically is to stare into the abyss and then continue to endeavour for a good, knowing that such an ethical label is patently absurd.
“Church in Ruins” is filled with small moments of humanity leading to the season’s first big moment of light. The hour is tense and revelatory, grim and grotesque, yet some how victorious. “Church in Ruins” isn’t going to necessarily change the minds of viewers who have turned to hate-watching the season because it failed to live up to their expectations but as a lover of Nic Pizzolatto’s specific brand of nihilism porn I found the episode exhilarating.
We start the hour moments after we left off last week, with Frank Semyon making Ray Velcoro a black coffee in his new home. They sit across the kitchen table from each other, guns drawn but out of view, and get to settling an eleven year old score: Frank had Ray kill a man under the pretense that the victim raped his wife and violently fathered Velcoro’s son Chad. The murder was Frank’s blackmail on Ray, and for the past decade the bolo tie wearing detective was corrupted by his vengeance.
After a series of accusations and denials, the men bring the confrontation to an anti-climax. True Detective excels at these anti-exploitation plot turns. Where shows that are self-labeled as dark and gritty would have a main character die because it has become the thing serious shows do to show you they are serious, True Detective plucks the fuse out of the dynamite by making its characters talk.
Frank and Ray come to an understanding, and Semyon releases the angry detective from his blackmail. They swap notes on the new Ben Caspere case, talking about the missing hard drive and noting that they’re both tracking down Irene, the woman who was hocking dead Ben’s belongings. With a last acknowledgement of friendship, Velcoro heads to the detention centre where the man he was supposed to kill resides.
Velcoro’s personal story arc puts him face to face with the terrible reality of his life. Looking into the eyes of the man he thought he killed, Ray just sinks into promises of brutal revenge. He later attends his first supervised visit with his son Chad, and sees his hardboiled ways challenged by virtue of having another person’s eyes on him.
Most poignant of these self-conscious moments in the Velcoro home is Chad’s rejection of Ray’s bid to build the model of a stealth bomber. “It kills people,” he says.
Ignoring the fact that Ray is a violent man already, and that hat he has become obsessed with the toys himself, the presence of the supervisor makes the direct comparison standout. Ray Velcoro kills people, and Chad doesn’t like violence. Instead of building the bomber, they watch Friends while Ray’s self-loathing builds up to critical levels.
Chad is sent home early after Ray desperately expresses his love for him. Velcoro then takes an express train to Backslide City, filling his nose with coke, his stomach with liquor and beer, and his lungs with nicotine. He punch dances, he works out, and he breaks down crying. He destroys all of the models he built wit Chad, which have come to represent his self-image, and calls his ex-wife.
In one of the episode’s many moments of humanity, Ray says he won’t contest Felicia’s sole custody claims as long as she promises to never tell Chad the truth about his father and she grants him that sympathy. She will still be getting the paternity test for her own sake, but as far as Chad is concerned, Ray is and will always be his father.
In his usual mirroring of Velcoro, Frank has his own moment of fatherly humanity. Stan, the equally tortured to death but less high profile version of Ben Caspere, had a family and the Semyons pay a visit to pay off his wife. Frank joins Stan’s son in the backyard after paying his condolences to the widow and imparts some heavy advice. He tells the boy that painful and terrible things happen, but they can make you a better person. It earns him a hug, evokes the dark basement monologue from episode two, and sets up the payoff to all the adoption talk he’s been having with Jordan.
The rest of Frank’s story in “Church in Ruins” concerns his search for Irene, who he finds after a painful nail gun torture scene, a Mexican standoff with Gonzales, and a brief phone call with the wanted woman herself. Sadly, when he goes to meet her face to face, she’s been killed – Gonzales’s gang slit her throat for working with the police. Frank sees it as unnecessary and brutal, which might not have played successfully in previous episodes, but his moment of humanity with Stan’s son helped sell his sympathy.
Woodrugh is the only main character who doesn’t have his brush with humanity in “Church in Ruins,” starting off with Bezzerides at the backwoods torture shack from last week. The crime scene is taken over by the local sheriff, and blood tests come back with evidence that leads us to believe that the victim was the missing Vera: reports show that whoever dies in there was a woman and had dead gonorrhea biophages. The case moves forward though, with Bezzerides assigned to infiltrating the mysterious escort parties and Paul continuing on the diamonds.
Paul traces the blue diamonds back to a double homicide robbery during the LA riots. He interviews the officer assigned to the case and learns that two children survived. They were put in foster care and the memory of those children haunts the old cop. They didn’t provide any leads, since they could barely talk and the retired investigator tells Paul they were wearing masks. Not literal masks, of course, which would be creepy and hilariously ridiculous, but figurative ones that hid them from the outside world.
Reprisal of the mask motif aside, the scene is underscored with foreboding music, and really seems to capture the season one tone of deep criminal legacy. The diamonds serve as a connection to the past, where they also inspired violence.
The legacy of violence idea is brought into full relief with Ani’s infiltration mission. After scoring a way in thanks to her sister Athena, Detective Bezzerides boards a bus to a remote manor where an orgy is set to take place between sex workers and grossly powerful perverts. The sequence takes up the back end of the episode and is a distilled, horrific, yet still victorious example of what True Detective is all about.
Velcoro and Woodrugh follow the bus and get to securing the perimeter while Ani finds her way into the belly of the beast. Dosed with MDMA, she attempts to navigate her way through the sex party and break the case open. All the while, as clothes start coming off and the drugs start kicking in, she begins having flashbacks to her childhood at the Good People commune where it is implied that she was molested by a member of the church.
Framing the orgy in this way — with a distressing soundtrack playing under gross sex, dizzying camera work and flashes to Ani’s violent past — effectively evokes the den of evil feeling that director Miguel Sapochnik must have been aiming for. Sapochnik directed the White Walker-filled “Hardhome” on the last season of Game of Thrones, and the orgy infiltration feels like a horror-noir set piece on that grand a scale.
When Bezzerides escapes the grasp on an oil man in order to purge the MDMA in her system she finds Vera, alive and in a stupor, in the bathroom. She attempts an escape. Putting her obsessive knife training to good use, Ani kills a guard and at least stabs the oil man, before making it to the front door with Vera where Woodrugh is ready as backup.
Velcoro comes to the rescue with his Charger and the detectives make off with Vera as well as a bunch of land deal papers that Paul snatched containing a whole bunch of important signatures.
The mission is a full success for the detectives, but it isn’t untainted by the horrors of what went on in that house. As our heroes drive victorious into the night, the full moon sits low and large in the night sky, a visual metaphor for humanity’s victory over darkness. Ani’s journey into the manor illustrated the depths of human immorality that exist in the world, with trafficked persons being drugged and used as sex added to her own memories of past abuse. But as dark as it is, and as indifferent to that suffering as the world might be, she was strong enough to make one act of heroism that, while small in comparison to the Gomorric horrors at work, is enough to light up the night sky for at least this one night.
Broken Model Planes
An Even Weirder Move – Speaking of Gomorrah, Velcoro had a copy of Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book Gomorrah which details his investigation of an Italian crime organization that holds influence on daily life and business in Italy.
The Flat Circle – The giant full moon also serves as a reminder of the way time is represented in True Detective. Rustin Cohle’s flat circle of time theory dictates that we are all doomed to repeat our mistakes unknowingly forever. He means this in a cosmic sense, in that we relive our lives which are etched permanently in the fabric of existence. There are cycles happening to these characters in their own lives too though, with Ray thinking of killing his wife’s rapist again and Ani flashing back to her experiences with the Good People.
The Black Angels – The song used for the end credits in “Church in Ruins” is called “Black Grease” by The Black Angels. The same band provided the music for season one TV spots with their song “Young Men Dead.”
Bohemian Grove – Anybody else getting a big Bohemian Grove vibe off of the rich and affluent man orgy? Maybe the Bilderberg Group is going to show up in the next two episodes.
Suspicious Guest – State governor candidate Richard Geldof was at the sex party. My bet is that his name will be on the documents Woodrugh lifted and we’ll be getting to see C.S. Lee in a more prominent capacity before the show’s over in two weeks.