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True Detective season 2, episode 5: The show has made it so hard to care about this season

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HBO presents Pensively Brooding Vince Vaughn.
HBO presents Pensively Brooding Vince Vaughn.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"Other Lives," the fifth episode of True Detective's second season, is a paradox.

On almost every level, it's the season's strongest hour. The performances feel on point. The dialogue has its overwrought moments but mostly stays in line. The storytelling feels more directed than it has all season long, with the characters finally making some progress in tying together the season's many plot threads, improbable though the connections may be.

But it's also the episode that showed me just how little I gave a damn about any of this. Stories, on some level, are about giving those who consume them a reason to care, and True Detective, season two, has been lousy at that. Indeed, it's fallen into a very common trap for acclaimed shows in their second seasons — it assumes that because we were on board for season one, we'll be on board for season two, and it doesn't have to do the necessary work of creating an engaging story, characters, or setting.

The problem is only compounded by the fact that this is, effectively, a completely different show from season one. A show with continuing characters can buy some leeway based on our existing affection for those characters (see: Hannibal, this season). True Detective is essentially stuck by the bad choices it made back in the first few episodes.

Let's break down the episode, thread by thread, to see what I mean.

1) Ray learns everything he believes is a lie

Ray learns a devastating secret on True Detective

Ray's all, "Yo, man, we need to talk."


For the most part, "Other Lives" is constructed atop a series of revelations that should be devastating. Indeed, if you are engaged in this season's storytelling, they probably were devastating. The action picks up a couple of months after the end of the last episode, with Ray working as security for Frank, leaving his old job in the dust.

But for me, part of the problem has been that this season has overplayed its hand in almost every way. One of the biggest overplays has been in the back-story of Ray Velcoro, especially when it comes to the true parentage of his son and the true identity of his wife's rapist. In this week's episode, Ray learns that Frank almost certainly gave him the identity of the wrong man when Ray went looking for said rapist, and while it comes as a shock to him, the show has all but telegraphed this for viewers.

Ray, in some ways, feels like a giant, swirling collection of plot ends that almost connect, almost spark. His back-story is one of the foremost examples of this, but so is the way that he seems trapped by his own masculine expectations. He doesn't know how to deal with his son or ex-wife, because he thinks of himself as a Man (with a capital M). The show sometimes seems to be gently chastising him for this, but then there are times (as when he beats the hell out of Dr. Pitlor) when being a capital-M Man is the only thing that will get results.

Season two assumes we'll be into this simply because it's one of the major themes of the whole series. And Colin Farrell is really giving it his all at making sense of this character's many loose ends. But it's hard to hook into whatever the show is trying to do with Ray because he feels less like a coherent character than a variety of unformed plot devices.

There are individual scenes (especially with Ani) where Ray begins to make sense, sort of, but they are few and far between. Instead, he feels like a bunch of writing prompts designed to create a vivid character that haven't gone anywhere.

2) Frank backslides and agrees (sort of, maybe) to adopt

Frank is one of the weaker parts of True Detective, season two.

Frank's as baffled by what's going on with him as we are.


Of all of season two's plots, the one that both fans and critics of the season seem least interested in is Frank's. Much of this has been laid at the feet of Vince Vaughn, who occasionally struggles with Nic Pizzolatto's stylized dialogue. But just as much should be laid at the feet of how much plot the story is trying to haul around with it — and how disconnected that plot is from literally everything else that's happening.

I'm sure that somewhere along the line, the land deals Caspere was working on (which Frank sunk a ton of money into) will hook up with the "hooker parties" and secret societies the show is spinning into its A-story. But the thwarted attempts of Frank to go legitimate and his backsliding into his old criminal dealings have nothing to do with this and rely almost entirely on the show getting us to care about whether Frank accomplishes those tasks.

But that assumes, from the get-go, that Frank is a character of interest and intrigue, and the first four episodes of the season have simply done nothing to get us to hook into anything he's doing. Frank's aversion to adoption (which he maybe lets go of in this episode), for instance, makes a kind of intellectual sense, but it rarely makes emotional sense, because the entirety of our understanding of Frank has come in long, tortured monologues delivered to other people. And, well, that comes back to Vaughn's problems with Pizzolatto's dialogue. It's a vicious cycle.

3) Ani becomes obsessed with solving the case

Ani goes to the beach on True Detective.

Ani probably would love to take a few more beach days.


If any character here has been a "success," more or less, it's Ani, who has the most cohesive back-story, even if it's the most obvious back-story. Yeah, there's nothing surprising in the idea of Ani having a hippie father and becoming a police officer as an act of rebellion (with hints that there may be some sort of abuse in her past). But there's a coherent world-view here, one that she's expressed in illuminating fashion a handful of times (most notably when explaining why she carries those knives around).

Thus, even though she's been demoted, Ani is the character still most interested in solving the murder of Ben Caspere, rather than writing it off as something that happened thanks to random drug violence. Her indefatigable nature means that she actually gets somewhere, finding a cabin where somebody was obviously murdered and starting to piece together the gigantic puzzle the season has assembled. And that makes her the character easiest to find intriguing.

What's notable here is that Ani's back-story is so minimal (and even "typical") that it's mostly there to inform why she does the things she does. Instead of being defined by her back-story, she's trying to transcend it. The sins of the present become ways to fix whatever horrors lie in her past — which puts her roughly in line with season one's Rust and Marty, who had very similar character set-ups (to say nothing of almost every other detective story hero ever).

4) Paul is along for the ride

Paul shows his scars on True Detective.

Paul is very angry. Paul is also sort of superfluous, no?


It's hard to say exactly why Paul is even in the show. Yeah, the stuff with his deeply repressed homosexuality is fitfully interesting, and his extreme prowess in the big shootout made for some cool moments. But he largely feels like he spends every scene he's in in the shadow of either Ray or Ani, depending on which character he's been hanging around with most often.

That comes to a head in tonight's scenes with Paul's mother and fiancee, which are largely expository jumbles, designed to fill in the back-stories of characters we don't really know (like his fiancee's mother) or Paul himself, whom we're already well acquainted with.

I don't think Paul's the "problem" with the season, but he's easily the most extraneous character of the main four. Without him, would the frustrating stories of Ray and Frank have more room to breathe? Or without either Ray or Frank, would Paul feel less like a repeat of the others? It's hard to say, but I've largely tuned out of whatever's up with him.

5) The mystery at least takes some interesting turns — even if the stakes are nonexistent

Ani and Paul find a horrible crime scene on True Detective.

Something awful happened here.


If there's one thing Pizzolatto knows how to write, it's a complicated crime story with a massive, unbreachable conspiracy at its center. And in these terms, season two of True Detective is doing pretty well! The more we learn about what's going on with the secret groups and mysteries of the season, the more the various pieces of the puzzle start to snap into place in semi-satisfying fashion. Yeah, it all feels a little derivative of season one, but maybe there's a reason for that.

But there's a massive, massive problem here: the stakes are, again, mostly assumed. The show hopes we care about what's happening simply because it's True Detective, not because it's done the work of making us care. (This is the problem of the season in a nutshell.) What, exactly, will happen if the detectives don't succeed in finding Caspere's killer? So far as we can tell, not much, outside of more murders of more people we've never even seen on screen. Oh, and maybe a high-speed rail corridor deal will fall through? Hard to say.

To me, it feels like the show is coasting off of our assumed affection for it and/or the detective fiction genre and it hasn't put in the hard work necessary to get us invested in the story. But your experiences here may be different. Maybe you'll look at all of the above and heartily disagree. Maybe you deeply care about all of these things. But if that's the case, I'd love to know why. Please jump down into comments and tell me!

This week's live chat will once again be at noon Eastern. Comments are open. Please leave me some questions!

In the meantime, watch out for men wearing crow masks. They're up to no good.

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