"Church in Ruins," the sixth episode of True Detective's second season, is the show's best hour since the first season's fifth episode. (That's the one that pushed the Yellow King speculation to a fever pitch, ending with Rust Cohle in an abandoned building, holding aloft a small sculpture made of twigs.) There's a lot of dumb stuff in it — because this is a show that can't help but do some dumb stuff in every episode — but by the end of the hour, I really felt like I'd seen a satisfying episode of television.
And there's one reason for that: It's by far the most simple, straightforward episode of the season. The ornate dialogue and complicated storytelling styles fall away, and what we're left with is an hour in which every single character has a clear goal, then goes through hell to pursue that goal.
Too often, this season of True Detective has confused complication for complexity. It has, in other words, thought that by piling element after element atop the main story (which is, I guess, the search for the killer of Ben Caspere), it could find a way to stall for time in a story that probably only needed to be three or four hours or so.
There's been a lot of filler — and there's a fair amount of filler in this episode, too. But now the show seems to be completely eschewing much of what didn't work (outside of Frank's subplot, which it seems to be stuck with) in favor of just telling a story about the dark heart of its California setting.
Here are six ways simplicity helped the show get back on track for an hour.
1) The last sequence is a complete nightmare (in a good way)
Ani's undercover visit to one of the so-called "hooker parties" had the potential to be an utter disaster. The show has always struggled with women characters — and having its most significant woman so far pretend to be a prostitute to get information was exactly the sort of thing that played into all of the series' weaknesses.
But, somehow, the whole thing worked beautifully. When there were rumors that this season would depict an orgy, it seemed like exactly the sort of facile, "hardcore" storyline that the show often uses as a shortcut to seeming more adult and complex than it actually is.
Instead, as scripted by Nic Pizzolatto and Scott Lasser and directed by Miguel Sapochnik (also the director of this season's best Game of Thrones episode and clearly someone HBO needs to add to its most frequent contacts list), the sequence holds on Ani throughout. Women are drugged into a stupor and taken advantage of by rich and powerful men, but it happens blurred out in the background, as her face, struggling to comprehend what's happening, occupies the foreground. She, too, has been drugged and has to figure out an escape plan before things take a turn for the worse.
When Ani ultimately stabs two men, probably killing one of them, in an attempt to escape the mansion with the girl she's been seeking all season, it feels at once like a minor victory and like a tiny drop in a giant ocean. "Church in Ruins" suggests throughout its running time that the scale of evil is vast — and that it sends those who would do good chasing their own tails, that they won't catch on to the truly awful things in the world.
How simplicity helped here: Literally, this sequence is a haunted house story, only with very human monsters. All of the questions about the gigantic conspiracy to defraud the California public and rape unsuspecting young women fall away, and the story simply becomes one where a woman we've come to care about has to escape a bad situation. And in the process — via hallucinatory flashbacks to a man who abused her as a child — we fill in some of the blanks of her history. It's compelling storytelling.
2) Ray's emotional turmoils come down to very basic conversations
So much of what this season has struggled with is conveying the back-story of its assorted characters. We've been told, in multiple different ways, about their awful histories, but we haven't really gotten a feel for them, beyond knowing they exist. Ray's relationship with his son, say, has always felt like a perfunctory add-on, something that's there because the show wants to give him something to lose.
Not everything about Ray's story here works — his cocaine freakout is pretty silly — but the scenes where he sits down with Frank to confront him about having killed the wrong man and where he tells his son that no matter what he might hear, Ray is his father, have a potency to them that washes away the awkward plotting required to get here.
How simplicity helped here: The best emotional scenes cut to the quick. They shove aside ostentatiousness and complication in favor of zooming in on the one emotional turn that matters. Here, that was Ray and Frank coming to a kind of accord, or Ray telling his son, a quaver in his voice, that he was his father. It's the kind of earnest emotion that season one had in spades and season two has mostly avoided. But that made it land all the harder in this episode.
3) The idea of an endlessly corrupt California power structure had more weight
I can more or less encapsulate this in the shot above, a bus full of young women speeding toward a party where they'll be horribly used and abused, utilizing California's gleaming freeways. Sapochnik shoots this like Charon ferrying the souls of the dead on to the Underworld.
How simplicity helped here: The more elements the show piled atop the central idea of seemingly every rich man in California doing terrible things almost as a matter of course, the more the series struggled to have it make any sense. (Giant conspiracies inherently beggar belief.) Instead of explaining these things endlessly, "Church in Ruins" simply takes them as a fact of life. Once they're inherent to the premise, they become easier to swallow, because the focus is on other things, instead of their ridiculousness.
4) Frank was Frank — for better or worse
If you think about it, True Detective, season two, is just True Detective, season one, with a bunch of extra stuff piled on top of it. At the center of the season is the investigation carried out (mostly) by Ray and Ani, with Paul occasionally subbing in for one of the two. (That, perhaps, is why Paul is the least defined character — he's literally just someone who comes in off the bench.) The team is investigating a massive conspiracy of powerful men, which reveals itself slowly as part of a seemingly simple murder investigation.
The problem, of course, is Frank, whose storyline has little to no connection to what's going on. I fully expect the show to tie it in in the end — after all, Ray only started investigating in earnest because Frank lost all that money he'd given to Caspere — but the crumbling of Frank's criminal empire really doesn't matter one way or another, even as a thematic parallel.
How simplicity helped here: At least this episode featured Frank doing something that was vaguely understandable — he wanted to find a missing woman whose pawn sales had led to that massive shootout in episode four. It still made for easily the weakest segment of the episode, but at least it all made a kind of sense.
5) The season's relationship to masculinity seems clearer
For once, when Ray threatens to strip the flesh from a man with a cheese grater, his hushed growl seems less like a goofy non sequitur and more like a man who keeps trying to change his ways and failing.
So much of this season has been about navigating codes of masculinity within a world that seemingly rewards their worst impulses, but the contrast between Ray's backstory and threats and the horrible things happening at that mansion couldn't be clearer. Masculinity might offer a quick, sudden rush, but when it becomes the only thing you have to live for, it ultimately corrupts and destroys.
How simplicity helped here: Instead of trying to underline these ideas, True Detective has mostly let them play out in the background this season. It's been a bit scattered and confused here and there, but it's also been probably the most consistent theme of the season.
6) The story finally has momentum
When Ani bursts out of that mansion and makes it to Ray's waiting car, the season finally gains the momentum it's been missing all along. The characters have a big set of files that apparently implicate some very powerful people, and that would suggest said powerful people are going to be taking aim at our heroes, lest they go public somehow. With two episodes left in the season, that's a great place for the show to be in.
There are going to be tons and tons of postmortems when the season is over, as to why it didn't work, and I think the main argument is that the story started far too early, then stretched out its opening acts unnecessarily. The actual events of these first six episodes, compressed into three or four hours of TV, could have been very compelling. But stretched out as much as they have been, they've lacked momentum.
How simplicity helped here: Instead of underlining and explaining every point, that final sequence trusted the audience to simply understand what was happening. That confidence and trust went a long way.
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