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True Detective’s orgy scene is one of the smartest things it’s done so far

Hey, True Detective put Rachel McAdams in a dress!
Hey, True Detective put Rachel McAdams in a dress!
HBO

Each week, a handful of Vox's writers will chat about the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into this latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

True Detective's sixth episode, "Church in Ruins," gave us some much-needed action (sorry), with the much-teased "colossal orgy" that our heroes infiltrated to finally make some progress in various areas of their investigation. And an episode wherein the climax (really, really sorry) takes place at a party full of hookers seems like as good a time as any to explore the show's tortured relationship with sex.

In True Detective's first season, sex was largely a perversion of family: Marty’s extramarital affairs, Maggie’s manipulation of Rust to finally break her bond with Marty, those creepy backwoods siblings providing visuals no one should ever have to relive. Even Marty’s daughter used her sexuality as a weapon in her rebellion against her father.

But in season two, sex is all about control, or rather the lack of it. This is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but what’s interesting is how as the season progresses, the thread of that idea becomes clearer and clearer, running through each character’s storyline and helping to connect what sometimes feel like fairly disjointed subplots.

When it comes down to it, True Detective’s second season hasn’t presented a single normal, pleasant sexual experience. All of our characters have their own issues. Thanks to whatever ideas his negligee-wearing mother forced into his head as a child, Paul is constantly shackling himself to the idea of the life he thinks he has to have. He pops some pills and grits his teeth to consummate his relationship with Emily, trying to chain down the most secret parts of himself and commit to a life he knows he can never truly be happy in.

Frank’s problem is the inverse: Sex to him becomes a symbol of all his many failures as a man. Where Paul wants to use his unborn child as proof that he can cast off his true desires and have a "normal" life, Frank’s inability to have a kid is the gaping hole between the life he does lead and the one he tries so hard to build for himself.

For Ray, his wife’s complete loss of control — her rape — (maybe) brought about the one thing that keeps him from letting his misery swallow him completely: his son. Attempting to regain control of her own life is why Gena insists on knowing the truth about her son even as Ray begs her to let him hold on to his illusion.

And then there’s Ani, who deploys her sexuality like the knives she carries, to throw the men she encounters off-balance and make sure they know she’s not someone to screw with. In this episode, the reason for this is made more explicit: We see through her hazy, drugged-out flashbacks that she was abused as a child by one of her father’s hippie religious friends, a fact she has apparently repressed. And while the show’s decision to hinge a major plot development on having its female lead dress up as a pricey escort was met with more than a little trepidation, the orgy scene paid off brilliantly for one reason: It showed everything from Ani’s perspective.

Yes, there were an inordinate number of naked people in the scene, thus fulfilling HBO’s T&A quota — but through Ani’s blurred, horrified eyes the tableaux became a nightmare funhouse carnival of flesh, all blank stares and the motions of intimacy with none of the emotion. And when her terrible companion leans in and says, "Would you like to watch for a while?" the disgusted look on Ani’s face implicates the audience too. This is what you find sexy, this violent, cruel exploitation? she seems to ask. What on another HBO show might have been shot to titillate here is warped to show the ugliness at the core. It’s not subtle, but it is effective, and even after Ani manages to escape with her missing girl, that sense of soupy, nightmarish terror lingers.

I didn't expect to find myself saying an orgy scene was one of the best parts of this season, but that big finish felt like it gave the show some sorely needed dramatic heft. Let's hope more good things are ... uh, arriving in the final two episodes.

Read the recap, and come back soon for more discussion.

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