After a True Detective season of brooding episodes that moved at a stately (if we're being extremely charitable) pace, "Black Maps and Motel Rooms" takes off at a gallop. The comparable episode in season one was a slower-paced affair with lots and lots of exposition; this one remembered that, at least, if you're going to explain what's going on, it's better to do so when the heroes are outnumbered and under the gun.
Which is exactly what happens here! Ray, Paul, and Ani hole up in a motel room to go through the files they stole at the gigantic orgy from episode six, and those files reveal a lot of what's going on this season (while still not revealing why we're supposed to care about much of it, considering how much of it revolves around stuff that's tangential at best). But outside the motel room, the world is looking for the trio, and their days would seem to be numbered. This turns out to be literally true in the case of Paul, who's gunned down as the hour ends.
"Black Maps" occasionally feels as if it's about to fly off the rails, but at least it's a different tone and pace from the stuff that's come before. Backing the heroes into a corner they won't get out of is the kind of thing seemingly every story like this does at some point, but at least there are some dramatic stakes for once.
Plus, the episode was brilliantly directed by Daniel Attias, who lit scenes with gunfire, emphasized the bleak darkness about to swallow the characters, and made motel rooms seem downright homey.
Heading into the season finale, I'm at least somewhat interested by what's going to happen, and that's not something I thought I would say even two weeks ago. Let's take a look at some of the season's biggest questions, as answered by this episode.
1) Who's Bird Head?
Okay, I could totally be wrong about this (though it would take some pretty fancy plotting to avoid this obvious conclusion), but it sure seems like Lieutenant Kevin Burris was the man in the bird-shaped mask. He's the one who kills Paul, and it makes a lot of sense that he would have, say, shot Ray with the riot shells. (After all, that always suggested he was in law enforcement.)
Also, he's played by James Frain, which should have been indication enough.
Now, I don't entirely know what Bird Head's end game is (especially if he's Burris). I have some theories, but none of them make sense in totality, and it sure seems like he's either exposed the conspiracy far too heavily if he's on their side, or has done a pretty terrible job of stopping their plans if he's up against them. I suspect what's happening here is that he's just the guy who cleans up loose ends — and his method of doing so tends toward the theatrical, which allows for greater weirdness. But who the hell knows?
2) Who's in on the conspiracy?
Basically everybody. (Okay, not Mayor Chessani. Poor Mayor Chessani.)
No, seriously. Paul's ex-lover. The Panticapaeum Institute. The mayor's son. The Russian mob. Black Mountain. They're all part of this thing, even if only tangentially. It gets to the point where the photos of Paul with his lover are used as blackmail material because he just happened to be working with the conspiracy, which just happened upon the two of them together and took some pictures just in case. The conspiracy is like everything you've always worried about the NSA and Google — combined.
Is it any wonder why Vera wants to get back to said conspiracy? It's where literally everybody hangs out.
On its surface, none of this makes a lick of sense. But I'm not convinced it needs to. This episode requires a huge suffusion of paranoia, and having seemingly everybody in the world in on a massive criminal conspiracy more or less worked in this regard.
3) Yeah, but what does the conspiracy want?
Sadly, this is kind of boring, even if it at least finally gave Frank stuff to do that was closer to the center of the show. The conspiracy is tied to — and largely funded by — the Russian mob, in the form of Russian-Israeli Osip, and the mob hopes to cash in on the railway parcels. In the process of this, they've gotten extremely close to pushing Frank out of the game entirely.
All of this, however, is just pretext for Frank to finally let go of any illusions of going legitimate and just start burning things to the ground. He does so literally — with the casino and club that Osip just bought out from under him — and metaphorically, when he kills Blake.
Frank's plan to get out of the country is the first time his actions have made sense this season, and if Ray and Ani are in desperate straits as the season concludes, then Frank is really in trouble. It's hard to imagine him getting out of this alive, but that could also mean he'll emerge from all of this victorious. Sometimes, embracing your brutality is the way to survive on this show, and Frank has more than done that.
4) So who killed Ben Caspere?
Probably Laura, who turns out to be one of the orphans from the LA Riots diamond heist we heard so much about last week and Caspere's secretary and someone from the "hooker parties." (I refuse to type that phrase without the scare quotes.) There's a chance it's somebody else — probably more of one than there is that Bird Head is Burris — but all of this makes the most sense.
And what's beautiful about this is that if it was Laura, then Caspere's death had nothing to do with the conspiracy at all. Instead, it was just a young woman who wanted revenge against one of the men who was behind her parents' death all those years ago. Thus, the reveal of the conspiracy happened because it didn't account for an incredibly random coincidence — which is the way everything is revealed on this show.
5) What the hell is with the diamonds?
Honestly, I don't know. I guess they're just a MacGuffin — a valuable object that kicks the plot into motion, even if their importance to the whole story is so deeply buried that it's tempting to ascribe more meaning to them than they actually desire.
Because, I mean, if all of this happened because some corrupt public officials wanted to use the cover of a riot to steal some diamonds, that would be wryly cynical, in that very True Detective way.
6) Does love still exist in the True Detective universe?
Sort of! Even if Paul died and took his ex-lover with him — and even if his death leaves his fiancée and unborn child in the lurch — it was time for Ani and Ray to hook up, as you might expect to happen, given the fact that they are the male and female leads, and the male and female leads must hook up at some point.
I've seen wildly varying reactions to this particular story point. I'll admit that this late in the game, it feels like one more damn thing to add to the pile, and if you don't buy the chemistry between Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams, then, yeah, I guess this is something that wouldn't work for you.
But the chemistry between Farrell and McAdams is one of the few things I think has worked throughout the season. Their characters are both such gigantic bundles of emotional and psychological constipation that it makes sense the two of them would find a weird solace in each other. The scenes where the two of them danced around the idea of coupling, before finally giving in, were among my favorites of the season.
7) Who's going to make it out of this alive?
It might end up being no one! Paul died, as mentioned, as did State's Attorney Davis (possibly as an attempt to frame Ray for her murder). The conspiracy seems damn determined to keep all knowledge of its existence from being revealed. This might seem a bit convoluted when you remember that everybody alive is in on it, but it's certainly created a believably horrific atmosphere for the finale.
All in all, the second season of True Detective is perhaps best summed up by that word: convoluted. There's been good stuff and bad stuff, brilliant stuff and terrible stuff. But the finale, at least, offers the promise of something worth looking forward to other than this whole thing being over.
As always, leave your questions for this week's live chat in comments!
I'll be by at noon Eastern to answer them. Let's talk about that Halt and Catch Fire finale, huh?