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True Detective Season 2 Episode 5 Review: Desperate Housewives

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Last week’s grand shootout promised to send the investigation in a new direction, and thankfully the promise was delivered. Our tortured detectives have finally broken free and can get to the bottom of who killed Ben Caspere without the constraints of the State holding them back. This episode was on track to be the best installment of the season so far with new clues, new revelations, and a cool confrontation with Dr. Irving Pitlor all buffering up the intrigue, despite Ani Bezzerides claiming “nobody cares” about the case, well, that’s the opposite for us. We care about the investigation; not the Vinci version of Desperate Housewives that made this episode go from memorable, to not so memorable.

What the episode got right was that it brought back high tension, feeling of real stakes, and that these detectives are out of their depth. When Ray Velcoro tailed Tony Chessani it was the first time we were getting a good look into the world of Caspere’s secret life. Those sequences left questions playing on my mind, made me wonder the scary possibilities of what this cult/club were doing, as sometimes the less you see the more the tension builds. The same unnerving questions were raised in the scenes with Paul Woodrugh and Bezzerides in the woods, and also with the strange pictures of the diamonds. It creates atmosphere and eeriness which relates back to why so many fell in love with this show in the first place. True Detective is at its best when it’s delving into its own nightmarish and mysterious crime world, not in its Desperate Housewives level family affairs.

In most generic cop dramas you have the interesting parts: the crime, then the solving. Then you have the parts you can just wind on: the detective with the tormented childhood who recounts it to a close friend, the arguments with ex-wives/girlfriends, and the on the nose reflections made by a number of the main characters. Unfortunately, this season, True Detective has used all three; three lazy storytelling devices which haven’t been used as one-off scenes, but regularly.

How many times do we need to see Woodrugh’s crazy Mom reminding him of his insecurities, his one-dimensional girlfriend reminding him of his sexuality, Velcoro’s dopey son reminding him how detached he is from his family, and his ex-wife announcing he “used to be good” at being decent? It’s fine to use these scenes and tropes at the beginning of the season to show us the lives of these characters, but to keep repeating them over and over again, it’s like Pizzolatto thinks the viewer hasn’t the capacity for developing memories. How many times is Velcoro going to tell his ex-wife he loves his son, and I’ll admit, at least Velcoro’s family issues actually relate to the main plot now, but as for Woodrugh, we know he’s obviously had a rough childhood but don’t keep having scenes with his Mom to tell us that, it smacks of unnecessary filler and, yes, this rant is nearly over, but first I have to talk about that hot feeling in the back of my neck. How Many Times, do we have to sit through one of Frank and Jordan’s conceiving squabbles? All they talk about is baby problems and, “I’m not a gangster, I don’t mix with those types of people.” Sure Frank. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that Pizzolatto wanted to explore family dynamics this season, but if it’s not linking into the plot, it kills the tension of the actual plot. For instance, we watch Velcoro follow a car along an unlit road – creepy, we follow him behind some rocks where he spies on shady figures transporting girls across town. Why are they doing this? It leaves intriguing questions, building apprehension as we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see what the next scene brings … and cut to Frank, giving chapter and verse to his wife on having a baby, for the umpteenth time. It’s got me thinking, are these repeated scenes used because they are important for the plot and characters, or that Pizzolatto doesn’t know what to do with them? It leads me onto thinking that it’s because some of these characters aren’t really needed in the story, but Pizzolatto just wants to keep fitting them in.

Is Semyon actually important to the plot?

I know it sounds like I’m changing my tune now, and I was adamant Paul Woodrugh was the most intriguing character in the show, but as the plot moves on, I feel his character is less needed. He was important when the case tested his weakness of his sexuality by having him talk to male hookers, but now that’s not the case, all he does apart from mope from one woman to another is just go along for the ride. If you took him out of the story, would you notice? He is beginning to feel like extra baggage and the same goes for Semyon.

The only contribution he makes is to advance Velcoro’s development; he’s there to show Velcoro’s life is controlled by someone else, and to reveal that he once lied to Velcoro to get him to work for him. He is a necessary character in those scenes, but not in the scenes when he’s running his club. Pizzolatto clearly wants to make us care for Semyon by showing that he doesn’t want to be part of this world, hoping it will make him a more three dimensional character. However, this ‘going straight’ motivation isn’t related to solving Caspere’s murder. That’s why the scenes with Jordan never have any forward momentum, because Semyon getting money to go legit isn’t crucial to the main story arc. It results in a stifling of tension and an awkward flow to this episode, and all the others before it.

Even Bezzerides is becoming a little wasted. Her role in the plot now seems to be: gather clues and infiltrate a party. Her personality flaws aren’t tested in the way Velcoro’s are. Her main role seems to be the no-nonsense cop who just wants to seek justice. I thought her strange family past, sexual orientation and crazy bed habits would relate more to the investigation, revealing more about who she actually is and what motivates her, but so far it hasn’t. However, the next episode looks more likely to do that, so Bezzerides is not entirely a wasted character yet.

The only character that’s developing and being tested by the case is Velcoro. A once-good man trapped by his debt to a former gangster. All he wants to do is look after his son, but first he has to solve this case to get his son back. If there is one main character this season, he is fast becoming it. His arc fits right in with the plot and that is why he’s the most interesting character. It also provides a good conflict now with Semyon to see what he does with him after the plot twist we all pretty much saw coming. Nonetheless, it’s going to be a fun exchange, unless, of course, Semyon delivers one of his detailed monologues on water stains on ceilings. Then maybe, just maybe, Velcoro will know what it’s like spending a Sunday night in the Frank and Jordan household.

Overall, I’m beginning to get the impression that this season could have been made with less episodes and less characters, maybe six episodes with Velcoro and Bezzerides as the two main characters. At least it would have cut the clunky family scenes and unnecessary characters and delivered something a little more crisp and entertaining.

At the moment these repeated on the nose family problems are making the season feel like a gritty version of Desperate Housewives, rather than the dark and surreal cop drama we love. True Detective needs to embrace its weirdness again; the moments of bird mask people and Velcoro’s dream sequence were the scenes that did that this season, but they are few and far between. Let’s hope this still isn’t the case by the end of episode eight.

Good Things

  • Caspere's investigation finally getting going
  • Velcoro's development

Bad Things

  • Repeated, heavy handed character 'development'
  • Frank Semyon's role in the plot


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