20th Jul2015

‘True Detective 2×05: Other Lives’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“It’s like uh, blue balls. In your heart.”

‘Other Lives’ is probably season 2′s strongest episode to date, which really isn’t saying much when you get right down to it. It finds some limited success in deepening its central mystery, the conspiracy of the rich and powerful finally taking on the air of menace it’s been ascribed since the premiere. The bloodstained woodland shack with its halo of crows, Pitlor’s cliched but unnerving allusions to the secret culture of the Chessani family, and the season’s single reliable visual: its overhead shots of coasts and roads, give ‘Other Lives’ a sense of place and intrigue. Digging into the now-dead Dixon’s blackmail photography and general shadiness also provides some texture.

Past the mystery, things fall apart. The same tired rehashing of trite personal conrflicts that has defined this season from word one plagues ‘Other Lives,’ an episode with an ironic focus on people believing that things can be different. The sad mustache, to be sure, has been shaved. Sixty-six days have elapsed since the Vinci Massacre. The characters drink more. Ani’s hands shake. Ray quit being a detective and gave up drugs.  Woodrugh is a snarling, vicious murderer who hides Afghan blood money in the walls of his mother’s trailer. Snore.

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The fact that Frank, motivated to solve a crime everyone else is content to ignore, has literally become the titular true detective could have been fun, but his rocky marriage occupies the first half of the episode with aggressive lack of momentum. The women who love difficult men aren’t allowed to understand or work with them in the world of True Detective; instead they must either fawn over their lovers or nag them incessantly. Jordan’s declaration that Frank’s resistance to adoption stems from his rejection of his own younger self is the only worthwhile moment in a plot designed specifically to propel Frank to a place where we believe he might pull off all his gambits if Ray doesn’t pummel him into hamburger. It’s a cheap cliffhanger to end on, and one I can’t imagine will generate much of interest. For something like that to work, the people involved have to draw interest from viewers.

The ham-handedness of Frank’s new outlook extends to his literally declaring that the ominous water spots he stared at in his old house aren’t present in his much humbler new digs. His having set Velcoro up by providing a false ID for Velcoro’s wife’s rapist, leading Ray to murder some random man, reads as intensely contrived especially unfolding as it does alongside such a hopeful thread. Frank’s dialogue is as bad as ever, his signature patois of failed one-liners and street-talk faux profundities fast becoming genre unto itself, but he does get one bizarrely good zinger. After Frank tosses a slur at Chessani’s aide, the man responds “I’m Chinese,” to which Frank answers glibly “Then go stand in front of a fucking tank.” It’s a firefly in a cave, a window into a world where Vaughn has something to play with in his role.

Velcoro standing on a hill, his lonely figure dwarfed by the sky, the city hazy in the distance, is a memorable shot. It feels impossible, though, that his ex-wife would meet with him again as she does just before the camera pulls back. The dreaded paternity test is at last at hand, but so is a chance for Velcoro to keep his relationship with Chad and perhaps win custody if he cooperates with a special investigation looking to leverage his crooked connections. The idea that this man might wind up fully responsible for a child’s care is horrifying. True Detectives second season has provided so little in its characters that might compel viewers to sympathize with them, making the prospect of their achieving their goals dull at best and unsettling at worst.

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Five episodes of spinning wheels have delivered us to a place where the solution to the mystery of who killed Caspere, and why, is finally on the table. The personal drama is still limp, the camera work still indifferent, but at least there’s a sense that all of this is going somewhere. Christ, I think I’m praising a show for looking like it’s going to end.

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