03rd Aug2015

‘True Detective 2×07: Black Maps and Motel Rooms’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“When I ran out of the woods.”

It starts with Ray, at a loss as to how to help Ani come down from MDMA, offering to roll her a joint in a seedy motel room while Paul, expression wooden, gets blackmailed via anonymous text. These people, burnouts and fuckups that they are, weren’t prepared for a win. They certainly weren’t prepared for a win without State District Attorney Davis, left murdered in her car in the sun-scorched wasteland of industrial California, to back them up. Watching them tread and retread the same conversations with their families has cut season 2 off at the knees time and time again, above and beyond whatever objections one might have to a story where the only apparent acceptable standard for sexual behavior is two fully-clothed and standing cishet adults pumping back and forth like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, but with the strings cut and the cops in the wind, ‘Black Maps and Motel Rooms’ goes a long way toward rehabilitation.

True Detective‘s second season has a dense, involved mystery at its center. It’s been befuddling at times, stupefying at others, but watching the web of police corruption, crooked land deals, and mob maneuvering snap into focus after six episodes pretty light on actual detective work gives the show a huge shot in the arm. Beyond that, though, the episode’s real saving grace is that the people we watch working together actually feel like they have reasons for being in the same place and pursuing the same goals. The detectives have bonded over their off the books operation and are now shackled at the wrist by their fugitive status, Frank and Jordan have shored up their marriage and are ready to fight(and commit) crime together, and Mayor Chessani and that woman at the bar looked like they were headed for a pretty good time, too.

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Ani getting her father and sister out of town is a surprisingly emotional moment, and even if shading in her one-track personality is coming a little late in the game, it’s still a welcome development. When she tells her father she remembers the face of the man who abducted and abused her, it’s not just an opening up to vulnerability and fear but a tiny overture toward regeneration. Her dad’s remorse is crushing, his face crumpled in regret at the failures he oversaw while trying to give his daughter the life his own father denied him. Ani has touched death, as she tells Ray in the motel room when she recounts being strangled by a security guard at Chessani the Younger’s party, and she suspects that coming to grips with it has been her goal for quite some time. “When I came out of the woods,” she says, apropos of nothing, while coming down from Molly, and the terror of her memories is so visceral that Ray is shaken even without context. Paul’s family comes off as precisely as perfunctory as it’s been all season, and the moments featuring his mother and fiancee felt thin and overly sentimental, but at least they were blissfully short.

Ray is a largely passive presence in the episode’s structure, consumed with figuring out whether or not he mourns the loss of what life he had. He has his own brush with death, momentarily climbing into the DA’s car before he notices she’s dead and scrambles out again in his own little trip to the Underworld. Ani’s material is the episode’s heart, and watching she and Velcoro assemble the case’s puzzle pieces and trace everything back to a jewel heist gone wrong and a pack of cruel cops and city officials who smelled blood and spun it into gold is rewarding stuff, but it’s Frank who puts the puts the bloom back on the rose. Vince Vaughn nails his beats while the poker room is the dusty noir dive that weird bar tried time and time again to be, framing his initial realization that he’s being played right, left, and center with the weight of a place he’s well and truly tried to escape. When he snaps the molding off the poker table it’s not just empty posturing, it’s a man who’s ready to stop peeking around corners and get something done.

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Frank’s campaign of arson, beginning with a slow-motion whiskey glass to Blake’s face that cuts beautifully into a desert waste, is pulp TV at its best. A crook rips off crooks, talks glib, and takes a pull off a stolen bottle while he watches 45 years of his life go up in smoke. It doesn’t redeem his meandering and repetitive plots throughout the season, but it does start to tie a satisfying bow on the whole mess. Taylor Kitsch, meanwhile, doesn’t do much of anything new with Paul until he’s literally bleeding out. His outraged “Fuck you. No. No. Fuck you-,” as his executioner, Burris(who has my bet for Crow Mask), approaches to finish him off is nail-splintering in its intensity, the polar opposite to Blake’s frenzied pleading with Frank even after his fatal shooting. The score, too, pulls off a repeat of last week’s string-driven fantasia that gives the conclusion to the underworld chase scene between Paul and the Ares goons a really Stygian feel.

“These tunnels exist under the entire city,” Holloway, one of the three officers connected to the jewel heist and shootout from which everything stems, says to Paul, down in the dark. “Most people don’t know that.” It’s a wrap on the episode’s focus on coming close to death, on entering the underworld, but it’s also a comment on how far the corruption in Vinci has spread and how deep its roots run. The mayor(and there’s no better line in the episode than Chessani drunkenly slurring, “That ain’t a fucking mayor. That’s a homunculus a corporation slid into office) has a private army, land developers hand out death sentences, and flesh is bought and sold like party favors. Can Ani and Ray, seeking in each other an escape from their fears and insecurities, solve a case nobody wants to hear about in a county out for their blood?

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