Think of “Church in Ruins” as a series of elaborate standoffs, and it’s a pretty entertaining episode. There’s Ray and Frank’s dramatic morning coffee, Frank’s ‘negotiations’ with a group of Mexican gangsters (True Detective‘s most meta moment; “A Mexican standoff with a bunch of Mexicans!”), Ray facing off with his ex-wife’s rapist, and a drugged Bezzerides trying to fight off the advances of an aggressive, entitled oil tycoon. Everything in “Church is Ruins” pits two people against each other in some fashion, before descending on a lodge in the woods and a random construction site for two integral turning points.
Sounds awesome, right? On a superficial level, “Church in Ruins” is certainly entertaining. Miguel Sapochnik’s hectic, tight direction of the episode gives “Church” a visceral experience much of Season 2 has lacked, and the various verbal/physical sparring of different characters keeps some tension in the proceedings. Dig a bit deeper, however, and those moments fall apart under the sheer ridiculousness of it all – and not just the idea of major corporate “players” signing multi-mullion dollar, legally binding deals at drug-fueled orgies in wooden lodges, on land purchased from the state. Just look at Frank’s “negotiations” with the Mexicans; he begs them to give him a face-to-face meeting with a woman who might be able to help him track down a hard drive of Ben Caspere’s, that might have important information on where Frank could look to get the $5 million the rich white men of the city took from him, when they gave him the Stringer Bell treatment. They kill the woman he’s looking for, laugh about it, and then seal him into the terrible offer he desperately made with them to sell drugs in his club, on the busiest nights of the week.
Moments like that beg why Frank is even on this show – scenes like those with Stan’s son (does anybody even care about Stan, except his nameless widow?) only reinforce that, leaving Frank floating on a ludicrously obscure island in the sea of True Detective‘s absurd reality. Part of this is writing, part of it is performance – either way, the utter lack of drive and arc to his story is deafening, and sucks the tension out of the episode every time it cuts to his sour mug, and his vaguely racist comments to the people he’s trying to negotiate with.
That lack of nuance is systematic, however: “Church” is utterly incapable of depth at every angle, delivering a continuous string of twists and convolutions that have sucked any coherency out of what the rest of the police team is doing. The missing girl Bezzerides is looking for is at the party! Throwing up after MDMA is in your bloodstream is totally effective! The blue diamonds were stolen in the ’92 riots, and some kids were sad! It’s hard to keep up with the constant stream of exposition in the first two acts (and six episodes) of this season; and with entire stories being dropped wholeheartedly, like whoever Dixon was taking pictures of Paul for, or whatever Paul did for those $20,000 he had stupidly stashed in his mother’s trailer, the stakes of each scene get lower and lower, buried under a long string of obfuscating details that exist seemingly to fill up empty space, since True Detective‘s all but abandoned any kind of thematic or metaphorical approach to storytelling with this largely by-the-numbers season (save for the massive, silly shootout a couple weeks ago).
Is it awesome to watch Bezzerides slice up some rich, rape-y white guys? Sure, that’s fantastic, but the story lacks any sort of gravitas, apparent when a tripping Bezzerides begins to have hallucinations of a man probably from her father’s cult, who most likely drugged/raped/assaulted her as a child. Those goofy turns of character and story only further the parody of itself True Detective has become. Its attempts to show off its complexity have only revealed its utter lack of it, an unfortunate trait that has found its way into every story of the show, such as Jordan’s business savvy (which is basically her ability to stare well? She seems to have no real influence with Frank professionally, or personally), or Paul’s struggles with his sexuality, dropped like a hot potato for more flashy bits in recent episodes, like the escape from the sex party “Church in Ruins” smartly closes with. These moments, while certainly more watchable and enjoyable than the slog of early episodes, ultimately illustrate the season’s limits, which simultaneously make “Church in Ruins” the season’s most entertaining, and frustrating, hour.
[Photo credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO]