For True Detective, The Fifth Time’s The Charm

By  · Published on July 23rd, 2015


If you’ve stuck around this far in True Detective, odds are you’re feeling pretty good right about now. Hazy backstory is coming into focus. Long-forgotten pieces of plot are front-and-center. Characters are starting to choose a side. With the big revelation regarding Semyon and Velcoro, and the off-the-books investigation launched by state attorney Katherine Davis, “Other Lives” may be the first episode of True Detective’s second season that has some honest-to-god momentum behind it. And that may put you in something of a vindictive mood.

Pump those breaks there, pilgrim. That’s not your best play.

There’s probably a bit of truth to the idea that the expectations going into season two have made it tough to judge on its own. Maybe even more than a bit. But that doesn’t excuse the missteps we’ve had to sit through to get to this point. I haven’t written much about the central mystery of season two because, until this point, I hadn’t mustered up any interest in actually solving the damn thing. It doesn’t matter how neatly True Detective weaves itself into California history and occult mythology if we don’t care about the characters. We need to feel like there are repercussions – positive or negative outcomes for characters we care about – and until now, Pizzolatto had slathered some really nice seasoning on a pretty undercooked steak. I don’t blame anyone who has found a better use of their Sunday evening.

But if you did stick around, then this is the episode you were waiting for all along. After a rocky first fifteen minutes – where Pizzolatto seemingly grew tired of organic development and had each character explain how their adolescence screwed them up – “Other Lives” hits a point where we can actually feel the momentum begin to pick up. The past four episodes have seen our Big Four establish themselves individually through their connection to supporting characters; here Pizzolatto finally puts his pieces into play against each other. Everything that happens from here on out will affect multiple main characters, not just one, and that could be the secret to greatness for the remainder of season two.

The biggest reveal in “Other Lives” is that Velcoro killed the wrong man, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say this is the moment we’ll be talking about for the rest of the season. Velcoro seems to have weathered the time jump better than his counterparts; he’s (mostly) sober, he’s focused on getting shared custody of his son, and his new look post-mustache has even aged him back a good five years (and revealed a foreboding facial scar in the process). Colin Farrell – who by now is used to being the best part of season two – absolutely nails the scene where he learns about his ex-wife’s rapist. We see on Farrell’s face the moment when his entire world collapses in on itself, and a few scenes later, we watch the supernova of rage he unleashes on the celebrity psychiatrist as a result. It’s a pivotal moment for the character – perhaps for multiple characters – and the entire episode feels sharper as a result. It is as if True Detective had been keeping this as a secret for four episodes and is relieved to finally let it out in the open.

By the show’s final few minutes, I was convinced, convinced that Velcoro was going to burst into their house with a gun, and it is a testament to the earlier work done by Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly that I wasn’t ready for this to happen. Despite getting some of the season’s most difficult line readings, Vaughn found a way in “Other Lives” to make Semyon a sympathetic character without relying too much on his past. On paper, Frank Semyon is another character weighed down by the sins (or indifference) of his father, but in practice, Vaugh has made Semyon a character who turned to a life of crime because he has a gift for being the middle man. This episode underlines that pragmatism for both Semyons. Despite each character making risky or short-sided decisions to get where they are, we finally get to see Frank and Jordan on the same page. They feel like a force to be reckoned with.

While Velcoro and Semyon move forward by leaps and bounds, there is still a bit of work to be done with Bezzerides and Woodrugh. Rachel McAdams has nothing left to prove as Bezzerides; while Pizzolatto seems determined to make us wait as long as possible for her breakout moment, McAdams has guided her character into the moral center of the season without sacrificing any of her toughness. Kitsch, meanwhile, gets a few key moments with both Woodrugh’s mother and the actress he is accused of sexually assaulting, but his own contributions to the episode continue to be secondary. Despite his standout moment during last week’s gunfight – what Velcoro delightfully refers to as his “fucking god warrior” scene – Woodrugh still feels like the odd character out. All credit to Kitsch, who has done his best with the material and hopefully unlocked himself from Jai Courtney jail, but Woodrugh still feels more like a plot point than a three-dimensional human being.

All of that being said, with the show ending on a cliffhanger that actually made me smile, True Detective finally has me hooked enough to start playing junior detective. We know that Ben Caspere and Mayor Chessani’s son Tony were the ones behind the secret parties, and that they have some dirt on the CEO behind the fast transit project. We also know that Dr. Irving Pitlor – who is proof that Rick Springfield should always play the older version of Benedict Cumberbatch – is connected to both the high class prostitution ring and the founding members of the swinger freemasons. At the risk of exposing myself as just another fan theorist on the internet, this led me to the following thoughts. “Other Lives” expended an awful lot of energy on Woodrugh’s paternity, including a few comments about the career that his mother had as a dancer. Semyon had Velcoro kill the wrong man, perhaps under orders from Mayor Chessani or another member of the Vinci elite. Mysterious paternity? Connections to an underground sex club? Mistaken murders and missing fathers? Hmm. Don’t be surprised if an episode ends with people pointing guns at each other.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve joked that I couldn’t imagine an episode of True Detective where Lera Lynn wasn’t the best thing the show had going for it. It may have taken five episodes, but I’ve finally been proven wrong. I can’t wait to see what Pizzolatto has in store for us next.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)