July 5, 2015, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
The opening sequence of “Maybe Tomorrow” is aimed right at one of my biggest sweet spots, with Ray Velcoro trapped at a way station between life and death, finding himself in a spectral dive bar with his father and a performer lip-syncing Conway Twitty’s “The Rose.” It all has a strong Twin Peaks vibe, with surrealism attempting to teach us greater truths about the world we live in than reality can ever quite manage. Unfortunately, it dissolves all too quickly into something more mundane.
I am of two minds about the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger. On the one hand, it makes basically no sense for Ray to be left alive. He was attacked by a member of the shadowy conspiracy that brutally murdered Ben Caspere, and he clearly found some things they did not want to get out. Ray surviving automatically lowers the threat level this shadowy cabal poses, and all but underlines a future twist the show hangs a lantern on by revealing that the buckshot used on Ray is generally utilized by law enforcement officers. On the other hand, Ray’s brush with death gives us that stunning sequence, which easily ranks among the best things this show has ever done, and which casts a haunting pall over an episode that otherwise returns to fairly conventional territory pretty quickly. The resolution simultaneously serves as a reminder of the abiding problems facing this season and a hint of what this show can do well when it sets its mind to it.
Yet I am still not buying much of what True Detective is selling at this point. Frank Semyon’s erectile dysfunction is the dreadfully dull inverse of his laughable rat-murder monologue from last week, and the revelations about Paul Woodrugh’s sexuality do very little to make a boring character any more interesting. That’s a full half of the main cast this season whose scenes I wish I could just skip entirely, not exactly a ringing endorsement for this season as a whole. There are moments in “Maybe Tomorrow,” like the wonderfully odd sequence at the Mayor’s house, that hint at a more interesting version of this season submerged beneath all the glowering and the weight of exposition, but they are too frequently pushed aside in favor of more grimness with little reason. It’s like this season decided to minimize all of the pulpy weirdness and heady meandering in favor of four people struggling not to smile through a story that could use anything in the way of color.
Throughout the episode, the show strains to make something out of the idea that the tranquil surface hides dark and tumultuous depths. It’s a Lynchian idea in an episode whose opening cribs heavily from David Lynch, but its so facile here it barely works as more than a hat tip to the idea of LA as a town of surfaces, a genre trope so ingrained in this type of story, it might as well be a line of throw away dialogue. Masks hide the killers, fake accents shield the Mayor’s son, and everything Hollywood does is all a disguise for something more base, more sordid than anyone will freely admit. Even the final chase scene takes place beneath a freeway, a symbol of hope and American dominance hiding an underbelly of pup tents and lost souls churned out by a city and a country that has never much cared about making good on the dreams it peddles. These beats almost work, but unfortunately, for all True Detective strives to convince us there are dark depths beneath its surfaces, everything about it at this point feels so shallow that becomes hard to believe. Rachel McAdams continues to be the stand out, but she is sinking in a season that can’t figure out how to stand on its own two feet. The only darkness with any depth is the shadow cast by season one of this show. Pizzolatto and company are going to need to figure out a new spin on old material if they want season two to be anything more than an ineffective gesture in the direction of great noir tales that came before. There’s a reason the idea of Los Angeles as a city full of masks hiding deep, lasting scars persists. It’s a powerful idea, rooted in truths both literal and iconographic. It’s something that lasts because it speaks to something we understand innately. But True Detective so far only has a tourist’s vocabulary for this area of the genre. It knows how to ask where the bathroom is, which may end up serving it well if the quality doesn’t turn around, and quickly.
- “Booze tends to take the edge off. I wanna stay angry.”
- “You know, you got serious problems, Detective.” “I’m whittling ‘em down.”
I am still not buying much of what True Detective is selling at this point.