Even if you haven’t enjoyed season two of True Detective, you gotta admit, it finds ways to keep you coming back. We all watched the first and second episodes to get a feel for the show; with the Velcoro shooting, people checked in with episode three to see if Colin Farrell’s character was really and truly dead. And now we have “Down Will Come,” the fourth episode in True Detective’s second season, and the implied promise of an action sequence to rival Cary Fukunaga’s heist scene from season one. Episode two did its best to deliver on that front – saving some of its most violence action for the last ten minutes – but not without the struggles that have become part and parcel of this season. Let’s take a look.
First and foremost: welcome back to my favorite True Detective character, ‘Singer,’ played by singer-songwriter Lera Lynn. I had a handful of concerns about the state of True Detective after Ray Velcoro was shot, but surprisingly high on that list was the loss of her background musical numbers as Velcoro and Semyon talked shop. Now that it looks like the Conway Twitty dream sequence was just a one-episode fling – and oh, what a fling – we can get back to the business of lusty neo-Americana music.
Now for the not-so-good: while True Detective continues to show me just enough to keep me engaged, there’s also no getting around the fact that season two has a dialogue problem. Pizzolatto has crafted this season of True Detective as a hard-boiled anachronism; Vinci itself stands outside of time, a synthesis of all the different iterations of Los Angeles that have ever appeared on the screen. As a result, characters speak as if they had just stepped out of a period noir. Some of this might work in small doses; instead, Pizzolatto gives every character – male and female, big and small – the same brash manner of speaking. This creates the odd situation where the character development has outpaced the actual dialogue.
Take an early scene where Woodrugh is picked up by Velcoro. The act of riding in a car with your partner is the True Detective rite of passage; we had previously seen the show match Bezzerides with both Woodrugh and Velcoro, but now each character has had an opportunity to connect individually with their partners. It’s also an important turning point in both characters’ personal arcs. Woodrugh, coming off what is likely his first night with a man since the military, clings to what he perceives as the normal masculine behavior of his partner. Velcoro, meanwhile, enjoys his first few awkward moments as the partner whose life is more put together.
This scene moves two characters to a place we haven’t seen before – one very in control, one very out – and both Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch enjoy the chance to play something different. But where talent and character development shines, this is another in a long line of clumsy dialogue; Velcoro suggests that Woodrugh’s problems are just dust on his eyelash and he should “blink” it away. It still works – too much has gone into getting these two characters in a car together for it to fail completely – but instead of terse male bonding, all I saw was the same one-liners present in every other exchange. At times, True Detective feels like a foreign language series that was roughly translated and then dubbed again using its own subtitles. It could have been prettier, but you get the gist.
If Kitsch and Farrell are being held back by the dialogue, then Vaughn and McAdams are being positively cut off at the knees by what they are required to say. Semyon’s desperate slide back to his criminal roots and Bezzerides’s rage with the politics of her position offer Pizzolatto a real chance to push himself beyond the boundaries of True Detective’s first season, but as with the rest of the cast, these two characters seem to be progressing despite the writing, not because of it. What kind of a screenwriter would have their criminal mastermind make a James Bond reference, only to name drop Roger Moore instead of (literally anyone else)? That alone should be enough to sell Semyon’s men on a hostile takeover of his failed empire.
And then there’s the last ten minutes of the episode.
There are a lot of different ways to view the climactic gunfight at the end of “Down Will Come.” It offers a gripping moment in a season that has struggled to find its footing (and one that helps wipe the mediocrity of the episode’s first thirty minutes from memory). It cuts away the supporting cast of police officers and brings the focus back home on the show’s three main characters. And it signifies the end of each character’s midseason arc and lets us know what to expect from each officer going forward.
After the thinly veiled shots at season one director Cary Fukunaga in the previous episode, there were some people who thought (correctly) that Pizzolatto should wait to prove himself before throwing shade. The gunfight at the end of this episode felt like the perfect opportunity for Pizzolatto and director Jeremy Podeswa – a loyal HBO soldier who has directed episodes of both Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire before True Detective — to demonstrate the importance of substance over style. For a moment, they had it: as the gang crashes their escalade into a city bus, the camera switches to a long shot that frames both vehicles as Bezzerides, Velcoro, and Woodrugh close in from the corners. What better way to show up the frantic energy of Fukunaga’s long take than by using a static camera to achieve the same results? Sadly, tragically, conventional cinematography takes over, and the gunfight wraps up in a whirlwind of editing. Fukunaga 1, Pizzolatto 0.
The star of the shootout – if one can name such a thing – is Kitsch’s Woodrugh. “Down Will Come” is a standout episode for the actor. Despite the aforementioned awkward dialogue, Kitsch handles his character’s early breakdown well, and it is a small credit to both the actor and writer that True Detective has avoided the self-loathing hate crime that we all feared was coming without sacrificing any of Woodrugh’s homophobia. After we watch the character double down on his own lies – promising to marry his pregnant ex-girlfriend rather than confront his own sexuality – we watch him transform from anguished human into cold-blooded killer. Woodrugh fights like a man whose light has gone off, lapping both Velcoro and Bezzerides in accuracy and mobility. The character’s impassiveness at the conclusion of the episode stands in stark contrast to the sobs of his partners.
Is the gunfight enough to “save” the season for those on the fence? Those who have made it this far are likely to stick it out; the short teaser for episode five after the credits suggests that the show is about to undergo a major change, and this might play up to some of the show’s strengths (and downplay some of its weaknesses). Still, there is a part of me that suspects that none of the information contained in episodes one through four will be absolutely essential to season’s back nine; that the show will either ignore or reiterate all of the relevant clues as it moves into its end game. Either way, here’s my weekly hope that Lera Lynn’s ‘Singer’ survives the jump unscathed.