True Detective, “Down Will Come”

When the critics took a look at the first three episodes of True Detective that HBO handed to them, they generally concluded that it would be a story where the characters develop and confront their problems. Because it was set in the present, these characters’ pasts were going to give way, at some point, to something happening in the future. Each investigator looked like they were wallowing in something. Dwelling over old stuff. Still scarred from old wounds. But they also looked like they could move past them. There was just enough that was wrong, and just enough that was right in them, that they could do something more. You saw the hope that was left in them. And the positive LA culture around them only made their problems seem self-imposed, as if they were downers that could, with a slightly more chipper attitude, turn things around. This episode, Paul’s old boyfriend tells him that “all you have to do is just let go,” i.e. stop being so controlling and accept himself. It generally seemed like that was all that had to happen for stuff to turn up roses. Roses, at any rate, were in the picture—we weren’t anywhere so bleak where that hope was completely shut off and shut down.

Well, it turns out LA is in fact a fairly bleak place. Last week I myself told the show that it needed to pick up the pace on developments if it were going to portray any significant changes in these characters. But I, like many people, might have missed the point. This isn’t a show that is dwelling in the past and will move forward into the present, like the last series. This is a show that is going to delve even deeper into the past, plunge its characters even more into self-loathing, and to try and solve a mystery that happened not in the present but long ago. No one is moving on from what ails them. Everybody involved is going to meet their fate and be driven to their doom not moving forward, but in moving back. We’re going to get a lot of destruction. And whoever is left will not be because they triumphed over anything. It will be because they survived something catastrophic. Just like at the end of this episode, when Ani’s mission to capture a key lead ends in a massive failure and a clusterfuck of a shootout. The three investigators make it out alive, but not many more people do, and “alive” is about as good as anybody will be said to be doing by the show’s close.

That sounds dark and interesting, just as serious as the show would like things to be. It remains to be seen whether the producers True Detective can actually pull this off, and I don’t think it will ever pull it off to the extent that they wants to. The show carries itself way too seriously, sees its darkness as a mission against the unseriousness of other television. There’s nothing to be said for this type of indignant intensity and self-righteousness other than what it does by accident, which was apparently everything great in the last season. But you have to admit this is a more compelling direction for the show to be going than the one we were stuck in, and it certainly made this episode interesting to watch. Everyone seemed to be actually moving forward in their dealing with their wounds—sort of—and even we were getting somewhere in the case. And then it all blew up. And everything that looked like progress was really the impulsiveness of self-destructive patterns asserting themselves again.

There is, after all, an energy to the repression, an energy and even a perverse appeal that attends self-destructiveness. What this episode reminded you of was that this delusional enthusiasm was hounding these characters just as much as their depression—indeed was the reason for the latter. This is so from the moment we wake up with Paul in the apartment of his former overseas lover. It’s right there as he pushes the guy away and gets in a cab. They apparently had a nice evening together, though he doesn’t remember it. Instead, he doesn’t decide to face anything, cries, and looks around to be saved from himself. There is real pain there, and coming to confront what he is dealing with is surely difficult. But then again he’s not really confronting it. Neither does he confront anything when he gets dropped off where his motorcycle was—only to find it stolen—and wanders to his hotel to find the media there. He doesn’t say anything to them, doesn’t push past them, get to his room, and clean himself up. He just gets swarmed and literally runs away, down the block. He calls Ray for help, who comes to pick him up. His protestations of love to his girlfriend later in the episode when she tells him she is pregnant were the very image of desperation. These supposed developments in his life are only putting him further in a hole, it turns out, and if in his depression he realizes how deep this hole is, when he’s out of it he keeps on making the same mistakes.

This was the case with Ray too, at the auto shop with Ani looking at the car driven from the murderer in the last episode. Picking up Paul, he has great words of advice to him. About the press. About himself. Opening his glove compartment, which is full of all sorts of pills to cure hangovers and generally feel good. You see that he may be something of a good caregiving figure, if not the best father. There’s something confident about him in this role—you can see he is comfortable in it. But the problem is, he’s not a father to these coworkers, and above all he’s not this charitable and caring to himself or his family. On the job, away from all that burden, he helps strangers buck up. But with himself he sets the standard too high, is too controlling, and he is too traumatized by the legacy of abuse that he himself suffered to inflict any of this care on those he really loves. Where he acts most freely and is most comfortable turns out to be that very place that makes him so depressed in the rest of the series.

How fragile he has become was revealed in the first really interesting character decision with Ray that Colin Farrell has taken so far. It’s something subtle, something very small. While he’s in the car, telling Paul not to mind the media, that after Iraq everything for Paul should be a cakewalk, he delivers all this fatherly advice at slightly too fast a clip. The statements seem at once a little glib. The truth is they’re not glib: they’re good advice for a bruised ego. But they’re delivered nervously. The reason, Farrell makes you see, is that they are actually rather reckless for Ray: in delivering these comforting thoughts to a receptive audience, he’s slightly scared, because he’s not really used to being so comfortably empowered. It’s a very, very sensitive touch that shows how traumatized he was by his father. But it also explains how he’s become such a crooked cop: being in a position of clear, legal authority allows him to relax and be a softie that he won’t normally allow himself to be. This, in turn, makes him more liable to break more rules. He opens up that glove box and gives Paul some drugs, no doubt obtained illegally just like in the last episode he brings his father some weed he probably scored from the department. Here, we see him indulge in a guilty pleasure when he turns on the sirens and gets the car moving out of a traffic jam, so Paul doesn’t have to agonize too much in the car. Later on, he explains to Frank, who offers him a job at his side, that “I’m not muscle.” It’s true—he’s actually someone who really wants to care for others. But he hates this precise aspect of himself, and needs to feel secure before he can actually be so loving.

Frank is disappointed, of course, to hear this from Ray: he could use some muscle. He’s in the thick of indulging in all his old vices, having started on his vengeful path to regain his fortune two episodes ago. What’s increasingly clear is that this behavior is harder for him to justify, and it may soon cost him his wife. He rehearses a line to Ray that might justify even this: “Sometimes our best self is our worse self,” he says, trying to get Ray over to his dark side. It’s a revealing line as far as Frank goes. But what you quickly realize is that this is the fucked up logic that is actually claiming these characters’ lives. They hate themselves, and everything they think that is carrying them beyond their problematic pasts is in many cases just the result of them making that deal with the devil. It’s very liberating when you realize your best self might be someone no one would like, starting with you yourself: you don’t have to be accountable to anyone or anything.

And of course, when they screw themselves up believing this sort of thing, the only solace for these characters mired more and more in their old destructive habits is some sense of history: the sense that even these errors are, at least, improving on a remarkably shitty past. They were given a hard lot, they tell themselves, and at least they are making do with it. This episode only justifies this view of things, as the course of the investigation reveals connections between the mayor of Vinci and the weird self-enlightenment movements that took place in the 70s and 80s. Besides the location of a crooked pimp friend of Caspere’s named Amarillo, this is the major break in the case, which Ani and Ray discover through some weird detail about soil samples, a rather inexplicable trip up to Fresno, and another meeting with Ani’s guru dad. It is clearer and clearer that the case the cops will have to solve is a typical Gen-X fantasy: that the hippies fucked things up and are now in cahoots to screw over the nation. There is, of course, some truth to this, as there is in all fantasies. But especially right is the sense that because they’ve been so self-involved, there’s no recourse our otherwise able-bodied heroes—their sons and daughters—might go to for advice, for solace, other than self-destruction. These delusions at least don’t involve themselves in their parents’ delusions. We’re left cleaning up the mess of the me-generation, in short. It is also clear that more and more the show will end only when these characters will resolve what happened in those communes long ago, find out how much to blame this bizarre narcissistic generation of their fathers was, and thus how alone their more cynical generation really is in the world.

Ani has the most potential of the cops featured on the show to escape all of this self-destructive thinking, and to resist this pull of the Pizzolatto’s narrative. And so it’s especially frustrating to see her being caught inside it in this episode, with a bizarre sexual harassment investigation after her. She’s suspended from the department because of her flings with the patrol officer Steve who we saw her break up with in the last episode and—bit of a shocker here—her partner. It is clearly all a setup by the Vinci officials, who were angry she was snooping around in the Mayor’s house. And it shows a larger situation that she is dealing with, which is that she is working in a system that takes her vices and uses them against her. She’s not in such dire straits as Ray or Paul—though there’s some sense that she may be in the near future if she’s not careful.

The use of sexual harassment law against her, however, is a strange way for the show to actually put her in such a bind. It’s a little too clever by half. Ani’s problem here is hardly the creation of laws that supposedly can be used to discipline the very people it was meant to protect, which is what the show implies. It’s the culture and unequal structure of the institution in the first place—everything you see in that early shot in the first episode where Ani is alone in the locker room and all the guys are palling around in their own slapping towels. Making the sexual harassment to blame here is increasingly confirming the show suffers from litbro feminism: that typical mansplaining womens-rightsism full of empty self-effacing gestures, here meant to look progressive and respond to critics of the first, very bro-y series but which really only cover up some seriously regressive tendencies. To see sexual harassment law as some kind of fetter, rather than as an equalizing force, betrays the real attitude of this show to the law, which presumably should include the legal achievements of feminism: it thinks the law should be in the hands of cops, not legislators, who confuse its essentially disciplinary nature with enabling and liberating “values,” not least when these laws allow room for women’s desire.

What’s also bad about this bizarre twist of the law against Ani is to suggest that it’s Ani who is to blame for what happens to her. She’s not, of course, and the show makes it clear that her superior is really, infuriatingly patronizing when he suggests that “only someone fucked up would want to date a cop,” as Ani did. But there’s also, clearly, no option for her character in such a universe where such things happen–no other option than than to stifle her desire. It’s no accident, in other words, that the one moment we find it revealed that she expressed her sexuality, everything comes down to punish her. This narrative decision is so intent on proving some of the structural realities of oppression, it doesn’t really care about reflecting the experience of them, which would involve the depiction of something more than her desire’s dire consequences. Again, I’m left thinking that the show doesn’t give any screen time to women’s desire because it doesn’t know how to depict it other than as something that causes problems for Ani.

What the show does know how to depict, tellingly, is her impulsiveness—just like it knows how to depict this in all the men. That Ani calls the shots on going after the lead Amarillo makes the subsequent screwup all the more devastating for her. It’s of course amazing to watch, though we’re less certain of the point: the raid on the building, the slaughter of what seems like dozens of police and bystanders, the crash of the bus, the standoff with Amarillo that leads to his death. But what it also makes clear—besides just how much HBO can really produce something as impressive as any action movie—is that the show only really knows how to give dignity to her character by making her as fallible, if not more fallible, than a bunch of men. I guess that’s more accepting; but there’s a reason why it doesn’t entirely feel that way, too.

And this is why, to me, the show seems to increasingly stand or fall with what happens to Ani. There has to be a way for her to come out of this alive. What Molly Lambert said last week of Ani is (as usual) so right: there’s so much that Rachel McAdams brings to the character. There’s above all a sense of defiance of the fatedness that pollutes the narrative vision Pizzolatto has for his world here: she’s not, usually, making a choice between resignedness and self-destruction like the rest of the men. She’s choosing between survival and gambling. But I’m also increasingly sure that the show is not invested in any redemptive qualities any character might have, and maybe even sees them as a form of indignity—as something that the rest of the men in the story lack (think of Frank) but are more human (according to the show) for lacking. It seems determined to lay everybody low in a big storm of bullets like in that final shootout, and I’m not sure the character is going to escape this drift of things. Everything we may like in what McAdams gives Ani might have to be left behind as the show brings everyone further towards the inevitable dreary heavy-handed tragic conclusion.