True Detective, “Maybe Tomorrow”

I wrote a story once in college and I made sure nothing happened in it. It was for a fiction writing course. I wrote about a family having dinner. I kept all the action as minimal as possible so that when something happened it would blow everyone away. People passed the peas and the chicken, exchanged pleasantries, talked about their day. They exchanged glances, at the very most. I wanted to make it so uneventful that someone knocking over the salt shaker would seem like a bomb went off.

I had indeed a big shocker planned for the end, but the result, predictably enough, was that I put everyone asleep before I could get to it. The story ended up boring as hell. My writing professor sat me down and broke the news to me: writing a story in which nothing happens runs too contrary to the rules of storytelling. Moreover, unless you’re writing Seinfeld, the desire to write something about nothing, and to set the bar for what counts as action so low, stems from huge egoistic overreach: the conviction that, by some stylistic magic, you can transform the insignificant into the interesting. The hard truth is that what’s interesting is what’s interesting, and what isn’t, isn’t.

I wish someone would have given similar advice to Nic Pizzolatto, because this season of True Detective feels a lot like the story I wrote. These first three episodes seem like a deliberate attempt to turn the dial down to zero, so that nearly anything that happens later will seem revelatory. In these first three episodes we get so much background and tone and atmosphere. We get lots of sour glances exchanged between characters. But when we ask what has gone on, we still just have a dead body and no real sense of what happened to it or why. We’re just about as far along as that super self-congratulatory shot in the first episode of the cast being brought together, standing around that corpse. We’re asked in that shot — and increasingly, it seems, in the show as a whole — to accept that gathering a bunch of big name stars there around some mystery should be entertaining enough. The mystery itself isn’t important, and certainly not material for suspense.

Circling around in the first episode (Image: screencap)

One of the real appealing things about the first season, of course, was its slow tempo and the lengthy amount of time that the story took to unfold. But there was genuine suspense that attended this development, as well as two intensely well-developed characters to pique interest and make you ask questions between episodes. Furthermore, because the story was couched so much in the past, the dialogue it had with the present made any development interesting. Here, very little changes. By the end of this third episode, what do we know that we didn’t at the end of the first? We know a bit more about the histories of our characters, though very little about their personalities. We know a little more about a car. But that’s all. We’re basically still where we started.

Ray’s “murder” last week was really the only bombshell so far, and naturally it turns out it wasn’t anything at all. Resolving his father issues is too important to this show to let him go. We find him at the beginning of this episode splayed out on the floor, bleeding a little from his wounds. He has a rather unimaginative dream sequence. He’s talking in the bar with his fully uniformed cop of a dad. Conway Twitty — the internet has identified this Elvislike figure — is crooning under blue stagelights in the background. His dad tells him a dream he had, the singer behind and between them: a typically emasculating fable about how Ray, walking through a forest, will be eaten up by all the tall trees. Ray wakes up, he realizes he just got shot with some pellets used to disperse rioters. This opens up the possibility that the person behind the shooting had access to some cop gear, and so may also be a cop. That’s exciting, kind of. Except, you know, for the fact that there still are very few stakes still to this murder. The only people that seem to be hurt by it — the corrupt people who run Vinci — we don’t give a damn about. That it was committed in a rather gruesome way does nothing either: I can see plenty of weirder murders watching reruns of NCIS.

I guess getting shot a couple times is supposed to have made the case more personal for Ray, and that could count as a development. He foregoes whiskey for water “to stay angry.” He confronts Frank about whether the latter set him up. But nothing about his attitude really feels personal — this was a guy on the brink of suicide last episode, and in this one still doesn’t have a good response to a doctor who asks him whether he wants to live. Indeed, with Frank, it leads to some of the most unconvincing bits of “angry” dialogue I’ve probably ever heard:

Frank: There’s a certain stridency at work here. I’m going to put it off until you get blasted.

Ray: Oh frankly I’m apoplectic.

Frank: I’m feeling a little apoplectic myself.

And I’m feeling a little nauseous, hearing such things. They make you wonder whether the show is actually trying to sound like a film student wrote it.

They also make you wonder whether the show cares at all for its characters. It’s not the language that’s the problem in that dialogue, it’s that Ray isn’t a kind of guy who would correct Frank as to his use of the word “stridency.” I mean, c’mon. It’s no surprise then that we don’t get into Ray’s situation while he goes poking around on his medical leave for a few days after his injury. That his visit to his dad in real life, for instance, is entirely predictable. If we were looking for any clues as to why he screwed up his son, he just again delivers tired tropes talks about how good policing was in the old days, not like “after OJ,” when people started to tie their hands and generally take out their grievances on the poor white man. If this is all Ray had to deal with, well, I’m sorry. Buck up, Ray. Old bigoted white men have messed up bigger things in this country than your psyche. Also it doesn’t explain just how big a fuckup you are, either.

Ray’s problem, in fact, is actually more in the present. His ex-wife drops by again with a packet of money. She wants to convince him that having a custody battle isn’t a good idea. He’s offended, but she says she offers it mostly because people approached her from the attorney general’s office: they’re investigating him, and fairly certain he murdered the guy who raped her. The money is also to run away. But instead of delving into this, as usual, the show ignores this problem and lets Ray take some solace in grim policework, going with Ani to check on the car in which Caspere was left for dead. They find out it was stolen from a movie studio. And that’s all, folks, we get of Ray.

And as to the other characters, not much happens here either. Ani, still the most interesting character on the show, spends most of the episode pissing off the old white men. She visits the mansion of the mayor, pokes around, and tells a guy who seems to be taking care of the house to “dress himself.” Her snooping pisses off the mayor, of course, who yells at Ray about her. The only work she’ll have soon — this, besides the repetition of “fucking cunt,” is all that we get when it comes to witty insults and barbs — is “in a yoga studio.” Meanwhile the higher-ups behind the state’s attorney general’s Vinci probe tell Ani to keep at it, even to warm over Ray — with the promise of sex, if necessary — who they want to turn and use as a way to get more details about Vinci corruption. Being, it seems, the only really composed and competent person on this case is getting to her, and it shows in the rapidity with which she dumps her boyfriend, Steve. He says he wants to talk things over; she’s had enough of this weak whiny bullshit that passes for sensitivity only because of privilege. Again, this simply returns us to her very first scene in the opening of the first episode. And the larger struggles with Vinci mirror a dynamic she already played out then with her dad.

And as much as the show rehearses Ani’s frustrations, I’m starting to think this show likes showing men’s faces while they receive blowjobs even more. Frank’s face first appears in this episode while he is busy trying to fill a cup in the sperm bank and his wife is helping him out. Finally Kelly Reilly gets some lines in this show, as Frank starts implying the reason they can’t have a baby must be her: “why don’t you suck your own dick,” is the best thing that could be written for her, apparently.

Frank appropriately spends the episode in a funk. He goes around and leans on some people to get more cash. He also gets more inquisitive about what happened to the murdered city manager, Caspere. Things begin to get bad though when someone knocks off one of his henchmen. This gets him in trouble with the manager of his old club, who, when Frank goes around looking for what happened, doesn’t like the insinuations that they might behind it. Frank, for his part, doesn’t like people talking back to him even more. He beats the club manager to the ground and takes out his teeth with some pliers. As violent as moment is, for the rest of the episode it seems as if the ironic swagger he showed in the last episode was lost. We’re returned again to where we started here, too, watching him alternate despondent looks with glances of barely-concealed rage.

Paul at work (Image: screencap)

Paul, for his part, is hitting the streets to find out where Caspere got his girls. Ani in between vapes — which are always commented upon by the men in the car, as if it emasculates them — asks him about whether, because of his high-profile scandal with a star, he’ll be recognized or found out. He’s very sensitive about being exposed, not because he’s worried about compromising himself, but simply because he has a secret, which we find out when he meets up with an old friend from Iraq at a racecourse: Paul had a fling back in Iraq with the guy. Well. That certainly explains some things, first and foremost his confused blowjob face in the first episode. But it doesn’t do more than that. Confronted with the guy’s sentiment for the old days when they were together, he’s embarrassed, defensive, and runs away. While we got some new information here, it didn’t really alter the personality we saw in the first show.

When we start to ask what has gone on in this episode, then, it’s unclear until the end. And it’s seemingly by a coincidence that anything does happens at all. The birdman — or someone close to him, dressed in a different mask — burns the missing car right outside someone who was driving it. It’s a setup, or was supposed to be, until Ray and Ani see the flames and chase him — only to lose him in the end. The culprit inher sights, Ray pushes her to the ground, to avoid a truck coming down the offramp she’s standing on. She thanks him, and he asks what the state has on him: she doesn’t know, she replies.

That’s interesting. But it is also merely, again, reflective of that attitude of the first episode which assumes that if any two of these characters at all have a meaningful exchange of any sort it’s a game-changer. In the end, I’m left only with questions, and a lot of sympathy for what I put my professor through way back when. How many small bits of dialogue can these characters trade before something of significance comes out of them? How many miscommunications can they suffer before they communicate? How long can we watch people wade in self-destruction before something genuinely self-destroying occurs? How much lack of action can happen before some real action happens? Taking your time, setting the bar this low, is well and good. We just may not make it to the payoff. There’s a lot of other good TV out there, and not everyone is willing to stay and see whether this show is humming along at a slow burn or dying a slow death.