Stories have arcs. Stories go up then come back down, a rollercoaster that (hopefully) utilizes our emotions to show conflict between characters and those characters’ eventual resolution. Most stories require the hero to overcome something, to become better; to become more actualized of their true heroic self in order to overcome the foe. But modern television functions in the opposite way. We must watch as our characters plunge into the depths of their very worst selves, to become, in essence, the worst possible version of whoever it is that they may be, deep down inside. We scorn Prince Charming in favor of Walter White.
This is what happened last evening on True Detective, and no example of this “worsening” is greater than the interplay between Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon. After a careful bit of manipulation, it comes to light that Frank in someway set up Ray to do a bit of his dirty work, and off a man who wasn’t in fact the rapist he thought he was. Ray’s entire raison d’etre was to struggle, both in being a father, being himself, and doing right by his family. This desire for self-improvement was taken advantage of and perverted by the opportunistic Frank. This perversion of fatherly ideals and right and wrong by Frank only highlights his own struggle to be a father—Frank’s desire for and idyllic setting in which to raise a family.
Each man, through manipulation and their willful acceptance of being manipulated, is attempting to do right by their family, real or otherwise. It is only through destruction that one of these men (probably) could get what they are looking for. Survival of the fittest, baby. But True Detective this time around doesn’t seem to be able or willing to offer a happy ending. No stargazing with dude-bro’s Rust and Marty. Our rollercoaster has gone up, for sure, but the descent should prove to be harrowing, each car on the coaster ablaze, its passengers screaming.
We pick the story up two months after the Vinci Massacre, and the focus on family in this episode is telling. Each of our main characters suffered from some terrible family situation, and each seems committed to making the same mistakes—only worse. Woodrugh, newly minted Dad and “family man,” doesn’t seem content to just have dinner. A double shot of vodka takes the edge off maternal condescension. Even the most lenient of financial planners wouldn’t advise a backpack in a dilapidated trailer as a solid place for twenty grand.
Bezzerides, after berating her sister’s prurient vocation, now asks her to return to the slimy underworld from whence she came, Cal Arts acceptance letter be damned. Keep shining that driftwood for dear old Mom. Velcoro and Semyon are trapped together now in a web of lies and deceit—one a reluctant but then committed father, the latter unable to create a family to worry about. Neither has a child that is their own, but they seek desperately to protect those they care about, whether those under their care need it or not.
Each of our characters is becoming their worst self, fighting long and hard against their new opportunities of escape. You always hurt the ones you love. The Abyss is staring them back, and furthermore is damn near grabbing them and pulling them back in.
In a classical sense, we’ve reached the point of no return. We’ve experienced our turning point, our narrative crux, in last week’s shootout. Now, we have to pick up the pieces and continue to fight. While we aren’t headed for Carcosa anymore, I think we have more sexually charged pain on the horizon. A sweaty bone session in the Louisiana backwoods might not be the worst that Pizzolatto has in store for us. The Yellow King has traded in his crown for a conductor’s hat of indeterminate color, but the vulgarity and sexual violence hinted by next week’s trailer should prove, in some way, that we’ve arrive at our stop—wherever that may be. What happens is, as it always is, anyone’s guess, but I’m not sure we can expect everyone to make it out of this caper alive. Caspere’s not so friendly ghost (sorry) still haunts the narrative, and we are no closer to finding out the identity of our fine-feathered friend in black. We know motivations, but time will tell as to who is at the top, pulling the strings.
Things are happening fast, much faster than the beginning of the season, which seemed to drag endlessly in dialogue and world-building and just setting this whole play up. But now that we are here, now that we can move our characters into and out of the case, I find the show more entertaining and less of an hourly slog. Why we couldn’t get to the main story faster is still beyond me, but inertia is funny like that. A slow start necessitates acceleration, and I think we are careening full blast down the coaster’s rickety track. Better hold on.