Sometimes your worst self is your best self.
— Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn)
One of the most disconcerting plot twists in a recent film was in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 movie Babel. One plotline revolved around the character Amelia, played by Adriana Barraza. She was to have the day off for her son’s wedding in Mexico, but her employers had to extend their vacation leaving her in charge of the two children. She could not find anyone to watch them for her, so she decides to take them with her to Mexico. The first three-quarters of the story is a quite endearing story of the children being exposed to a different culture. Unfortunately, she then decides to engage in consensual sex with one of the wedding guests. This transgression against the great puritanical code of American movies cannot go unpunished. The story line ends with her penniless—abandoned in the desert in a torn and dirty dress. What seemed so strange was the entire movie was cast like an essay on the innate humanity of all cultures. This kind of misogyny is very incongruous with the theme of the movie. As True Detective continues to unfold, the same puritanical subtext emerges under the layers of lacquered cynicism.
Director Jeremy Podeswa and writer Nic Pizzolatto add an odd twist to this trope in episode four of True Detective, “Down Will Come.” We are introduced to Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh waking in a bed wearing nothing but a pair of underwear. He walks out of the room to discover his old flame Miguel Gilb (Gabriel Luna) watching a recording of a Los Angeles Lakers game and eating waffles. The implication being that Woodrugh and Gilb had had a sexual encounter the previous evening after which Woodrugh is subjected to the wrath of the Gods. He drives to where he parked his car only to find it had been towed. Then, on the way to his hotel room, reporters accusing him of war crimes during his term working for Black Mountain ambush him. So, just like heterosexual women, homosexual men encounter an existential threat if they ever enjoy their sexuality.
Later in the episode they follow a more traditional application of the trope. Rachel McAdam’s Ani Bezzerides gets suspended pending review of a sexual harassment claim made by her ex-lover Steve Mercer (Riley Smith). Bezzerides replies, “You do realize that they’re all giving Mercer high fives out there. Right?” In the same conversation, it is revealed that she had a one-night stand with her partner Detective Elvis Ilinca (Michael Irby). Once again—the single woman, engaged in sex, the cosmos has to punish her.
Writer Nic Pizzolatto’s linkage of karma with sexuality is much more nuanced when writing about straight men. Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon and his wife, Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly) are trying to have a baby. Thus far, they have not been able to get pregnant. Pizzolatto draws a parallel between Frank’s personal life and his fortune. Just as he is unable to father a child, his control erodes more and more.
The two major differences between these two elements of his life is his attitude toward each setback. He is perplexed and obstinate dealing with his inability to reproduce. Second, when it comes to his business practice, he crosses more and more lines. This includes defaulting on agreements he made with his associates. He has developed a nasty habit of shaking down people who have done business with him in the past. He also is taking on far more risk. One of his better lines was in the first episode when he states, “This place is built on a codependency of interests. Worries me you talking so stupid.”
On the surface, Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro comes off as almost completely asexual. The only nod to his sexuality is when scared but beautiful bartender Felicia, played by Yara Martinez, openly flirts with him. Velcoro rebuffs her.
The actual crime drama elements of the episode, however, are far more layered. The episode ends with the three main detectives, Ani Bezzerides, Ray Velcoro, and Paul Woodrugh, standing bewildered and befuddled wearing bullet proof vests with their guns drawn. They survived a brutal gun battle that was the product of several bad judgment calls and miscalculations. Woodrugh tracks down victim Ben Caspere’s watch at a pawn store. A prostitute pawned it and her pimp Ledo Amarilla (Cesar Garcia) becomes the prime suspect. This reads as a red herring for many reasons. First, why would a pimp—even a viscous violent one, kill off one of his better customers? Second, if he did so, why would he wear a bird head to do it? Finally, after killing one of his wealthiest Johns, why would he have spared Velcoro’s life by using rubber shotgun pellets?
There are several reasons to believe that Bezzerides, Velcoro, and Woodrugh are being set up. Throughout the episode. we are shown the significant omnipresence of Mayor Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster); to the point he shakes down a small low-income rental property. Earlier in the episode, Velcoro advises Bezzerides that they are being set up as scapegoats. He sees the entire investigation as little more than the state trying to shake down Chessani for a share of the city of Vinci’s revenue. In a conversation with Bezzerides, Velcoro states:
“That’s what I’m telling you, Bezzerides. State Investigation, you don’t think they have scene that before down here? Any member of that family ever gone to jail? Look detective, the state’s investigation’s a shakedown—you understand? The attorney general’s fucking hand out.”
When Bezzerides retorts that they are there to solve a murder Velcoro continues:
“And when our better’s make nice and the money’s traded hands, and they need something to show for this big investigation, who do you think is going to be first in the firing line? I’m going to take a wild guess that you and Woodrugh ain’t the most popular folks at your squad. Expendable, one might say.”
Nic Pizzolatto seems to be writing one of the oldest and most reliable stories in crime and mystery. After clearly screwing up the raid, Bezzerides, Velcoro and Woodrugh are left in the wind. While there are some indications that Bezzerides was acting on orders, the city wants her; the state wants Velcoro, and Woodrugh looks like a great piece of red meat to placate the press. All three are set to be served up as trophies.