True Detective: Episode 5 – “Other Lives”

Writer Nic Pizzolatto displays an affinity for placing clues in schools of red herrings.

“It’s been 66 days since the alleged murderers of Vinci City Manager Ben Caspere engaged police in one of the deadliest shootouts in state history. The so called Vinci massacre was determined closed by Attorney General Geldof, who used the conference to announce his candidacy for governor.”

In audio from a local news story spoken over the opening of the fifth episode of HBO’s True Detective, new director John Crowley borrows a trick from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, 1941. He uses the press report to provide some of the important details of the story. This helps because writer Nic Pizzolatto seems heavily influenced by director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne’s 1974 classic Chinatown. He has layered and cross pollinated corruption, blackmail, lust, incest and environmental terrorism.

Indeed, Pizzolatto displays an affinity for placing clues in schools of red herrings. The viewer would need a wall, thousands of post it notes, yards of yarn and hundreds of thumb tacks to try to flowchart the plot machinations. This is OK, because in the end—the series is a character study.

All four of the series main characters go through considerable upheaval. “Other Lives” restarts the show, reintroducing the characters. With the exception of Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro, the other three main characters’ introductions parallel their introductions.

In episode one, the first character we are introduced to is Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. In episode one, after a brief exchange with Velcoro—we are introduced to Semyon drinking his morning cup of coffee. Vaughn uses a highly idiosyncratic two-handed technique where he holds his coffee cup in one hand and steadies it in the other. This time, he uses the same technique with Semyon sitting on a couch amid piles of stacked boxes. The director lingers on what may be the most pensive sip and gulp in the history of television.

Later, we learn that despite his breaking deals and extorting his friends Frank has slipped and been forced to move out of his villa. This detail is disappointingly pedestrian. In the early stages, Pizzolatto wrote Semyon as not only the smartest man in the room, but the most fearless and ruthless, as well. A good deal of the episode deals with conversations between Frank and his wife Jordan Semyon played by Kelly Reilly. In these, they exchange psychological observations—offering insights into each other and their relationship. These exchanges of unsolicited insights do not sound realistic.

Once again—Pizzolatto introduces Rachel McAdams’ character Ani Bezzerides through her sexuality. In episode one, we first meet her wearing only panties and chastising her boyfriend for his clumsy reading of her. In episode five, we meet her sitting in a group therapy for people who were assigned sexual harassment counseling. Barely tolerating the farce, McAdams goes into a short detailed tirade on her exact preferences in penises. Pizzolatto has created a character that is equal parts highly intelligent, controlling and self-destructive. His concentration on her dysfunctional sexuality suggests a certain misogyny.

Pizzolatto reintroduced to Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh through a confrontation with Lacy Lindel, played by Ashley Hinshaw. Lindel was the young would be starlet Woodrugh pulled over. She was violating her parole. She had accused Woodrugh of offering to exchange sex for not writing her up. In this scene, we learn that unlike his compadres, Woodrugh got promoted to a detective working insurance fraud. There is an excellent moment when Lindel’s defense attorney refers to him as Woodrugh and he is immediately corrected—“Detective Woodrugh”.

Later in the episode there’s an exchange between Woodrugh and his vial, contemptible and narcissistic mother, Cynthia Woodrugh, played by Lolita Davidovich, who nails the character as someone with no redeeming qualities. There first scene together is seeped with a certain creepiness. In the scene, we learn that Cynthia Woodrugh stole the $20,000 that her son brought back from Afghanistan. Pizzolotto seems intent in this scene just to show how vile the woman is. While being yelled at, she states, “You could have been a scrape job.” Then she intimates that she knows he is gay stating, “You ruined my career, you ungrateful asshole. I carried you for nine months, and I’ve been carrying you ever since with your weirdness. You’re strange. All your good friends, the boys. Yeah, I know about you, Paulie. Yeah, I know.”

Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro seems to have gone through the greatest transformation. We first meet him in his apartment talking to his ex-supervisor Lieutenant Kevin Burris played by James Frain. A clean shaven Velcoro has officially taken a position as a security consultant with Frank Semyon. A position that includes shaking down poor people for rent. In marked contrast to Frank and Jordan, the scenes between Velcoro and his ex-wife Gena Brune, played by Abigail Spencer resonate as true. At the end of the episode’s big reveal, Brune simply says to her ex-husband, “I don’t know what that means, Ray.” There are several layers to this simple emphatic statement. This standout in an episode with a lot of forced and ultimately banal metaphors.

The episode includes several new alliances. While their puppet masters change, the four main characters are still working the same crime—Ben Caspere’s murder. Connections that were transparent in the first half of the series become opaque. One of the alliances challenges any sense of rationality. In one of the subplots of the series there’s an intricate network of state, county, local and private officials who created a super-secret cabal to profit politically and financially over a planned intrastate railroad. All of the four main characters have been used up to this point as unknowing pawns of this group. This, however fanciful, can be imagined, if not believed.

What can’t be either imagined or believed is that this sophisticated confederacy would choose Detective Teague Dixon, played by W. Earl Brown as their foot soldier. In the first four episodes he is written and played as a detective who, in his own words, “You know what? I could not give a shit.” He is killed in the shootout in episode four. In this episode a pawn shop owner played by Jerry Hauck described him stating, “He was a portly man, smelled of bourbon—flatulent too.” The idea that a sophisticated confederation of shadowy government agents would use this man does not even come close enough to being absurdly credible.

Pizzolatto tests the viewers’ ability to buy into the story in one other way. In episode five we learn that all three of the detectives suffer from some degree of alcoholism. In addition, may of the supporting characters, Teague Dixon and Cynthia Woodrugh, are drunks. Through the first few episodes Velcoro seemed to spend his life in varying degrees of intoxication. At the beginning of one scene we see Woodrugh with his fiancé and future mother-in-law emptying two single-serve alcohol bottles into his iced tea. Later in the episode Bezzerides meets up with Velcoro at his favorite dive bar in which she off-handedly mentioned that she is drinking more and mentions “shaking hands”. Other than a scene in which she is kicked out of a casino drunk, there was no other indication that Bezzerides was an alcoholic.

Having all three of the detectives be alcoholic borders on lazy writing. Take away the crime drama, the warped sexuality and various levels of moral bankruptcy and the core of the series is to be a character study. While an opus on the nuanced manifestations and consequences of alcoholism has some appeal, it seems too easy of an out.