Sex, Drugs and Alternative Folk: ‘True Detective’ – Episode 6 – “Church in Ruins”

Despite a few Scooby Doo level of conveyance, writer/ creator Nic Pizzolatto finally starts giving the audience the kind of chemistry they expect.

I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone’s *really* hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you’re not sure whether or not you like yet. You’re not sure where he’s coming from. Okay? You’re a bad man. You’re a bad man, Mikey. You’re a bad man, bad man.

— Vince Vaughn as Trent, Swingers, 1996

It took until the sixth episode, but True Detective’s writer and creator, Nic Pizzolatto finally got around to giving his audience the single thing that engaged his viewers in season one; strong chemistry between two of the lead characters. The thing that drove season one was the complex relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s detective Marty Hart. With the exception of Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro and Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, this lack of chemistry is, in part, due to none of the characters knowing each other prior to the beginning of the series. Additionally, Pizzolatto concentration on the character’s backstories has limited the amount of time for them to bond. While there were a few moments that popped, the exchange between Velcoro and Rachel McAdam’s Detective Ani Bezzerides at the start of the episode finally indicated that these three had a little bit of chemistry, but there were just as many moments that did not ring true. In episode four, Velcoro gives an existential angst-filled pep-talk to Taylor Kitsch’s Officer Paul Woodrugh, in which he comes off sounding like a self-important stepdad trying to cheer up his stepson after a little league loss.

This episode opens with a confrontation between Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro and Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. In the second scene of the first episode, we see that Officer Velcoro was given a name, by mobster Semyon, of the person who had raped his wife. The big reveal in last week’s episode was that Semyon had given Velcoro the wrong name, when another man was arrested for rape. The DNA results showed that he was the actual rapist. Irate and bewildered, the episode ends with Velcoro banging on Semyon’s door early in the morning.

The dialogue is sharp and brings out the actors’ respective strengths. At one moment Vaughn says: “I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name, and you made your choice and that choice was in you before your wife of any of this other stuff, it was always there—waiting. Didn’t you use that man, to be what you were always waiting to become? This thing, your wife, those are just excuses. Your think you were superman, previous? And hey, own it. You think I’d have done less? That’s the kind of thing that keeps you out of Heaven. I don’t want to go.” This line almost needs to be delivered by Vince Vaughn. Commedically, few actors can project both likeability and varying degrees of a highly manipulative narcissism at the same time. It doesn’t matter how well Pizzolatto writes the script—the entire scene requires Vaughn’s ability to sell the line. Going into the scene, there seemed no way that one or both men could escape being shot. It also seemed impossible for Semyon to talk his way out. He does so, but by turning the tables on Velcoro. For his part, Farrell is equally good. The actor seems to have a knack for playing frantic and confused characters. In this scene he has to shift between deliberative, frantic, self-pitying and snarky. Farrell is able to pull this off. The scene also requires there to be some level of trust; not necessarily in the other’s character, but rather in their ability to read one another.

There are a few other moments of good chemistry. In a scene where the three main detectives go over the logistics of an undercover operation, Woodrugh plays with a knife that Bezzerides left out. He flips and tosses the knife absentmindedly, suggesting a high level of training. Bezzerides gives him an annoyed look, and he puts down the knife, and the scene ends with a slightly humorous exchange between Velcoro and Bezzerides.

Other strong scenes in the episode include the one between Velcoro and his son Chad (Trevor Larcom); their interaction is so uncomfortable, it’s difficult to watch. Farrell’s phone call with his ex-wife Gena (Abigail Spencer), in which they discuss the custody arrangements is, as are all of their interactions throughout the series, well-played.

Vince Vaughn also is given a few excellent scenes. As a gangster, Vaughn is surprisingly effective in conveying a sense of compassionate menace. Pizzolatto writes him as a kind of contemporary Don Vito Corleone. Semyon is a smart gangster who knows how to use both a carrot and stick to maintain his power, shown to great effect in an interrogation scene. Additionally, Vaughn—like McConaughey in season one—can superbly deliver some rather forced and bizarre lines, including: “That’s one off the bucket list, a Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans.”

This episode also pays off Ani Bezzerides’ knife fetish, lending plausibility to what would be an otherwise absurd showdown. It also allows McAdams a great few seconds at the end of the episode, where she manages to convey both sadness and anger through her drug-induced bewilderment.

Throughout the series, the vast majority of the actual investigating has fallen to Paul Woodrugh. He adds another thread to Pizzolatto’s macramé plot in this episode, when he follows up on some blue diamonds, which he discovers could have been stolen during the 1992 LA riots. Two children apparently survived the theft, who would now be in their late twenties or early thirties.

While Pizzolatto finally seemed to get around to doing what made year one special, the episode has a few flaws. On a humorous level, the episode does have a few moments that almost achieve Scooby Doo levels of conveyance. In one of the later scenes, we see two of the evildoers going over the minutia of their plot. A crucial plot point is revealed just as two detectives are approaching the window because the time and place to review a complex land swindle involving government contracts is at an orgy with trafficked women. In another scene, right as Bezzerides frantically opens an exterior door in a huge complex—Woodrugh is standing right there.

The episode also includes a few of Pizzolatto’s obsessions. We are once again treated to Vince Vaughn’s taciturn drinking of a cup of coffee. On a slightly less humorous level, the audience finds out that one of the characters may have been molested when they were young. At this point, the reveal is more expected than surprising—since in Pizzolatto land—incest and abuse are the norm.

Pizzolatto seems gifted at writing characters that are deemed “you’re not sure whether or not you like them—yet.” He is also very good at writing baroque plots full of threads that lead nowhere. While the first is far more entertaining, both seem to reflect real life.