“Man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them.”
— Albert Camus
In a scene near the end of Michael Curtiz’, 1942 classic movie Casablanca, the main protagonist Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) meets with Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), in a scene that ultimately sets up the end of the movie. Dissected from the rest of the film, this scene seems rather improbable: Rick proposes a scheme that requires the buy in of other players. This is, of course, totally and completely irrelevant to the plot, and yet leads into one of the best and most quotable final scenes in film history.
Indeed, the plot of Casablanca was just a necessary element to allow the characters to react to each other. Episode seven of season two of True Detective, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”, serves the same function. Writer Nic Pizzolatto needs to merge as many of his loose strings together as possible to lead into the season finalé.
In this episode, we learn that there are two plot lines. From the beginning of the series, there was a plot line revolving around the building of a rail line through the state. Episode 7 greatly expands the power of the people behind it. While this plot line places the four main characters in the most danger, it likely has nothing to do with the murder of Vinci City Manager, Ben Caspere. In the second part of the season, a more likely plot emerged involving a jewelry heist from the ’90s. This orphaned two children, one of which was intricately connected to Ben Caspere.
Pizzolatto takes a chance by greatly expanding the conspiracy in which the four protagonists are pawns. The risk-reward calculus is pretty high. One of the more unbelievable elements of the series is the cornucopia of coincidences that litter every episode. Pizzolatto doubles down on this, adding an additional player out of nowhere. In doing so, he risks losing all but the most paranoid member of his audience — he had, to some extent, written himself into a corner. The only way to explain all the coincidences is to expand the cabal operating against our heroes. The initial investigation was a set-up from the very beginning. Players who were assumed to be adversaries turned out to be allies.
One of the main themes Pizzolatto explores is that of identity. Pizzolatto constructs his web of murder, extortion, corruption, incest, perversion, drug use, and prostitution on a moral armature of personal awareness. He creates a pretty strict caste system where everyone has a place and identity. Those who dare veer away from their place are punished.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) discovers that one of his underlings Blake Churchman (Christopher James Baker) has double-crossed him to an Israeli/Russian mobster. This triggers two events; both expose the importance of knowing your place. In the first scene, Frank interrogates and kills Churchman. As he lays dying on the carpet, Frank stands over him and states: “Do this for me, dead. Remember I found you pushing baby aspirin to club kids. Johnny Mink wanted to cap you in the ally, I said ‘nah, there’s potential here.’ Now, you just shit my carpet.”
Paralleling this scene later in the episode, Osip Agronov (Timothy V. Murphy) walks triumphantly into Frank’s casino and announces that he will be taking over the place. They go over the mechanics of the transaction. Once again, Pizzolatto delivers a few lines that crackle and pop with irony. After Osip laughs at Frank’s assertion that he may want to ascend beyond being a low-level manager, Frank states: “I haven’t lasted this long without some knowledge of my own limitations.”
This morality is central to the growth of Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). He receives photos of his hook up with Miguel Gilb (Gabriel Luna). He is being blackmailed and Gilb tells him “Just being honest about who you are, nobody will be able to run you.”
It also underlines one of the more objectionable aspects of the series. All of the female characters are largely defined through their sexuality, beginning with the series lead, Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who is punished earlier in the series for sleeping with a co-worker. She has a personal epiphany after being sent undercover as a prostitute, as well as recalling she was molested when she was young. Frank’s wife Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly) is infertile due to having too many abortions. Woodrugh’s mother, Cynthia (Lolita Davidovich) treats her son like an ex-boyfriend. His fiancé Emily (Adria Arjona) gets pregnant. Bezzeride’s sister Athena (Leven Rambin), who plays a prostitute, in turn becomes a web-porn performer. One of the prime suspects, Erica Jonson (Courtney Halverson), leads a double life as a city secretary and high-end escort.
Indeed, you have to go far down the credit list to find a female character whose sexuality is not at least touched upon, never mind comprising a central aspect of her characterization. When you do, you’ll find Katherine Davis’s (Michael Hyatt), whose sexuality is not even mentioned, despite her suggestion that Bezzerides uses her sexual attraction to manipulate Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Even then, the character only serves a role of getting the band together in episode five before being killed.
Perhaps the most offensive manifestation of this theme is Vera Machiado (Miranda Rae Mayo). She is a missing woman who worked the party in episode 6. After being told that she was being saved, she answers, “Yo, I have a place, I got nice things. I had a good thing with Tony and his people.”; another entrant in the great American trope of unproblematic prostitution. (See How a Streetwalker Became America’s Sweetheart).
More problematic, however, is we are told that most of the women at the party are trafficked. There’s the minor issue of plausibility, in the concept that the organizers would mix groups, including women who are independent contractors with women who are forced into prostitution through rape, drug addiction, and kidnapping. The scene is far more problematic, to the point of being offensive, in suggesting that being trafficked is somehow a desirable position for some women. During the scene, Vera does have one good line: “Everything is fucking,” which in Pizzolatto’s universe is definitely true for women.
Director Daniel Attias does a great job of creating a sense of labyrinth. The opening shots, which track through a forest and, just as they start to focus in on a clearing, jump cut to a motel parking lot, add to this feeling of being lost and trapped. This creates a sense of the big reveal awaiting the viewer. He ends the episode with a chase through the tunnels under Los Angeles. Throughout the episode, hotel rooms become safe houses, and the outside world is a maze, establishing how much peril the main characters are in. This accents what is turning out to be the overriding theme of this season.
Series creator, Nic Pizzolatto constructs the entire season on a simple exchange: death is the metaphysical wage of knowledge. This, combined with the series getting far more interesting over the last two episodes, suggests that the finalé will be bloody, fascinating, and hopefully, surprising.