True Detective Review: "Black Maps and Motel Rooms"

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<i>True Detective</i> Review: "Black Maps and Motel Rooms"


That’s the word that came to mind about 15 minutes into last night’s seventh episode of True Detective. By that point, it was clear that the little seeds of greatness scattered throughout this strange, inconsistent season had actually grown into something tangible, and that the lingering faith kept by the diehards wasn’t totally misplaced. My own thoughts on the season to date have been as scattershot as the show itself—sometimes it was Colin Farrell keeping me going, sometimes the plot made just enough sense to be interesting, and other times excellent directing (combined with Vince Vaughn’s better moments) gave me the sense that TD was on the verge of the greatness I remembered. Despite the negativity associated with season two—a negativity to which I’ve contributed—there was always at least one reason to stick around. Sunday nights didn’t arrive with the same delirious sense of anticipation that defined season one, but there was never a question of actually missing an episode.

Call it hope, and “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms” was the episode where our hope paid off.

Let’s start with the plot, which has always been one of the least-discussed elements of this show. There was a supernatural element to season one that practically made Nic Pizzolatto immune to criticism on the actual mystery—various threads were left dangling at the end, and there was never a real ‘Yellow King,’ but it didn’t matter, and nobody cared. That’s not true in a city like Vinci, which lacks the mystic voodoo and has yielded a crime story that is complex, but still based in the real world. This time around, there could be no looking the other way. As it happened, many of the “breaks” in the case have been pretty unsatisfying—too many lucky twists, too many convenient coincidences—but if the conclusion was to hit with any impact, it needed to at least make sense.

I think it makes sense now—for the most part. On one level, it’s actually pretty simple—Caspere died (we still don’t know who killed him) and Mayor Chessani’s son, along with Osip, took the shares he owned, which, of course, were actually Semyon’s shares. Semyon had been back-stabbed from the beginning, and Blake was in on the act. On the city-wide level, three LAPD cops—Holloway, Burris, Dixon—had been in on a diamond heist 23 years earlier that got them into Chessani’s dirty game, and Caspere was the accountant at their station and also involved in the planning. Chessani gave them all cushy jobs in Vinci, except for Dixon, but the diamonds threatened to give them away. Now, Holloway and Burris work for Catalyst along with Vinci, and the California gubernatorial candidate Geldof stopped the investigation into Vinci in return for a significant payout to fund his political career. All of them stand to make a lot of money from the corridor real estate deal. It also appears that the two kids orphaned when the jewelers were murdered for their diamonds might be Chessani’s son and secretary. The girl, Laura/Erica, may hold the key to bringing the whole operation down, while Tony, who may or may not be the son, seems to be working behind his father’s back with Osip and McCandless of Catalyst.

(For a more thorough recap of the action so far, this Reddit thread is a great resource.)

There are still more than a few questions about how it all ties into the conspiracy to murder Caspere, but for the first time, I’m confident those questions will be resolved in the 90-minute finale. More importantly, I think the light came on for me in this episode, and I realized that, holy shit: This is really, really intricate. In fact, it’s a hell of a plot, and I think I’m going to regret being so flippant about some of the far-flung elements in my review from two weeks ago, because as the puzzle pieces fit into place, I’m a little bit in awe.

However, the criticisms leveled in those reviews remain valid, and it’s how episode seven unfolded, more than the plot, that made it so impressive. More and more, I’m beginning to realize that the strength of each episode hinges on Vince Vaughn’s performance. Colin Farrell has been spectacular from the start, Rachel McAdams has always been solid and continues to improve as her character gains more depth, and Taylor Kitsch, frankly, has been a consistently weak link. The one wildly changeable cog in this machine is Vaughn. When he’s good, the show is good. When he’s bad, it’s bad. And when he’s great, as he was last night, True Detective also reaches a new level.

In a weird way, Vaughn and Semyon have a critical similarity, which is that they’re both at their best when acting from the id rather than the superego. Vaughn, even in his comedic roles, has always contained a certain amount of menace, and even his charismatic moments cast a sinister shadow. Semyon, too, is a remorseless criminal who only seems to come alive with his back to the wall, and he’s forced to call on his savage instincts. When he tries to become legitimate, he trips up on himself, and enters a world he can’t quite navigate—it makes him easy prey for someone like Osip, whose intimate understanding of the business world, combined with a thug’s ruthlessness, allows him to twist Semyon into circles. When Vaughn has failed this season, it’s come with delivering the weighty, philosophical lines that don’t fit Semyon, and don’t fit him. If he’s holding court on the subject of adoption, or childhood trauma, or anything not related to that native instinct that allows him to trample his competitors, it looks and sounds awkward. But when he’s delivering a line like, “look me in the eyes—I want to watch your lights go out,” it’s terrifying and compelling.

So it should come as no surprise that in an episode where he has to call on every one of those criminal instincts to dig himself out of a deep hole, both Semyon and Vaughn thrive. I caught myself leaning forward each time he came on screen, and his scene with Velcoro at the blackjack table was electric. That wasn’t the only perfect moment—letting his wife see the dead body, turning Chessani against his son, and playing Osip like a violin also hit the mark. Then there was the bloody scene with Blake—the one thing that keeps Semyon alive is that nobody seems to understand exactly how mean he can be. Osip grants him mercy because of his arrogance—surely, Frank will understand that undoing his life’s work was “just business”—and Blake lets himself be caught alone in the same room as the man he betrayed.

They don’t get it. They don’t get that Semyon would rather watch the world (or his casinos) burn than see somebody get the better of him. He’s one of the few people on earth who, beneath everything, treats life like a game. It’s possible to win, and it’s possible to die, but the middle-ground holds no appeal for him—there’s a sociopathic quality at work here—so he has nothing to lose. Dying is acceptable, and Blake and Osip don’t quite get, which puts them at a disadvantage—they believe in compromise, and assume that their enemies do as well. But you don’t beat a guy like Semyon by subduing him, because he’s too willing to sacrifice himself in the all-or-nothing game. A guy like that simply has to be killed.

That’s what made Semyon such a dynamic character last night—at heart, you know that everything is bullshit to him aside from that final victory. When you get down to it, his money, his wife, his casinos—none of it matters. What matters is stepping on his enemies, and watching them bleed out. He’s never seemed happier, in seven episodes, than when he pointed out that Blake had shit his carpet. It’s the total demolition that drives him.

Velcoro and Bezzerides, on the other hand, are driven by their pain. The past defined them more than ever in “Black Maps and Hotel Rooms,” and in the end, it brought them together in a gorgeous scene that showed them as vulnerable as they can be. They are not the type to confess, and they even value that forbearance in each other—talking through problems is for people who believe that you can erase trauma. They know better, and when they finally come together, it felt completely earned. I wondered for a while what Velcoro meant when he said, “do you ever miss it?” I think the only answer is love—being loved by another person, and feeling love in return. They have to take what’s available to them, and there’s no such thing as redemption or healing. What they miss, and they covet, is the way love can mute the pain. Velcoro hasn’t known love since he murdered the (wrong) rapist, and Bezzerides hasn’t truly felt it since she was sexually abused as a child. But deep down, they both know the answer is “yes.” They miss it, and the beauty of the scene isn’t that they found it in each other—that process is still ongoing—but that they could put their fear and hurt aside to try.

Which brings us to Woodrugh. Before he dies, one line perfectly summed up his character: “If you’d just been honest about who you are, nobody would’ve been able to run you.”

True enough. The question about why Woodrugh couldn’t be honest was never fully resolved to my satisfaction, and even after his death, I can only see this as an underwritten character meeting with an underperforming actor. Kitsch could never convey his pain with the same subtlety as Farrell or McAdams, or even Vaughn, and I feel his legacy on the show will be that semi-vacant, semi-pained stare—a substitute for real emotional empathy, and a sign that as an actor, he has a ways to go. And the finale, I’m guessing, will be better for his absence.

“These tunnels exist under the entire city,” says Holloway. “Most people don’t know that.”

Like the city, every character has their own secret tunnels. They go unspoken, but in art, it’s the way these tunnels are conveyed—by writer, director, actor—that matters. For the viewer, at least, the illumination of the tunnels in True Detective has revealed an excellence we couldn’t quite expect, but that we’d coveted anyway. In a burst of light, it delivered on a promise we’d almost forgotten.