A review of tonight's “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I'm louche…
Of all the celebrated aspects of “True Detective” season 1, the only part to land the show any major Emmys was the celebrated single-take action sequence at the end of “Who Goes There.” Short of trying to do a whole episode in what appears to be a single take (which “The X-Files” already did 17 years ago), the only way to top Rust's escape through the projects would be to expand the scope of the action. And that's exactly what we get in the climax of “Down Will Come” (like “Who Goes There,” the fourth episode of the season), as a botched raid on the hideout of a man who pawned some of Caspere's jewelry led to a spectacular action set piece involving automatic weapons fire, chases on foot, car and bus, deaths of cops (including Teague Dixon, who takes one in the head not long after finally proving himself useful to the whole investigation) and civilians and criminals alike, all of it directed in stunning, kinetic fashion by Jeremy Podeswa, one of the best purveyors of mayhem working in television today. He's directed for “Boardwalk Empire,” “American Horror Story” and “Homeland,” and he was behind the camera for the stunning Iwo Jima battle sequence in “The Pacific.” You want someone to shoot kinetic action that looks both cool and unnerving, you're not likely to do much better than Podeswa.
But action on this scale has to be grounded on some level in pre-established plot, or character, or preferably both, or else it's gibberish. It may be impressive looking, perhaps even award-winning gibberish, but if your audience is spending the entire time wondering why any of this is happening, what it has to do with the interlocking investigations into Caspere's murder and Vinci corruption, or how in the world something like this could happen in front of many witnesses and a TV news crew and not end the careers of everyone even tangentially involved.
And, yes, the show did explain, mostly, what the task force cops were doing at that sweat shop, as they were chasing down the lead involving Caspere's pawned jewelry – though a lot of the shoe leather for that break got skipped in favor of the usual mix of backstory and emotional recriminations for our leads. But the lead was so disconnected from everything that's been relevant to whatever the hell the plot is so far – Bird Mask, Chessani, European gangsters, etc. – that the shootout felt like chaos for its own sake: faceless gangsters killing faceless cops (and Dixon) and faceless protesters and bus passengers before getting killed themselves. It looked amazing, and Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch were all excellent in conveying the feeling of being trapped in the middle of this nightmare (or, in Paul's case, of finally being put in a situation he could understand), but it was ultimately hollow, technical brilliance in service of little else. Even if the goal is to make the audience feel as surprised and disoriented as the cops under fire, there has to be some kind of hook into the whole thing beyond a group of new, anonymous characters indiscriminately killing everyone in sight.
As for the rest of “Down Will Come” – the first episode of the series where Nic Pizzolatto didn't get full writing credit, shared with fellow novelist Scott Lasser – it continued this season's struggles to balance its four main characters with whatever the mystery is supposed to actually be about, and to find a manner of speaking for Vince Vaughn that seems both natural for him to deliver and consistent from scene to scene. But it also seemed to make better use of the other three leads.
Taylor Kitsch finally got more to do than squint into the middle distance, and did well with what he was asked to do, even if that involved running from a random, almost “Walking Dead” zombie-style horde of paparazzi or cursing over and over about the loss of his motorcycle. The scene where he proposes to his girlfriend – each of them aware that it's a terrible idea, but neither wanting to admit to it – was as unrelentingly grim as everything else in this story, but this role is turning into something of the inverse of Kitsch as Tim Riggins. On “Friday Night Lights,” his most powerful moments tended to come in stoic silence; here, he's much more effective when he's allowed to say more than one clipped sentence at a time.
And like Frank, I'm much preferring this more sober and under control version of Ray Velcoro. Ray admitted earlier in the season that he's no Columbo, but we see here that when he gets even vaguely clean, he can offer useful counsel to his younger partners. The scene with Ray's son – like a number of scenes in the episode – felt inserted at random, without the proper set-up, but Farrell was very good in it.
Similarly, Ani got to be dialed back a bit in her encounters with her father and sister, even if she was incredulous and angry about being accused of an inappropriate relationship with Deputy Steve. As with the other two, it helps just to not ask McAdams to play the one note over and over again, even if she was doing relatively well with it.
The Frank story remains lifeless and clumsy, unfortunately, and I'm not sure there's salvaging it now that we're halfway through the season.
The one potential bonus of the insane level of that shootout is that it almost certainly has to blow up the structure of the show as it's been struggling to work so far. Whether or not any of the survivors actually lose their jobs over this, it's hard to imagine the task force staying in place, and I'm expecting some kind of notable change in the status quo. Of course, the first season grew a little weaker as we began jumping through time (and as Rust and Marty stopped narrating the action), but we can hope for the inverse of that. Maybe.
Some other thoughts:
* Can the next episode open with Teague Dixon in a bar watching the Conway Twitty impersonator?
* David Denman, aka Roy from “The Office,” seems to be typecast as troublemaking ex-boyfriends, no matter the genre. This one was at least a wealthier and more polished version of the guy he so often plays.
* Emily Rios (so great as one of the reporters on “The Bridge,” and also Jesse's girlfriend Andrea on “Breaking Bad”) popped up last week as Mayor Chessani's daughter, but had more to play in her scene this week at the hookah bar.
* Since Dr. Pitlor remains significant in the mystery, even if Rick Springfield himself didn't appear in a new scene this week, I won't link to another Springfield music video, but to this clip from his “Human Target” pilot.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com