Things get bad for the ‘True Detective’ heroes right as the season gets good?

A review of tonight's “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I manage an Applebee's…

“After all, don't fight what you can't change.” -Frank

Among the many glaring problems of this season, one of the biggest has been the convoluted mystery at the center of it. In crafting a plot involving so many disparate characters, crimes, agendas and even eras, Nic Pizzolatto hasn't lacked for ambition this year, but the story has lacked any obvious reason for the audience to care about any of it. The show's struggle with characterization ties into this – if Frank had been a more successful character, for instance, I might have been curious about who caused him to lose his money and power, but as Vince Vaughn struggled to find his voice, it didn't feel worth the mental effort – but like Ray Velcoro, I spent a lot of the season's early chapters struggling to figure out what the point of any of this was, or whose agenda would ultimately triumph. The kind of LA crime fiction Pizzolatto is paying homage to isn't always known for making sense – famously, the filmmakers on “The Big Sleep” had to ask Raymond Chandler why a particular character was killed, and even Chandler didn't know – but the mood and the characters are usually strong enough to transcend that, which hasn't generally been the case here.

“Black Maps and Motel Rooms” finally begins untangling some of this messy storyline, explaining exactly what the diamonds, Catalyst, Frank's business problems, the death of the mysterious Stan, Paul's military past(*) and a whole lot more have to do with one another. But getting answers to questions set up in previous episodes – answers that often required pausing the episode to Google character and actor names – was less important than the way the episode finally put this whole business into a more interesting and easy to grasp context.

(*) All the business about Paul's old Army pal – who happens to now work for Catalyst, but was checking up on Paul for unrelated reasons and conveniently got photographed by Teague Dixon in the process – was termed by Holloway a “happy coincidence,” which was a more polite way of describing it than I might have used.

Knowing that Osip and Mayor Chessani's son were the ones behind much of Frank's misfortune, or that it was Blake who set up Ray to kill the wrong man, simplifies things slightly. But it's the desperate bordering on hopeless circumstances that our remaining heroes (RIP, Paul Woodrugh) find themselves in that held my attention throughout the hour in a way that so many previous installments failed to. It's last stand time for Frank, Ray, and Ani, even if their agendas and enemies only overlap to a degree, and even if Frank's situation seems far stronger in the moment than what the two cops are facing. Seeing the three of them (and, before he died, Paul) realize just how badly the odds have been stacked against them, and how many improbable things would have to go right for them to get out of it, made me finally feel engaged in seeing this story's outcome, whether it's a triumph of the underdog narrative, a nihilistic noir ending where the villains win and the heroes lose big, or some combination of the two (say, the cops surviving but Frank failing to make his escape to a new life).

The dire context the protagonists found themselves in led to some of the season's strongest sequences. Frank draining Blake of every last piece of useful intel before killing him was easily the best moment Vince Vaughn has had in this role, and one where his verbal dexterity was as well applied as his physical presence. Rachel McAdams was the best part of the show when things were pretty dire early on, and she's continued to be strong here in portraying Ani coming to terms with what happened to her as a girl, how that shaped her into the edged weapon she is today, and how she's screwed up so many of her relationships as a result of that. (Unsurprisingly, David Morse was terrific in the scene where Ani's dad again had to face the horrific consequences his permissive world had on his daughter.)

Ani and Ray hooking up isn't the most novel or surprising idea – take two attractive movie stars of opposite gender, put their characters alone together enough times, and this is bound to happen – but them looking for a human connection right before they're completely ruined, if not dead, is at least understandable. And after the fakeout with Ray at the end of episode 2 suggested that the show could never again put its leads in real jeopardy, Burris' execution of Paul (complete with a second shot and an abundance of blood) at least made Paul's ability to kill four armed and better-prepped military contractors easier to take in hindsight. Paul wasn't a great character, or a great role for Taylor Kitsch – as his buddy told him, if Paul had just been open about who he was, so many of his problems would have vanished – but he had a pretty good death scene(**), at least.

(**) Though I might just applaud the onions required to open the finale with Paul in Limbo listening to Conway Twitty's cover of “Three Times a Lady.”

For a while, I've just been waiting for the story to end so we can move onto the next season – which HBO's Michael Lombardo says he wants – in the hopes that the show can rebound. This episode doesn't retroactively fix the myriad issues with the earlier episodes, but it at least has me curious to see the conclusion of the story for its own sake, and not simply as an excuse to be done with it.

Some other thoughts:

* Frank's shopping list of weapons he needs to take out Osip was clearly put together by a prop person who didn't think the audience would freeze frame it and notice it just repeats itself halfway through.

* Also, wouldn't torching both the casino and the club, and murdering one of Osip's goons along the way, be a rather large warning sign to Osip that Frank knows what's going on and is coming for him?

* One good thing to come out of Ani realizing how badly she's screwed: she's able to make some level of peace with her father, her sister and her partner. And it was a relief to see her ask Elvis to get her family out of town; too often in these kinds of stories, the hero doesn't recognize they've put their loved ones in danger until it's much too late. (Paul does the same with his mom and Emily, though I'd have been fine if they were just mentioned but not shown, given what a misfire that whole corner of the season was.) 

Finally, the finale is going to air while I'm in LA next week. Depending on how good the internet is at the press tour hotel (and I have not heard great things), I may be able to watch it on Eastern time; if not, it'll be a late one.

But as for the penultimate chapter, what did everybody else think? What are your hopes or expectations for the finale?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at