'True Detective' Recap": Blue Balls in Your Heart

A complex case comes together — and the show's writing completely falls apart

Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly in 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

It's safe to say, at this point, that True Detective 2.0 has a bad reputation; for the most part, it's well earned. But while this season's murder mystery, and its connection to Frank Semyon's wider dirty deeds in the real estate biz, gets knocked around for being incomprehensible, it's a rare case in which the "wait and see" approach pays off. You may need a scorecard to keep track of it all, but as of "Other Lives," tonight's episode, you can do it.

So here's what we know: Semyon hired a waste management company, whose owner just suffered a convenient car accident, to deliberately poison land up and down the length of California's future train corridor.  He did this so that it could be bought up cheap by him and his cronies when the high speed rail became a reality. Most of the figures involved initially mixed and mingled at a high-price escort party facilitated Mayor Chessani's sleazy son and the late great Ben Caspere, who compiled a hard drive full of blackmail-worthy footage. Caspere, Mayor Chessani, and their creepy on-call plastic surgeon Dr. Pitlor all go back a few years, when they were peripheral figures at Ani Bezzerides's hippie father's new age institute. (Pitlor helped sideline Chessani's first wife when she grew unhappy with his apparent perversions.) Blake, Semyon's "louche" red-headed underling, and Osip, his Russian rival, appear to have taken Caspere's place in the organization.

Once Ben was killed, Ray Velcoro's drunken, dirty, dead partner Dixon was hunting for his goods behind the scenes on behalf of the Vinci machine — until, accidentally or not, he lured everyone into an ambush at the Mexican mob's meth house. And a missing woman that Ani first learned about on an unrelated foreclosure case sent her sister photos of the parties and the dead man's missing blue diamonds, indicating she was part of the call-girl ring before she disappeared. (The cop's own sister has connections to the parties too.)

Where does that leave us? The blackmail drive's still missing. The rail deal is still in play for most everyone who isn't Frank, leading the state's crooked attorney general to prematurely close Caspere's murder case before anyone got too close to the truth. The head of Catalyst, the well-connected real estate developer in charge of the land, offers Frank a ticket back in if he can track down said hard drive. Meanwhile, an honest attorney general gives Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Paul Woodrugh a secret mission to uncover the real killer; their cover story is a search for the Mexican prostitute who pawned his watch. Ani and Paul stumble across an isolated shack where the deed likely went down. And on an unrelated note, Ray learns that the man Frank fingered as his wife's rapist years back wasn't her attacker at all.

See? It's all crystal clear! But boy oh boy does the dialogue muddy the fucking water.

Tonight's episode — "Other Lives" — was absolutely stuffed with plot points, pretzel-like twists and some seriously overripe, laugh-out-loud lines. More often than not, it felt like a parody of prestige drama rather than the real thing. No character got away clean: Not Ani, who suffers her way from the most one-dimensionally grotesque sex-harassment workshop ever before revving her fellow offenders' engines with (presumably) sarcastic talk about big dicks. Not Paul and his ridiculous cliché of a mother, who scream and weep their lungs out when he finds out she stole his hidden loot from Afghanistan like they were in a bad telenovela. (Apparently someone in the writers' room thinks "poisoned cooze" is an insult a human being would use in the year of our Lord 2015.) Not Ray, who records a monologue about suffering for his son — "Pain is inexhaustible. It's only people that get exhausted" — like he's auditioning for the role of Rust Cohle in the school play. (Runner up: his big cliffhanger-ending "You and me need to talk." No shit!) Not Frank and his wife Jordan, who stammer their way through a fight about his return to the gangster lifestyle and her inability to have children centered on sentences like "Crime exists contingent on human desire."

The pièce de résistance, of course, is Frank's grand declaration of frustration to Ray. "The enemy won't reveal itself, Raymond," he says, like a summer-stock Pacino in Godfather III. "Stymies my retribution. It's like, uh, blue balls in your heart." Blue balls in your heart, people. Blue. Balls. In. Your. Heart. Look, a simile makes connections in order to uncover meaning, not overwhelm it; "blue balls in your heart" does nothing to explain the unique rage of delayed revenge except bury it under a mountain of "Wait…what the hell did he just say?" It's enough to give you, uh, jock itch in your brain.

How a howler like that got from showrunner Nic Pizzolatto's typewriter into Vince Vaughn's mouth, onto your screen, and into your ears without anyone involved slamming the goddamn brakes is a bigger mystery than anything Ben Caspere ever dreamed of. Can a show sustain itself on writing this bad? That, unfortunately, is an open and shut case.

Previously: The Big Bang Theory