'True Detective' Recap: Burning Down the House

Flames, stakes, and body count all rise in a tense hour of crime and punishment

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in 'True Detective' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

To quote the traveling bards of California weirdness, what a long, strange trip it's been. It took the show's second season long enough, but in "Black Maps and Motel Rooms," tonight's penultimate episode, it finally delivered the kind of show it could have been all along. No, not some prestige-TV meditation on the evil that men do — whatever ambitions the show once had in that direction had been left on the table next to Rust Cohle's hospital bed. This was just a tough-as-nails crime thriller about a bunch of sad sacks stumbling into the case of a lifetime and trying to survive the experience. Nice work if you can get it!

From beginning to end, this installment maintained a level of pressure-cooker tension that, in retrospect, had been sorely lacking from the season. Some of that suspense stems from the fact that they've finally figured out what the hell it is they're investigating: After the successful but bloody raid on the high-end hooker party that ended last week's episode, the heat is on for Ray Velcoro, Ani Bezzerides, and Paul Woodrugh. Every bit of information they glean from those stolen files makes the land-grab conspiracy at the heart of their case clearer. In turn, Ray passes their findings to Frank Semyon, who learns (at last ) that all of his allies have turned on him. Meanwhile, leads from the not-so-missing woman that Bezzerides rescued from the orgy end up helping them solve the mystery of Ben Caspere's blue diamonds, stolen from a jewelry store during a double homicide perpetrated by the Vinci PD decades ago. It's likely the shop owner's surviving daughter was the one who killed Caspere out of revenge after going to work for him under an assumed name.

At the same time, Ani is wanted for the murder of the party's security guard, and dealing with the dredged-up memory of being sexually assaulted as a kid. Ray winds up framed for killing Assistant Attorney General Davis, their sole connection to the safety of the state's power structure. Paul's being blackmailed about his homosexuality — by, it turns out, the same mercenary company where he met his ersatz ex-boyfriend. Frank literally burns his empire down rather than leave it to his enemies, and kills Blake, the right-hand man who betrayed him — and who fed Ray the bogus intel about the man who assaulted his wife. And finally, Paul plays cat-and-mouse with black-ops goons in an underground tunnel after his blackmail and betrayal goes bust, until he winds up being the mouse.

So why wasn't it this tightly wound all along? Most murder mysteries operate along a linear progression of false starts, red herrings, leads, revelations, and the final whodunit. The approach that True Detective took was a revisionist one in a way, and perfectly valid in theory. Instead of piecing together clues one after another, Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank just kinda kept pouring more and more info into a big swirling morass that remained incomprehensible until the moment it all became clear, like a cloudy pool of water finally settling down enough for you to see your reflection in the surface. That daring Metal Gear Solid action sequence aside, it's probably a little bit closer to how solving major crimes works in real life.

The problem is that the show offered so little firm ground to walk on as it traveled through the murk. Compelling dialogue? Not so much; the pitch-black noir aphorisms that sounded magical in the mouth of Matthew McConaughey last season gave us a bad case of blueballs of the ear this go-round. Engaging characters? Not until they hit their respective rock bottoms over the past two episodes did the Drab Four feel like people you could empathize with, much less enjoy as reasons to tune in week to week. Intimidating antagonists? With the possible exception of creepy-ass Dr. Rick Springfield, no one in the semi-anonymous gaggle of corrupt police, politicians, land barons, and ethnically diverse gangsters giving our heroes trouble will be joining Reggie LeDoux or the Yellow King in the annals of memorable villainy anytime soon. Before this week, it's unlikely much of the audience even knew their names. If you're gonna make the mystery a mess until just before the end, fine, but there has to be something to make getting there at least half the fun.

But if you've followed TD 2.0 down its long and winding freeway, you might as well enjoy its late-blooming strengths and hope for more of the same in its elephantine 90-minute season finale next week. Perhaps it's the relative strength of the story that made more details and dialogue stand out: the genuine, moving remorse of Ani's dad for letting her down; her kind-hearted rapprochement with her ex-partner; her nightmarish non-sequitur in the opening scene about "when I ran out of the woods"; that slo-mo glass to Blake's face in Frank's office; the smiley face emoji at the end of Paul's blackmail texts; the cynical sexual existentialism of the instant-classic line "Everything is fucking." Fingers crossed that the climax is one to remember.

Previously: The Great Escape