'True Detective' Recap: The Big Bang Theory

An explosive ending raises the stakes, causes collateral damage

Rachel McAdams in 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Before the bullets started flying and people started dying in droves, "Down Will Come," tonight's episode of True Detective, was the same as it ever was. Frank Semyon muscled his men for money while his sad-eyed lady looked on. Ani Bezzerides interacted awkwardly with her father and sister while her "risky" sex life came back to bite her in the form of a misconduct investigation. Paul Woodrugh shed a single tear and cursed a lot between sleeping with his old war buddy and proposing to his suddenly pregnant girlfriend. And Ray Velcoro…well, you know Ray. Anyone who's ever seen a cop show knows Ray.

Then the guns came out, and all bets were off.

Structurally, tonight's big bang comes at the exact same end-of-Episode-Four point as the single-take shootout from Season One. But that was a deep-cover diversion, a consequence of Rust Cohle getting dragged along for a drug heist while posing as a white-supremacist biker. This week's rampage, by contrast, took place as part of the search for the actual suspect in Ben Caspere's killing, a figure in the Mexican mob whose prints were on the dead man's pawned watch.

As such, it potentially corresponds not to the aforementioned seven-minute sequence, but to Marty and Rust's raid on Reggie Ledoux's compound in the following episode. That was when the original Detective duo murdered numerous shady men while the real killer went free for another decade. This time around, Ray knows for sure that the Vinci P.D. wants the case closed, and he suspects the state is in for the opportunity to shake down his crooked town for extra cash. With that in mind, it's likely there will be pressure to act like they've gotten their man, however improbably that may be. Only ganglord Frank, who knows better than to believe that a guy hard up enough to pawn jewelry could be behind all his ruined plans, will want to keep up the hunt until the actual culprit is found. In other words, the criminal has been the true detective all along. Congrats if you had him in your office pool!

But the while all that killing was thrilling, forgive us if we're not, ahem, blown away. For one thing, True Detective has already gone to the "white folks shoot their way out of a mob of murderous minorities" well once already. In this season's edition, none of the anonymous, interchangeable Mexican gunmen were given even the rudimentary personalities or distinguishing characteristics that would make them interesting opponents in an action sequence, much less memorable characters in a drama. Dressing them all like Homies figurines certainly didn't help — either with issues of representation or simply creating worthy enemies.

What's more, it quickly became apparent that other than the obviously disposable Dixon, Ray's dissolute drunk partner who took a shot to the head, no one we cared about — for that matter, no one whose name we knew — was actually at risk. Sure enough, the sole survivors of the massacre just so happened to be actors listed in the opening credits. Who needs bulletproof vests when you've got plot armor? To a certain extent, it's churlish to fault fiction set within a violent genre for allowing its main characters to live — isn't that part of what makes them main characters? But the bait-and-switch shotgunning of Velcoro a couple weeks back overextended the show's credit when it comes to matters of life and death. Undermining the suspense here is just another reason that fakeout was a mistake.

The sequence's primary strength initially appeared to be a weakness: the sheer scale of the death and destruction. When the cops, gangbangers, and bystanders were dropping by the dozen like NPCs in a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City mission, it was easy to suspect the show was going to shake off the end of all those human lives with a shrug or a "that was badass" shout. But however much it strained credulity for Woodrugh, Bezzerides, and Velcoro to be the last ones standing, their trauma and terror upon seeing post-shootout corpse after corpse was bracing and necessary. Woodrugh, we've learned, has seen his fair share of this kind of thing (as is so often the case in American media, we're once again being asked to empathize with a war criminal rather than his victims — but we're guessing there will be ample opportunity to discuss that later). But Ray and Ani are literally brought down by the weight of it all. The show's willingness to linger on the aftermath, rather than blow it off, went a long way to selling the shootout as more than a mere shoot 'em up.

At least until that final freeze frame. What is this, Magnum P.I.? Not since the series premiere of The Walking Dead ended with a Wang Chung song on the soundtrack has a non-finale episode ending been this baffling. The desired tone is clearly different from the goofy action comedies of the Eighties that we associate with the technique, but it's completely unclear what effect director Jeremy Podeswa, a Game of Thrones veteran, was going for instead. Whatever the aim, it was a misfire, right when both the characters and the show seemed to fully grasp the gravity of the moment. A series as badly outgunned in the drama department as this one can't afford that kind of friendly fire.

Previously: The Buckshot Stops Here