'True Detective' Recap: The Great Escape

Frank and Ray go head to head while Ani goes undercover in the season's best episode

Vince Vaughn, center, in 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Now that's more like it. While the title, "Church in Ruins," remains cryptic, the verdict is anything but: This was the best episode of True Detective we've seen all season — tighter, smarter, and more truly sinister than anything the 2.0 version has tried so far.

The hour began promisingly, with Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon's kitchen-table confrontation over the bad intel regarding the man responsible for the rape of the former's wife Sure, ending last week's episode with the furious cop banging down the gangster's front door only to say "You and me need to talk" was so anticlimactic you could practically hear the Price Is Right losing horn in the background. But the payoff was worth it, as much of the showdown took place physically: how the two men sat down as they sized each other up, how they nervously fingered both their coffee and their guns, and how they finally put both hands (and all their cards) on the table. This approach was far more effective than the usual macho posturing and he-man philosophizing.

And while there were some of the standard verbal hijinks — you can't have a conversation with Southern California's most sphinx-like crime boss without it — their exchange remained tightly focused on the important questions. Such as: whether Frank set Ray up or made an honest mistake, and whether the cop's life would have gone any better if he'd been left alone. Semyon first insists that he himself was only acting on what turned out to be a bad tip, then convinces his long-time lackey he would likely have turned out a no-good killer regardless. "I woulda been different!" "Of all the lies people tell themselves, I bet that's the most common."

The gangster leans hard on the idea that blaming him for the mess Ray has made of his life is just a responsibility dodge. Certainly the hash he makes of his supervised visitation, culminating in a massive coke bender and a deal never to see his kid again as long as his ex doesn't tell the boy about his real father, lends credence to that theory. Of course, if you really did set a guy up to kill a patsy, that's exactly what you'd emphasize. Both that sliver of doubt and Velcoro's decision to plow ahead with the only life he knows make perfect sense; Semyon's offer to reveal who gave him the name in exchange for help tracking down Ben Caspere's blackmail hard drive is just an afterthought.

From start to finish, Frank spent the episode truly displaying the way with words that this whole season has wanted us to believe he had all along. After he talks Ray out of shooting him in his own kitchen, he pays a visit to the widow and son of his slain associate Stan. There he delivers a genuinely sweet and convincing talk about how to move forward from tragedy, or as he puts it, "a thing that splits your life — there's a before, and after." Painful events like that, he tells the kid, "show you what was on the inside, and inside of you? It's pure gold. I know that. Your father knew that too. Pure, solid gold is what you got." When the boy hugs him, that embrace is earned.

Frank also manages to strike a deal with the Mexican drugrunners who showed up at his nightclub expecting to partner up last week, in exchange for providing him with access to the missing woman who pawned Caspere's stolen property. Outnumbered, outgunned, away from his home turf, and talking to two guys who don't need what he's offering, he still manages to get what he wants out of them, in exchange for controlling the contraband flowing in and out of his clubs on weekends — a gig he doesn't particularly relish anyway. Unfortunately, things end badly for him, and worse for the woman: When the gangsters hear she'd been paid to sell the dead man's loot by a cop, they kill her for working with the police. Weirdly, that's a step in the right direction for the show, where women are generally killed just to make some kind of perverse point.

Even weirder, the big orgy that ends the episode is also a move forward for the series' handling of women, sex, and nudity. When Ani Bezzerides goes undercover to get the inside scoop on the prostitution ring's high-powered clientele, she's dosed with Molly that's potent enough to trigger post-traumatic flashbacks to her molestation as a child; cue visually distorted nightmare. So instead of the sleazy parade of pay-cable hardbodies you might have expected, everything you see is blurry, shaky, and decidedly un-sexy — as it should be at a party in which leering old men buy their way into sex with women who are prohibited from saying no.

The sequence's most striking break from the norm, though, was aural rather than visual. The show's usual score, an ominous, electronic throb, is suddenly replaced by an orchestra of swirling strings. It makes Bezzerides' journey into the party mansion feel like the heroine of a dark fairy tale getting trapped inside the evil queen's castle, lending a sense of urgency, even adventure, to her attempt to rescue the woman she spots from her old missing person's case. When Ani, Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh crested the hill in the dark as they ran away, you half-expected the Ringwraiths to be chasing them instead of gun-toting goons. Tossing the series' usual tonal palette out the window worked beautifully. When was the last time True Detective made you say that? Fingers crossed that the final two installments make us say it again.

Previously: Blue Balls in Your Heart