True Detective, Season 2, Episode 5, “Other Lives”
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by John Crowley
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on HBO
The only truly frustrating part about “Other Lives” is that if the entire season to this point had been even a fraction as good, so many of the acting missteps and story misjudgments could have been more easily forgiven. Much of what works in this fifth installment of the season are things that could have been easily fixed before filming a second episode after the premiere, which is all the more infuriating now that things are even marginally smoothed out. This episode prioritizes the emotional journeys of the characters above everything else which places them on the background of the larger Vinci conspiracy instead of vice versa. If only this realization occurred to the show before midway through the season it could have salvaged so much of the muddled wreckage that is the confusing Caspere backstory to this point.
Fortunately, True Detective either assessed the early flaws of its season and course corrected or seriously lucked out with the construction of this episode. There is enough clearly-delivered and interesting exposition throughout that it makes up for the show seemingly skipping important details here and there for the last three episodes. For some shows, the sheer amount of information dumping going on here would be too much and overwhelm everything but here it is necessary because of how much the audience has been expected to assume thus far. Clueing viewers in on the other side of the conspiracy and what illicit activity is exactly going on is crucial for anyone to care about the heroes’ mission to stop it from happening and solve the case.
It is much easier to root for the objectively “good” side to succeed when the bad side’s misdeed are clearly stated and not just a vaguely menacing conspiracy tied to highways. That Ray’s interrogation of Dr. Pitlor comes after he doesn’t have much else to lose personally or professionally and results in the most helpful details in the case makes it a high point of the episode. It is not gratuitous violence and exposes character traits more starkly that each possessed before now but didn’t get a chance to show. Pitlor is a scared, quivering patsy in a larger plan who is in too deep for his own good and Ray has reached his breaking point due to his pile of familial issues. Both things push these men to their natural breaking points and move the story along at the same time, which is something the show could do more often in lieu of treading water.
All four of the leads significantly step up their games in this episode, none more than Colin Farrell slowly breaking down as Ray reaches one of his lowest points. Abigail Spencer once again shines as his ex-wife but unlike her first few show stopping appearances she doesn’t completely overshadow him in the acting department. Every vibrating lip, every tear-ringed eye, and every flabbergasted reaction to his son being slowly removed from his life brings further understanding to the character’s priorities and motivations. Tying it directly to his work with Frank allows a more fully formed opinion of how exactly the complications involved in his duties for the gangster are affecting his life. His early rent-collecting house calls lay the basis for his burgeoning resentment of the work and the way he remains beholden to Frank is only made worse when he finds out he made the deal for no reason, that his wife’s attacker was a different man who is now in custody. Further tying this to Frank and Jordan’s desire to have children despite their precarious business situation makes it the most the four main characters have been tied together via something unrelated to the case the entire time. It brings the show to life and elevates the entertainment quotient considerably.
That’s not to say there aren’t still some quibbles with this episode. Ray’s recording while driving and ultra-serious delivery of “pain is inexhaustible” is everything that is wrong with the show to this point, as is a solid half of the dialogue between Frank and Jordan. Taylor Kitsch continues to not be able to telegraph anger very well which seriously impacts any chance of the audience connecting with Paul’s struggle. Between his meeting to work out a deal with the lying actress and his all-out fight with his mother the latter comes off better by far but there is still something off in his delivery of over the top lines that need some necessary gusto. Just raising his voice is not enough to get across just how much the interactions pain him and since that is a huge part of the character it leaves each of his scenes lacking something major. Rachel McAdams fares much better with her more humorous lines this episode and the show would be well-served to continue the trend of ratcheting up her sarcasm throughout the rest of the season. Her quips about dicks during the sexual harassment meeting are one of the funniest things the show has allowed her to do thus far but because she has been such a high strung cop the entire time this abrupt change now comes off as a sudden course correction, albeit a welcome one. These are all such nitpicks at this point though. Now that the case is more interesting, and the gang is back together in a more gung-ho manner, the season is finally shaping up in a satisfactory way. Here’s hoping it remains on this track instead of reverting to bad habits a week from now.