True Detective, Season 2, Episode 6, “Church in Ruins”
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on HBO
The good news is that the so-called “orgy episode” of this season is not nearly as gratuitous and exploitative of women as it could have been in a worst case scenario. The bad news is that it is still pretty gratuitous and unnecessary once it is made clear what exactly the show is trying to accomplish throughout the party. Ani could have still been drugged, accosted, nearly killed, and then saved the day without dozens of female bodies gyrating in the background for no real reason other than that the show wants them to be there. The last quarter of “Church in Ruins” is filled with moments of entertaining action and solid acting, but it is all undercut by the fact that the show can’t help itself when it comes to using women as objects and background decoration. Theoretically, this could have been a preliminary cocktail party to vet girls and choose clients and it still would have worked with the chosen story, yet since the opportunity is there for naked women to litter the set, this is what happens. It is a disappointing fact that even with an objectively strong female character in Rachel McAdams this season, True Detective still can’t, or won’t, give her the opportunity for a great solo performance scene without undermining it by setting it at a fancy orgy. Another example of the periodic reminders this show gives that its priorities are rarely straight when it comes to nonsensical, yet flashy, story beats versus strong character work.
All that said, “Church in Ruins” continues the upswing of the last few episodes. The story is actually propelled forward in multiple ways, even if it still isn’t coming together as neatly as is necessary for the audience to completely know what is going on in all corners. On top of that, it contains acting highs from multiple members of the ensemble and offers up plot developments in all corners with no one getting left out as has been the pattern. McAdams, as already mentioned, and Colin Farrell both have the chance to show off their drugged-out acting and neither fall into the trap of going too over the top even though it would be easy enough to do so in either case. McAdams does an effective job of acting with her eyes this episode, from the pat down and bus trip to the drugged stumble through the mansion. Despite her getting saddled with a fairly rote child molestation flashback (which is not a new idea and not done with any sort of tact), she plays her fear and confusion well, pivoting expertly between that and survival instincts once she finds Vera. Farrell does the same throughout his extended cocaine, beer, and tequila bender. In a season where the writing has time and again let the leads down with its rigid prose, this is a welcome sight for both actors. Farrell is able to show more emotion from a single scrunched-up face than he is with a dozen scenes of him moaning about life.
Vaughan also has some of the best scenes of the season for both him and his character and this is directly connected to the show knowing what to do with him besides clichéd gangster scenes and marital spats. The difference between his self-perceived power as a gangster and what he is actually able to control in his business dealings are a mile apart, as is made obvious by his shortsightedness in protecting the missing girl once he gets information from her he can use. He is backed into a corner and taken advantage of by a rival group and he doesn’t even see it coming. When earlier in the season Frank said he was not a gangster and that people shouldn’t call him that, it seemed to be out of a need for him to keep up appearances as a successful entrepreneur who uses illicit means to achieve his ends. Now, it’s obvious that whether he likes to be called a gangster or not, he cannot hold a candle to the callous violence of other syndicates. The men he makes a deal with certainly would not warn a tortured prisoner that something was going to hurt before they did it and these disparities place Frank in a more believable level in this world. He is not a slightly stalled Master of the Universe who is getting his sea legs again after a setback, his rightful place will probably remain right where he is no matter how hard he tries. This realization transforms Frank’s corner of the show into more of a meditation on failure than a lesson in accomplishing a dream, which makes it far more watchable.
The larger theme this episode concerns itself with, fatherhood and doing the right thing for your children, only successfully lands part of the time. The retired cop asking Paul if he has any kids is awkwardly included and Ani’s previously mentioned assault flashback approaches the fatherly failure line without crossing it completely and as such, doesn’t pack quite a punch. With more time devoted to it in the future, Ani and her sister’s relationship and respective childhoods could make for ripe storytelling down the road. At this point this will sound like a broken record, but Abigail Spencer is once again magnificent in her portrayal of a shattered woman who only wants an ongoing deal to be resolved and can’t believe it when Ray gives in so (seemingly) easily. Farrell doesn’t do enough to connect his conversation with his son and the ensuing trashing of his apartment to the decision to drop all custody battles, but it still hits home on some level. It isn’t a sign of Ray’s growth so much as it is a sign that in that one moment, while still exceedingly drunk and high, he has chosen to make life easier for those around him by backing out of the picture completely. What the series doesn’t show the audience, at least for now, is the way that men like Ray decide to give up one minute and act on their frustrations again the next. Just because he decided to protect his son by never speaking to him again doesn’t mean that three years from now he won’t decide to go back on that promise to his ex and cause trouble all over again. On the flip side, Frank has the chance to serve as a surrogate father for a single conversation and nails it, imparting great – if maudlin – advice without making it entirely about himself. It’s assuredly something Ray could ask advice on the next time he and Frank sit down for one of their now-traditional stare contests. If the rest of the season is grounded in familial relationships as much as it is in working the case, it will be worth sitting through some stilted, poorly written scenes just to see good actors dig into strong emotional material when they can.
- It looks as if HBO used the same aerial shot of the party bus on the highway twice, just different edits. It’s hard to tell if this is the case without frame by frame analysis, but for a director as accomplished and talented as Sapochnik it seems weird that the two would be so similar.
- Paul is so excited about discovering a contract with signatures on it that he comes off as slightly doltish – all binding contracts (and as such any contracts that make good evidence) are going to have signatures.
- The face-off between Ray and Frank that opens the episode tries far too hard to be a Western-style showdown in a kitchen instead of a town square; it is laughably stiff.
- The score for the orgy scenes is reminiscent of ’40s and ’50s noir and it is so mismatched as to take the focus away from what is happening on screen.
- As obvious a case of foreshadowing as can be, Ani’s knife play in her apartment is still an engaging sight and makes her conversation with her sister much more entertaining.