True Detective, Season 2, Episode 7, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by Daniel Attias
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on HBO
That is not the type of penultimate episode that True Detective needs right now. After a rollercoaster of quality over the last handful of episodes, this second to last installment is decidedly one of the lesser entries of the season. It is a confusing mush of all of the storylines covered thus far but with none of the curiosity-spurring or artistic moments of the last two weeks. At this point, half the conversations Frank finds himself involved in are either pointlessly dull or too confusing to follow why they are happening in the first place. The Caspere murder is so far in the rearview mirror that its supposed purpose as narrative propulsion of the season is a sad thing to think about rather than an exciting mystery to solve. Each showdown between a member of the “team” and an evil henchman stalls any momentum of the episode completely and comes closer to eliciting yawns than further interest in the solving of the case.
What the episode does have, however, is multiple interpersonal moments that once again allow all the actors involved to show off their skills outside of the police work they are doing. McAdams steals the show yet again, between the scenes where is coming down off the drugs she ingested at the party and her conversation with her sister and father. Even if the unearthing of her memories last episode didn’t quite work on all levels, her confession to her father that she remembers the face of the man who molested her clicks completely. Each twitch of Ani’s face, each hesitation before she reveals something to her father, is a grounded and true character moment. Ani’s father has not been as huge a part of the season as he seemed to be in the early goings, but this is the type of interaction that needs to happen for the show to have any sort of heartbeat at this point. The same goes for her conversation with her sister; so much is understood between the two women just from a quick exchange about the party. Each knowing that the other experienced “going all the way in” the party is enough to trust each other even slightly more and for her sister to agree that going out of town with dear old dad is worthwhile for her safety. In real life, it doesn’t take an all out begging for forgiveness or grand gesture for families to put aside their differences, so it is refreshing to see the show admit that in these exchanges.
The overarching theme of “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” is that no one is able to count on the easy answer working out for them. Ani’s father doesn’t get the full story of her abduction that he is hoping for, on the off chance it would alleviate a fraction of his guilt over not finding her in the woods, and Ani doesn’t get the expected damsel in distress answer from Vera after “rescuing” her from the party. What happens when your supposed victim doesn’t want any of your help and is actively angry at you for freeing her from a life of sex and drugs? For Ani at least it has her questioning her motivations for working on the case, which then leads her to sleep with Ray while hiding out from a manhunt in the titular motel room. Ray’s planned delivery of the evidence to SA Davis goes horribly awry when he discovers her murdered in her car, revoking his chance to play the hero and bring the case to a fairytale close. Even in his professional life, success evades him in the cruelest of ways. Frank similarly doesn’t get the happy ending he was planning on with Jordan, not even close. It remains to be seen whether they will make it safely to Costa Rica (the way this season has been going, probably not) but even his backup plan of returning to running the club has failed to keep them above water. Frank’s ceremonious torching of the club and subsequent viewing party from a nearby overlook is not as heartbreaking as the show wants it to be, and Vaughan’s once again wooden acting does not help to endear his situation any further.
So where does that leave the show heading into the finale? Paul is definitely dead after spectacularly surviving his own personal Call of Duty level, then forgetting to check behind a door on his way out of the warehouse. It is a fitting way for the character to exit, seeing as he’s been consistently incompetent with police work when asked to actually do something besides mope. It makes perfect sense he would forget to sweep a room upon entry, leaving his mother and girlfriend awkwardly in a motel room together as he bleeds out in an alley. What’s more is that Paul has been such a non-factor, or an annoying contribution to the proceedings, that it isn’t even a good character death leading into the finale (if there is such a thing). If the show sticks to its ways regarding Mr. Paul Woodrugh, Ani and Ray will barely register his demise before going at each other for another round. Looking at the positives of this development, if any can be found, this at least means there is one less character to spend the finale’s valuable minutes (of which there will be 90) focusing on and as such, there should be better denouements for Ani, Ray, and Frank. At the very least, a well thought out final bow that presents an opportunity for one of the three to show off their acting prowess once more doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Of course at this point, True Detective seems content with finding new levels of narrative lows en route to the finish line.