We pick up this week in the aftermath of the giant firefight that ended last week’s episode – “The Vinci Massacre,” the press has apparently dubbed it – and two months after the carnage, our heroes have adjusted to a new status quo: Ani is in uniform and exiled to the evidence locker and attending sexual harassment therapy; Woodrugh, the hero of the gunfight, has been “promoted” to detective; and Velcoro has shaved his moustache, traded his mullet for a slightly less unflattering version, and taken up Frank’s offer to work for him full-time doing collections and security.
Frank’s adjusting to a new status quo, too, though it’s not related to the shootout. He and his wife have moved out of their big Scarface House and into a modest little bungalow as Frank goes about the business of rebuilding his fortune the good old-fashioned way (with scams and shakedowns).
Everyone is very sanguine about their new circumstances, but the Caspere case – closed when the prime suspect was killed in the Vinci Massacre – continues to haunt them.
Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins sums up the confusing plot so far:
So here’s what we know: Semyon hired a waste management company, whose owner just suffered a convenient car accident, to deliberately poison land up and down the length of California’s future train corridor. He did this so that it could be bought up cheap by him and his cronies when the high speed rail became a reality. Most of the figures involved initially mixed and mingled at a high-price escort party facilitated Mayor Chessani’s sleazy son and the late great Ben Caspere, who compiled a hard drive full of blackmail-worthy footage. Caspere, Mayor Chessani, and their creepy on-call plastic surgeon Dr. Pitlor all go back a few years, when they were peripheral figures at Ani Bezzerides’s hippie father’s new age institute. (Pitlor helped sideline Chessani’s first wife when she grew unhappy with his apparent perversions.) Blake, Semyon’s “louche” red-headed underling, and Osip, his Russian rival, appear to have taken Caspere’s place in the organization. Once Ben was killed, Ray Velcoro’s drunken, dirty, dead partner Dixon was hunting for his goods behind the scenes on behalf of the Vinci machine — until, accidentally or not, he lured everyone into an ambush at the Mexican mob’s meth house. And a missing woman that Ani first learned about on an unrelated foreclosure case sent her sister photos of the parties and the dead man’s missing blue diamonds, indicating she was part of the call-girl ring before she disappeared. (The cop’s own sister has connections to the parties too.) Where does that leave us? The blackmail drive’s still missing. The rail deal is still in play for most everyone who isn’t Frank, leading the state’s crooked attorney general to prematurely close Caspere’s murder case before anyone got too close to the truth. The head of Catalyst, the well-connected real estate developer in charge of the land, offers Frank a ticket back in if he can track down said hard drive. Meanwhile, an honest attorney general gives Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Paul Woodrugh a secret mission to uncover the real killer; their cover story is a search for the Mexican prostitute who pawned his watch. Ani and Paul stumble across an isolated shack where the deed likely went down. And on an unrelated note, Ray learns that the man Frank fingered as his wife’s rapist years back wasn’t her attacker at all.Vulture’s Kenny Herzog picks up the thread from there:
Ray has, in his own way, contributed to this toxic ecosystem of corruption and opportunism, but is starting to realize, as Ani advises, “it’s never too late to start all over again.” The truth is out that whoever Frank fingered as Gena’s assailant wasn’t the guy. The real rapist was finally hauled in. And for Ray, he’s thrust from denial as it all sinks in that he’s spent years allowing Frank to manipulate his guilt. He’d become rewired to direct his anger at all the wrong people, including himself. But now he knows where it needs to land, and it’s on Frank, and Pitler, and the Chessanis, and everyone from this godforsaken city of Vinci that’s a living symbol of this rotten cycle he, Ani, and Paul are caught up in. This time, rather than bash in a neighborhood dad with brass knuckles, Ray accosts Pitler, getting him to cough up not only a few teeth, but details on how he, Caspere, and Chessani have been hosting California’s highest muck-a-muck at their glorified orgies and setting them up for future blackmail. (Vera, the key to unlock it all, was apparently at one such affair and snapped photos of swinging state senators and Caspere’s mystery diamonds to boot.) That’s how Vinci’s mayor stays so flushed, even though he doesn’t attend these parties personally. Instead, he sits at his desk awash in booze, miserably content to have his slice of the pie as he imagines God as George W. Bush intended. Regardless of who was hiding behind that crow’s (or raven’s?) mask in Caspere’s bungalow, all these power players are the show’s true vultures, no different than the predators symbolically circling above the cabin at Ani’s childhood-commune grounds. Inside appears to be the site where Caspere was tortured and killed. There’s arterial spray on the walls and the stench of blood and bodily fluid. But everyone, in some form or other, is reckoning with the rotten stench of how institutionalized crime trickles down. Frank, correctly, suspects that Blake’s involved in the larger scam. And no surprise that Osip’s in on the shenanigans with Tony and Pitler, too. Even Katherine Davis from the state attorney’s office is starting to realize that her boss, Attorney General Geldof (if only C.S. Lee could have done double duty as Dexter’s Masuka and analyzed the arterial spray), has been accepting handouts to facilitate his run for governor. That’s why she’s reassembled Ani, Paul, and Ray as a confidential A-team investigating how high, and low, this mess reaches. It’s a chance for redemption for our flawed trio, but also an opportunity for Nic Pizzolatto to indulge his own counter-fantasy to the mayor’s, one where a few good men and women take down the one percent. And on True Detective (as it was last season), they do that by infiltrating a surreal world where underworld creeps and overlord scum straight out of every noir and action-movie cliché imaginable populate high posts and dark corners.
The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams sees a parallel between Bezzerides’ plight and the turn the story takes with this episode:
Ani’s new assignment is fitting for “Other Lives,” seeing as the episode’s strongest material involves sifting through and reassessing information about the Caspere case. It’s a good week to have Buzzfeed’s recently published True Detective primer on hand, if only to refresh your memory as everything we know about the Caspere case begins to intersect and gnarl into an ugly portrait of city-sponsored blackmail, a high-end prostitution ring, and cops getting duped into settling gangland grudges. This is the sort of propulsion True Detective will require to reach the finish line—and for all of “Other Lives”’ faults, the episode plays its connections and reveals thrillingly. Some of the information comes out in excessive amounts—confronted by Ray, Dr. Pitlor spits out dirt on the Chessanis and teeth in equal measure—but it’s a remarkably efficient use of the clues that season two has left scattered across California. To say it all hinges on the camera and hard drive that was taken from Caspere’s place would be a gross simplification, but there do seem to be a great many people interested in what the city manager was hiding in that closet. And so a redemption arc begins to form around the three heroes of the Vinci massacre, their uneasy alliance re-formed by state’s attorney Davis, who’s watching as her boss leverages the detail’s previous findings into a gubernatorial bid. There’s a “getting the band back together” jolt to her plan, but it’s dampened by the limited amount of character and relationship work in previous episodes. Why does it matter that it’s these cops joining forces again, beyond their shared, tenuous connections to the case? Ani and Ray meet up at the bar earlier in “Other Lives,” and Ray asks about Paul during their conversation, but it’s hard to get too excited about the reunion of people who are still struggling to define what they mean to one another. And so True Detective season two practically starts over from scratch, the detail reconvening in secret to solve Caspere’s murder on their own terms. It’s an awkward spot to launch a new investigation, considering the show only has three more episodes to wrap things up. The speed with which “Other Lives” works suggests it can be done—provided its focus is on pulling the threads of its conspiracy together and following the heap of clues in front of the detectives. (Emphasis on “detectives,” honoring the wishes of Paul Woodrugh, a detective too true to presume that his mom might swipe $20,000 from a backpack hidden in her home.) And if there’s anything that season two can do to differentiate itself from season one, it’s bringing its central mystery to a completely satisfying conclusion.
Chris Ryan of Grantland suggests that series creator Nic Pizzolatto is more interested in the characters than the crime this season:
I think Pizzolatto wanted to make a show about a bunch of people that the world has chewed up and spit out — that were maybe never supposed to have been born, or aren’t quite sure if they’re alive — and he just happened to tell that story while also trying to conjure up a mystery. You can tell which part of this he’s more interested in by the way his characters talk about the mystery compared to the way they talk about themselves and each other. The crimes are summarized; the characters are explored. Everyone knows themselves so well: Frank claims to have been born — no, “drafted” — on the wrong side of a class war; Ani sarcastically acknowledges that she should do a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” They know so much about themselves, and they know s— about the world around them. The Caspere Conspiracy is described in keywords; these characters speak about their interior lives in a kind of poetry. The merits of that poetry are debatable; where Pizzolatto’s interests lie is not.
And The New York Times’ Gilbert Cruz zeroes in on the question everyone watching this season is asking:
There are three episodes left in this season of “True Detective,” and there is one mystery I’m almost certain will not be solved, even though it is one of the most curious and baffling pieces of this whole sun-drenched noir puzzle. What is the deal with that bar singer? How often does she play? Does she work for tips or a flat fee? Is she the only singer that works that stage? If not, does the Black Rose advertise in the Vinci alt-weekly (“The Vinci Code”?) with a calendar of events that lists other singers? Is she an opener or the main event? Is she a bartender who breaks out her guitar only on slow nights? If that were the case, why would the bar have two bartenders when it’s slow, which it always is? Does she only sing songs that sound sadder than Fuzzy from “The Cider House Rules” singing the entirety of Sufjan Stevens’s album about his dead mother?