Things are finally clicking into place in this second season of True Detective. The five preceding episodes of character development and table-setting have revealed their purpose: to set up and inform this episode, by far the most engaging of the season. If the last two episodes can stay as focused as this one, season two still has a chance to go down as a worthy complement to season one.
Nearly all the best scenes in this season were packed into this one episode: Ray confronting Frank about the mistaken tip that set him on the path to corruption and self-loathing; Frank bonding with his murdered employee’s son; Ray trying to bond with his son, finally recognizing he’s damaged the relationship irretrievably, and walking away for good; Frank tracking down the girl who pawned Caspere’s diamonds, only to have her killed by his new partner because, “you heard her, she was working for cops”; Ray confronting his wife’s rapist; Woodrugh finding the incriminating contracts; and Bezzerides fighting through some bad flashbacks while flying on MDMA, only to locate her missing person and make good on her threat from a few episodes back: “A man of any size lays hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.”
Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins is happy the show finally showed the Frank Semyon it’s been promising all season:
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.
Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen confesses to wondering if Ani’s father might make an appearance:
And maybe he did? We might wonder if The Bearded Man is a specific entity; or some fantasy, constructed by Ani’s subconscious, to mask the real culprit; or if that entire “memory” of being lured by The Bearded Man into a hippie mobile to go hunting for unicorns is a myth, representing her feelings about her father, her childhood, etc. Or: The Bearded Man might represent multiple bad men from her Good People past. Mayor Chessani. Dr. Pitlor. Caspre. Dad? There was that icky moment when Ani spied a man pleasuring himself while he was watching another couple having sex. When she looked again, Masturbating Creep was replaced by The Bearded Man. If Bearded Man = All Of Ani’s Bad Men, perhaps what was being represented there was that Ani’s father knew about Ani’s rape or witnessed it.
Gwilym Mumford of the Guardian looks at how the orgy scene advances the season’s theme:
While Frank’s attempts at detective work look to have stalled, things are going better for the actual detectives, as Ani manages to infiltrate the mass orgy run by Chessani’s son and attended by what looks like the entirety of the Vinci elite, including Geldof, the former attorney general now running for governor of California; McCandless, the head of Catalyst, the land corridor firm Frank is hoping to rekindle his business interests with; and Osip, the Russian businessman who backed out of Frank’s land deal when Caspere died. With that rogues gallery in attendance, the orgy is just as sordid as you’d expect; women are bussed in to a mansion, told to hand over their possessions and given some MDMA – molly – to loosen them up. Cue a hellish sequence in which Ani stumbles through the mansion, witnessing sex act after sex act while suffering hallucinatory flashbacks of the abuse she suffered at the hands of a bearded longhair as a child at her father’s commune. It’s an impressively creepy scene, evoking Eyes Wide Shut and One Eyed Jack’s, the brothel from Twin Peaks, with the choice of John Adams’s woozy Harmonielehre as the soundtrack contributing to the lurching, dreamlike tone. Eventually Ani manages to escape with Vera, the missing girl she’s been tracking, but not before stabbing a security guard to death. That Ani suffered abuse as a child should come as no surprise: the theme of the sins of fathers visiting themselves on their children has been one of True Detective’s preoccupations this season. In this episode alone, we learn of Ani’s abusive upbringing, witness again Ray’s difficult relationship with Chad and see the effect the death of Frank’s lackey, Stan, has had on his devastated son. Not only that, but we also hear the story of how, in the LA riots, thieves broke into a mansion, stole the blue diamonds later owned by Caspere and killed the occupants, leaving their children parentless. Up to now, the notion that these events poison and corrupt the children who experience them has been inarguable, a flat circle of cause and effect cycling through the generations, from father to son and so on. But this week, there was a small counterargument against this fatalistic viewpoint. Speaking to Stan’s bereaved son, Frank suggests that he can use his father’s death as a motivation, a way of finding the “pure gold” inside him. It is these competing worldviews that I think will determine the eventual outcomes of our four leads: whether they will let those traumatic events continue to poison them and those around them – like Ani, running away from the horrors of her childhood and creating distance from the ones who love her – or whether they’ll confront them, “own them”, as Frank suggests, and emerge out the other side as more positive people.
The A.V. Club’s Emily Stephens picks up that thread:
The men and women—but especially the men—of True Detective are haunted by fatherhood: by their fathers’ failings, by their own failings as fathers, by their failings as sons and daughters. But in “Church In Ruins,” writers Nic Pizzolatto and Scott Lasser remember that not every hereditary visitation is traumatic. In one of his best scenes this season, Vince Vaughn shows there’s more to Frank than a wooden businessman or a grinning gangster. Speaking to the adolescent son of his late henchman, Frank tells the boy, “You got him in you. His fight is in you.” At first, it sounds like an echo of Ray Velcoro’s grim bits of fatherly wisdom, a rumination on a man’s innate self and the infinite reaches of pain, but Frank’s advice is a genuine gift to a bereaved child, an acknowledgement of his pain and a promise that he’ll live through it. “That’s what pain does. It shows you what was on the inside, and inside of you is pure gold. I know that. Your father knew that too.” It’s the obverse of the adult fears at the center of every episode: that the terrible secrets they hold inside will spill out for all to see. Frank knows what Stan’s son needs to hear because no one ever said it to him. Frank knows Ray Velcoro, too. After the revelation everyone but him saw coming, Ray bangs on Frank Semyon’s door, ready to kill him (or be killed by him) for his betrayal. Ray wants to think Frank is the devil who coaxed him to murder, who gave him a name to pin Gena’s rape on “because you knew what I’d do.” Frank won’t accept that. “I gave you a name and you made a choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting,” he says, and “I knew what I’d do. I didn’t know you at all.”
And calling this the best episode of the season, The Week’s Scott Meslow worries that the season has too much going on to resolve in its two remaining episodes:
But there’s still a bigger problem underscoring True Detective’s second season: I still don’t care who killed Ben Caspere, and I don’t think the show does, either. Don’t get me wrong. You can do the “single murder that leads to all kinds of unforeseen ripple effects for everybody else” thing. (Twin Peaks, a clear reference point for Nic Pizzolatto, did this extremely well.) Right now, there are at least a half-dozen balls in the air: Ben Caspere, the corridor land grab, the Guerneville cult, the Chessani family, the person who shot Ray, the person who sent Ray to kill the wrong man. That’s not even counting all the personal issues our four protagonists have yet to resolve: Ray’s ex-wife and son, Frank and Jordan’s desire to have a baby, Paul’s attempts to suppress his homosexuality, and Ani’s cocktail of personal, professional, and familial problems. What is True Detective’s second season about? With just two episodes left before this story is wrapped, I hope Nic Pizzolatto knows exactly how he’s going to tie all these strands together.