Last week, when consoling a young boy whose father had died, Frank Semyon told him, “Sometimes a thing happens that splits your life. There’s a before and an after.” As this sprawling, complicated mess of a season rounds third base, True Detective is finally easing up on the question-asking and getting into some question-answering, as the mystery starts to get a little less mysterious and the characters begin to settle into what the “after” is going to look like.
Unfortunately for Taylor Kitsch’s closeted commando Paul Woodrugh, the after is going to have to be the afterlife, as he’s mercilessly gunned down by Lt. Burris (Velcoro’s former superior) in the tunnels under the city after connecting Chief Holloway to the 1992 diamond heist that set so much of this season’s plot in motion, and learning that his wartime hookup was in on the Big Conspiracy the whole time.
More fortunately for Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), it appears the “after” might include Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who is apparently damaged enough to consider an “after” with Ray Velcoro.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn)’s “after” is a strange blend of hope and defeat; after learning just how throughly he’s been betrayed by everyone around him – including his beloved Stan – and being notified that Osip, his former partner in the land deal, has stolen his club and casino out from under him, Frank burns them both to the ground, possibly to go work at Applebee’s with his wife, who recommends the shift meal.
The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams suggests that the episode ties the whole season together:
In addition to putting everyone else on their toes for the rest of the episode, Blake’s confessions to Frank crystalize a theme for season two. In the worlds of legitimate business and “legitimate business” alike, everybody’s looking for their chance to step up—to show they’re a good man, to find justice for people who might not be asking for it, or to show they’re worthy of a better role within the organization. And it’s the people seeking that opportunity at the expense of others who drive the majority of the action this season. Ben Caspere was part of a brotherhood that bought its way out of the Los Angeles police force and into cushy jobs with the most corrupt municipality in California. Caspere then hooked up with two shadier strivers, Osip and Tony Chessani, but that plan to leap frog to a higher echelon in the Vinci house of cards didn’t sit well with his brothers in arms. He wasn’t watching every piece on the board, and neither was Frank, whose diminished criminal empire has been swept out from under him by Osip. Only in the clear light of day, as the sun shines in on his office and Blake bleeds out on the carpet, was he ever made aware. It’s one of the great frustrations of True Detective’s second season that six-and-a-half episodes had to go by before this type of conclusion could be reached. The anthologized miniseries is a format that’s still being perfected, but the early portions of this season proceeded like the show had far more time than had actually been allotted to it. Those episodes have built to an exciting climax, but it’s a lot of sloppy puttering in exchange for an edge-of-your-seat payoff. When television traditionalists rail against serialization, this is the type of thing that draws their ire: The final picture might be something, but its components are smudgy and inconsistent and only one or two could stand as their own, smaller pictures. (Also, for some maddening reason, the artist called a mulligan at the halfway point.) True Detective season two wants you to be watching the whole chessboard at all times, but it’s playing chess by mail—you have to wait at least seven days to find out what meaning (if any) the previous move had, and the entire game lasts two months. Unfortunately, it’s only in the last two weeks that the show has delivered anything that makes the next move worth anticipating. With Ani and Ray on the lam, Paul potentially out of the picture, and Frank watching his world burn (while sitting on a stockpile of cash and weapons), “Black Maps And Motel Rooms” sets up one explosive checkmate.
Grantland’s Molly Lambert caught onto a different theme, expressed by Ani’s sister in slightly coarse language, in the Bezzerides/Velcoro union:
Everything is f—ing, at least in the sense that the Gordian knot that functions as a plot this season hinges on the unsubtle act of sexual intercourse. Tony Chessani established his power base in Vinci through his uncanny ability to plan and execute top-notch orgies. Ben Caspere’s perversions made him easy to manipulate. Paul Woodrugh’s unwillingness to confront and accept his own sexuality led to his untimely demise. And who can forget Frank’s early-season erectile dysfunction? But it was the breaking of the simmering tension between Ray and Ani that finally gave this series a seemingly tender erotic coupling. Our remaining true dicks hooked up last night after having a horniness standoff throughout the episode. Vapechel McOmbre and Colin Farrell have great chemistry, and watching them just circle each other was fun. It was also fun watching Ani shed her uptightness in a natural way, because it was fun to watch McAdams play it. And the way it unspooled didn’t feel preordained. Wondering whether they would go for it was actually suspenseful. The Bezzerides and Velcoro plotline recalls the strengths of the first season, which was, ultimately, a sort of romantic buddy cop show. That first run of eight episodes told the story of two broken men who come to realize that the only path to redemption available is through the other. Detectives Papania and Gilbough were couples therapists negotiating a breakup and finding a way forward via interrogation, questioning, and confrontation. Hart and Cohle fell for each other because misery loves company, man. Season 2 is also a love story, but without the bitter divorce. Yet again, two depressed loners discover a reason to live while solving a murder. Only this time, the love is consummated, but not without a few false starts along the way. Having made the mistake of turning her work partner into a bedmate before, Ani is believably torn about whether to go through with it. And the fumbling back and forth between two people who clearly want each other, but at slightly different times, felt real. Ray and Ani are the ultimate noir pairing — just a couple of lonely, screwed-up people in this lonely, screwed-up world finding temporary sanctuary in each other. It’s the perfect note to hit in a story that’s a pastiche of every SoCal detective yarn of the past. This season of True Detective is like Chinatown mated with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mulholland Drive, L.A. Confidential, The Big Lebowski, and Short Cuts in a giant, multi-room, MDMA-assisted Toontown sex romp.
Salon’s Sonia Sariya picks up that thread:
Ani’s stuck in a notion of what “f—ing” is or means, because she’s an abuse survivor; in these two episodes, we see her all over the board with it, from profession to personal hell to escape mechanism to actual human connection. Her scene with Ray is kind of a reversal of last week’s much-hyped orgy—the one she shames Athena and Vera for being a part of. That was a theater of violence and exploitation heightened by stylized sex, drugs, alcohol, and fetishwear, one where physical intimacy was (at least for Ani) perverted by violence. This is an attempt at depicting physical intimacy without titillation or objectification; an attempt to frame sex as an act of love and connection—which it is, for most people, but is so awkwardly vulnerable that we are quick to cover it with irony. I noted that in contrast to the orgy, tonight’s scene is wholly clothes-on, with just a glimpse of the small of Ani’s back in one moment; they are almost buried in their clothes, their faces obscured by layers of fabric and their own hair. It brings to mind Rene Magritte’s “The Lovers,” where the kissing couple is shrouded individually in an opaque veil. Except in the world of “True Detective,” the more exposed physically the characters are—Paul, naked with Emily; Ani, in her underwear with the forgettable first guy; the many nameless whores—the less emotionally intimate they are. It’s only fully clothed that Paul and his friend from the war are able to interact; it’s only entirely covered that we see Ray and Ani able to connect. I don’t know exactly what that means, if anything, or if I find that presentation reasonable. But it’s a thread worth teasing out as we look ahead to next week’s 90-minute long finale.
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix, who’s struggled with the season so far, found this episode redeeming:
Knowing that Osip and Mayor Chessani’s son were the ones behind much of Frank’s misfortune, or that it was Blake who set up Ray to kill the wrong man, simplifies things slightly. But it’s the desperate bordering on hopeless circumstances that our remaining heroes (RIP, Paul Woodrugh) find themselves in that held my attention throughout the hour in a way that so many previous installments failed to. It’s last stand time for Frank, Ray, and Ani, even if their agendas and enemies only overlap to a degree, and even if Frank’s situation seems far stronger in the moment than what the two cops are facing. Seeing the three of them (and, before he died, Paul) realize just how badly the odds have been stacked against them, and how many improbable things would have to go right for them to get out of it, made me finally feel engaged in seeing this story’s outcome, whether it’s a triumph of the underdog narrative, a nihilistic noir ending where the villains win and the heroes lose big, or some combination of the two (say, the cops surviving but Frank failing to make his escape to a new life). The dire context the protagonists found themselves in led to some of the season’s strongest sequences. Frank draining Blake of every last piece of useful intel before killing him was easily the best moment Vince Vaughn has had in this role, and one where his verbal dexterity was as well applied as his physical presence. Rachel McAdams was the best part of the show when things were pretty dire early on, and she’s continued to be strong here in portraying Ani coming to terms with what happened to her as a girl, how that shaped her into the edged weapon she is today, and how she’s screwed up so many of her relationships as a result of that. (Unsurprisingly, David Morse was terrific in the scene where Ani’s dad again had to face the horrific consequences his permissive world had on his daughter.)
And Vulture’s Kenny Herzog notes the season’s bleak worldview:
It’s heartbreaking when Emily watches Splendor in the Grass, which calls on William Wordsworth’s assurance that “we will grieve not/ Rather find strength in what remains behind.” Because despite Paul, Ani, Ray, and even Frank’s best intentions to wipe away their errors and leave a trace of something decent, there are unquenchable forces conspiring to ensure nothing remains but the rot and decay of their poorest choices and how they’ve ruined others’ lives. They’re the latest in a long line of scapegoats who’ve been systematically scouted for their weakness, exploited while useful, and then thrown under the bus as another distraction while they have their way with the world. Hopefully Ray and Ani will be vindicated, even if it’s reading from behind bars about how Laura and Leonard burned Burris and Holloway’s eyes out. Unfortunately, Paul will be remembered the way sad and lonely people are, still holding on to his secrets. And Frank may still have more he’s not letting on about. At least we’ll all know soon enough what everyone on this hotly debated True Detective season takes with them and leaves behind, now that only one chapter remains.