No One Cares
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Character returns in a narrative are often constructed to be tantalizing jolts, intent on causing the audience’s attention to jump sharply. Ideally, these returns come at just the right moment, where their return not only makes the future exciting, but blends in their past in equal measure. True Detective itself used this device well in the first season, when Rust and Marty returned as physical presences in each other’s lives. The return of that nameless actress who accused Paul of trying to solicit oral sex is not one of those occasions. In an already complex and overbearing narrative that is simultaneously illogical and muddled, wasting time with that sequence was puzzling at best. Nic Pizzolatto’s scripts were often accused of simply not understanding women and even openly employing misogyny in his writings and despite the various strengths of the first season, those complaints were largely valid. Pizzolatto seemingly rebounded from that with Ani and Jordan Semyon, two of the more complex and realistic women in the series thus far (even though Jordan’s conversations are always with Frank and largely revolve around parenthood). But the exchange with the actress and an annoyingly similar exchange with Paul’s mother Cynthia proves that Pizzolatto still has a long way to go in truly solving that problem.
Aside from the obvious point of the vehemence vilification so Taylor Kitsch can continue to exhibit at most two expression in a single scene, there is a larger consideration that is coloring everything about True Detective this season. Pizzolatto simply, for the most part anyhow, doesn’t understand how to write characters who are interacting with his protagonists. In other words, his scripts are unable to find nuance and understanding between two people interacting with one another, thinning out a minor character entirely for the sake of serving a main one. On occasion he surprises, like the conversation between Frank and Jordan in the bar, but for the most part his writing tends to isolate the characters on the periphery for the sake of the ones in the center. The best example of this tendency is the conversation between Paul and Cynthia, which rests upon Paul hiding $20,000 he stole from Afghanistan in his room in a backpack, which might be third or fifth in the BuzzFeed list of “Top 10 Worst Places to Hide Things”. Since he never heard of a checking account or an unbreakable lock, Paul is aghast that his mother took his thinly veiled cash. The explanation provided for her can be summed up with “I assumed some of that money was meant for me.” To make her even more vilified in the time span of a second, she points out that Paul’s homosexuality was “weirdness”. And that’s a fraction of the problem on display.
Crafting an emotional connection with characters is one of the basic tenants of storytelling, as anyone with even a slim understanding of storytelling can tell you (a.k.a. an intelligent child after Pre-AP English). The emotional connection drawn by Pizzolatto’s script (Pizzolatto was a former literature professor, by the way) with Cynthia is a three-second explanation that she gave up her promising dancing career when Paul was born. And then she starts crying because, um, women are emotional? Or she really cares about the son whose money she stole and criticized his sexual orientation? Being a single mother in this country is a far more difficult job than anyone gives it credit for, but Pizzolatto never bothers to give Cynthia the courtesy of trying to understand the difficulties that she went through to raise a son stupid enough to hide his money in a backpack on an empty shelf. He gives her a couple of lines of dialogue that center around “It was hard” and the script walks away quite happily, content with providing what it thinks constitutes emotional construction for a character. Kitsch bangs the walls in anger, shouts with some half-felt obscenities and then drives away, leaving the audience to wonder once more why this character even exists other than to be a heavy-handed personification of Pizzolatto’s obsession with masculinity.
The same lack of emotional construction goes towards the other characters as well, who could have benefited from the time spent on Paul. You could even take out Frank as a key character and with the storyline revolving primarily around Ani and Ray, it could have worked a lot better. The episode opens with the carnage of the shootout, now labeled “The Vinci Massacre” before taking a sixty-six day leap (subtle, that number), which takes a similar tactic from the first season. Ani is stuck because of the sexual harassment case brought on her by her butt-hurt ex. Ray now lost his mustache and along with it, the desire to be an officer of the law anymore. He now instead works for Frank, which seems like the wrong job if you’re trying to go away from violence. Paul is now investigating insurance fraud, which sounds, well, I don’t care. Frank is now doing the Walter White thing of being drawn back into his life of crime, which other stories have done a lot better and with actors more suited to emotional expressivity. When you’re halfway past a season, you expect to care about the characters with a story. At this point, the only way I can actually care about any of the characters is if Ani takes her knife and stabs Paul and Frank to death. It may not be logical, but that doesn’t seem to matter much at this point, anyhow.
In that vein and espousing active misogyny, we arrive at Ray struggling with the paternity suit. Here the script focuses entirely on his pain while only bringing his ex-wife Gena to highlight how much this suit is hurting him in spite of her perfectly valid points about how unstable Ray is as a parent. The other primary couple on the show goes through a similar arc, even though Jordan has received more screen time than Gena. The conversation with the two of them in the bar is probably the most honest anyone has ever been with each other on this show, which isn’t a high bar to begin with. Frank, while dipping more than his toes back into the gangster business, refuses to acknowledge that word, plainly spilling it to Jordan that he doesn’t “mix with those”, which may be the height of pretentiousness. She rightfully doesn’t buy it for a second, before tearfully revealing that she had three abortions in her twenties that resulted in her becoming barren. See, it’s her fault that led to her pain, not his, and her pain is being highlighted in terms of how its affecting him. A minor couple are Paul and his girlfriend Emily, in which the obvious signs of Paul not really being into the whole marriage thing are so obvious it makes you think if she’s not simply going along with it for the sake of an easy transition. The gender dynamic mentioned above remains the same, however.
The largest question about season two at this point doesn’t even bother revolving around the characters because that trajectory seems to be quite lost. It centers around wondering how on earth all of the plot can be solved in three episodes. In that regard, the episode garners a few points by advancing the story significantly enough, if in rather uninspired fashion. In quick succession, the episode sets up the infamous orgy scene that’s been promised since production began with Ani involved. A confrontation between Ray and Frank is set up as being centered around Gena’s rape (not including her, I’m assuming) and the latter using it to use Ray in order to garner a friendly cop. And the most eye-rolling plot moment may be murders happening in an abandoned shed (hmm, where have I seen that before?) because… The California bureaucratic corruption bringing the main players together was a little convenient, but if it means we’re actually going to get somewhere, it’s at least something constructed through an interesting narrative thoroughfare. Other Lives perhaps meant well on focusing a lot on the emotional complexities of its characters, but if the emotional well is dry to begin with, there’s nothing left but the banging of empty pots against hard rock. Excuse the lack of subtlety in that metaphor, but it fits in nicely with the season’s set-up so far.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“I… promise to do a fearless and searching moral inventory.”
+“Pain is inexhaustible.” Well, have you watched your own show, Ray?
+“Crime is contingent on human desire.”
+“If somebody had taken care if you… you were saying no to who you once were.”
+“Nobody fucking cares.”
+The sequence of Ray beating up the doctor and revealing the human trafficking ring being connected to his cosmetic surgery practices was the best piece of characterization and plot the show’s managed the entire season
+Chessani and Caspere using their sex parties as blackmail tools
+“For a place you hate, you never really got that far away.” The sequence with Ani and her sister was not only notable for taking place in a light location, but genuine emotional construction
+Three of the four highway shots actually led into the corresponding scene. Progress.
+/- The sexual harassment sequence began well enough, but then it quickly devolved into a sequence of complete and utter bemusement. Its devolution into a caricature with dialogue that lacked all subtlety, which has been a real problem for the second season. Maybe it’s closer to real-life sexual harassment sessions, but it just rang as a hollow scene meant to make a point and little else. Rachel McAdam’s delivery was hilarious, though.
-The shot of Frank’s man checking out a girl was unnecessary
-“The ceiling’s gone.”
-“You don’t want to grow anything.”
Episode Title: Other Lives
Written by: Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by: John W. Crowley
Image Courtesy: TV flixstube