A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Church in Ruins is the most thematically connected episode of the season, where each scene for the first time feels planned, even if the logic of each sequence and or the predictability factors didn’t entirely click. The episode, at least theoretically, is centered around the idea of collapsing institutions and relationships that are supposed to be impregnable. Like a church, the institutions of marriage, parenthood, and governance are generally thought to be formidable ones that had the inherent capability of withstanding anything that came at them. But all of them are fallible and even if they don’t collapse into the dust with a mighty roar, the cracks are inevitable. And following the cracks, disillusion is imminent. Each character’s life is being collapsed underneath the institutions in which they’re ensnared and in certain junctures, there is simply a resignation to let the walls collapse. Certainly in that sense I’m giving the episode a lot more credit than it deserves, because the season simply hasn’t earned the amount of dramatic triumph it tries to present here. Every revelation that’s supposed to reveal something resembling palpable narrative strokes ends up feeling remarkably hollow, like the next chapter in a dull book that occasionally pulls an exciting plot twist. Church in Ruins is the strongest installment of the second season, even surprisingly downright thrilling at times in large part thanks to Ani finally using Chekhov’s knife. But the emptiness remains.
The episode begins where the previous installment left off, with Ray and Frank having the conversation about Gena’s rapist being caught last week and not being the man Ray had killed all those years ago. Here is a great example of how the episode has touches of thematic brilliance but executes them in an exceedingly poor fashion. Thematically the crumbling walls of a friendship born out of gratitude being represented in each individual pointing a gun at one another underneath the table sounds like a great idea. It just so happens that no one apparently taught the actors how to actually hold a gun in a believable fashion, to where I was legitimately convinced that the bullets would hit their thighs or simply fly through the top of the table. Seemingly convinced by Frank’s rather poor performance of trying to sound like he understands what the words “genuine emotion” represents, Ray goes to meet the rapist that was arrested. It’s a scene in which Colin Farrell tries really hard to provoke genuine emotion but narratively espouses such a weak emotional foundation that it falls flat. If a decent amount of time had been spent on constructing the relationship between Ray and Gena, perhaps it would have packed a punch. For now, it’s less emotionally exciting than taking out a freshly baked pie out of the oven.
The most successful element of the episode that managed to garner some genuine emotional connections from its characters continued Nic Pizzolatto’s obsession with masculinity, here in the form of fatherhood. The initial scene with Jordan and Frank trying to comfort Stan’s widow is at the onset fairly poorly written and not just because Frank, as mentioned before, is fairly bad at displaying genuine, positive emotion. Time and time again, to the point where I feel I need to apologize to my readers for bringing this up yet once more, True Detective this season has absolutely no idea how to construct actual emotional resonance at least eighty percent of the time. It’s honestly quite pathetic that the show has to resort to an emphasis on how good of a guy Stan truly was via other characters’ dialogue, considering that he was on screen for about two seconds and then Pizzolatto thought “Oh crap. He was important!” But as hackneyed as that scene was, the subsequent follow-up with Frank trying to comfort Stan’s kid, perhaps seeing a future son of his own him, was the best scene he’s received and certainly it’s Vaughn’s best performance to date on the series. Personally, that scene was one of the few times this season where the emotional connection clicked for me and no doubt because I’ve had a similar conversation myself. The child’s initial response that he doesn’t want everyone to keep expressing sympathy might be one of the most honest moments of the series, but that desire for detachment doesn’t take long to give way to grief. When Stan’s child breaks down in tears, you can hear the final crack in the wall of fatherhood as it comes crumbling down. There’s a genuine despondency and comfort in his words to a child, mirrored heartbreakingly with Ray and Chad.
Fatherhood is an institution whose strength is often derived from the societal standards of the masculinity of man and in that context Pizzolatto’s obsession pays off in the narrative. Societal expectations of masculinity are inherently tied into the expectations of fatherhood, with the father often expected to be a formidable pillar of strength, a shield against all bad and weakness if you will. Ray clearly is nowhere near being that pillar. That failure as a father is something you see clawing away at him, ripping apart whatever is left and crafting a shadow out of a human being, a shadow that seemingly becomes more ephemeral by the minute. Ray and Chad sitting together and eating pizza doesn’t quite reach the emotional levels of him giving his son toys a few episodes back, but it is consequentially strengthened by that emotional strength existing and being understood. Ray’s lost in that moment and no conviction can build that bond back to what it was and far less so to what it ideally ought to be. The declaration of fatherhood falls on flat ears. The toys he gives him are in themselves physical representations of that expectation of masculinity that inherently demands physical strength and an espousal of violence. Chad’s response is a quiet, simply profound “It kills people.” But as much as masculinity is defined through the spectrum of physical strength, the emotional component is just as vital. For Ray, the strongest act of fatherhood he could commit was to in many ways leave that fatherhood behind. Subsequently, the scene between him and Gena was the strongest one yet between the two of them, where her emotional investment in their child is acknowledge and understood in a way the season had failed to do so far, even if Gena is still largely a plot device to further Ray’s emotional construct.
The centerpiece of the episode was the long-discussed True Detective orgy scene, which is a completely enthralling scene in one fashion and utterly disappointing in another. For one thing, on the basis of logic, the idea of Ani going undercover is basically unnecessary if Paul and Ray are going to sneak in anyway, but whatever (as it is, this isn’t going to end well for Ani’s sister, so that’s where we’re likely going). For another, the touting of an orgy naturally heightens expectations, so while I was perfectly fine with the show not going over-the-top on the sex part of the deal, to those who were expecting something closer to Game of Thrones or Penny Dreadful, expect a little disappointment. Miguel Sapochnik equips himself quite well, traveling through the haze of hedonism through Ani’s blurring eyes. The sex that is seen is graphic enough, but the camera largely refrains from condoning it in a titillating fashion, treating the affair with as much disgust as necessary. The exhilarating intrigue, however, is by far the best the season has executed. Each turn, at least at the onset, holds that promise of having a fantastic surprise just around the corner and it’s legitimately tense. Sapochnik’s crafting of the tension is buoyed significantly the knowledge of Ani being weaponless. The earlier scene between Ani and Athena lies was crafted to make that reality lie dormant yet looming in the back of the audience’s mind. The tension ratchets upwards, right up until Ani quickly grabs a knife off of the food plate in what was as slim of a window as it gets. It’s a great little moment and the payoff is suitably bloody and brilliant to watch.
But before the bloody payoff that arrives after Ani discovers the missing girl Vera Machiado, the scenes in the party cut in and out between Ani’s present and the episode in the past that crafted her into who she became. The idea perhaps was to bring those collapsing institutions of trust from her memory and craft a terrifying parallel to the corruption of the present. But while the direction and cinematography upholds its job, it can’t help but feel like an extremely predictable route to go down. That isn’t to say that sexual assault doesn’t have an enormous effect on someone’s life and their perception of the reality around them nor is it to say that that episode doesn’t drastically change the path of life the individual was on. But to reduce Ani’s journey, her at times difficult relationship with her sister, and the antagonism in her relationship with her father to that singular moment is a simple condensation of what was assured to be a fairly tumultuous and difficult journey. Perhaps that was the catalyst that spurred Ani towards a life where she wanted to uphold an institution to its righteous ideas of justice. But that catalyst, if that is the case, simply isn’t the entire picture and the show’s presentation of it being the entire picture is a shameless attempt to try to wrangle an emotional response from the audience. Ani is a character whose odyssey of life has been arduous and complex, a struggle for the dignity that was taken away from her in that van and at so many critical junctures after. Perhaps that moment was done in the service of dramatic poetry for the sake of a show that has become enamored with an artistry devoid of any intellectual heft, but it was great disservice to a character who deserves so much more.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Ani’s knife practice was pretty fantastic
+I liked the painting of a woman drowning on dry land
+“Well, I don’t really get art.”
“I just don’t understand why you work so hard to be alone.”
“I find it really doesn’t take that much work.”
+“Whatever the fuck. It’s a book club.”
+“That’s one off the bucket list – Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans.”
+The dark/golden hue color contrast was gorgeous
+ The line of a nation’s strength being dependent on energy & its capacity for war was a nice one
+/- The exposition of the stolen diamonds was fine, even if it carried little dramatic weight despite the foster child story that did evoke sympathy.
+/- The nail torture scene in a way was cool but also completely unnecessary
+/- Tonight’s episode brought to you by Miller Lite and Coke. The pizza company remains anonymous.
-The rum and coke scene (pun intended) was once again given a ton of effort by Colin Farrell but it didn’t play as anything but idiotic.
-The guard’s death was fairly telegraphed
-Molly is apparently available as mouth breath spray. Who knew?
-Irena’s death was utterly idiotic
-“These contracts, signatures all over them.” That is seriously one of the dumbest lines uttered in television history. Yes, Paul, contracts have signatures on them. What a dolt.
-“Full moon is the best time to ratify alliances.” What the ****? Are there werewolves involved in this now? May the highway help us.
Title: Church in Ruins
Written By: Nic Pizzolatto & Scott Lasser
Directed By: Miguel Sapochnik
Image Courtesy: HBO