True Detective S02E05 Recap: 'Other Lives'

The second season of True Detective has been shining a bright light with trying to criticize television on a weekly, episodic basis. This is a show that's trying to tell a concise story over the course of eight episode, yet still aims to deliver the kind of water cooler moments that have us talking the next day. Striking that balance was a hallmark of the first season, and it's becoming more and more apparent that they may have caught lightning in a bottle; and it didn't even work for the full season last year, since many would argue that it fell apart by the end.

Over five episodes in season 2 so far, we've seen opposite ends of the spectrum of the results that could be yielded from such storytelling. There was the now infamous Colin Ferrell death fakeout in episode two, a moment which has us heralding the show for being so bold as to kill off the main star as a product of its close-ended format, only to have many criticizing the show for instead using it as a cheap way to build interest when it was revealed he wasn't dead the next week (although I was personally okay with it).

Now, with "Other Lives", we're witnessing the fallout of the episodic/serialized blend of television yet again. Last week, True Detective ended on a jarring five-minute shootout which a lot of dead bodies, be it cops, gangbangers, or innocent bystanders. In my review last Sunday, I explained how it was inevitable that we'd compare it to the now iconic moment from season 1, in which Rust Cohle is dragged through a gang war in an attempt to corral a witness all while we witness the action through a mesmerizing seven-minute tracking shot. Season two's big set piece was pedestrian by comparison.

But I mentioned that I saw the good in it, in that it would clearly yield severe consequences for the plot and the characters. More than anything, True Detective has proven itself to be based in reality (albeit a dark, depressing reality), and that you can't shoot up the streets of a Los Angeles suburb without someone paying the price. True enough, a price was paid by everyone, as shown in "Other Lives".

It's been two months since the big shootout, and the people behind Casper's murder have used it to sweep their actions under the rug. It was assumed that the Mexican gangbangers were the ones that killed Casper, so the case was closed. We know that it can't be that simple, since there are four episodes left and finding them was just too simple. Nothing really added up, from their attitude in getting caught to the fact that their purported safehouse was a meth lab. Either way, a couple dozen dead bodies is an easy way to change the narrative, so it isn't long before Ben Casper is mostly forgotten.

In the meantime, there have been big changes for our characters. No one is in the same spot they were before, because of this big event. Frank is further in the hole with his business, so he's moved into a smaller house and is firmly entangled in the illegal business he was trying to get out of at the start of the season. We spend most of the episode exploring his marital problems with Jordan, but they eventually hash things out and decide to adopt a child.

Our detectives are all in worse positions because of the shootout as well. Paul has been taken off the field, still dealing with the actress who claims he traded sexual favors to get her off the hook for a driving violation. He's not in insurance fraud, wearing a suit and planning his family while dealing with his closeted homosexuality, and he hates it all, desperate to get back on the streets. Ani is in sexual harassment classes and cooped up in an evidence locker wearing a uniform while she tries to pursue the case. Ray, meanwhile, quit the force altogether so he wouldn't have to deal with the fallout, and has resorted to working for Frank under the guise of casino security. He's also still trying to keep a grasp on his son, as his ex-wife finally forces him to get that pesky paternity test.

So all four main characters find themselves in significantly different places thanks to what happened last week. That's called consequence, and you have to praise the show for ensuring that the shootout was meaningful. If anything, it sort of has that on the tracking shot from season one. As cool as it was, as purposeful it was in the moment, in the long run it was just this cool thing that didn't really have much of a lasting meaning. In fact, you could probably say that about a lot of things that happen in season one, at least in terms of action. For all its faults, season two seems to follow up on everything. And that goes for the detective work too. All the forgotten threads of season one are no longer. These cops are actually pretty good at their jobs, and its why they're forced into a shootout with crazed Tuco Salamanca wannabees. And they pay the price for having to gun them down in the streets.

The problem is that Nic Pizzolatto took a show that was vapid in its action yet meaningful in its themes and story, and flipped the formula on its head. Having important action with consequence and good detective work is cool, but what does it matter of the story is irrelevant and uninteresting? In "Other Lives", the gang winds up getting back together to solve the case once and for all for the D.A. lady who happens to be the one person who isn't corrupt. But what does it matter? Ray is only doing it for selfish reasons when he's offered a chance to keep his son. Frank similarly gets wrangled into it when he's offered land in exchange for finding evidence on Casper. Paul just wants an escape by getting back onto the field, yet those motivations are barely explained even in his lengthy family scenes. And Ani's just being Ani. It's hard to find the emotional through-line of why we should care about any of this, and that's tonally out of sync with the fact that Pizzolatto is taking great care out of crafting the mystery this season. It's like a really strong, tight episode of Law & Order: SVU only with a lot more scenes about why Stabler and Benson are unstable.

I did enjoy this episode a lot more than I did last week's though. Everything Ray was particularly good. I'm emotionally invested in what happens with his custody battle, and the stakes are raised even further when it's revealed that the man Frank sent him to kill all those years ago wasn't the man who raped his wife. That man gets caught, which infuriated his wife for a bevy of reasons which ruined their relationship. And which leads to an awkward confrontation between Ray and Frank at the end of the episode as he shows up at Frank's doorstep angrily and tells him they need to talk. Another shocking, conversation-inducing moment that may or may not pay off. That, in a nutshell, is True Detective season 2.

"Other Lives" gets 7.5 good-looking white men out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • RIP Ray's mustache. May you forever drink bourbon in heaven with Dixon and Casper's penis.
  • Is the actress's lawyer the same lawyer that Richard uses in Silicon Valley this past season?
  • That small, stoic Mexican in sunglasses and a black cowboy hat is going to be trouble for Frank, you just know it.
  • If this season was missing those weird, cooky setting moments that season 1 was great for, there was a man dressed as Jesus carrying a cross down the street in this episode, so there you go.
  • "What can I say, I just really like big dicks."
  • The only way to respond to this is by beating the shit out of whoever says it, so Ray reacts accordingly: "Your compensatory projection of menace is a guaranteer of its lack, and it says something about the depth of your misperceptions."