Four episodes down. Four to go. That’s one more than the amount of people still standing at the end of that brutal shootout Sunday night, which from here on out will be referred to as the mid-season massacre. You will recall another sequence of gunfire and explosions at the halfway point last season. That one, of Rust Cohle infiltrating a housing project and escaping with a man he had taken prisoner during the subsequent riot, was depicted in an awe-inspiring, six-minute tracking shot. Though the scene was technically amazing and immaculately composed, it still felt wild and dangerous. It was cinema. It had style.
The mid-season massacre, on the other hand, is notable for its lack of style. Each death was unceremonious and without preamble. The sequence as a whole was a stripped down, unvarnished bloodbath that made you wince even when a particularly scummy character took a bullet to the head. That approach reflects this season’s goals compared to those of the last. Season one, with sweeping visuals and philosophical ambitions, tackled the elemental conflict between good and evil, while this season has been more internal, more grounded, more about people than ideas — faces rather than landscapes.
That is the difference between the big screen and the small screen. The first season felt like a long movie (it spoiled us), while this season reminds us that we’re watching a television show, a traditionally talky medium with many characters. So let’s talk about that talk. There are moments in this season when the dialogue sounds stilted and overly sentimental. I blame Vince Vaughn, but the criticism has been directed at the other actors and certainly at writer Nic Pizzolatto as well.
To a certain extent, I agree, but the latest episode really finds its footing, embracing the TV format and consisting mainly of scenes of two people talking to each other across a table. It’s a slow, patient episode that favors relationships over advancing the plot. Velcoro and Frank even have something of a friendly conversation at their favorite dive bar. Frank offers him a job and Velcoro demurs. It’s actually kind of cute. What’s better though is the lull in the conversation when they turn their heads to acknowledge the musician performing on the barroom stage. That simple gesture makes the show’s setting feel lived-in. No one is rushing to solve a crime. They are just people acting like people would act in a bar. The haunting vocal melodies and louche chord progressions from Lera Lynn contribute to the authenticity.
When the episode does heat up, such as during the mid-season massacre, it is not at the expense of character development. The entire shootout serves as an efficient way to raise the stakes and solidify the bond between the three principal detectives, Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh, who survive by helping each other out. Throughout the episode, each one gets a little bit closer to the other, and each is disillusioned with their respective institutions.
Bezzerides is suspended from her position as a sheriff’s detective because of a sexual misconduct claim against her, even though it sounds pretty bogus. Woodrugh, taking heat from the media for alleged war crimes, struggles to see himself as an individual after having spent so much time under the authoritarian structures of the military. That he also is ashamed of being gay causes him to break down. Velcoro becomes more decent with every episode — letting Bezzerides in on certain information, being supportive of Woodrugh — but the show suggests that such decency has no place in Vinci. When he surreptitiously gives his son a gift, he speaks to the boy as if he’ll never see him again. The way the scene is edited makes it seem like Velcoro has simply vanished at the end of the conversation, like a ghost.
Each of the detectives now is something of an outsider with no one to go to for help but each other. It took a while, but we finally have a grasp on who these characters are. Even Taylor Kitsch, who plays Woodrugh and has been pretty stiff throughout the season, finally gets a chance to show some depth in this episode. Responding to the news that his girlfriend is pregnant, Woodrugh proposes to her and tells her that he loves her as a way to further ignore his sexual orientation. The lie he tells himself in this scene, and his utter failure to convince himself of it, is all up there on Kitsch’s face, and it’s tragic.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 16, 2015.