This far into its second season, it’s now a foregone conclusion that True Detective has forfeited its status as one of contemporary television’s great shows. The remaining two episodes would have to each count themselves among the greatest hours ever broadcast to redeem the sheer amount of inertia and waste we’ve trudged through thus far. No, all True Detective can hope for at this late stage are moments, fleeting shards of promise emanating out of the abyss of tedium. “Church in Ruins,” it must be said, has at least a few such moments. By this season’s standards, that almost looks like a triumph.
The first moment comes early on, as Velcoro and Semyon sit across a kitchen table from one another, guns in their hands just underneath, and have a tense discussion about the man Semyon once handed Velcoro for the price of the former cop’s loyalty and soul. Velcoro now knows that this man was not actually responsible for his wife’s attack, the question now becoming whether or not Frank knew that. Frank claims that he did not, and say what you will about Frank, he doesn’t seem like the sort who would be compelled to lie his way out of a jam. His claim of ignorance seems genuine, enough that Velcoro opts to stand down. Now Velcoro wants whomever it was that fed Frank that patsy, something Frank will only provide if Velcoro can deliver on Frank’s own pet cause, the retrieval of Caspere’s incriminating laptop. Thus this precarious partnership is instantly back up and running, and while Frank fires off a parting threat to Velcoro, he also concedes that the man is the closest thing he has left to a friend. It’s not Rust and Marty no matter how hard you squint, but the prickly relationship between these two remains the only mildly intriguing character combination we’ve got.
Velcoro also gets the next worthwhile moment as well. He’s been reduced to supervised visits with his son, with the boy reacting to Velcoro’s heartfelt declarations of love with apathetic detachment. Velcoro suddenly realizes that he’s lost this cause. He will never gain actual custody of this kid who clearly regards him as unpleasant burden. After engaging in the sort of bender that would kill any normal man, Velcoro breaks down and calls his ex-wife, stating that he will agree to abandon the custody battle and never see his son again on the lone condition that she never reveal the results of the boy’s questionable parentage to him. His son’s enduring belief that Velcoro is his father is all this broken man has left to defend, and his ex is all too eager to accept these terms. It has been virtually impossible to care about any of the Season 2 characters on any emotional level, and Colin Farrell’s performance as Velcoro has been frequently uneven, yet this scene manages to be successfully heartbreaking, and Farrell nails it. It’s the first time anything to do with this custody battle thread has borne fruit, and the impact hits so hard that it almost makes this dire subplot worth the time spent.
The final moment of true merit plays out over the episode’s climax, with Bezzerides infiltrating one of the orgies frequented by the influential men with whom Caspere was involved, under the guise of a Russian prostitute. Drugged and escorted onto a bus full of women to a secret location, Bezzerides is left virtually defenseless as Velcoro and Woodrugh track her movements and search the premises for clues. They find a list of incriminating contacts, filled with the names of many powerful men. Bezzerides, for her part, locates Vera, the missing young woman she had been searching for, and attempts to escape with her in tow, ultimately forced to use the knifing skills we see her practice earlier in the episode to wound a potential john and murder a security enforcer. As with the big shootout a couple of episodes back, Bezzerides letting fly with her blade momentarily allows the show to wrest itself free from its default mode of turgid enervation.
So while “Church in Ruins” has a few things going for it, most things, as per usual, are going the other way. Someone should have told Pizzolatto that shady land deals don’t make for arresting television, even when you sprinkle in whitebread versions of Eyes Wide Shut debauchery. The weird gothic murder mystery of Carcosa and the Yellow King were so absorbing last year, so why did he get it in his head that a lukewarm riff on Chinatown would make for a suitable follow-up? The show also continues to convey the impression that Woodrugh was perhaps one character too many, since nothing about the character’s personal life nor Taylor Kitsch’s performance is clicking whatsoever. As True Detective lurches toward whatever conclusion this morass of monotony will ultimately arrive at, it’s going to need however many more stray moments of passing interest it is able to summon to momentarily distract from the countless moments in which it utterly failed to do so.
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