Credit where credit is due: in terms of sheer pacing and action, “Church in Ruins” would register as the most overall involving and consistently engaging episode of True Detective Season 2 thus far. The fleetness of the story is largely the work of director Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed the slightly underrated Repo Men in 2010, and his action-focused cutting broke through much off the overtly burdened atmosphere of Season 2. This goes especially for the last act, which sees Bezzerides infiltrating a corporate-criminal orgy in the woods, where her own history of sexual abuse comes bubbling to the surface as she finds herself in a hotbed of hoggish humping and violent womanizing. It’s a rattling, scary sequence, shot and cut to make Bezzerides’ panic, anxiety, and fury potent from the get-go.
Still, the long shadow of sex abuse has been hanging over Rachel McAdams‘ character since “The Western Book of the Dead,” and the revelation that she is a survivor of (or, at the very least, has been witness to) molestation and rape felt like mere confirmation of a secret every viewer knew. There was a similar feeling in the conclusion of Velcoro’s familial drama, specifically in the way the script prefaced his conceding to his ex-wife on custody in return for keeping the findings of her paternity test from their son. In the moments leading up to that phone call, Velcoro is seen snorting a small party’s worth of cocaine, downing at least one bottle of the hard stuff, and smoking tobacco or weed nonstop, all while the New York Dolls’ “Human Being” rages in the background. Beyond showing just how fucked up Velcoro has to be before he does something smart, the entire scene is completely useless, only placed in the episode to remind the viewers how pent-up and dark Velcoro is, as if there was a chance in hell the audience hadn’t pieced that one together yet.
As formally lean and engaging “Church in Ruins” is, the cast and crew simply cannot render co-writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto‘s overtly masculine banalities completely palatable, from that opening sequence with Velcoro and Semyon hashing out the death they’ve caused (which comes to nothing) to Woodrugh’s discussion about a break-in during the 1992 L.A. riots with a pickled ex-cop. The cumbersome backstory, rampant exposition, and the non-stop blathering about whether Velcoro or Semyon or Woodrugh is good or bad at heart slows the action and story down to a crawl, which might be forgivable if each plot turn wasn’t so egregiously drawn out. And even when the show attempts to be clever with its symbolism, it comes off as obvious and flippant, such as when Woodrugh gives off a hint of his complicated sexuality by casually practicing with the same knife that Bezzerides protects her own sexuality with so ferociously.
If there is a sense that this will all eventually become Bezzerides’ story, it’s only because the other storylines have grown so mundane and repetitive, traipsing around the same philosophical concepts of good and evil, the personal and the societal, the humane and the bestial. McAdams’ scenes in “Church in Ruins” are the most resonant and thoughtful in the episode by a mile, and she carries the final act almost entirely on her own. This is not to say that Farrell, Vaughn, and Kitsch aren’t putting in the elbow grease – they very clearly are – but the characters are so stagnant, so unimpressed and resistant to change by design that even these hugely talented performers can’t summon the pulse of life in them. McAdams’ character just happens to have more for an actor to chew on and, similarly, “Church in Ruins” markedly moves the story forward and offers more genuinely interesting scenes than the previous episodes, but doesn’t quite make one enthused for what will go down in the final two episodes.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism