Were the seeds planted? That’s the key thing about heel turns, I’ve learned from a half-decade of following professional wrestling intently. Sure, you can take a good guy and make him evil out of nowhere for the cheap heat it generates in the crowd. But the best turncloaks showed hints of turning those cloaks long before — a sharp glance, a pointed silence, studied ambiguity in their words. That way, even if you never saw it coming, you can go back and review and realize that, on some level, you knew it all along. It’s as satisfying as it is surprising.
So, were the seeds of Hank Prior’s murderous corruption planted, before he turned his gun on Liz Danvers and got his brains blown out by his own son at the end of this week’s True Detective? Depends on how charitable you want to be. It’s true that he slow-walked returning the Annie K. files to Liz, forcing Pete to steal them for her. It’s true he was pissed about it when he found out. It’s true that he’s a good ol’ boy compared to the other cops, somehow. And it’s true he resents Liz for being his boss, and also being an asshole.
But none of that necessarily points in the direction of him taking direct assassination orders from mine owner Kate McKitterick, as well as serving as an accessory after the fact in the murder of Annie K. herself. He and Liz wouldn’t get along at the best of times given their personalities, and having her brought in over your head to become chief isn’t the best of times. Of course he resents her, of course he protests by slacking on the job. Does that get you to murder for hire? I’m not sure it does for me.
I honestly do see what co-writer and director Issa López was up to with Hank’s mini-arc in this episode. The scene where Pete hears his lonesome dad singing and playing the guitar for the first time in his life is one of the most quietly moving things we’ve seen all season. Same with the flashback of him hacking a hole in the ice to save his drowning, freezing son. Revealing him to be a colossal shitbird after we’ve spent most of the season thinking of him as a kind of hapless cringe-comedy character and most of this episode actually learning to love him a little packs a wallop, it really does.
But the Annie K. revelation was the bridge too far here. Just callously announcing you participated in the brutal murder that started it all, in front of a son you just said a minute ago had been turned against you by the woman you’re pointing a gun at? The Hank we’ve seen until now has shown no signs at all of being either that cruel or that stupid.
I know that this episode is set on December 31st and the time for Festivus has passed, but let’s air some more grievances none the less. Kali Reis, for instance — who is excellent, by the way — would be better served by material that gave her a chance to do something other than stoically grieve, angrily scowl, or do the sun-peeks-out-from-behind-a-cloud smile afterwards. Finn Bennett is given so much more to do as Pete — he’s a different person in his relationships with his dad, his wife, his kid, and his boss just for starters — that I find myself much more drawn to him, especially after what he was forced to do this episode. Navarro’s is it mental powers or mental illness journey being an unscary retread of countless such stories doesn’t help either.
Emphasis on unscary. The pointing, open-mouthed ghosts, the spectral whispers, the moody blue lighting…it’s about as frightening as The Ghost Whisperer. In general, it’s just not that intriguing a show to look at, unless you like teal tint.
The music selection remains brutally bad. Why on earth wouldn’t you let us just sit with the sounds of horror and grief in that room in Liz’s house where Pete kills his father after his father kills valuable witness Otis Reiss (Klaus Tange)? Why hit us with lyrics as sledgehammer blunt as “we live and die by pretty lies, we know it, we both know it,” as Pete and Liz, his fellow killer cop with a secret, hug each other? And why in god’s name would you use a spooky cover of freaking “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry to send us off until the final episode next week? It feels like a very specific sketch comedy gag.
There’s still much to recommend the show, of course. Little things, even, like the use of a man, Qavvik, in the “long-suffering wife” role for Navarro, just as Kayla is the long-suffering wife for Pete. You can see how much more interesting that character type becomes by flipping it to an unexpected gender in a simple apples-to-apples comparison of which character is more compelling to see on screen. Bigger things, too, like a continuation of the first three seasons’ running theme: The cops are agents and guardians of capital and its high priests first and foremost, which is what makes True Detectives such a rare and valuable commodity in the first place. I even like the push-and-pull with the original season’s mythos by now: the Tuttle family may be involved tangentially, but the spirals are an unconnected (?) local way to indicate the presence of thin ice. That’s cleverly done.
Most of all, Jodie Foster continues to make Liz Danvers feel like a person whose contradictions make sense in context. It tracks that she’s too full of herself to realize the damage taking Hank’s deputy son under her wing would do to his already fragile sense of self. It follows that the maternal instincts she’s systematically dismantled after the death of her son come back out when her various wayward children suffer real distress, that her tough love with Leah may be more tough than love but that there is still love there.
The oedipal energy of her relationship with Pete tough to miss too. After all, she’s a hound, and he’s the only man she’s actually close to in any real way, and she literally is the other woman in the relationship that broke up his marriage. Foster is a precise enough actor to hit just enough notes to suggest it, and no more. She’s terrific whether she’s bringing out the worst in people or, as she does in the final scene, begging Pete and Evangeline not to further fuck up their lives due to her involvement in them.
Huh. Going through the season’s positives, I’ve talked myself into liking the episode more than I did when I started. Like, Hank’s heel turn itself may not have worked, but everything that followed between Pete, Liz, and Evangeline (other than that song on the soundtrack) was gangbusters, both from a character perspective and to generate additional excitement for next week’s finale, when the badly shaken Liz and Evangeline will go off to finish their quest together. Sometimes, shows that stumble along the way finish much stronger than they started.
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