“Other Lives” is a really satisfying episode of “True Detective.” I’m not wholly sure of the significance of everything I saw, but there’s something nice about that ambiguity; “True Detective” is offering a mood of suspended curiosity that is exactly the kind of thing you want from a chapter of a good mystery. Though it is perhaps not Nic Pizzolatto’s intent that I’m more curious about the characters at this point than I am about the case they’re investigating; as interesting as seeding railway territory with toxic waste is, it’s not quite as horrifying as Southern cultists torturing children.
Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that Pizzolatto’s grand opus on California, which is what Season 2 of this show is sort of trying to be, is largely a meditation on the environment. I can’t recall if anyone on this show has ever said or even thought the word “drought,” but they don’t need to; you can feel the arid atmosphere hanging in the air. The rail line that the government officials and state developers are salivating over is an analogue of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which was funded in part by a massive grant from the federal government. Frank is focused on the money—the rail project is a billion-dollar infrastructure sink, and somebody’s getting that cash—but most of us, anyway, would be focused on the output. High-speed rail is an environmental initiative—a thing being built to combat the endless stretches of freeway concrete that tangle over the greater Los Angeles area.
The camera of “True Detective” is always showing us those highways, either by slowly panning over them in somewhat ironic wonder or giving us the storytelling of two cops inside a car, or careening wildly on a motorcycle. The characters in this show are always moving up and down the coast, restlessly, shiftlessly, searchingly—and, in what is a very American quirk, they are always doing so in a car. At least three hours in a car from L.A. to Fresno, or as the characters vaguely call it, “north.” The sweeping overhead shots of the city—punctuated this week by views from skyscrapers of the sprawl of Los Angeles, and Frank spinning the model of downtown that rested on the crooked developer’s desk—mostly serve to remind the viewer how lost the protagonists are in this particular concrete jungle. In the first season, Rust and Marty were lost in the near-jungle of Louisiana, looking for one scarred man like a needle in a haystack. In this season, Ani (mostly) is looking for one woman in the diametric opposite of the swamp—a desert full of people and buildings—but the sense of isolation and futility is still the same. A train is a lot of people on one track, going somewhere fixed. Cars are a lot of moving parts, scattering in untold different directions. It’s independence and freedom, but also individuals pared off from the whole, from the straight-and-narrow.
It’s worth pointing out that Pizzolatto’s story literally taints the ground the railway is being built on with heavy metals, implying that there is no form of human progress, no matter how high-minded, that could really be progressive. In the visual language of the show, the people who make deals about the railway line are all white men in suits (including Frank). And in the story of “Other Lives,” the only person whose efforts really run counter to the inertia of corruption is Ani, who is rapidly becoming the show’s hero (insofar as a show like this could have a hero). It’s Ani who won’t let the case drop, even though she’s been relegated to evidence; it’s Ani who is driven by the fact that no one else around her cares that a Latina woman is missing. (And without saying too much, the preview for next week’s episode demonstrates some real action-adventure on Ani’s part, worthy of a Bond movie.)
Mostly, though, what’s satisfying about “Other Lives” is that there’s some actual meat on the bones of the story; it’s not just insinuation and cigarette smoke furling into a dark bar. Sixty-six days have passed since last week’s episode, and that means the mystery has had a little bit of time to percolate. Every character faces a metaphoric firing squad—Paul with IA, Ani with sexual harassment training, Ray with a custody hearing, and Frank with encroaching rivals. No one is satisfied with the neat fix of “the Mexicans” for Casper’s death, including Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt, whom you might recognize as Brianna Barksdale, D’Angelo’s mother, from “The Wire”). (I could not entirely catch if Katherine is herself the state’s attorney or is a rep from the SA’s office, but either way, that’s where the mandate is coming from.) And so, like Ani, she is pushed to move counter to the inertia of corruption that has saturated everyone else (including Ray, Frank and Paul): She forms a task force. Ani’s on it, as is Paul—motivated, apparently, by a need to be back in the field, and little else (although I suppose that money plot could be motivation; that, or repressed sexuality pushing him to near-danger whenever possible). And Ray is bullied into it through his one weak point—his wife’s rape, symbolized by his son. I am still extremely irritated with the fact that this is actually Ray’s weak point—once again, Abigail Spencer is right there—but it did not surprise me that both Paul and Ray might be manipulated onto the task force by personal interests. “True Detective” Season 2 is focused on masculinity, but it’s demonstrating a lot of examination of masculinity’s frailty, too; only the women in the story are depicted as having a sensibility of compassion for others, outside of their own survival.
That might be why the episode is called “Other Lives.” Frank and his wife, Jordan, quarrel about his business in the middle of this episode, and as usual, she reveals herself to have his number—making a few quick and cutting observations about his own tortured relationship to his childhood as a way of skewering his current machismo. She wants to adopt because she could perhaps foster a kid that was in the same situation Frank once was in. That same impulse, twisted through incredible bitterness, comes out of Paul’s mother’s mouth—Nancy, played by Lolita Davidovich. “I carried you for nine months and I’ve been carrying you ever since,” she spits, observing that she sacrificed her career for her son. “You could have been a scrape job.” And in between both infertile and regrettably fertile is the currently incubating Emily (Adria Arjona), four months pregnant. Motherhood is a chosen sacrifice for someone else’s life, reads the not-so-subtle subtext—because abortion is brought up for each story line. Nancy didn’t undergo the scrape. Emily still could. Jordan did too many times, and in her mind, that’s why she can’t conceive (though in reality, that is highly unlikely). Indeed, infertility and conception are also at the root of Ray’s story with his son; and as others have noted already, Ani’s full name is Antigone, who was in Sophocles’ tragedies the daughter of the king Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. There is an intense anxiety at play here about motherhood, masculinity and paternity—centering, interestingly, on a woman who has no children, but who has a complicated paternal relationship of her own. In her play, Antigone is executed for trying to do right by her dead brother. So that doesn’t bode super well for Ani, does it. Or as her former partner says: “Somebody trying to do you, girl.”
The setup for next week is intense: Ray has that hard drive, as far as I can remember, which would make Frank interested in him; based on the big lie Frank sold him several years ago, Ray has some interest in Frank, too. Meanwhile, Ani and Paul have found a cabin stained with blood way out in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a party to go to. I’m not 100 percent sold, but “Other Lives” has me excited for what comes next.