WARNING: There are certain big spoilers that cannot be avoided when discussing this episode, so I suggest if you haven’t seen the episode to come back later.
It’s been a long uphill battle for this new True Detective, fighting through two slogging episodes to finally arrive at some sort of identity for the characters, the story, and the forward thrust. We have arrived both at the heart of the murder investigation, and the full realization of these people. I only wonder if the big moment at the end of the second episode, which is covered and explained and eschewed off to the side rather quickly here, was a bit of TV trickery to get people paying attention.
That’s right, Ray Velcoro is not dead, as anyone who has seen the preview clips of the season may have been able to discern. The gunshot to the gut was rubber riot shot, simply incapacitating him and not ending him. However, the shot was enough to knock him smooth out for several hours, pushing him into a bizarre, Lynchian discussion with his father (Fred Ward) – who is very much alive – and a young Conway Twitty dressed as Elvis, singing on stage at the bar Velcoro and Semyon occupy regularly. The sequence is cool, perhaps, but strange simply for the sake of being strange. Luckily, the episode doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the story, or spend too much time in some sort of purgatory dreamscape everyone has seen before. Instead, we dive headlong into the murder investigation, and Frank Semyon’s desperation begins to light up the screen.
I’m still not convinced that the murder of Caspar is really why we’re all here watching this story unfold. The details of the investigation never feel as important as the characters doing the investigation. Then, there is the slimiest mayor of all time, Chessani (Ritchie Coster), and his oversexed homestead, where Bezzerides and Woodrough head to try and pick up some clues. If any clues do pop up from witnessing the debauchery of Chessani’s home, it’s that he and Caspar most certainly occupied the same depraved sexual worlds.
Meanwhile, poor Ray Velcoro has finally seen the light after his near-death experience, and is dead set on changing a few of his bad habits. As the doctor tells him, it’s okay to have some bad habits, just don’t have them all. He wants off the case, he wants to lay low and perhaps get his life in order, but as the episode unfolds it’s clear that the damage has been done. Meanwhile, Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt), the lead investigator in charge of Bezzerides, is pushing her basically into the lap of Velcoro to try and get on his good side and figure out just how deep his corruption runs. This may be the dust lighting some strange sexual moments between her and Velcoro in the near future.
Kitsch’s Paul Woodrough also blooms a bit here, and his secret sexual past rears its head in several uncomfortable scenes. But the real star of this third True Detective episode is Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. Frank is about to crack, shaking down old extortion businesses to try and recoup some of the money he lost, trying to produce a child with his wife, Jordan, and putting the word out on the street that he isn’t nearly as straight and narrow as he wants to be, not yet anyway. His confrontation near the end of the episode with the street-level gangsters he is clearly trying to separate himself from shows off the nasty side of Semyon, and finally allows Vaughn to show his teeth in the role, a role that was rather boring and lifeless through the first two episodes.
Everything is beginning to come together now. Pizzolatto’s screenwriting doesn’t feel like lip service to a forced macabre world anymore, but a real examination into this new world. No matter how flaccid the big surprise with Velcoro may have turned out to be, at the same time I am relieved we weren’t privy to an extended dream episode that The Sopranos pulled off once, and everyone has tried to replicate since.