It’s the pieces you take your eye off of that get you in the end. The second season of True Detective should know that well, what with its recurring tableaus of two people (one of whom is usually Colin Farrell) squaring off over a table, an invisible chessboard between them. Those tables are to season two what the front of the car was to season one, and we finally see someone playing a real game at one in “Black Maps And Motel Rooms,” though it’s not chess: Frank Semyon, dealing out multiple hands of cards and playing each one himself. In the moment, he’s both dealer and player, swindler and mark. Outside the walls of the casino, nobody is so lucky. Nobody’s allowed to see all the cards or the pieces or whatever you want to fit into this already tortured metaphor—like Frank missing Osip’s hostile takeover, or Paul not expecting to find Lieutenant Burris waiting for him outside the tunnels.

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Of all the guys implicated in the L.A. riots jewelry-store heist of 1992, Burris is the last one unaccounted for in “Black Maps And Motel Rooms.” Caspere and Dixon are already in the ground; Holloway’s down in the tunnel with the reconstituted Black Mountain boys. Paul learns of Burris’ connection to the diamonds and Caspere and seemingly every other shady dealing in season two right alongside the audience, in the info dumpingest of info dumps that Woodrugh, Bezzerides, and Velcoro conduct in their motor lodge home away from home. And yet, in the moment, he forgets that Burris is still out there—with reason to do him harm. Maybe he’s just distracted by all the images of martyrdom surrounding the circumstances at the Hall Of Records. First there’s Judas in the form of Miguel, then all that descending and ascending, the latter done in a shaft of particularly heavenly light. Everybody’s so concerned with being a good man (or an innocent person) in “Black Maps And Motel Rooms,” but Paul’s Christlike exit puts him on a level with one of the floor models for The Good Man.

But as we learned with Detective Velcoro way back when, you can’t count Paul out just yet. (Then again, if he survives and Burris turns out to be Bird Mask, dude should really find some new vital organs to aim for.) The same might be said for this season of True Detective. After discovering a sense of suspense in the home stretch of “Church In Ruins,” “Black Maps And Motel Rooms” keeps it up for another hour or so. It even shrugs off the patterns of earlier, sleepier chapters in the process: Previously, we’ve waited upwards of 50 minutes for gasp-inducing events like Blake’s fateful meeting with Frank or Ray’s disrupted meeting with Davis. Here, those two play out within a few minutes of each other in the middle of the episode, connected by an ominous dissolve. It’s thrilling to see True Detective shake itself out of a stupor like this.

Unlike the diamonds that figure prominently in separate storylines tonight, “Black Maps And Motel Rooms” isn’t flawless. There are briefings between the detectives that are so burdened with exposition as to be incomprehensible; it doesn’t help that the 11th-hour nature of these reveals requires the actors to speed through reams of details about Velcoro’s former commanding officers, the contracts (you know: the ones with signatures all over ’em), and Erica from the city manager’s office. There’s also the matter of Ani and Ray giving in to a sexual chemistry that spontaneously generates and rises to a boil all in the space of a closing montage. Both characters are wound so tight that they could probably use the release, but from a storytelling and relationship angle, their coupling feels perfunctory. (And if premium-cable titillation is all its going for, it doesn’t really register on that scale, either.)

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Still, the unraveling of the follow-up investigation following the detail’s biggest victory to date makes for a compelling watch. “Black Maps And Motel Rooms” shoves the personal bullshit aside for a week and really digs into the meat of what the detectives and the gangster won last week—and what they’re losing because of it. Ani infiltrated one of Tony Chessani’s “special events,” but she’s not the first to try to use what she saw there as leverage. Tasha, who met her unfortunate end in the hunting lodge from hell, managed to get snapshots of Tony’s clients and their activities prior to her death. Vera fills Ani in on that story, but refuses to tell it to a prosecutor, judge, or jury. The missing person is returned to the family who reported her disappearance, but like many people before her, she didn’t want to be saved by Ani. Another one of those reluctant rescues, Athena, has her life and her education placed in peril because of what her sister did in that mansion. With an APB issued for Ani (shortly before another is issued for Ray, in connection to Davis’ murder), the surviving Bezzerides are ushered out of the state.

With double crosses and betrayals lurking around every corner, that scene in which Athena and Eliot prepare for their trip to Oregon has an excellently queasy undercurrent. It’s the byproduct of so much sustained suspense: In a world where the one person who truly knew Paul is willing to sell him out, can we trust Elvis to safely escort Dharma Dad and Web Cam Sis to the Pacific Northwest? Ani’s former partner has no connection to the Vinci power structure, but that power structure has a long, long reach. The paranoia hanging over Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank translates to “Black Maps And Motel Rooms,” in which the culprits behind Caspere’s murder are narrowed down, but everyone can be suspected of underhanded dealings.

It flips perspectives on characters in intriguing and unsettling ways. When Blake spills his guts (and a few pints of blood), implicating everyone but Nails in Osip’s coup, doesn’t that cast Jordan in a different light? (She arrives awfully soon after Frank’s “secret war” talk with Nails…) That atmosphere of distrust also lends plausibility to Paul’s negotiation with Holloway, in which he seemingly gives up Ani and Ray in exchange for his own life. At the very least, we can take him at his word when he says “I don’t give a shit about either of ’em.” For once, the lack of meaningful relationships between the principals works to season two’s advantage.

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In addition to putting everyone else on their toes for the rest of the episode, Blake’s confessions to Frank crystalize a theme for season two. In the worlds of legitimate business and “legitimate business” alike, everybody’s looking for their chance to step up—to show they’re a good man, to find justice for people who might not be asking for it, or to show they’re worthy of a better role within the organization. And it’s the people seeking that opportunity at the expense of others who drive the majority of the action this season. Ben Caspere was part of a brotherhood that bought its way out of the Los Angeles police force and into cushy jobs with the most corrupt municipality in California. Caspere then hooked up with two shadier strivers, Osip and Tony Chessani, but that plan to leap frog to a higher echelon in the Vinci house of cards didn’t sit well with his brothers in arms. He wasn’t watching every piece on the board, and neither was Frank, whose diminished criminal empire has been swept out from under him by Osip. Only in the clear light of day, as the sun shines in on his office and Blake bleeds out on the carpet, was he ever made aware.

It’s one of the great frustrations of True Detective’s second season that six-and-a-half episodes had to go by before this type of conclusion could be reached. The anthologized miniseries is a format that’s still being perfected, but the early portions of this season proceeded like the show had far more time than had actually been allotted to it. Those episodes have built to an exciting climax, but it’s a lot of sloppy puttering in exchange for an edge-of-your-seat payoff. When television traditionalists rail against serialization, this is the type of thing that draws their ire: The final picture might be something, but its components are smudgy and inconsistent and only one or two could stand as their own, smaller pictures. (Also, for some maddening reason, the artist called a mulligan at the halfway point.)

True Detective season two wants you to be watching the whole chessboard at all times, but it’s playing chess by mail—you have to wait at least seven days to find out what meaning (if any) the previous move had, and the entire game lasts two months. Unfortunately, it’s only in the last two weeks that the show has delivered anything that makes the next move worth anticipating. With Ani and Ray on the lam, Paul potentially out of the picture, and Frank watching his world burn (while sitting on a stockpile of cash and weapons), “Black Maps And Motel Rooms” sets up one explosive checkmate.

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Stray observations

  • I’ll be working my own detail in the vicinity of Vinci next week (the Television Critics Association summer press tour); you’ll once more be in the capable hands of Emily L. Stephens for the season finale. I think I wrapped up any final thoughts I had on these seven episodes in the last two paragraphs of the review. It’s been a frustrating viewing experience, with some rewarding moments squirreled away here and there. Thanks for watching and reading along!
  • A nice bit of visual symmetry: The tight closeups on Ray and Ani’s face at the beginning of the episode are reprised at the end.
  • The real-estate model that Frank showed off in the season premiere now appears to have cocktail glasses and ashtrays mixed in with its miniature buildings.
  • I hope the season finale returns to the bakery. It looks like those criminals make some spectacular desserts.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but holding your lover at gunpoint is a pretty shitty time to lay the “If you would’ve just been honest about who you are” routine on him.
  • Jordan Semyon with a ringing endorsement for Applebee’s: “I worked at one once. They give you a shift meal.” (But is it a wonderful restaurant?)
  • Vince Vaughn line reading of the week: To Mayor Chessani, who’s too blotto not to be preyed upon: “Sober up, you might realize you’re getting fucked.”
  • “These contracts, signatures all over them” Pt. 2: The Search For Woodrugh’s Gold: “These pictures. Pictures of me.”
  • Paul’s mom and fiancĂ©e wind up watching Splendor In The Grass while their man is being gunned down. The film provides a fitting preview of what’s in store for the rest of the characters next week: “Well, like you, Bud, I don’t think too much about happiness either.”

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