If we’re supposed to treat the first two seasons of True Detective as distinct organisms, a pair of unique stories that nonetheless share a creator, a tone, and a general subject matter, that notion receives its strongest challenge in “Other Lives.” The lead story of the episode is a little bit of history repeating: Just as season one followed the demise of Reggie Ledoux with some fast forwarding and second guessing, season two jumps forward from the so-called “Vinci massacre” to start raising questions of its own. The circumstances are strikingly similar, but following the first rounds of True Detective and Fargo, the surprise of “Other Lives” is muted. And with the same thing happening at the same point in the season, it’s almost as if the episode is arguing for a do-over on a signature element of season one.

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Even without the helpful TV and radio guideposts reminding Frank of his recent failures, the episode is upfront about its timeline acceleration. The Semyons have left their glass house for quainter quarters, Paul’s out of uniform, Ani’s stuck in the evidence locker, and Ray’s given up his badge (and his mustache). None of these developments are objectionable on the surface, and the choice to speed past the aftermath of the shootout cuts out any narrative dithering about how the characters arrived in their new stations. There’s just nothing novel about the hard reset of the status quo, least of all the suspicions that Ben Caspere’s true killer is still at large. And without the unreliable narrators of season one, it feels as if True Detective has reached the middle of season two only start all over again.

This would all be a lot more thrilling if the season had anything going for it beyond the Caspere investigation. As the detail regroups and the Semyons adjust to “Backslide City,” “Other Lives” tries its hand at a deeper character study—with tremendously mixed results. As it shifts gears, the episode tries to make the full weight of Ray and Paul’s legal troubles felt, but it’s hard when neither has been anything more than fodder for the detectives’ natural state of brooding. (The same could be said for Frank and Jordan’s pregnancy blues.) In Ray’s case, he’s having multiple rugs pulled out from under his feet: On top of the new evidence in the Caspere case, there’s a pending eviction and the apprehension of a serial rapist who’s a DNA match for the man who raped Gena. The latter puts renewed strain on the relationship that is the season’s rotten core, as the former cop realizes the once-and-future gangster set him up all those years ago.

The problem with scenes like Ray and Gena’s custody hearing or the blowup between Paul and his mom is that these biographical complications only mean something when the show needs them to mean something. Otherwise, they may as well not exist. There are so many players, mysteries, and motives in season two that’s it been difficult to give some of these personal issues their proper due—particularly with the limited-series clock ticking away in the background. And so “Other Lives” relies on histrionics when the story can’t conjure the drama on its own, a taste for emotional fireworks that peaks in Nancy’s trailer. It’s far from the proudest moment of Taylor Kitsch’s career, as he screams and slams his fist in a way that should be cathartic—like Paul’s breakdown on the sidewalk last week—but is mostly just a lot of impotent yelling over some stolen cash. The combatants each know where to poke each other to do the most damage, but even that is a moot point. Beyond the season’s halfway point, is there any reason to care about the showbiz dreams deferred by Paul’s birth?

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Ani’s new assignment is fitting for “Other Lives,” seeing as the episode’s strongest material involves sifting through and reassessing information about the Caspere case. It’s a good week to have Buzzfeed’s recently published True Detective primer on hand, if only to refresh your memory as everything we know about the Caspere case begins to intersect and gnarl into an ugly portrait of city-sponsored blackmail, a high-end prostitution ring, and cops getting duped into settling gangland grudges. This is the sort of propulsion True Detective will require to reach the finish line—and for all of “Other Lives”’ faults, the episode plays its connections and reveals thrillingly. Some of the information comes out in excessive amounts—confronted by Ray, Dr. Pitlor spits out dirt on the Chessanis and teeth in equal measure—but it’s a remarkably efficient use of the clues that season two has left scattered across California. To say it all hinges on the camera and hard drive that was taken from Caspere’s place would be a gross simplification, but there do seem to be a great many people interested in what the city manager was hiding in that closet.

And so a redemption arc begins to form around the three heroes of the Vinci massacre, their uneasy alliance re-formed by state’s attorney Davis, who’s watching as her boss leverages the detail’s previous findings into a gubernatorial bid. There’s a “getting the band back together” jolt to her plan, but it’s dampened by the limited amount of character and relationship work in previous episodes. Why does it matter that it’s these cops joining forces again, beyond their shared, tenuous connections to the case? Ani and Ray meet up at the bar earlier in “Other Lives,” and Ray asks about Paul during their conversation, but it’s hard to get too excited about the reunion of people who are still struggling to define what they mean to one another.

And so True Detective season two practically starts over from scratch, the detail reconvening in secret to solve Caspere’s murder on their own terms. It’s an awkward spot to launch a new investigation, considering the show only has three more episodes to wrap things up. The speed with which “Other Lives” works suggests it can be done—provided its focus is on pulling the threads of its conspiracy together and following the heap of clues in front of the detectives. (Emphasis on “detectives,” honoring the wishes of Paul Woodrugh, a detective too true to presume that his mom might swipe $20,000 from a backpack hidden in her home.) And if there’s anything that season two can do to differentiate itself from season one, it’s bringing its central mystery to a completely satisfying conclusion.

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Stray observations

  • If you cannot afford an attorney, HBO will provide you with one—in the form of Matt McCoy, who follows Pied Piper’s come-from-behind arbitration victory on Silicon Valley with a stint as Lacey Lindel’s lawyer in “Other Lives.”
  • You can tell that the 66 days after the shootout have been tough on Ani, because she’s given up her e-cigarette for the real thing.
  • Episode MVP: Guerneville Jesus

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