True Detective’s sixth episode, “Church in Ruins,” begins right where the previous one left off: Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon sit at Frank’s kitchen table, guns at the ready. (It’s the first of two Mexican standoffs for Frank this episode.) Ray’s found out that his wife’s rapist was just arrested, meaning that Ray didn’t kill him, as he thought, 11 years prior. Ray believes Frank set him up – got him to do his dirty work – and wants the truth. Frank, however, didn’t know Ray’s victim was the wrong guy either. Tensions rise and fall, and Ray leaves unsettled and unsatisfied.
Ray’s visit with Frank does not deliver much new information. The most the scene offers is further confirmation that Frank may not be as in control of his operation as he once thought, and that he’s not that bad of a guy after all – both ideas that Nic Pizzolatto has floated previously. The scene encompasses what True D has been all season: redundant, anticlimactic, cryptic, and unsatisfying.
Later in the episode, however, Ray goes on a triumphant bender that signals a shift in the show’s approach. Following an uncomfortable supervised visit with his son Chad, Ray gives up on maintaining relative sobriety, nearly finishing a fifth of whiskey, smoking countless cigarettes, and ending up nose-deep in a mountain of cocaine. Ray’s relapse is the centerpiece and turning point of “Church in Ruins,” and was exactly what the show has been missing all season. We don’t see just the aftermath of Ray’s self-destruction, we see it in action. Whereas Pizzolatto had been telling, now he’s showing.
After Ray’s moment of weakness, we see Frank do work. Yes, we saw him rip out Danny Santos’ gold grillz earlier in the season, but, then, he was overcompensating. Now, Frank is calmly in command, instructing his goons to torture Lito Amarilla’s righthand man. Frank needs to know where Irina Rulfo is, as he believes it will take him one step closer to Ben Caspere’s killer. Frank extracts some (flawed) information about Irina from the man, but, more importantly, we see why people once feared him; even though it’s likely that they don’t anymore. He’s not just some stilted old gangster who puts too much sugar in his coffee. He’s willing to look someone in the eye and watch them writhe in pain.
“Church in Ruins” reaches its climax with Ani Bezzerides’s moment of clarity. Ironically, her moment comes when she’s at her haziest: drugged and undercover at a party with men of affluence (organized by Frank’s rogue confidant Blake, and attended by the Mayor of Vinci’s son). Ani infiltrates the party to learn more about where Caspere spent his time, trying to get new leads on the cold case. Ray and Paul Woodrugh follow and use the opportunity to acquire some documents with “signatures all over ‘em.” At the party, Ani learns first-hand about the debauchery that had once been only alluded to nonchalantly; it’s not pretty. She manages to escape (with her missing person Vera), but has to kill a security guard to do so.
Ani’s reveal comes when she is physically unable to keep her guard up: We learn that she was raped as a child by a strange man whose face she sees in all the men at the party. He was likely a hippie at her father’s commune. Alhough her trauma is not explored in depth, we know now a bit better why Ani carries knives and doesn’t let anybody into her life emotionally.
“Church in Ruins” didn’t answer all of our questions. In fact, it created many more: The Mexican heroin gang returns and tricks Frank into a lucrative club-dealing gig for them; Paul talks to an old cop who adds little to the plot; and Frank consoles the late Stan’s son (but I can’t remember if we even met a live Stan). Still, as a standalone episode, it succeeded by not just treating the characters like figures in a story, but by portraying them as actual people.