True Detective’s Second Season Is Brooding, Sour, and Totally Fascinating

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Vince Vaughn is a onetime crime boss in True Detective's second season. Photo: Lacey Terrell/Courtesy of HBO

“Am I supposed to solve this or not?” says Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) in True Detective when a superior asks him to get to the bottom of a disappearance in Vinci, California, a fictional community that is variously described as a “city of vice,” “a city, supposedly,” and “a co-dependency of interests.” That last phrase might be an alternate title for the second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series, which chucks the original’s swampy Louisiana hellscape for Southern California’s noir panoramas: chemical refineries, interstate cloverleaves, sad little bungalows. But we need to emphasize the word might. It’s too early to sum up whatever this thing is, and critics with common sense should know better than to try. They thought they knew what the original True Detective was when the network sent out the first four episodes back in 2013, and as Pizzolatto told critic Alan Sepinwall after the finale, the recaps retrospectively seemed like “chapters of a book … being reviewed before the whole book has been revealed.” That first season turned out to be something unclassifiable — equal parts film noir, Chinatown-style corruption parable, serial-killer potboiler, 3-a.m.-in-the-dorm-room-with-bong-hits philosophical inquiry, and buddy-cop comedy. And it climaxed with a bloody, ridiculous, yet kind of awesome installment that presented its hero, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, as some kind of cornpone risen Christ. But we can hazard some educated guesses about this new season based on the dialogue and images, as well as on Pizzolatto’s own comments in interviews, which make him sound like a philosophy professor grappling with the purpose or meaninglessness of existence and concluding, as he told Sepinwall, that “as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.”

Still, Ray’s question hangs in the air throughout the first three episodes: Is the criminal conspiracy he’s investigating part of a mystery that we can forget about once the details are made clear? Or is it going to be something like True Detective season one, a story that continues to intrigue and confound long after its end credits have rolled? The question does suggest at least one solid link between the two seasons, confirmed in the first three episodes of this new one: the pervasive sense that government is mostly a tool of corporations and rich men, who use it to construct official narratives that cover up their treachery and greed. The main characters in this new Detective are Ray, a divorced alcoholic whose wife was raped 12 years earlier and who doesn’t know if his son is actually his and would rather not find out; Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a onetime crime boss who shared information with Ray about his wife’s supposed rapist and now uses Ray as a brutal fixer; Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff’s detective who grew up in a seaside New Age commune headed by her father, a maxim-spouting guru (David Morse); and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a war veteran turned highway patrolman who gets suspended for allegedly letting a young woman out of a speeding ticket in exchange for a blow job. We don’t know if Paul is really guilty of what he’s accused of doing. We don’t know if the man that Frank identified is actually the man who raped Ray’s wife. Nor do we know the real story behind the tragedy that destroyed Ani’s family and turned her sister, Athena (Leven Rambin), into an internet-porn performer whose workplace Ani raids early in the first episode. We don’t really know, or can’t be sure of, anything except that this is one hell of a dark, cruel city, and Pizzolatto and director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) unveil its grimy corners with a mix of journalistic detail and visionary grandiosity.

The result often plays like a cousin of The Wire as directed by Michael Mann — the kind of series that presents its broken, brooding heroes as if they were characters in an opera about the many different flavors of corruption, institutional and personal. It takes everything so seriously that you have to laugh at it a little bit, then admire it for being true to whatever it’s trying to be and not really giving a damn what you think of it. You’ll probably miss the humor of the first True Detective — the needling banter between Cohle and his partner, Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart, that spawned a thousand memes and probably made the graphic violence and philosophical monologues palatable to a wide audience — but the brooding sourness of this one is fascinating in a different way, though it loses points for showing us a world that feels far more familiar than the one showcased in season one. When Ani, Ray, and Paul are drawn together as a unit, it takes a while to establish any kind of chemistry between them, because they’re all variations of the Mann-style, soul-sick badass.

Frank is instantly compelling, however, even though the story of a onetime crime lord trying to reinvent himself as a casino owner and real-estate magnate was told originally by cave people in the form of pictograms. All of the lead actors are fine — and Farrell’s mustache is so distinctive that I expect it will have its own show soon — but only Vaughn makes you feel the loneliness, desperation, and resentment that we’re told that the other characters are grappling with. It’s great to see Vaughn, who’s spent the last decade starring in knockabout comedies, reminding us that in the immediate post-Swingers era, he was positioned as a sexy, funny matinee idol with the domineering edge of a schoolyard bully. He channels early Vaughn here, and he’s magnificent, especially when the details of Frank’s distress become clear and Vaughn’s swagger is supplanted by anxiety. Frank went totally “liquid” to pay for his share of a real-estate deal that would develop a “golden corridor” alongside a proposed stretch of high-speed rail, and now his most important partner, a Russian gangster, is getting cold feet and might leave him on the hook for millions of dollars that he doesn’t have.

By the end of episode three, there doesn’t appear to be a mystery, at least not in the way that season one had a mystery; all the variants of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns have to do with the details of the criminal conspiracy that’s woven around Frank. What happened to the missing person? What is the dark secret at the heart of Ani’s family? Is Paul a put-upon good guy, or is he sick and deceptive? How will Frank come up with the money to stop the deal from collapsing? After sending Ray to rough up a journalist writing a multipart newspaper exposé of his partners’ finances, what grim deed will Frank order him to commit next? Is there any limit to how low the detective will sink? We know only that Pizzolatto and Lin are in full command of their medium. Season two of True Detective is a nasty treat for the eyes and ears. Every few minutes, there’s an image that’s as meaningful as it is lovely to look at: a wide shot of a seedy bar near a railroad track lit like an Edward Hopper painting; a low-angle pan across a stretch of elevated highway that makes it seem as though you’re an ant watching a python slither past; a helicopter shot of intersecting overpasses that visually establishes Southern California, and America, as a co-dependency of interests. Throughout, the synthesized score keeps rumbling and droning. We’re in the belly of some rough beast.

*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.