In Defense of True Detective Season Two

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Take another look at these sad sacks! Photo: HBO

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True Detective season two was a disaster. Hell, I said so myself: a “California catastrophe,” I called it, unfavorably comparing its eight-episode run to the flawed but fascinating first go-round. Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Carcosa, the Yellow King — such is the stuff from which dreams are woven. (Literally: I wasn’t nuts about the season overall, but it’s the only show I’ve ever watched that gave me two nightmares about it in a single night.) Round two, by contrast? Colin Farrell with a mustache, Rachel McAdams with an ombre dye-job that looks like the hairdresser gave up in despair, Taylor Kitsch’s handsome face scowling like he’d just opened a carton of overripe milk, and Vince Vaughn saying faux-profound lines like “Sometimes your worst self is your best self,” all in service of a central murder mystery — “Who killed Ben Caspere?” — that only grew harder to understand, much less care about, as the season went on. After dominating watercooler discussion like nothing on television the year before, True D became a punch line and a punching bag. Like everyone else, I got in a few swings.

And yet. On my way out of the city of Vinci, my brain seemed to have missed the exit. It was this shot that did it, really: a close-up of Colin Farrell as Detective Ray Velcoro at his bottomed-out worst, staring miserably across the table of the world’s saddest bar, ostensibly at his gangster pal Frank Semyon, but actually into the camera, and by God into my soul, man. I’d see this picture pop up from time to time on my Twitter feed, tagged with “current mood” or “today” by people who needed a visual shorthand for feeling simultaneously miserable, furious, and powerless. Whether or not there was anything to the season as a whole, there’s certainly something there.

So I got to thinking: Perhaps there’s more to True Detective season two than meets the eye. You can quibble, or more than quibble, with the hard-boiled dialogue, the baffling story line, and the thankless roles for female characters outside of Rachel McAdams’s top-billed detective. I’m right there with you. But with almost a year gone since the initial airing, and now that it’s looking like it was the anthology series’ final season, it’s worth reexamining the wreckage for worthwhile elements. Believe it or not, there are a few.

At first glance, the season’s primary strength was, well, the first glance. Despite the absence of both the first season’s occult imagery and the immensely talented director who captured it, Cary Fukunaga, this was a deeply engrossing thing to see. No matter which of the season’s six directors (most notably Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin and Brooklyn’s John Crowley, who shot two episodes apiece) was behind the camera, overhead shots of the L.A. freeway system were the show’s visual signature. Each episode returned to this gliding view of California’s knotted arteries over and over, day and night, and only rarely to connote actual travel by the characters. They were used as mood-setters, transitions — part of the show’s visual language, like George Lucas’s Kurosawa-indebted wipes in the Star Wars films.

A second viewing of the season reveals an equally common motif: the factories, power plants, warehouses, pipes, chimneys, alleys, and assorted mechanical miscellany that made up the industrial no-man’s-land of Vinci and its environs. Every bit as intricate and tangled as the roads, they’re merely a mess of impenetrable visual information. Juxtaposing them with the drone’s-eye view highway shots sends the message that the freeways function in exactly the same way: They’re not paths to be navigated — they’re a net thrown over everyone, offering no hope of understanding or escape.

Could there be a more apt cinematographic metaphor for the season’s legendarily complicated story line? From The Long Good Friday to The Big Lebowski, noir and its pastiches — particularly their California subset — have a hallowed tradition of nigh-incomprehensible clues, red herrings, false starts, and dead ends prior to the final reveal. Granted, this kind of extended misdirection and deliberate confusion works better at movie length than spread over damn near nine hours of television; no one will hold it against you if you hit the halfway point of True D season two, hollered “Who the hell is Stan?” at the screen, and walked away. But the clearly considered repetition of rat-king overpasses and pipelines alike shows that the filmmakers knew the risk they were taking. You may not be able to follow the “Who killed Ben Caspere?” mystery down every last rabbit hole, but you’re not necessarily intended to. The uncertainty and discomfort are part of the plan, and they’re established with the camera at least as much as with the script.

The season’s second strong point was equally sensory in nature: the score. Not the soundtrack, produced by roots-rock legend T Bone Burnett and anchored by the incongruously depressive barroom ballads of singer-songwriter Lera Lynn — the score, an ominous electronic pulse apparently produced by English electronic-music artist the Haxan Cloak. (This music is inexplicably not commercially available, but you can listen to his 2013 album Excavation here to get a familiar taste.) Like a more intense pre-verbal echo of the opening theme, Leonard Cohen’s pensive “Nevermind,” this background music did much to ratchet up the air of impending doom hanging over the season’s events like smog.

Indeed, there’s something tactile, sticky, greasy about the whole affair. We first glimpse Rachel McAdams’s Detective Ani Bezzerides seconds after she cuts off sex with another cop, who freaked out after an apparently unorthodox request on her part; she never quite shakes the unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed look of someone interrupted during an afternoon delight gone sour. For his debut, Taylor Kitsch’s CHiPS Officer Paul Woodrugh pulls over a parole-violating actress for speeding, who wrongfully accuses him of soliciting a sexual favor; he runs home to his randy girlfriend and insists on showering before they have sex. This is primarily an excuse to chug back Viagra and let chemistry take its course, since he’s secretly gay, but this scene too conveys the notion that there’s something dirty about Woodrugh he’s desperate to wash off. As for Velcoro, the stench of failure and frustration clings to this guy like the smell of Modelo and American Spirits; it’s hard to look at him, especially in the first half of the season, without your eyes watering. In other words, characters get under your skin in large part because of the emphasis placed on theirs.

By any honest accounting, the weak link among the show’s core quartet was Vince Vaughn’s hubristic gang boss, Frank Semyon. Vaughn is a game performer, capitalizing on his innate physical selling points to make Frank a screen presence worth looking at; his imposing height, his heavy-lidded and expressive eyes, and the swaggering walk he took home from the set of Swingers like a souvenir all aid him here. What he couldn’t sell was the dialogue Pizzolatto and occasional co-writer James Lasser gave him. Calling a rapist “this filth, hurt your woman” [sic]; describing the crooked city of Vinci by proclaiming “This place is built on a codependency of interest”; the justifiably infamous comparison of thwarted vengeance to “blue balls in my heart”: It all sounds like a straight-to-DVD mob movie starring tertiary Sopranos actors, or a cutscene from Grand Theft Auto. Since this tough-guy posturing was ultimately what got him killed — he picks a fight with the Mexican mafia in the desert over his suit and the diamonds its pockets contain, apparently preferring to be fully clothed, rich, and dead to being half-naked, poor, and alive — it took a toll on the story as well as your ears.

But as counterintuitive as it seems, given that macho philosphizing is the sine qua non of True Detective-ism, the problem here is that Frank was simply not True Detective season two enough. Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh were all established, veteran losers, too messed up to ever keep their emotional heads above water for very long. By contrast, Semyon was sailing the high seas. Haunted though he may have been by his abusive childhood, he recovered from it, rising to the top first of his own mob outfit, then the semi-legit power structure of the fiefdom of Vinci. His unshakable self-confidence, his vibe of expecting to be in charge of every room he walked into, made him a square peg amid TD’s deep, round holes of depression, trauma, and terrible secrets. Creating a character lower on the criminal ladder would have been a better fit, and that’s not Vaughn’s fault.

Be that as it may, I’d go so far as to say the final three episodes are straight-up good, even great television. (Spoilers ahead.) Episode six culminates in a nightmarish, Grimm’s Fairy Tale raid on the mansion where the criminal cabal’s orgies take place, in which Bezzerides faces the demons of her past, slays a guard, and runs for safety while flanked by Woodrugh and Velcoro. Episode seven sees Woodrugh meet his maker, quite unexpectedly, after surviving a literal underground labyrinth, in which his former lover leads a battalion of mercenaries in an attempt to kill him; meanwhile, Velcoro and Bezzerides find convincing comfort in each other’s damaged arms. The eighth and final episode may be hamstrung somewhat by Velcoro and Semyon’s nonsensical actions — desperate to find a working wireless signal, Ray retreats to the redwood forest of all places; Frank picks a fight literally feet from a grave that’s already been dug for him by his enemies — but it boasts an impressively brief and brutal gunfight in a remote cabin and an open ending redolent of The Silence of the Lambs’ final shot.

In other words, True Detective season two may deserve less than Carcosa-style worship, but it’s also earned more than scorn. It’s an evocative, atmospheric look at an underexplored physical and emotional demimonde, populated by convincingly damaged characters, with an engrossing, if not wholly satisfying, payoff. It pulls all this off without the first season's for-the-ages McConaissance, nor its madcap Lovecraftian theorizing and clue-hunting. It relies solely on its sordid, sad location and the still more sordid, sad people who inhabit it. If you’re willing to meet it on that territory, the journey’s worth taking.