Season Two of True Detective has received a hard time of it, dragged through the dirt even well before the first episode aired. Certainly, I found the casting, premise and trailers fairy unpersuasive, such that I waited until I could see the entire thing in one burst. I’m glad I did, as Season Two definitely lacks the compelling plotting and thematic undercurrents that made the first so addictive, and the commanding characters (or character; that’s Rust Cohle right there) that brought you back for more. Yet even as a lesser beast, I found Season Two diverting viewing, particularly from the midpoint onwards. Perhaps the worst I could say of it is that, by broadening his canvas, Nic Pizzolatto has stretched his materials too thinly.
Ray Velcoro: Just one question. Am I supposed to solve this or not?
By lowering expectations, Season Two at least avoids the disappointment that was Season One’s finale. After all that occult foreboding and intimations of dark goings-on in high places, the climax came down to a fat bloke in a cave. Season Two’s finale Omega Station is also a disappointment, but not for reasons of scope.
It’s interesting to see how Pizzolatto has responded to and/or continued elements from the first season. The perceived poor showing for female characters has been addressed, but without Rachel McAdams’ Detective Ani Bezzerides, how well received would his other ladies have been (not very, I suspect)? The surprise (and frankly unlikely) survival of Cohle in Season One feeds into a more resigned fate for Colin Farrell’s Detective Ray Velcoro and his erstwhile friend/adversary/employer, Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. Neither of these areas is exactly masterfully handled in Omega Station; the men doing what men do, packing their womenfolk off to safety, comes across as slightly patronising, but worse it feels like the kind of ending that is calculated rather than earned.
Ani Bezzerides: You’re not a bad man.
Ray Velcoro: Yes, I am.
Pizolatto plays with the so-near-but-so-far escape plans that are a staple of many a crime genre entry (from Carlito’s Way to Michael Mann to Boardwalk Empire) but it feels a little like he’s going through the motions. Velcoro’s demise is foreshadowed by a dream sequence at the start of the (3) Maybe Tomorrow in which his father (Fred Ward; great to see him, but less so that there isn’t nearly enough of him) predicts the circumstances of his death. And it makes thematic sense that Ray, a guy who has done bad things in the name of revenge, derailed his life, lost his family, should be denied a miraculous happy ending. His decision not to head for Venezuela with Ani is dictated by circumstance (of his own engineering; like De Niro in Heat he doesn’t get out when he still can, and bids farewell to his son), but he doesn’t really want/feel he deserves that resolution anyway. One of Pizzolatto’s (unsubtly embedded) themes in the season is choice versus life dictating who we are (“I gave you a name and you made a choice” Frank insists to Ray of the guy the latter killed who wasn’t actually his wife’s rapist).
Holloway: Honestly, Ray. Nobody had an idea you were this competent.
So, while Ray’s death feels inevitable (although, so did Cohle’s and look what happened there), one can’t help think it could have been better handled. Driving into the middle of nowhere for a shootout (with Malick-esque contemplation of the world of nature to boot)? Like Frank’s finish, Pizzolatto manoeuvres his protagonists into a position he wants rather than one that feels germane.
Farrell, though, is outstanding throughout the season, navigating the territory from addicted burnout to revitalised detective with conviction and cadences that show an instinctive feel for his dialogue. He’s the strongest link to the first season in that regard (and there are beats here suggesting Pizzolatto is repeating himself; the change of appearance when Ray leaves the force is more abrupt than Season One’s flashback structure with Cohle, but it comes from the same core approach to narrative and character). This is the tale of Ray’s redemption, which he doesn’t feel he deserves, complete with Cohle-esque aphorisms (“My strong suspicion is, we get the world we deserve”). One of the pleasures of his character is others’ underestimation of him (“She doesn’t trust me and I ain’t ever exactly been Columbo”).
Gena: You’re a bad person and you’re bad for my son.
The plotline with ex-wife Gena (Abigal Spencer) is better for the awkward interaction between Ray and his son that the one-note diatribes she rains on him. While whatever Rau gets is no doubt deserved, it gives a one-sided impression of Gena. We also get this elsewhere, with Jordan (going on and on and on about having a kid/hubby being a gangster) and Paul’s mum. Which means its very fortunate that Ani is there to take the heat of Pizzolatto.
I’m not sure I really buy the sudden pitch into romance between Ray and Ani in the final two episodes, though. They work better through a process of growing mutual respect than the old “two damaged souls coming together” routine (so too, the revelation that Ray is his father’s son, and is also now a two-time daddy is more of a punchline to a queasy joke than a poignant epilogue). Their post-coital confessions are also rehearsed in a manner that delivers emotional exposition I’m not sure we need, and one could almost believe their whole thing was some kind of studio-mandated intrusion (HBO probably thinks this season really sucks, what with the lack of nudity).
Frank Semyon: You’re a cop, right? A lady cop.
Ali Bezzerides: What gave me away? The tits?
McAdams is very nearly as effective as Farrell, and in some ways more of a revelation, simply because Farrell’s had his fair share of great parts in the past, and McAdams hasn’t really. It isn’t so much the heavy-handed character beats (a traumatic childhood incident and upbringing informing her police work, knife play and sexual encounters – it’s that choice theme again) as what McAdams does with them, very suggestive that Pizzolatto needs a certain alchemy for his material to really take off. He was blessed with an inspired director/leads combination in the first season, but this time he stumbles upon patchy terrain on both fronts. If it were just Farrell and McAdams he would be sitting pretty, but because he’s bitten off more, he finds it difficult to chew.
Ani doesn’t have as tangible an arc as Ray’s, and one might argue her eventual destination is an unfortunate softening (finding her true calling through motherhood), meaning her best material comes during the no nonsense tec work of the first half of the season. After that, she’s less distinct unless it’s meeting with her hippy guru dad (David Morse) and recalling her childhood abduction (the pre-emptor to this, (6) Church in Ruins’ orgy scene, is tense and effective, but it’s a bit of a mystery just what she expected to achieve from her undercover stint; if the boys hadn’t gone in, she would have knifed someone – something she had waited all her life to do – and got loaded and that’s about it; she didn’t know she was going to find her missing person in there). I’m also not sure I see her and Jordan (Kelly Reilly) hanging out as sisters in Venezuela. But if Pizzolatto drops the ball with her in the final reel(s), McAdams is never less than multi-layered and believable.
Jordan Semyon: You stopped moving way back there.
The same can’t be said of the other half of the leads, alas. Vaughn’s Frank is intermittently effective, but there’s something just a bit off there, ironic since Pizzolatto wrote the part with the actor in mind. Part of it is fairly obvious; Vaughn doesn’t have the ear or chops for Frank’s zen-mobster didactic wisdom. He’s fine when it comes to a quip, as that’s Vaughn’s comfort zone (“That’s one off the bucket list. A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans”; “I hope you saved some of that Miss Ukraine money”). And he’s okay in his scenes with Farrell (their guns under the breakfast table scene at the beginning of Church in Ruins in particular; “Now don’t you fucking shoot me, Raymond” is Vaughn at his best).
But I can’t buy the cerebral side he’s supposedly manifesting (“Crime exists contingent on human desire”), and his formative influences (locked in the basement with rats) and marital issues (attempting to have a child with Jordan) never really click. You wonder how Frank got to his position, as he never really sells the hard man thing, be it pulling a guy’s gold teeth out or shooting Blake in his office (“Nobody muscles me” he says early on; yeah, right). I wondered if this was intentional, that he just didn’t have what it takes and was seen as a weak touch by all around him, but the final episodes indicate that he is supposed to be more than capable.
There’s something kind of remote and existential to many of Frank’s conversations with Jordan, but neither Reilly nor Vaughn can sell this aspect and these scenes come off as faintly dull. Added to that, Frank’s problems with money flow just aren’t that engaging over the course of eight episodes. Vaughn is quite a passive actor – unlike Farrelll he doesn’t draw attention towards him by just being there – and as a result he leaves a black hole of energy in his wake. I wouldn’t say he’s actually giving a bad performance (as some have argued), just that his approach is insufficient for what’s required of him, which is to make much from a rather unrefined template.
Perhaps the real death knell for Frank’s character is that Ray even has to give him a “He’s actually not a bad guy” endorsement in Omega Station. I mean, he’s not that good a guy either, but the real problem is he’s not that interesting a guy. Frank’s walk in the desert is also a bit daft; as with the exit of Ray, the circumstances feel rather calculated and contrived, but at least the choice he makes (lose his suit and diamonds or his life) is a coherent one. And while the parade of phantoms that haunts his fateful trip is on the clichéd side, I did like the realisation that he is already dead.
Ray Velcoro: He was a fucking goddam warrior that day.
Which leaves Taylor Kitsch’s Officer Paul Woodrugh. Honestly, there’s little to recommend here. A couple of episodes in, I was wondering what Paul added to the mix, and by the time of his demise in (7) Black Maps and Motel Rooms it’s long since clear that the answer is nothing. He’s a sure thing in a shootout ((4) Down Will Come’s is a doozy), but that’s hardly an endorsement of what is only ever a rather rote closeted cop routine. To be charitable, it’s hard to tell if Kitsch is just one-note, or it’s the writing. But as I said above, that’s the Pizzolato alchemy thing generally. The make or break.
Paul Woodrugh: I’m just trying to be a good man.
Paul’s storyline has the odd moment; it absolutely fires into life whenever his soused and resentful mum Cynthia (Lolita Davidovich) is onscreen (“If I was a man, I would have had the world” she scolds, before calling him an ungrateful asshole who ruined her career by being born). But his subplot encounters consistent difficulties in rising above the obvious, even (or especially) the scene when he proposes to his pregnant girlfriend post- a night with his old army buddy (who he later symbolically puts between himself and a hail of bullets).
Ray’s comments on Paul seem pretty much a gauge of how the viewers will see him; sure, he can shoot like an ultimate badass (although his effective take down at the end of Black Maps and Motel Rooms is curiously undramatic, probably because we aren’t invested in him; his demise too is an example of Pizzolatto at his most cynically opportune – all his training deserts him so someone can walk up behind him and shoot him in the back?). But as Ray says, “I don’t think I knew him that well. But yeah, he’s my friend”. Damning with faint praise.
I recall the writer referencing the kind of labyrinthine Chinatown plotting and approach to the wheels of power prior to the season going into production. Land deals would stand in for water (this was at a point when the occult elements still seemed to be a significant thing for the season). Invoking Chinatown, and recalling Season One, highlights what’s really lacking in Season Two. The protagonists needed to be invested by in either the main case or at least in a character involved in the main case (Evelyn Mulwray and Jake Gittes, or Cohle’s obsession with the girl’s murder). Season Two has characters nursing a selection of thematically linking personal demons (When was it that what happened put them on the course they are now?) but little that really meshes them to their day job. Their stakes are elsewhere, and so the main plot –as intriguing as I found it, don’t get me wrong – never becomes as essential as it should be.
It isn’t as if the discovery that Ben Caspere’s murderer has nothing directly to do with the land deals is a bad thing; this kind of misconstrued spark for a case has been used frequently enough in the genre. But it ultimately means and matters very little; so much so that it’s done and dusted in a ream of exposition in the final episode (including the disposing of the hard drive in a single line, not to mention that Ray’s incredibly fortuitous leap in realising the camera guy from the movie shoot in Maybe Tomorrow is the brother of Erica) followed by another info dump from Holloway (Afemo Omilami).
The land deal/Catalyst Group stuff is okay, but without a face to get worked up about (a face such as John Huston) it all kind of just hangs there. The closest we get is James Frain’s Burris, but he’s doing a lot of imposing with minimal story. It’s notable how few characters of the antagonist variety have any staying power, be they police, Mexicans, Russians or politicians. Frank’s right-hand man Blake (Christopher James Baker) is crucial to events, but barely gets a look in until the penultimate episode. The villains in general are undercooked.
One who isn’t, making much of only two or three scenes, is Rick Springfield’s waxy freaksayer Dr Irving Pitlor, a cosmetic surgeon and apologist for the antics of the mayor (his wife ended up section because of a difficult time with a “highly inventive family”). He has a great line in dismissive diagnoses (“Your compensatory projection of menace is a guarantor of its lack…” he tells Ray, before the latter goes to work on him) and reads Castaneda.
Eliot Bezzerides: So today’s exercise is to recognise the world as meaningless, and to understand God did not create a meaningless world.
Likewise, I found myself enjoying the rather obvious hippie guru cliché of Ali’s dad Eliot. The way the series sets him up, as an aloof prick who allowed his offspring to go to ruin while extolling a facile spirituality (“Excuse me. You have one of the largest auras I’ve ever seen. You must have hundreds of lives”; “I don’t think I could take another one” replies Ray) folds back into a suggestion of acceptance and forgiveness when Ali tells him of her recovered memory (“Goddam everything”; “That’s what I say” affirms Ali).
Full Moon is the best time to ratify alliances.
One wonders why Pizzolatto withdrew from delving into the promised occult themes. Perhaps because he dropped the ball with Season One’s portents the came to nothing, and didn’t want to be accused of dangling another unattainable carrot. This area clearly fascinates him, and the season is littered with nuggets of the hidden realm, and metaphysical musings. Dreams of death, post-death experiences, giant raven masks (a portent of death and rebirth), Eyes Wide Shut elite orgies, deal making by the full moon, ‘60s hippy cults bringing all sorts of undesirables along for the ride (Ali’s abductor is very Manson-esque), Carlos Castaneda. It feels like Pizzolatto is enthused whenever he veers the narrative towards this stuff, so he should probably throw caution to the wind and dive headfirst into it next time out.
Land deals aren’t going to bring this in.
Certainly, Pizzolatto’s much more invested in this than the eco-theme of the land deals (barring the overbearing subtext of barren and toxic land reflected in barren and toxic bodies). About as passionate as he gets is an apparent beef with e-cigarettes (“A little too close to sucking a robot’s dick”; it’s mocked twice, perhaps because it’s so anti- the classic trappings of hardboiled detective fiction). The land deals and the state of the land never attain the tangibility Polanski furnishes water in a third of the time, and makes you wonder how clearly Pizzolatto had his main ideas in mind and how much he fudged things.
One thing I very much liked though was the continuation of Pizzolatto’s Season One. The powerful guys just carry on and nothing really changes; conspiracies are never ending and if one bad guy (the mayor) goes down, another (his son, or CS Lee’s senator) will take his place. Ali’s meeting with a journalist at the end of Omega Stationis ostensibly an indication that justice will be done, but I can’t see this as anything other than a token gesture in terms of Pizzolatto’s milieu; the story will never see print, and the journo will be offed if he tries.
Also on the lines of common themes, the titles, with a splash more colour, are very much a continuation of Season One, while T Bone Burnett’s swampy, portentous score signifies an oppressive, murky environment of (connective aerial shots of) suffocating freeways and bypasses that may overwhelm its protagonists at any moment. The characters are provided no release or respite, even when the narrative fails to engage, and much of that is down to Burnett (Laughing Len informs things suitably with the title song too).
I wasn’t wowed by the directing (or the preponderance of obvious digital blood squibs), although Justin Lin does a solid job setting the tone in the opening two episodes. Reportedly Pizzolatto is a bit of a little tyrant and objected to Cary Fukunaga getting so much (deserved) credit for Season One, hence the one director/one season approach not being repeated. Perhaps he will rethink his hubris come Season Three. Definitely in need of a rethink is the dialogue track. The number of times I had to replay scenes and still couldn’t get a fix on what was said was ridiculous. Particularly in a show that so demands attention in every scene.
The consensus verdict on Season Two seems to be not great but, while I have a number of serious issues with it, I come out having enjoyed it as a whole. It suffers from presenting a murder plot that is intriguing rather than gripping, and probably has two too many main characters (certainly two miscast main characters). But It benefits from not having built up so much expectation that it lets the viewer down the way Season One did, and as an immersive world it is persuasively arresting. It also provides great showcases for Farrell and McAdams, and a suitably cynical vision of the corruption of things. If Two didn’t have Season One to be compared against, I suspect the response would have been much more generous.