HBO

Each week following episodes of True Detective, Spencer Kornhaber, Sophie Gilbert, and Christopher Orr will discuss the murders and machinations depicted in the HBO drama.


Kornhaber: In 2010, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the city of Vernon, home of approximately 90 people and 1,800 businesses. “Vernon a tightly controlled fortress,” read the headline, and the article detailed how the tiny industrial town had become a hotbed of alleged corruption, with city officials earning huge salaries, participating in shady commercial deals, and setting residency rules that amounted to vote rigging. Some of those officials lived, according to the The Times, “in tidy, wood-frame homes with green lawns tucked hard in a world of gray smokestacks, meat packers, heavy industry, power plants, and transmission lines.”

Sound familiar, watchers of True Detective season 2? In tonight’s premiere, Colin Farrell’s Detective Ray Velcoro emerged from a cute lil clapboard cottage nestled in a metal jungle and then made about a 10-foot commute to the municipal building where he works. The town is called Vinci, but the parallels with Vernon are obvious, right down to the newspaper that’s investigating it. This setting, perhaps more than anything else, is what’s promising about the second outing of HBO’s super-hyped noir miniseries. Early in the episode, a character voiced the essential truth about corruption—“everyone gets touched”—and the lightly fictionalized city of Vinci, with its refineries abutting homes abutting freeways, already embodies that idea.

The first True Detective featured ravishing filmmaking and a pointless plot, full of sumptuously rendered characters, story lines, and settings that never fit together in a coherent way. It seemed to want to be about how personal struggles intertwine with the wider world, but Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s domestic drama and spiritual speeches didn’t, in the end, have much to do with the murder mystery, and the vast conspiracy they investigated never really materialized on screen. So far, Season 2 is as deliciously moody as its predecessor, but also seems faster-paced and more deliberate. Interconnection—between home and work, sex and ambition, family and society—isn’t just a theme, it’s a plot engine: Farrell’s character moonlights for the city’s crooked business interests and lives on the doorstep of his daytime employer; Rachel McAdams busts her sister’s webcam business and investigates her dad’s spiritual center; Taylor Kitsch stumbles into a murder scene while fleeing his girlfriend; Vince Vaughn and Kelly Reilly conspire in their shared bathroom.

Which doesn’t exactly mean that the plot will be easy to follow. With so many principal characters and interlinking plotlines, viewers will have to take notes as they watch and hope they add up to something more significant than they did last season. Here’s what I’ve got on the major characters so far:

•Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn): Shady business guy. Appears to have gone from blue-collar crime boss to white-collar one. Working on a lucrative development deal involving high-speed rail and Vinci city manager Ben Caspere. Anxious for investment from Osip Agranov, who appears to be a Russian gangster. Also anxious about the newspaper investigation of Vinci. Not afraid to call in a hit on a reporter. Married to …

•Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly): Business partner with her spouse. Looks cool sipping champagne. Has, in Frank’s words, “brains.” The two are trying to have kids.

•Raymond Velcoro (Colin Farrell): Vinci police detective. Previously worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department for eight years. His wife gave birth to a son nine months after being beaten and raped, before which he and she were supposedly trying to have kids. Frank gave him info on the rapist, and in the time since then Velcoro has become Frank's hired muscle. Drinks hard, angers easily, and might just take brass knuckles to your face if your son bullies his son. Is assigned to investigate the disappearance of Caspere. Is also in a custody battle, and for some reason sends messages to his son using an old-school voice recorder rather than a smartphone.

•Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch): California Highway Patrol officer. Is put on paid leave after a celebrity lies(?) about him soliciting her during a traffic stop. Has a girlfriend who really, really likes his body, though he needs to take a pill to have sex with her (which maybe is connected to why his coworkers chuckled at the idea of him asking a woman for a blow job?). Was in the army. Was involved in something called “Black Mountain.” Likes riding motorcycles and has wicked scars.

•Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams): Ventura County Sheriff’s officer. Takes on a missing-person case after delivering a foreclosure notice to a woman with a suspiciously large TV. Has capital-I Issues that include: a sexual proclivity that freaks out the guy she’s sleeping with; a love of booze, gambling, and maybe cocaine (“When you walk it's like erasers clapping” says her sis, which could mean a few things); a strained relationship with her free-spirited sister who’s doing webcam porn; and a more strained relationship with a hippy-guru father who did not stop Ani's mother from walking into a river (I think?). Owns a surfboard.

•Ben Caspere: Vinci City Manager. Dead, with eyes removed and a wound to the pelvis. Owned a big house filled with lots of kinky/creepy stuff in it. Had recently hired a new secretary. Visited Sonoma’s Russian River Valley a lot (perhaps of note: Ani’s missing person was headed to Sonoma when she left the Panticapaeum Institute). Was involved with the high-speed-rail land scheme. Was left as a corpse on a road shoulder next to an Adopt a Highway sign that says “Catalyst Group,” the name of a company affiliated with the Semyons.

These characters—angsty, secretive authority figures—are all tropes, yes. But they all seem to have great, juicy secrets. Don’t you want to know more? Of course, this is how True Detective hooked people in Season 1, and the payoff was a flimsy storyline and Matthew McConaughey’s audition reel for Lincoln. One interesting change: In contrast to the blatant sexploitation in the first season, there was no live female nudity in this episode—even in the porn shop, even from Woodrough's seductive girlfriend. It’s a small change, but it might mean that creator Nic Pizzolatto and HBO absorbed some of the criticism they received last year.

The loss of director Cary Joji Fukunaga and arrival of Justin Lin hasn’t hurt the show’s appeal as cinema, as far as I can tell. Some of the images tonight were gasp-inducing, like when Velcoro put on a ski mask and hushed a crackhead or when a gang of county agents silently closed in on a farm bungalow. Perhaps the overhead shots of snaking roads and belching machinery will soon bore; for now, they’re mesmerizing. The show’s totally straight-faced nature hasn’t changed either—characters might tell jokes, but in general these people are so serious that there are times when it feels like parody. I’m just going to go with it, I’ve decided, and try not to giggle when Taylor Kitsch’s cheeks flap during a nearly suicidal motorcycle ride or Colin Farrell uses the term “butt fuck.”

There’s still a lot to get into. How’d you two like the credits sequence scored by Leonard Cohen, or the episode’s other musical moments? What’s the “Western Book of the Dead”? And is the whole series going to end up being about Ani converting to her dad’s woo-woo philosophy like Rust Cohle finding god?


Gilbert: Whatever Ani’s dad’s philosophy is, his knowledge of Greek mythology is woefully lacking. “Athena, goddess of love,” he purred at his elder child, ignoring the fact that (a) Aphrodite was the goddess of love, (b) Athena was the goddess of war and wisdom, and (c) she was chaste. He named his younger daughter Athena and can’t get the history straight? And then he named his other daughter after Antigone, who was locked in a tomb before killing herself? No wonder she likes knives.

This show is fascinating, and suspenseful, and gorgeous, and artfully made. It’s also completely and utterly ridiculous. I have to acknowledge that before proceeding, because it wasn’t enough for Pizzolatto to give his characters metaphorical scars—he had to give them literal ones, at least in the case of Woodrugh, and the waitress who asked Ray why he wasn’t eating his nachos. It wasn’t sufficient to have one character be a hard-drinking, emotionally rabid cop with addiction issues and searing family trauma, which is why we have two (or three, if you count Woodrugh’s love of Viagra and playing freeway games of chicken with himself). And in case anyone was missing the point that these people are FUBAR, that heroin-chic singer in the bar had a whole musical number about it, including the lyrics, “The nights that I twist on the rack are the times that I feel most at home.” The cops are very, very messed-up and self-destructive. Got it.

I hope that I’m wrong, and that something’s going to happen later in the season to subvert the cliché of the tortured officers using their personal gaping wounds to help solve horrific crimes, but then again, the show is called True Detective. So let’s focus on the good. How brilliant was Colin Farrell’s 180 from caring dad to maniacal nightmare? How scary were his eyes when the lawyer asked him if they’d ever caught the man who’d raped his wife? I loved the percussive interludes between scenes where the drums sounded like a beating heart and the freeways looked like veins crossing each other. And it’s wonderful to have a woman be part of the action this season, even if said woman isn’t Oprah, or Blue Ivy, or Rory Gilmore.

Like everyone else (probably), I googled “The Western Book of the Dead” and still don’t really know what it is, but you can read it here, and it seems to be some kind of mystical hippie tract written in the ‘70s. Essentially, man evolved from matter, found God, lost God, found nihilism, found art, found solace in sex and psychedelic drugs and necrophilia (eek), abandoned morality, and became a miserable, “meaningless, enigmatic, machine-like piece of MATTER,” which about as well describes the state of my workdays as any term I can dream up. The next episode, also directed by Justin Lin, is called “Night Finds You,” so anyone who had hopes that TDS2 might be leaving darkness behind for even a fraction of a second is clearly being optimistic. This show is dank, and sweaty, and fetid, and teeming with pain—a veritable corpse of a drama whose eyes have been chemically removed—and that’s exactly why we love it.

The other thing to note about TD, and one of the things that makes it so fun to unpick, is its attention to detail. Like Mad Men, it’s very much a show of the Internet age, in that every scene has 100 visual elements and throwaway lines that beg to be unpicked. You couldn’t get away with that on a drama a decade ago, before Reddit discussions and comment threads and screengrabs, because the audience would have missed everything. But now, with our ability to rewind and rewatch every scene, we too have become detectives, hoping to find crumbs on a very gory trail. I have no idea why Ani has an entire wall of weaponry in her apartment and reads the Hagakure, or why there were pink ribbons tied to stakes in the episode’s opening scene, or why Ray uses voice recorders to send messages to his son instead of just Facetiming him like a normal deadbeat—albeit sociopathic—dad. But isn’t it going to be fun finding out?

My favorite lines from this episode:

“I am not comfortable imposing my will on anyone, and I haven’t been since 1978.”
“Is that blood on your sleeve?”
“We just had a thing, me and you. Totally, totally my fault.” (Ray has definitely spent some time in parenting therapy but it doesn’t seem to have helped.)
“Ginsberg said this to me once.” (Seriously, what an ass.)


Orr: Thanks to you, Spencer, for setting the scene and establishing the dramatis personae. When we’re dropped into the middle of a show of this complexity, it helps to have a scorecard. You also did a way better job of answering the question posed by Ani’s partner right at the end (“What the fuck is ‘Vinci’?”) than Ray did (“A city, supposedly”). I’d heard about Vernon, but I didn’t realize how closely Vinci was based on the place.

You guys did such a nice job of describing the episode’s major themes this week that I thought I’d opt for a series of mostly narrower observations.

Regarding the Leonard Cohen-scored title sequence: I like it a lot, but I don’t love it quite so much as the masterpiece that was last season’s—a strong contender for my favorite TV title sequence ever. If I’m not mistaken, it also served as a (looser) model for the opening to HBO’s extraordinary The Jinx. (If you haven’t seen it, trust me: you should.)

One of the things I like about the new season is the way it conjures last season—which I liked way more than you, Spencer, at least up until that disappointing finale—while still clearly standing on its own. One of the most obvious confluences is the use of those magnificent aerial shots, which I doubt I’ll ever tire of. This season may have exchanged Louisiana bayous for the highways snaking up and down California, but the idea of a landscape being poisoned by human industry (in every sense of the word) is still there. If you looked very closely in the opening scene of the episode, there was even a momentary glimpse of a sign warning “contamination.” (As for those pink ribbons on stakes, Sophie, my best guess was that they were marking an area for future construction. But maybe not.)

I also loved the way Ray’s house is plunked down feet away from the police department, in the midst of an industrial wasteland—like a noir version of Carl Fredricksen’s house in Up. (All Ray needs to find his way to a happy ending is 10,000 balloons.) Hell, even dead city manager Ben Caspere’s playboy mansion overlooks heavy industry.

Another of the early pleasures of this new season is the way it digs into the gold mine that is California crime fiction, from Chandler and Hammett through Chinatown and beyond. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Farrell’s character is named “Raymond.”) But by far the strongest echo for me is to James Ellroy, and in particular to his L.A. Quartet. Three intersecting cops—one of them also a crook, two of them drunks, and all three screwed-up sexually; the tragic family pasts (a mom’s suicide, a wife’s beating and rape, whatever the hell accounts for Paul’s scars from “a long time ago”); the omnipresent whiff of sexual depravity. (Did you notice the mayor ostentatiously groping his wife’s ass in public?) You’re right that it’s overkill, Sophie. But it’s also so very, very Ellroy.

I also spotted (or perhaps, in a case or two, imagined) several little crime-cinema Easter eggs scattered throughout the episode. Frank’s response to Ray after he gives him information about his wife’s assailant—“Maybe we’ll talk some time. Maybe not”—seems like a pretty clear updating of Don Corleone’s “Some day, and that day may never come” under nearly identical circumstances (vengeance for a daughter, not a wife) in The Godfather. I don’t think I’ll ever again hear a door-chime like the one at the bar where that scene takes place and not think of Holsten’s in the finale of The Sopranos. It may just be me, but that brief glimpse of a bird-of-prey head(???) in the passenger seat of the car that drove Caspere to his (not final) resting place certainly conjured thoughts of the Maltese Falcon. And finally, the shot in which Caspere’s “chauffeur” drags his lifeless body from the car and across the dry earth was definitely a nod to Blood Simple. (If anyone is skeptical of the idea that Pizzolatto would toss in such references, I refer them to last season's clear call-out to the best line of Mickey Rourke's career, in Body Heat.)

I’m not yet sold on Vince Vaughn as Frank, but I’m not unsold either, which was probably a greater risk. We’ll see how his performance develops, but I’m at least intrigued by the (almost certainly deliberate) parallels: a mobster who keeps trying, without much success, to go legit, played by a comic actor who keeps trying, also without much success, to establish himself as a serious actor. This will be something to watch.

What I am definitely unsold on is the idea that a self-identified police officer could brutalize a middle-class homeowner on his very own doorstep, without a disguise and in front of a witness, and not face serious repercussions. I don’t care how corrupt Vinci is. It was tough enough to swallow Ray’s masked beating of (and theft from) a newspaper journalist—which would, of course, be bigger news than anything else the poor guy was going to write. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for shots as good as Ray’s finger-to-the-mouth shushing (which you mentioned, Spencer), and the way the violence that ensued was conveyed by the merest fluttering of the bedroom blinds.

Which is another way of saying that, like you, Sophie, I’m buying into the delightful ridiculousness of the show. I was one of those who went deep, deep, deep down the rabbit hole last season in the expectation that all the clever hints and repetitions would ultimately be revealed to be part of a vast and brilliant narrative contraption. Instead, the series concluded with (another) redneck psycho in the swamp. In part as a result of that disappointment, this season I feel liberated of the burden of expectations that what we’re watching might be Great Television. I’m content with it just being damn good TV.

I’m also glad that I wasn’t the only one suppressing guffaws at Taylor Kitsch’s motorcycle cheek-flaps. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone look so silly since Roger Moore’s jowls were pinned to his ears by the G-force centrifuge in Moonraker.

The final scene, with the principal characters finally united and eyeing each other like gunfighters in a Sergio Leone movie, was also a bit over the top, but in the most delicious way possible. I loved the camera spiraling away from them and up into the night sky. Finally, I don’t know whether you guys recognized it, but the gloomy, electric dirge that accompanied the credits was actually a cover of the Gatlin Brothers’ 1979 pop-country ditty “All the Gold in California.” Anyone in need of a bit of light, chuckling nostalgia after the grimness of the episode can find the original here. See you next week!

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