“This is my least favorite life,” singer Lera Lynn spookily laments in a dilapidated dive bar in the polluted Vinci City, L.A. County, the fictional and bleak industrial setting for HBO’s second season of “True Detective.” Looking vacant, haggard, possibly strung out—is that a bruise under her eye?—Lynn slowly strums out a sullen countrified funeral dirge more depressing than Cat Power’s worst downer. “This is my least favorite life,” she moans in a lifeless voice. “The one where you fly and I don’t. A kiss holds a million deceits, and a lifetime goes up in smoke.”
Meanwhile, the broken down, morally compromised detective and the career-criminal turned would-be legitimate entrepreneur warily looks on, a little unsettled by the music. Perhaps both a little too disquieted by how this downcast funereal portentously comments on both of their upended lives. This is “True Detective” season two: still very much a pulpy noir, but darker, more brooding, a little too overwrought and drastically different.
Or at least, season two is superficially dissimilar. The grim sensibilities and self-serious spiritual connections of its predecessors are still very much in the air, often wafting in a languorous haze of cigarettes and the dank atmospheres that hang over its weary characters. But the nihilism and self-denigration of almost every character is far more pronounced this season. Still written by showrunner/creator Nic Pizzolatto, if season one seared with an enigmatic intensity thanks to Rust Cohle’s existential babble about the psychosphere and the semi-mystical and satanic qualities that floated around in its humid ether, season two smolders with a different and downhearted spiritual weight: a bewitched stench of disillusion, the wear and tear on the soul from compromise, troubled pasts and dubious ethical choices that is delivered with slightly less ponderous dialogue, but unwieldy verbiage that still has its own issues.
The foreign contours of landscape signal a different beast; unnatural, man-made structures of concrete, rusty pipes, and scorched bridges that have their own unholy quality. If season one was defined by the sweaty and swampy backwoods of Louisiana, then season two is shaped by the indifferent and torched industrial milieu of Vinci City (based on the real-life industrial town of Vernon, California), a venal municipality we’ll soon discover is teeming with corruption.
Pizzolatto once said season two would center on “hard women, bad men, and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system,” and in the inaugural season two episode, two of these three former signifiers are certainly true, with the third hissing somewhere in the background.
The occasionally overstuffed season two centers on a mysterious and grisly murder connected to a lucrative land and highway transportation scheme that has many tentacles into a shady collusion of dishonest politicians, crooked cops and dubious businessmen. And in doing so it connects the show’s four main characters. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a damaged and spiritually bankrupt Vinci city detective who has seen far better days. A self-loathing man of many vices—you name the bad habit, he has it—the embittered Velcoro is also in the pocket of criminal and entrepreneur Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) one of the key players in the California Central Rail Corridor deal who is looking at the transaction as an opportunity to go legit and set himself and his wife up for life.
Two other players orbit the narrative and by episode’s end are entangled in the same crime. Ventura County Sheriff’s detective Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is yet another piece of work with her own shards of psychic pain fortified by walls of “do not enter” hostility. An uncompromising, mistrustful and angry woman carrying serious family resentment, Ani was raised in an unconventional, “fucked-up” ‘70s commune, and her father (David Morse) is a dubious spiritual guru of some note. Ani’s adrift sister, Athena (Leven Rambin), has been working in the not-quite- illegal world of webcam erotica, but its immoral contours vex the righteous Bezzerides even though she appears to be harboring her own, perhaps unconventional sexual desires.
On the farthest fringes of this sprawling L.A. county is Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a withdrawn California highway motorcycle patrolman and a Desert Storm war veteran with a dark past that he does not want to confront, let alone discuss. Reprimanded on the job and on leave of absence—he takes the fall when a drug-addled Lindsay Lohan-esque starlet tries to turn a traffic violation into a minor police sex scandal—the troubled and aloof ex-soldier is dating Emily (Adria Arjona), a Latina who also happens to be the focus of a missing person’s case that Bezzerides is investigating.
Episode one, “The Western Book of the Dead” is thus an introductory affair, chock-a-block with partially overflowing story, much distressed character texture both explicit and suggested, and full of tormented mood. The opening narrative actually centers on the disappearance of Ben Caspere, a corrupt city manager who’s in deep with this potentially groundbreaking transportation pact that could forever change the freeway gridlock in California. When Caspere turns up brutally murdered, discovered by Woodrugh—after he angrily flirts with a near suicidal motorcycle run one self-tortured evening—the body ties together these three different law enforcement officers all called on the scene. Caspere, essentially the plot McGuffin, was into some kinky fetish depravity and his death is the catalyst for a police jurisdictional war, the potential unraveling of Semyon’s business aspirations and the freakish mystery elements that begin to surface in the next two episodes.
While Pizzolatto’s script connects the four main character dots and missing person with architectural cleverness, despite the swollen narrative, the actual murder event that binds the three law enforcement officers together—complete with, “no, this is our jurisdiction!” cop grandstanding—feels contrived. Worse, in its final moments, director Justin Lin (“Fast & Furious 6”) cannot resist his first cheesy Hollywood director moment: the camera swirls as each of the three disparate cops size each other up and scowl somberly. The groan-inducing moment culminates in a grand aerial helicopter shot to suggest, “this is bigger than everyone” and Nick Cave and the boys launch into some raunchy feedback.
Crucially missing in season two is the contrast of tenor. Gone is Marty Hart’s (Woody Harrelson) counterbalancing sense of humor and goofiness that would undercut Rust Cohle’s pretentious bleakspeak with hilarious, “what the fuck did you just say?” disbelief. Marty was the audience’s compass and when things got too weird or precious, the character’s incredulity mirrored our own and grounded the show’s enigmatic qualities. Absent in season two is a ballast or much of a sense of humor.
Director Cary Fukunaga’s carefully observed eye also commanded balance to Pizzolato’s grave and somber tendencies; shooting in broad daylight is not something the audience witnesses too much in this new season. With season two, “True Detective” doubles down on anguished rumination and seems even more like Pizzolato’s baby with the filmmakers taking his cues and looking to embrace the text rather than understanding when to equipoise the transcript.
One has to admire Lin’s 180 degree effort to move away from the stylistic overkill of the “Fast And Furious” series, but much of the narrative remains over the top. The first two episodes of season two are largely rendered with staid control, like what you see in most television drama, less flashiness and more concentrated effort on character and story. But in his miscalculations, Lin just pours desolate mood where there is already much despair on the page and the characters’ blackened hearts.
“True Detective” may seem overcrowded with characters and plot in this new anthology, but baggage is the real problem. The “haunted past,” a cliché that Vince Vaughn ironically leveraged for comedy in “Wedding Crashers” (which also co-starred McAdams), is the platitude of every single main character. Most of Velcoro’s issues are right there on the surface, but Bezzerides and especially Woodrugh are nearly overburdened with unspoken, but clearly simmering anger issues. Vinci City is described as one of the most toxic polluters in the state and thus all its characters have a growing cancer within; Pizzolatto doesn’t go very easy on the metaphors.
If there’s a weak link so far it’s Vince Vaughn. “Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating,” is a line he can barely pull off with substantial conviction (one swears the actor reflexively does a double take to make sure no one laughs when he says the line). He’s not bad per se, but his delivery of heavy-handed lines like this is less credible than Matthew McConaughey’s fluency around Pizzolatto’s cornier passages. McConaughey made the ridiculous sound poetic, but out of Vaughn’s mouth some of these wooden lines feel pretty silly. But Vaughn’s Frank Semyon character is perhaps the most potentially interesting: there’s an empathy and vulnerability in this villain that contributes to a richness that could be further explored.
Nevertheless, as strained and morose as it can be, “True Detective” season two is still engrossing, fairly addictive and actors like Farrell, McAdams and even the semi-emaciated Kitsch are commanding presences worth following. And as distraught as the mood can be, its shadows are very compelling.
Structurally, the biggest difference this season is the abandonment of flashback as a narrative device. Aside from Velcoro’s backstory, “True Detective” is all told in present day. There’s one key flashback to slightly more innocent time: a young cop (Velcoro) meets a sympathetic burgeoning gangster (Semyon) who gives him a free tip that facilitates a personal revenge. It seems well intentioned at the time, with no strings attached, but obviously we know now it turned out to be a fateful pact.
As to the possible psychosphere or supernatural dimensions of the show—if they indeed will surface—if there are ethereal qualities to be revealed, so far the only phantom elements are the spiritual and psychic ghosts that hang heavy over the trio of law enforcement officers.
As the episode comes to its conclusion in the aforementioned depressive sinkhole bar—the on-the-nose “least favorite life” dive—the hollowed-out Ray Velcoro drinks away the pain from various dishonorable deeds of the week, including intimidating and thrashing a nosy journalist at the behest of Semyon and running in lead contention for the worst father of the year award for various misguided shitty dad transgressions. Ostensibly the lead or anti-hero of this tale, Velcoro’s story is one overrun with shame, guilt and self-hatred. The cop has a stain on his manhood—a raped ex-wife and a child he’s not certain is actually his kin—that has led him to reckless choices that are now choking the life out of him years later. “I welcome judgment,” the weathered Velcoro says in a heavy rasp at one point in advance of a custody hearing, but his burnt-out mien suggests he would really rather welcome being put out of his misery.
All the character’s torment threatens to overwhelm the show and hopefully as plot takes over, their angsts won’t be so underlined. All three are intimacy-challenged, and everyone self-medicates in one form or another. By the end of the overdone episode, maybe every character has gone one beat too far. The already-weathered Velcoro pulls off his cigarettes perhaps just a little too hard, Bezzerides’ boozing gets a little sloppy and Woodrugh can’t seem to enjoy a simple blowjob. Still, excessive or not, the narrative is intriguing and the performances mostly absorbing (McAdams being the MVP so far).
“Everyone gets touched,” Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly), Frank’s ex-actress wife and confidant says to one of his underlings. She means to warn him against naïvety to the inherent vulnerabilities of criminal activities. But it’s really a Pizzolatto line that says his hallmark of winning darkness can consume us all.
Abigail Spencer plays Alicia, Velcoro’s ex-wife tired of her ex-husband’s bullshit hurting her son. That’s a whole other subplot that we’ll dive into next episode.
Kelly Reilly is Jordan Semyon, Frank’s wife. She’s trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization and is also Frank’s emotional rock in times of turmoil. She’s a bit akin to Amy Adams jerking off Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master” and telling her husband he is the greatest, but with less patience.
Lolita Davidovich plays Cynthia Woodrugh, Paul’s boozy mother that he checks in on from time to time.
– “True Detective” Season 2 is going to be the redemptive story of Ray Velcoro.
– The occult is going to rear its head with via the dark, sexual fetish dimensions that seem to color Ben Caspere’s death.
– If any main character seems expendable enough to eventually die, right now it’s Woodrugh, who we have zero attachment to, but Velcoro redeeming himself with a sacrifice could be more resonant.