Holy smokes! Did “True Detective” just pull a “Children of Men” and kill off one of its main stars before we even reached Act II? When Ray (Colin Farrell) caught a bullet from the mask-wearing mystery man last seen driving Ben Caspere’s body around SoCal, it seemed like something any TV detective worth the weight of his bulletproof vest could survive. But then he was shot square in the chest from point blank range, his body lying flat against the floor, sickly jerking as the ammunition slammed into him. Is there any way out of this?
Well, sure. There are a number of theories in which Ray survived the surprising assault by the same shotgun-wielding killer who shot Ben Caspere’s balls off — drunken dream, staged murder scene, rubber bullets — but the shock of it all still helped “Night Finds You” end with a bang despite a persistent whimper throughout Episode 2. Other than digging Ray deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making, and a less-than-memorable (if well-performed) opening monologue from Vince Vaughn, Episode 2 provided little evidence to support continued viewing — until those final moments.
Season 1 Callbacks
About two-thirds of the way through “Night Finds You,” we got our first legitimate callback to Season 1, when Nic Pizzolatto put two detectives in a cop car for an extended discussion about beliefs and the interpretation of those beliefs. Earlier, the two shared a shorter ride, but the main takeaways were that Ani smokes an e-cigarette (I mean, who does that?) and the line, “It got a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick.” Neither aspect drew to mind the cop car camaraderie of Rust and Marty (and at worst, those memoires were tarnished), but Ray and Ani’s second drive came a lot closer.
As Ray mentioned at the end of his ride home, the two were faking transparency more than engaging in any real way — though one could argue Rust Cohle was always faking engagement in Season 1. Still, the back-and-forth between two cops pitted against each other while working the same case helped smooth over some clunky exposition, as did Farrell and McAdams’ commitment to the dialogue.
Though this is far from overwhelming praise, it’s clear after two episodes that “True Detective” works best with pairings. Be it Pizzolatto’s knack for banter (more evident last year than this, though still present) or the sheer talent of the thespians involved, scenes with the leads, plural, enliven the series like nothing else can. Whether it’s Ray and Ani, Ray and Frank, Ani and Paul, or any two of the four leads, sparks fly when they these blunt instruments are brought together. More, please.
Season 2 Standouts
Character arcs are starting to unfold as the plot of Season 2 kicked into gear. Thanks to that opening monologue, we know just what Frank (Vince Vaughn) is capable of and why he might have to survive in the darkness again very shortly. “Just when I thought I was out” came to mind again and again, as Frank’s dreams of a “legitimate” fortune started to crash down around him, and Frank the gangster started to peak out from the wreckage.
The same can be said for Ray, if he survives that seemingly fatal shotgun blast. His ex-wife, Alicia (Abigail Spencer), labeled him “bad for my son,” which is Ray’s worst nightmare not simply because he wants to be a good dad, but also because she said “my” son, not “our” son, implying Ray isn’t even the boy’s real father (an idea later confirmed by her threat of a paternity test). Frank and Ray make for quite the pair, and I don’t just mean for their less-than-chummy but more-than-strictly-business meetings. Their lives are starting to parallel one another.
Both are falling so far short of their goals (wealth for Frank and family for Ray) they’re starting to spiral, and both have a vested interest in the other’s business. Ray’s is marred with guilt over helping Frank do horrible things because Frank once helped him do a slightly less horrible thing, and Frank’s interest is weighed against the apparent concern he feels for Ray. Frank chastising Ray for contemplating suicide didn’t feel like an angry boss trying to save an employee he needs for one more job. It felt like a friend looking out for his own. But if that blast to the chest sets Ray on the straight and arrow, he’ll be going head-to-head with a version of Frank he’s never met.
The Truest Detective (Episode MVP)
Like Ray said, not a lot of people can pull off smoking an e-cig. Besides that odd, probably pointless character trait, Ani wasn’t given much to do this week, which merits the question, “Why pick Ani Bezzerides as MVP?” Episode 2 focused fairly heavily on the men, filling in some parental backstory for Paul (Taylor Kitsch) and watching Ray and Frank dip deeper into the darkness. But Ani’s harsh judgement of her male colleagues made the episode more palatable overall. Her disgust with Ray’s “robot dick” joke as well as her outmaneuvering him at being “transparent” later on provided Ani the appearance of wisdom; looking down on those beneath her and judging them for being so crude, simple and ignorant. Taking her side as a viewer puts the onlooker in a more accepting position, thus alleviating many issues with the show itself. That and the fact Oedipus issues, suicide and finger-eating rats still can’t trump anyone who can smoke an e-cig without looking like a total jackass. (Cards on the table: If Ray turns out to be dead, I may regret this choice.)
mostly by having body image issues.” – Ray Velcoro
Sadly, the above line wasn’t as funny within the context of its use as it was the context of “True Detective” altogether. Pizzolatto’s show has been under fire since Season 1 for being chauvinistic, as many critics argue its female characters are too one-dimensional, in service to men or voyeuristic objects of men. So when Ray, unprompted, stated his support for equality and then followed it up with a bad joke, it felt like the writer speaking to his critics instead of the character poorly trying to establish a connection with a woman. At least Ani — and Nic — knew better than to extend the conversation. Oof.
The New Philosophy
Further support for my theory that Rachel McAdams is the new Matthew McConaughey, the above line is as dismissive and uninformative as it is momentarily perplexing. Much like many of Rust Cohle’s brilliant one-liners from Season 1, “I don’t distinguish between good and bad habits” is just strange enough to make you think twice about it; an amount of time that may be long enough to end an unwanted conversation altogether. Unfortunately for Ani, Ray was on a mission (literally) to get close to her, so his line of questioning wasn’t about to stop there. Still, Rust would be proud.
Murder Mystery or Character Study?
While “Night Finds You” was more of a conventionally-written piece of television — staving off the plot criticisms (or lack therof) surrounding Episode 1 — “True Detective” didn’t become a phenomenon because it felt familiar. Other than the admittedly shocking ending, Episode 2 felt too much like filler even when that groundwork seemed necessary for future conflict. Right now, it’s as though we can see the gears turning: Frank and Ray are headed for a showdown, Ani is battling personal and professional conflicts, and Paul is too thinly outlined for anyone to care what’s coming next (though I’m guessing Blackwater, those scars, his mother and homophobia are all linked).
Great drama relies on the element of surprise, not false promises of it. If Ray truly died in this episode, the following episodes would still have to justify the major twist with an incredibly good reason for getting to know him so intimately over two episodes of an eight-episode season. Otherwise, we just wasted a lot of time tracking a deadbeat dad who got what was coming to him. At this stage, it’s probably better if he survived somehow, and his near-death experience flips a long-dormant switch in Ray that brings him back to the light (Alicia, his ex-wife, did say he “used to be decent”). The final scene may have been too late to save this episode, but its repercussions could still save the season.
– One more callback to Season 1: the Lone Star sign in the dive bar Ray and Frank frequent has to be a nod to Rust Cohle’s drink of choice last year. While available in California, it’s unlikely many bars sport signs for a beer far more prevalent in the South.
– Did you like Abigail Spencer? Do you like murder mysteries? Then, for the love of Pete, watch “Rectify.”
– “When this is over, can I just go back to being on the bike?” Paul’s pleas for a simple, honorable, but undistinguished lifestyle sadly parallel what I think Taylor Kitsch may want as well, after his failures to break out at the box office.