Home > Reviews, Television > Television Review: True Detective – Season Two

Television Review: True Detective – Season Two

True Detective – Season Two (HBO; 2015)

The second season of Nick Pizzolatto’s brooding, gothic crime anthology series is not up to the level of the first season, which cast Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana State Police detectives investigating a series of occult-tinged murders with connections to big-money corruption and depravity over seventeen years. This initial admission is, to this observer, both indubitably true and critically fruitless. Season Two’s quartet of principal characters do not have the surprising chemistry that made McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Harrelson’s Marty Hart the unlikely bromance couple of 2014, nor are any of their dialogue exchanges as simultaneously philosophically profound and sneakingly hilarious as the chats of Hart and Cohle. Neither Pizzolatto’s notoriously scattershot writing nor the direction over eight episodes (united in S1 under Cary Joji Fukunaga but handle by six different directors in S2) packed a consistent and compelling punch.

It’s best to get that unproductive verdict recorded and out of the way so that we can properly consider what Season Two of True Detective is about and how it is about it (a process which, inevitably, will involve spoilers, in case anyone was planning to catch up with it later). It would also be best to recall that holding up Season One as canonically great misremembers the divided reactions to the episodes as they originally aired, especially following the halfway-point false resolution at the Ledoux compound. Season Two is its own beast with its own drives and appetites, haunted by its own demons that are, nonetheless, close cousins of those unleashed in Season One. It should be judged on its own themes and invocations and should be spared, as much as is possible, from invidious comparisons to its predecessor.

Swapping southern neo-gothic for grimy West Coast noir, the latest season of True Detective is set in the Los Angeles area and follows four investigators (“true” detectives if not always literal ones) delving into a high-profile murder. California Highway Patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) discovers the body of Ben Caspere, the city manager of the unfathomably crooked industrial suburb of Vinci, by the roadside. By degrees, Woodrugh is pulled into an inter-agency investigation overseen by the state to not only solve Caspere’s murder but also bust open the the hothouse of corruption that is the Vinci municipal government and its web of connections. His co-investigators are Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a Vinci PD detective tainted by the overflowing graft and haunted by his moral trespasses, and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) from the county sheriff’s office, whose checkered sexual past and uncompromising nature threaten to derail her career. Meanwhile, gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), to whom Velcoro owes a long-standing debt of gratitude, tries to correct his course towards legitimacy after Caspere’s death cut him out of a lucrative land development deal.

All three cops are broken misfits of some stripe. Velcoro’s marriage fell apart when he went after the man he believed to have raped his wife (Abigail Spencer); he struggles to connect with a son that may not biologically be his own and spirals downwards into substance abuse. Bezzerides is estranged from her faded hippie father (David Morse), frustrated by her artist/sex worker sister (Leven Rambin), and hampered by contentious romantic entanglements around the office. Beneath Woodrugh’s macho All-American exterior, he’s scarred by wartime experiences in Iraq and in furious denial of his evident homosexuality. Even Semyon, despite his beautiful wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) and projected masculine self-confidence, has problems: he’s unable to get Jordan pregnant, a symbolic reflection of the debilitating collapse of his threatened criminal fiefdom (doubly symbolized by the dying avocado trees in his yard).

These characters’ stories and hang-ups interfere and contribute to their excavation of the core mystery of Caspere’s death. Velcoro’s knowledge of the corrupt Vinci administration proves useful, Bezzerides’ family connections gain her insight on and access into the shady sex parties where shady deals are made between shady (but powerful) men, and Woodrugh is, as Velcoro once puts it, “a god warrior”, a tremendously efficient tactical weapon who carries them through two precarious and memorable operations. These episode-ending sequences, a draining massacre of a shootout with a Mexican gang tapped as Caspere’s executioners and a woozy nocturnal infiltration of one of the infamous sex parties that goes very wrong and is scored with a fine Black Angels song, are conceived and shot as stand-alone set pieces to end meanderingly-plotted episodes with a bang, much as the intense and technically outstanding drug house robbery and escape scene in Season One was. Neither moment was quite so shocking and disorienting as Velcoro’s apparent shooting death in a creepy fetish house by a man wearing an eagle head in the season’s second episode. But all of these stinging endings embedded a feeling of import and impact in the gut of the viewer nonetheless.

But what about beyond the gut? What did the second season of True Detective have to say to the head? Like Season One, this neo-noir, self-serious to the point of pulpy camp, metaphorically exposes a vision of America in decline, a sprawling urban-industrial wasteland of corruption, murder, rapine, filth, and deviance. As in Louisiana, this decay is both historically grounded and inherently contemporary, a morass of rampant greed and illegality simultaneously reflected by the brazen breaking of social and sexual taboos and naturally fulfilled in those acts.

But there’s a grandeur and ambition attached to the accomplishments in this slime-splattered milieu as well, a mirror of the self-legitimizing embrace of the culture and image of classical antiquity that has marked American society for centuries (especially in the slave order of the South, but that’s an analysis for another time). Unmissable Ancient Egyptian visual references and associations littered the establishing episodes and, as one astute watcher laid out in a series of tweets, magnify a core theme of leaving a legacy even (especially) in death. Woodrugh and Velcoro leave sons behind them, but the former is posthumously constructed by the corrupt local order as a hero and the latter as a villain; Frank Semyon is not remembered at all, another career criminal who pissed off the wrong thugs and is left bleeding out in the desert, his steps haunted by carrion birds and by cruel embodied memories that poke and prod at his weakness.

Bezzerides and Jordan survive to walk tall through an energetic Latin American carnival unlike anything in embalmed America, a resilient matriarchal compact. Velcoro, Woodrugh, and Semyon represent a spasming masculinity no less valiant for its delirious, delusional desperation. This strain of masculinity belongs to a past order that cannot perish quickly enough, but will take as much capital – economic, human, and otherwise – as it can with it in its protracted death throes. It is emtombed in monuments in the social wasteland of Southern California like the pharoahs in their magnificent pyramids: forever remembered, but still inescapably dead. It’s a mask that all three men feel they must wear, but it fits them as awkwardly as a fake bird’s head and is just as far from their true natures. Velcoro at least has the decency to realize that before the end, recording a (undelivered) message to his son admitting that his masculine posturing was always weakness, never strength.

These are big, broad, resonant themes that echo through Season Two, and their potency gives the lie to the critical narrative coalescing around the “failure” of this anthology story. Was it a flawed story? Often, yes. But then it’s a flawed world, too, especially in the world of True Detective. Ultimately, we get the True Detective we deserve.

Categories: Reviews, Television
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: