True Detective was just starting to find its legs, but did it just undo all that work?
We get the world we deserve.
There’s no dancing around the fact that Colin Farrell’s performance as Ray Velcoro is the best thing about True Detective’s second season. There isn’t even really any competition.
Vince Vaughn is a fine, if limited actor when he’s allowed to do his own thing, but that thing is not the steeped noir that True Detective is attempting. Vaughn is at his best when he’s set loose, and allowed to play up his more manic tendencies. Yes, it’s usually always the same thing, but he’s solid at it. It’s a large part of what makes films like Swingers and Old School so entertaining, but Vaughn is kept so contained during True Detective (how on-point was that story about Vaughn’s Frank Semyon being locked in a cellar?) that he’s floundering in a role that was never the proper fit. Sadly, it’s not his fault. Anyone who’s seen his attempt at Norman Bates in the Psycho should have known that this was never going to work. Intrinsic and menacing just isn’t his forte, despite his obvious efforts. But the blame goes on writer/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto.
Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch are both good performers, but Pizzolatto hasn’t given them anything to do. Ani Bezzerides and Paul Woodrugh are just cops with mysterious secrets at this point. Bezzerides, since women in Pizzolatto’s universe seemingly never have a reason to exist if they aren’t sexual vessels, apparently has a poorly defined pornography addiction. Woodrugh might be closeted gay man masquerading as a homophobe, as his need for Viagra before bedroom activities with his girlfriend coming into slightly sharper focus.
But it’s Farrell’s Velcoro that gives True Detective’s second season any real traction in these early episodes, because Farrell is seemingly the only one of the four who understands a harsh truth: True Detective, despite all its bluster, has a deep love for all things trashy. That’s not entirely a condemnation, but it’s something you need to understand, like how House of Cards is really a soap opera and Sons of Anarchy is just Hamlet with motorcycles. True Detective will always be more Elmore Leonard than Francis Ford Coppola, and that’s just fine as long as you don’t pretend it’s something else. Farrell clearly gets that, and he embodies it. It’s why he seems to sweat alcohol in every scene, and his threats actually sound menacing. Velcoro is dirty in every sense of the word, and Farrell doesn’t pretend that it’s all just bad luck. That’s why he’s interesting. Velcoro is obviously the soul of Season Two.
That’s what makes the closing moments of “Night Finds Us” so interesting, but more on that in a minute…
When MIA Vinci city manager Ben Caspare is found murdered on the side of the road, the three detectives have now been assembled like an LA Avengers investigation unit to uncover who is responsible and why they did it. But, like any good noir, everyone has an ulterior motive, and we get a quick rundown of behind the scenes dealings (and by extension, motives for Caspare’s murder): corruption, a looming investigation, and a good deal of money. Velcoro finds himself asking if this is a case that he’s even supposed to solve. Fair question. There’s a little bit of follow-up investigation, mostly detailing corruption across the city of Vinci, but most of the hour is spent on character development, and that’s where you can find some small glimmers of hope. Though Pizzolatto hasn’t defined his characters enough yet, we’re moving into the right direction.
The episode’s opening scene is a lengthy monologue by Semyon who gets this week’s go at Big Exposition, where he relates being locked in the cellar for days by his alcoholic father (while his wife cuddles at his shoulder). There’s an unstated understanding that Semyon never wants to be trapped again, and he’ll do whatever he has to do to avoid it – just as he beat a rat to death while he was trapped as a child. It’s early groundwork for the later revelation that the deceased Caspere was holding the funds to bankroll Semyon’s real estate project, and the capital needed to complete the deal disappeared when the city manager turned up dead at a roadside picnic table. The show has made no secret that Semyon is desperate to take his illicit enterprises straight, and, with Caspare dead, that opportunity may have evaporated. Semyon finds himself trapped again, and we know what happens when Frank has no escape. Rat, meet your end. There’s the beginnings of a new development when Semyon “rescues” a bookie from a fake mugging that he arranged on the side of the road, but his best chance at surviving this clusterf— is to find out what happened to Caspare before anyone else does, and he dispatches Velcoro to that end. Musing over his situation he philosophizes, “Am I diminished?” Maybe not yet.
Meanwhile Bezzerides and Velcoro spend their days investigating the crime, really just a guise for the show to let them chat each other up in the car while Woodrugh, still suspended but on the case as a “special investigation” waiver, investigates bank transactions behind the scenes. We learn a little bit about both detectives, but not nearly enough.
Bezzarides delves a little deeper into her past as the child of two gurus spouting “hippie shit,” and the only one of her four siblings to emotionally survive and find a career in the world. She’s a survivor, noting that her knife-coated uniform allows her to do a job where every man she encounters has the physical advantage. But despite all her tough exterior, we see the beginnings of a pornography fascination that goes beyond what’s inquired for her work on the case. Ironic for a woman who dressed down her sister for an involvement in porn business last week.
Woodrugh spends one of his two scenes with his mother, a washed up “waitress” on disability who lives in a trailer park. References to a coke addiction don’t brighten the picture. Is this why Woodrugh became a highway patrolman? Is he running from his troubled past? Later, after an offhanded story about “some homo” at a bank, Woodrugh himself appears to be meeting another man at a cheap motel room after telling his girlfriend that he has work to do. “Work” indeed. It’s a starting point, but we need more from both characters if the show is going to work. Bezzerides and Woodrugh’s stories are just extraneous to Semyon and Velcoro’s at this point.
Speaking of which, Velcoro finds his own hole of trouble this week when it turns out that beating up your son’s classmate’s father isn’t the kind of thing that goes unmentioned. It turns out that word gets around, and Frank’s ex-wife, Nancy, tells him that she’s requesting that Ray’s time with their son is accompanied by CPS supervision. When Ray protests, she threatens him with a paternity test that could unravel his claims to fatherhood. As we learned last week, the entire reason that Velcoro is Semyon’s personal fixer is because the crime boss gave Velcoro the leads the extract revenge on Nancy’s rapist. And now all of that could be for naught if both Nancy and his son are out of his life. He could be in Semyon’s debt with nothing to show.
It’s that debt that leads Velcoro to a previously unknown property owned by Caspare that Semyon uncovers in his own investigation. The secret property appears to be some sort of sex hideaway, including both hidden recording devices and a harness similar to the one theorized to have held Caspare’s body in his final moments. But Velcoro barely has time to stare in confusion before a figure appears unexpectedly and shoots him twice. The man, wearing the bird mask previously seen in the backseat while Caspare’s corpse was driven to its dumping site, shoots Velcoro in the leg, wounding him, and then proceeds to shoot him again in the chest at point blank range before the episode cuts to black.
Did that really happen? Did True Detective just dispatch one of its leads two episodes into the season? On one hand, that’s a really interesting narrative proposition. I’m on record with my belief that content doesn’t have the ability to shock us in the modern age. Main character deaths are old hat in a Game of Thrones world. The only surprise that television shows really have available at this juncture is timing, and this would be a huge deal. Farrell has been heavily promoted as the star of this season, and killing him at the quarter pole would be a surprise not seen since Janet Leigh got knifed in the first half hour of Psycho (2 Psycho references in one recap!).
But while it would be narratively interesting to deal with that fallout, it could also be a huge disaster for the show. As covered, Farrell and his character are the best thing True Detective has going for it – and by a wide margin. Could the show recalibrate? I honestly doubt it. The series is just beginning to find its legs, and I don’t think Pizzolatto has the stones to undo the little goodwill he still has with fans. As Velcoro says during the episode, echoing the heavy philosophical themes that True Detective loves to attempt, “We get the world that we deserve.” Let’s hope we get the show we deserve, because we deserve more Ray Velcoro.