True Detective finds its groove by focusing on its characters rather than its central crime. Forget the murder. The mystery is the people.
Can I ask you something, Mr. Velcoro? Do you want to live?
Come for the murder. Stay for the character development. Each week of True Detective’s second season has moved its deepest focus from one character to the next. We spent week one with Ray Velcoro before shifting to Frank Semyon. Now, in “Maybe Tomorrow,” the series shifts again, and we get our third chance to learn what makes one of our four protagonists tick.
It was the least convincing death on HBO in, let’s say, two weeks? So no one was exactly shocked when even TV guide listings made it clear that Detective Ray Velcoro would survive a gunshot to the chest and live to see episode three. After a downright Lynch-ian dream sequence, our favorite bolo-wearing detective and his mustache awoke in an empty house with broken ribs, jeans covered in piss, but no permanent damage. His killer, knowingly or not, shot him full of gunpowder and a little packing, but no bullets.
No one in fiction survives a shotgun blast to the chest without the inherent understanding that said character is receiving a second chance at life, and it’s a chance that Velcoro desperately needs. He’s a crooked cop, indebted to a crime boss, and in danger of losing his son in a custody battle; all things set in motion by his meeting with Frank Semyon in episode one to learn the identity of the man who beat and raped his wife. How appropriate then that Ray’s moment of purgatory, his dream state while he lies shot — before the audience knows his true fate — finds him in his own mind back at the same bar where he and Semyon always meet. Indeed, the same bar where he met the crime boss that first night. Maybe the remainder of Season 2 finds our burnout detective attempting a desperation crawl-out from the pit where his life first took a turn for the worse? Maybe not, but that’s what second chances are for.
Velcoro doesn’t bother to take the recommended few days off duty once his doctor clears him, but we do see him turn down his normal whiskey or 6 in favor of water when he confronts Semyon with the possibility that the shooting was a setup. Baby steps. We also see the closest thing to a touching father-son moment that Ray has in him when he brings his father marijuana for his medical problems. The two hardened men don’t share much beyond a few grunts and fewer minutes together, but it’s obvious that the younger Velcoro has been thinking of his father, and the bag of weed is the closest thing to a hug that he has for the old man. Ray even pulls his father’s old, acrylic-blocked police badge out of the garbage after the retired officer says he no longer has any use for it. Better habits, family, respect for the badge? Ray Velcoro may yet turn the corner towards a brighter future and a new identity.
Also facing identity questions, Frank Semyon is still struggling to handle the fallout from his lost cash and collapsing business deal. But if Velcoro is turning a corner towards the light, Semyon is retreating into the darkness. For all of his talk about walking a straighter path and building a legitimate business, Frank is quick to break faces and pull golden teeth when things aren’t going his way. After a few weeks waxing poetic about business ventures that will keep his children from wondering where the family money came from, Semyon is facing a total collapse of his empire and must dirty his hands to recapture it.
And about those kids… apparently Semyon is too stressed out to rise to the occasion at the moment anyway. His monologuing about tension aside, “Maybe Tomorrow” is probably Vaughn’s best performance in the series. Note: he’s still not great, but this episode gives him an opportunity to shake off the dourness that’s plagued his character and embody the wildness that actually makes Vaughn an interesting actor.
The biggest identity examination in “Maybe Tomorrow,” however, is saved for Paul Woodrugh. In what is, by a wide margin, Taylor Kitsch’s best episode yet, we finally get a clearer look at Paul and what may have happened “in the desert.”
Paul’s early refusal to spend time with his girlfriend or talk about what happened during his military service were both early mysteries that the show cloaked in too desperate of a darkness. But Pizzolatto has finally taken the time to shine a little light on them, and the Woodrugh character is better for it. While having beers with an old army buddy at a race track, the talk between the two turns to the therapy sessions that Paul no longer attends. He acknowledges that he’s wont to attend them because of the group’s insistence on discussing the past. While other soldiers have found healing for their pain, Paul refuses to discuss what happened in the Middle East. But is he really unwilling to just discuss the military aspects of his operation? Or is there more that he’s unwilling to reveal about that time?
Paul’s friend’s fond remembrance of their times together touch on a romantic past between the two men; one that Paul still refuses to deal with. He’d rather physically fight his friend then have to endure continued discussion about those times. All of this squares with Paul’s need for Viagra during an intimate session with his girlfriend, and his seemingly illicit motel room meeting with a strange man last week. It also adds irony to Paul’s suspension for allegedly promising to let a young starlet out of a ticket in exchange for a sexual act. True Detective wouldn’t be the first show to probe the idea of intense machismo and American masculinity hiding a homosexual secret, but it’s definitely an interesting alternative to the macho ethos that often constricts the series. As is often the case with Pizzolatto’s show, the verdict on whether this is a brilliant move or an inept one largely depends on where they take it.
The character who gets the shaft in “Maybe Tomorrow,” unfortunately, is again Ani Bezzerides. While all of the men are busy getting rich emotional development, True Detective’s lone female protagonist is left out in the wilderness. At least she’s actually making a little headway with the case, discovering Caspare’s connection to a shady property-holding group, and his fondness for eastern bloc prostitutes. That one of Semyon’s men is found murdered in a manner similar to Caspare, and Woodrugh has a brief run-in with Semyon at a club, only reinforces the idea that the gangsters and the police are embroiled in this mess together.
Good work, Bezzerides. Kick your feet up, enjoy a drag on your e-cigarette when the men aren’t around to comment on it, and let’s hope Pizzolatto finally gets around to your story next week. It would be great to get to see McAdams play something other than the tough girl in a man’s world for a while.
What’s becoming clearer each week of True Detective’s sophomore season is that the show works best when the central mystery takes a backseat to characterization. Who killed Ben Caspare just isn’t as interesting as why Ray Velcoro is so desperate to remain a father to a child who’s nothing like him, or why Paul Woodrugh hides his true self behind a badge of American masculinity. The murders are always just Macguffins that enable the plot to unfold, giving us a chance to spend time with what really matters over the course of the investigation: the characters. We’re slowly learning that the mystery at the heart of this show is those who wear the badges, not the crimes they’re trying to solve. If that trend continues, and we get the characterization that Ani Bezzerides deserves, then True Detective just might stand a chance.
Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ray and Ani’s visit to the film set. Amidst the rubble of a junk dystopian film shoot sat a director who was oblivious that his work was trash while alienating the crew around him by acting like a diva. The issue? The braided, dark haired director was almost a dead riner for season one director Cary Joji Fukunaga who had a huge falling out with Nic Pizzolatto after TD wrapped its premiere season. Deriding the lauded director who created the stylistic feel of your show and won it its sole Emmy? It’s just another piece of evidence for my central thesis: Nic Pizzolatto must be some asshole.