To avoid having to do a big chunk of plot summation, or wade through too much recap, and most importantly to indicate there are nothing but spoilers ahead, I'm going to assume you've already watched season two of True Detective. If that is indeed the case, well lemme break it down like this…
We're all familiar with the sophomore slump. It’s that crucial second effort that suffers in the light of a particularly bright initial offering. It’s when the first thing you do is so good and compelling and well received that the world at large is in eager anticipation of what you've got as far as a follow-up act is concerned. Sometimes, you just can't quite measure up to that first, vibrant burst of creative energy and your second album or second novel or second film doesn't live up to what you accomplished that first go round. It's something that Nic Pizzolatto's second season of True Detective has been accused of over and over and over again throughout its second season on HBO. The first season, featuring the now indelible pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, was known from the beginning to be a one-off series. It was one story told over the course of eight episodes of television, and would step aside after that run to allow in a new, totally different story for the show’s second season.
After the smash success of McConaughey and Harrelson's masterful dual and duel lead performances, and a strange, Lovecraftian tale of the Louisiana bayou that had everyone in the free world wondering what exactly Carcosa was and who they thought the Yellow King may be, it would've been easy for the second season of True Detective to suffer for its predecessor’s success. It would have been easy for S2 to not live up to expectation, for it to fall under the shadow of the series' first iteration, for it to be an afterthought. And while the consensus of criticism and public reaction would lead you to believe that's exactly what happened here, in season two, allow me to tell you why if the second season of the show isn't better than the first, it certainly isn’t worse in any true usage of that word, and is a masterful piece of television in its own right.
From jump street, and I mean that literally, from the sprawling and breathtaking views of the California landscape and in particular its interwoven highway system, we know we're in for a show that is going to bring together characters seemingly on separate trajectories, but with the same wish to move forward and to travel on down the road as it were. And whether intended or not, just like season one, they are fated to meet up and meander through one long strange trip of a murder investigation. Los Angeles is a place where everyone dreams of becoming someone else, and it is a perfect backdrop for a story that is all about its four major characters exploring the points at which their former lives turned on a particular pivot point, and they began to live the ones that they lead now.
The glaring and recurring theme of the entire season is that of past lives. They're referred to directly, as when Ani Bezzerides's new-wave father tells Ray Velcoro he has the biggest aura he's ever seen––he must have “lived hundreds of lives”––or when Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon wonders whether he maybe really did die in the basement he was abandoned in for days as a child, or when the crooning Lera Lynn, the brooding songstress in Frank’s seedy saloon, tells us on more than one occasion over a stripped-down guitar line that this is “her least favorite life”. But more importantly, and more thematically, our four respective lead characters are all struggling to escape from the turning point in their actual, current lives. Something Semyon would tell us is a point we all face. A point at which we stopped being what we were and started being what we are, whether we like it or not. Or maybe you don’t remember that amazing scene between Semyon and his employee Stan’s now orphaned son in the backyard? After Frank has tried to make up for the boy’s father’s death with a financial gift to his widow and a promise of retribution, he tries to comfort the young man with a speech about life’s pivot points, and what we can do when we stand perched atop one. (One of many scenes that make this season worth a re-watch, I might add, but I'll get there…)
And all four of our leads have these fulcrum points, when life went from being one thing, and turned into another, and it’s what they spend all season grappling with as their individual demons meet just like those spaghetti junctions in the California highway system. The murder investigation of Ben Caspere brings these four people together in compelling and fascinating ways, as the investigation of Dora Lange's death in season one brought Rust and Marty together to confront their own broken lives.
Just like their investigation into the serial murders in Louisiana eventually forces Rust and Marty to confront their failed attempts at a successful family and a happy, meaningful existence, Caspere's murder entangles the four points in season two's dramatic square as they try to confront and adapt to their lives beyond a certain unwanted past travail. Caspere's death brings Ani back to where her molestation occurred, Frank back to the violent, criminal past he is desperate to escape, Woodrugh back to his days as a mercenary and the regret of a homosexual love affair, and Ray back to the murder of his wife's rapist and the dispute over his son Chad's bloodline.
For Woodrugh, we see a man trying to beat back not only his inescapable sexual proclivities, but also a dark past in the U.S. army and as a mercenary fighting the same fight against whatever it is we think we're fighting for in the Middle East. For Ani, we find out, it's a sexual assault in the woods near her father's strange, mysterious [sic] sanctuary. One that she isn't entirely sure she didn't want, she tells Velcoro, crazy as that might sound. For Frank, it's the aforementioned experience in his father's basement, but also as an adult, his abandonment of his baser tendencies to pursue a straight life and a legacy for his children and grandchildren (he didn’t wear a suit 'til he was 38 remember…). For Ray Velcoro, it's moving beyond a murder that if it is not justified, is at least understandable, but has still left him a darker, more violent version of the person he wishes he was.
Not only did the murder change him, but he later realizes he killed the wrong man (it’s one of the many ways the show really really really puts the screws to Velcoro, but I’ll leave that for another time). Ray not only wishes he was more like his son, but that we all were, he tells the boy and the audience in a voicemail doomed to be undelivered in the towering redwoods and lack of cellular signal that draw the plot towards its close. In a brilliant illumination of the season's aesthetic, Ray was foreshadowed to perish among those trees in a masterful dream sequence featuring his father and a Conway Twitty impersonator that even David Lynch would have to tip his cap to. But oh yeah, that plot!
It's knotted and muddy and some would tell you damn near indecipherable, but in reality, it's not only that the story is really not that hard to follow along with, but more importantly, it’s secondary to what the show is trying to accomplish this season and as a series as a whole. While the far-out ramblings of Rust Cohle and the inescapable demons of his partner Marty hang like a morbid and beautiful tapestry over the intense, mystic mystery at the first season's core, likewise our four leads in season two navigate through and confront their own existential dilemmas against the backdrop of an equally strange and unknowable menace that so characterized season one. It's a yarn that is still dense and moody enough to hang like baryonic matter over the dramatic scaffold of season two's own unique dark matter(s). Plot is secondary to motivation and character study in True Detective's universe, and we're better off as viewers because of it.
And not to be too redundant, but a point well made is one made thoroughly, so let's look at our characters one more time, in particular those vivid motivations. Because motivation made manifest is where Pizzolatto's writing really shines.
- What do you do when you're trying to run from the fact that you murdered your wife's alleged rapist? If you're Ray Velcoro you spend your life fucked up on guilt and therefore a grab bag (or glove compartment) full of substances, all the while fighting in every way possible for the right to continue to raise the son that might be yours or could more likely be the offspring of the very man you murdered.
- How about if you can't come to grips with your own sexual preference and the despicable things you did in the U.S. armed forces or their shadowy subsidiaries? Well if you're Paul Woodrugh you again, abuse substances, and then try and careen your bike off the road at alarming speeds and cry through terrible hangovers only to seal things up by walking into what you seem to know is certain death.
- Or what if your drunk of a father locks you in a basement as a kid and then as an adult you are a vicious criminal with a seeming heart of gold? If one Frank Semyon, you again, maybe abuse some substances and do everything you can to escape your criminal past and make a legacy for your as-of-yet unborn offspring.
- And let's say, you're Ani Bezzerides and you get molested by some creep at your father's way-out spiritual retreat in the woods? Well for starters, you (you guessed it) abuse some substances and spend your time railing against your father's perceived wrong-doing and evident apathy and lecture your sister about exploiting her sexuality whenever you can. Also, you stab things and people with your dead mother's knife.
Mix these four things together and add one big conspiracy that involves sex, corruption, revenge, and the LA riots, and you bet your ass I'm invested. Again, kudos to Mr. Pizzolatto. And don't even listen to these haters, please, on your way to penning season three.
Taken this way, the character studies offered in season two are in fact richer and more satisfying than season one, where at the end of the day Marty is simply a softened version of the same cruel bastard he always was, and Rust ends up a little more hopeful about the "big gutter in outer space" he so narrowly avoided leaving behind for good. Given their respective fates, the four main characters in season two leave us with a much more meaningful road traveled and more importantly, their fates tell us something deeper about the intermingled highways of life that we are surrounded by, if not the past ones where things are something completely different. Ray's failure to make amends with his family, Frank's inability to fight back his catalytic pride, Woodrugh's obsession with his own self-destruction, and Ani's exposure of the vast California conspiracy she escaped from with Ray's second son in tow not only all feel earned, but pitch perfect. A friend and I were discussing how the real difference between season one and two is that the bulk of S1 was so good that the finale felt forced and flat, while the breadth of S2 is so great because it also nails the landing, even without a flat circle of time and cribbing its themes and dialogue from Eugene Thacker and H.P. Lovecraft.
Season one focuses on two leads. One, the dark, misanthropic "Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch“ who's obsessed with his and the world's existential ennui finds out that things really aren't so bad because of a near-death experience. The other, a womanizing, adulterous, violent father of two, makes an unearned peace with his family because hey, time heals all wounds. Compare those fairly trite denouements with where the four, equally compelling characters of season two find their respective fates:
I'll take Ani's pursuit of justice for Ray, Ray's pursuit of a nobility in death, Woodrugh's misplaced pursuit of his own destruction, and Frank's commitment to the way things outta shake out and to a belief in his own integrity––I‘ll take all of that, any day––over Rust's near-death change of heart and Marty's attempt to make peace with the family unit he wittingly destroyed by the end of season one. Everything about the characters in season two, from their make-up to their motivations to their fates, rings much truer than anything season one had to offer. Tell me why, you grousing internet loudmouths, we should sacrifice true character development for snappier dialogue? Because it's not like season two was without its fair share of memorable lines. And it's not like the corruption in Vincy is that far off from that in the bayou. And it's not like the demented sexual shit that everyone's least favorite lawn care professional was into is that different from Caspere and the young and old Chessani's weird secluded sex parties and manipulation of government contracts for their own personal pleasure.
I could also get into how Farrell's Velcoro, McAdams's Bezzerides, Vaughn's Semyon, and Kitsch's Woodrugh were equally compelling performances in comparison to McConaughey's Cohle and Harrelson's Hart, but you'd never agree with me. Or I could tell you how that famed tracking shot in the projects in season one is easily rivaled by the out-of-nowhere shoot-out near a meth cookhouse in season two, but this post is long enough as is. Or we could investigate the beauty and execution of Frank’s long walk through desert, gut-cut and watching his life flash before him, but again, in the interest of closing things up, I won’t.
Suffice to say, I watched damn near the entire series over again before Sunday's finale. I suggest you give it a second watch at some point too. As a favor to me, at least watch those opening credits one last time. Pay attention to our silhouetted characters as they move against the backdrop of the California highways and in particular to the almost too on-point lyrics of Leonard Cohen's "Nevermind", a tune that poetically sums up the show's purpose to near poetic perfection. We get the world we deserve, Frank Semyon tells us is his belief, and it's my belief we got the follow up to season one of True Detective we deserved. It's a damn fine piece of drama at the end of the day, and sooner or later I've got a feeling you'll watch it again. If I did my job and you're still reading, you just might watch it with a more open mind, and find there is a fitting reward for doing so.
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