The second episode of this new season of True Detective has left me with many questions—and a few concerns—but none more pressing than this one: what I am supposed to be rooting for here?
Season One made use of the detection plot to explore deeper questions of character and place. That’s a standard approach to mysteries, from Chesterton’s religious Father Brown whodunits to Ellroy’s quest for the darkest places in his and our psyches. Looking for a bad guy is a good excuse for characters to look within, and to see the world anew. But the detection still gives us a plot to follow and to care about.
The mystery here is “Who killed Caspere?” But here’s the thing: I simply don’t care. I don’t care because I have no reason to. I know Caspere was important in the corrupt city of Vinci, which means he was important to Frank’s scheme to go legit with rail-development money. But that’s all I know about Caspere—aside from his sexual predilections—and that’s not enough for me to care about him as a character.
“But, wait!” you say. “Plenty of mysteries depend on a thinly-sketched dead body. That was a big criticism levied against TD’s first season, although not by you.”
“Ah, true,” I respond. “But Rust Cohle and Martin Harte made up for it. I cared about them.” And I don’t care about Frank, about Paul, or about Ray. I don’t care about the city of Vinci, because I am a heartless Southern California bastard who is not shocked by corruption. I do care about Ani; see below.
Vince Vaughn does not seem to be the right choice for Pizzolatto’s writing. His opening monologue about the six days he spent being eaten by rats during his childhood seemed to take nearly as long as the traumatic event itself. Yes, that’s glib. I’m being glib because Vaughn failed the scene.
Pizzolatto’s writing is heavy-handed if it’s not delivered in an interesting, nuanced, and offbeat manner. Vaughn is great at slimeball charm, as in his shakedown of the guy at the underpass. But the weighty emotions... well, my only thought during that scene was “Wow, he is still talking.” That his character is also rather incompetent, and was fleeced by Caspere, doesn’t help the problem.
I do think Taylor Kitsch is doing a fairly good job with Paul, although many reviewers out there seem to disagree. Perhaps Kitsch is succeeding because he hasn’t been saddled with very complex dialogue. His creepy, Oedipal conversation with his mother was interesting, but Paul’s greatest strength might be as a straightman (possible pun intended, as the show seems to be hinting he is gay and struggling with his sexuality) to wackier secondary characters, like W. Earl Brown’s Detective Dixon.
Colin Farrell, like Vince Vaughn, doesn’t seem to handle the heavy-handed dialogue that Pizzolatto gives him. Ray is a character who seems to choose to inhabit the pathetic fallacy: nature doesn’t mimic his emotion, but locales do. He hangs out at the world’s saddest bar, inhabits a city that is just as corrupt as he is... he’s a mustachioed signifier of civic despair.
Ray also might be dead, which would be a surprise, especially in light of the prominence of Farrell in the PR leading up to the season. I suspect he is not dead: that shotgun didn’t sound like a regular shotgun to me; I think it might have been loaded with bean bags. (All of my weaponry knowledge comes from TV, so feel free to debate in the comments.) I dug the bird-head Hieronymus Bosch vibe. Oh, Hollywood.
And then there's Ani. Flimsy female characters were a feature (and a vulnerability) of TD’s first season. Although that didn’t bother me, I’ve been interested in watching Pizzolatto attempt to respond to those criticisms by loading Ani with more baggage than an Air France flight. In addition to her complex backstory, in this episode Ani looked at porn (ooh!) and stated that “everyone [she] encountered could physically overpower [her]... a fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with bare hands.”
How are we supposed to take that sentiment? Does Ani really think the whole world could injure her—would want to—and she must be defensive at all times? If so, that’s an interesting character moment that makes me want to give her a (gentle and cautious) hug.
But I worry that it’s Pizzolatto attempting to say something “feminist” and getting it wrong, mostly because it’s illogical. Women readers, think about the men in your life. Think about your colleagues, the grocery-store checkout guy, your neighbors, family, and friends. Could every single one of them overpower you? That’s not true of me, and I’m just average-sized and in mediocre shape, although I have watched a lot of Buffy and Alias. It’s feminism-as-defensive-victimization that portrays all men as violence-waiting-to-happen. I thought we’d moved on from that.
But everything else about Ani—by which I mean everything McAdams brings to the role—is really working for me. She seems thoughtful, and she works hard. She asks important questions (most of which Velcoro can’t or won’t answer). She gives just enough personal information to establish camaraderie with Velcoro, but not too much. She gets the job done, and if Velcoro is correct, she might have to work against the system to do so. Hooray!
And that’s not all of the good. There was some great editing in the intercuts between the medical examiner’s report, the interdepartmental squabbles, and the state’s attorneys explaining the corrupt city of Vinci, and the corrupt Ray Velcoro, to Ani—just as we saw Velcoro’s (and Vinci’s) corruption in action. There were also about a billion recognizable “Hey, that guy!” characters in this episode. My favorite was Masuka from Dexter.
But I’m still haunted by the “I don’t care” element. Did this episode have a theme? A core question? An OMG moment in which an actor nailed their lines or the direction did something awesome? Or was the organizational principle nothing more than “a depressing day in the life of depressed people”?
The investigation is rather meandering, perhaps because most of the characters seem to have spent the majority of their workday driving around LA (which is totally a thing that happens; running errands takes hours here). If the detectives succeed at solving the mystery of Caspere’s death... so what? We’ve got character interactions of only mild interest, and opaque mystery that doesn’t seem urgent, and a maybe-cliffhanger. But True Detective needs to add some oomph. Soon.
What do you think? If this were the first season of this show--if you had no prior experience of TD--would you keep watching?
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)
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