Well now. That was interesting. I didn’t go into this second episode of True Detective expecting Ray to exit the series, blasted away by a strange birdman on a tip about a house. Then again, I also didn’t expect such an entertaining episode.
It wasn’t just Ray getting shotgunned, twice, that made my day—or his, as it were. This was a good episode, developing all the characters and the plot, and generally picking up the pace. Overall, what the first series had going for it in terms of focus, this one has in terms of sheer quantity. Where the last episode felt needlessly disjointed, this one shows how much pinging around among the characters can work. Larger networks of complications come to be explored, and I’m generally interested now in seeing where everyone ends up going.
Not all of them are going to get there, apparently. Well, so be it. But that’s just the ending: let’s begin at the beginning. This is a recap, remember.
Vince Vaughn wins this episode. As much as it is Ray’s ending that is remarkable, it is Frank who dominates the action. Last week, it wasn’t exactly clear what he was. While he owned the town, there was a huge question of how much. Now we see how little this is. The house he has is double mortgaged. And it turns out the last of his liquidity was in the pocket of the dead Vinci City Manager, Caspere, waiting to be invested in the high-speed rail system. Now, that money is gone, and Frank’s lost everything: he’s cut out of buying into the development for the railroad, and lost the cash to boot. He’s screwed, in a tight place, exactly as impotent as, well, he actually is.
He explains this himself at the beginning of the episode. He sees two stains on the ceiling and feels like nothing in his life is real. The story’s obsession with fathers—who all seem, even in Ani’s case, to have screwed up their kids—continues: Frank tells a story of being beaten and locked in the basement for days. “Sometimes I wonder if I ever got out,” he says, looking at two stains on the ceiling, and complaining that the world is made of papier-mâché.
As far as that writing goes, it’s still a bit contrived, as usual. Vaughn does his best to bend it into something that goes somewhere where Pizzollato wants it to go, the location of which remains a bit of a mystery to me: I think he’s going for tawdry, in the end, here and later, especially in those hilariously bad lines about McAdams’ smoking a vape pen.
Regardless, Frank’s problems are bad, and the rest of the episode he goes on the warpath. It’s clear that now he needs Ray to solve this case, to find out who offed Caspere, because that man owes him five million and then some. He gets on Ray’s ass about it, and even does a favor for him by finding an address—the address that turns out to be the birdman’s house, funny enough.
In the course of his efforts to turn things around, Frank has two toughs clobber a guy, and then he walks over to him snarkily: “Jeez, what was that about? What’d you do to piss somebody off? Can you think of anything?” It’s this type of smartassery and irony that Vaughn can bring to a role, and which makes his comparative deadness in the rest of the series now appear interesting. When you see how excited he can be to break out of that basement, you’re beginning to get a sense of how deep his usual feeling of impotence goes—something deeper than the droll dialogue could tell you.
Frank is also taking things into his own hands because he doesn’t trust the efforts of our little ragtag group of heroes, who stand around the body of Caspere in the morgue, baffled. The State Attorney General decides to use them and the body’s location in the jurisdiction of Ventura Country to probe into corruption in the City of Vinci in general, and so has kept it from becoming a specifically Vinci case. Ray begins to suspect that they’re also simply staging something to cover anything up, and even confesses his obstructive role, “in the interest of transparency,” to Ani.But it isn’t clear.
Still, the murder is concrete enough to solve, even if the corruption isn’t. There’s the emasculating wound on the body, first and foremost, which we see in vivid detail. Everyone takes a slight step back upon seeing it. The most interesting character in the show, Ani, moves away slightly, but doesn’t, like Ray does, bat an eye. As she pursues leads throughout the show that have to do with Caspere’s frequenting escorts, she looks at porn and behaves similarly. Castration, penetration: there is nothing in the violence of these that is going to make her flinch, and Ray’s expectation that she would, at least in the one case, seems all the more bound up in his problems. I think the show is suggesting that we should think similarly about ourselves, too, in the second, which seems backwards. But I’m not sure yet: the show is so busy conflating sexuality and violence and vice in general, and so far has depicted female desire so thinly (as either longing for a hot hunk or for settling down), that it’s hard to parse what Ani’s stance actually is with respect to it all. We need more episodes to see.
In the process of her investigations though, she and Ray go casing places Caspere frequented: his house, which we’ve already seen, a creepy visit to a sunlit therapy center, where we’re informed Caspere suffered from “a painful past.” The result isn’t anything much, from an investigative point of view—indeed the investigation itself only proceeds in this episode through chance encounters and backchannel means. But in the course of Ani and Ray’s making their way around to Caspere’s various haunts we get the first inter-car talking-while-driving dialogue reminiscent of the last series.
Except it isn’t reminiscent of Rust and Marty, at all. Ray is self-defeating and stupid, Ani isn’t forthcoming. She smokes a vape pen. He makes a horrible joke about how not many people can pull off a ecig, though she does. For his part, it weirds him out: “a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick.” The dialogue is stilted and strange and uncomfortable. It is also relentlessly cold. The last series, Marty’s attempts to crack Rust were endearing but also just great pretexts for warmth and humor—not least when Marty would grow frustrated with him. This cast, by contrast, are rigorously trying not to touch or be touched by each other, or by anything. We watch them stay in their own worlds.
Ani’s coldness at least continues to be interesting. As thickheaded as he is, it doesn’t get by Ray that Ani has a knife strapped to her leg. She explains: being a woman in her line of work means being in a situation where any man can overpower you. That’s intolerable, maddening. “No man can walk around like that,” she adds.
Meanwhile Paul also retreats into himself. He does some work for the task force on the murder that’s been formed, turning up bank statements. But mostly he spends the episode leaving wherever he was—Malibu, I guess—and holing up in a hotel, nearer the investigation. He says his goodbyes, first to his mother, who, it turns out, is creepily incestuous! So, that’s something new. Then he ditches his girlfriend, making it incredibly clear that all this is her fault. But he is so passive aggressive because she wonders about his distance. Later, as he ogles rainbow-clad partygoers and a young man turning tricks from his hotel window, it’s clear: turns out to have all these girl troubles and conflicts because, well, he may be questioning his sexuality.
It’s a crude enough depiction of this questioning, and the link of it to his mother’s incestual longings doesn’t make his journey lose any taint of perversity. Again, by the crude logic of Pizzolatto’s brand of copland, a father’s to blame: she’s feeling him up on the couch, presumably, because, as she says, his father was never around. I’m still not sure where this character goes, but at least he’s not just the witless self-destructive former-Blackwater patriothunk he appeared to be in the first episode. Now he’s more on his own, and sees that solving the case could be a way back to his beloved bike. The question in this show remains, though, why characters’ struggles gain a kind of legitimacy only when they take up the burden of dealing with the legacy of their fathers.
This brings us back to Ray, who now is trying to be that father. He was supposed to meet his kid at the mall: instead he’s left standing with his ex in front of a Buffalo Wild Wings, pathetically holding a new pair of shoes he bought for the kid. She tells him she’s going to get sole custody. He shakes uncontrollably, reminds her of what he did for her, which was, long ago, on the tip from Frank, kill her rapist. She reminds him he didn’t have to do that, and he replies forcefully that he did, “by any natural law.” This is a world where all ties are artificial, where we long back for those past links to the natural. What’s interesting is that this feels a lot like mainstream crime writing: we might be witnessing one of the better pulpy detective fiction transfers to the screen, here. But that doesn’t make it any more satisfying.
Ray goes and meets Frank at the bar. All pumped up from his “investigation,” he can’t take Ray’s sour, sullen mood: confronted with his admission that he’s contemplating suicide, he simply says, in tones at once paternalistic but also simply beyond that sort of struggle, “I thought you were harder than that,” tells him never to speak of it again, and hands him the address that will lead him to his doom. Just as he is getting ready to leave, the bartender Felicia, played charmingly by Yara Martinez, sits down. She brushes her hair back, revealing a huge scar on her face, but doesn’t seem to care that it’s there—she’s beyond whatever trauma was involved. She suggests they could run away and have some fun together. Ray won’t have any of it. He’s too tired, he’s too trapped in his own struggles, those days are over. Choosing to see redemption simply as a kind of temptation, he gets up and goes to meet his fate.
It’s all over by the time he arrives: there’s a shot of the car in which we saw the City Manager being transported right outside the place. Frank pokes around and we enter a creepier place. He finds a huge pool of blood, the rack where presumably Caspere was tied up, and a camera, which is still on. But the man in the bird hat is already behind him, and just before he can draw his gun, blows him away.
What to make of this? It’s a tough time to be a TV character, apparently. We’re in an age of TV where we like to see them die as much as live. There’s something bizarre about this trend generally, but in True Detective especially: so much billing of Colin Farrell in this series, and then you get rid of him in the second episode? Really? The critics have been weirdly keeping up the possibility that he is alive. It’s certainly a way to make me tune in same time next week.
But at what expense? There’s nothing to the murder, no motive—Frank didn’t set this up, clearly. It’s just this masked man. All that matters for the story, really, is who is behind the mask. This is an appearance of some abstract and unclear kind of evil, then, a creepy killer like the first series. But evil, it turns out, is just not as creepy when he comes in blasting. Everything is too quick, too fast, too unexplained to be truly menacing, to make me even wonder about his identity, his motive. At most the death, like many things in the new series, it feels like just another thing to respond to and/or screw with critics, or with any sense of our expectations. The one real link to the last show, a brooding heterosexual male detective character who can’t get his act together, is done away with. Fine, I guess. But the question still remains, where is this show going then? As it stands, the death feels more like a freak accident than a twist.
A few notes:
Flashbacks: The show is doing a thing where it will take a scene, cut away and show some background, and then reinsert itself back into the scene. It’s almost as if Pizzollato can’t tell his story without filling in background, going backwards as well as forwards. History seems to matter a lot, though he doesn’t like filling it out fully.
Cliché, again: People made a lot of the clichés and bad dialogue in the last series, but I actually thought it was generally palatable. Maybe that’s because it was more interesting when delivered in an irresistible drawl over a steering wheel in the hot sunny swamps. There’s something just so compelling about even the pointless remarks of Rust that saves it from being cliché, and turns it into campy exuberance. Here, not so much. There’s something almost revolting about the idea of a campy detective dialogue in the back and forth Ray and Ani have over her “robot penis” vape pen. Something interesting is happening with Ray in this episode: we see a little more of just how insecure his masculine insecurity is. I’d personally have liked to see this explored, so I hope by some fiat of some sort that he comes back. But I think that’s about it.
Hippies: There’s something in this show about hippies. It’s about as obsessed with them as Justice Scalia, and mentions them just about as randomly. Even the mayor of Vinci is one. Or was at one moment. Speaking of his coked-up son, whom Ray apparently scooped up one night, he calls him in some strange Eastern metaphysical parlance “a destroyer.” And continues: “In my day it was about consciousness expansion.” The me-generation apparently is finding it tough in going in today’s California. People are too self-involved even for them. Later, Ani and Ray go up to the treatment center, which mostly deals in superficial wounds: plastic surgery. Ray says something all these crumbling flower children might appreciate, speaking to Ani about the industrial waste dump the Mayor and his cronies have made of Vinci: “I tend to think you get the reality you deserve.”
Ray, again: I’m sorry to see Ray go, if he really indeed goes. I was starting to like him. His hapless line, “I support feminism by having body image issues,” is so unutterably bad. But it would have been interesting to see him pursue this strange self-defeating, self-victimizing attitude in dialogue with Ani more. Men’s ability to be self-deluding and to play the victim of women’s liberation knows really no bounds.