This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.
With its mission clear and basic exposition out of the way, this second episode is a more satisfying experience than the first. It also makes the premiere look sharper in retrospect. Now that we're able to see the characters interacting (which not only provides dramatic momentum, but allows them to come out of their shells), the laborious set-up of the previous hour feels more justified. Even minor moments, like Woodrugh interacting with Velcoro's partner, are revealing and intriguing. Bezzerides and Velcoro have the most notable pairing, sharing many of the investigative duties throughout the episode. When Velcoro compares her e-cig to "sucking a robot's dick" she doesn't actually come out and tell him to shut up, but you can see it in her eyes; it seems like maybe they will be the closest thing to a Cohle/Hart pairing this season. Well, at least it seems that way until the ending...but more on that in a moment.
We also get to know Vinci a little better. There are only ninety-five permanent residents and the modus operandi of the town is to squash worker's rights, pollute the environment, and keep the money in the hands of those who already have it - as long as "the law" gets its fair cut. To make sure the political point is not too obscure, either Pizzolatto or director Justin Lin includes a prominent photo of the mayor (Ritchie Coster) shaking hands with George Bush. That mayor, by the way, is an example of how little restraint Pizzolatto applies when writing dialogue. This has already become a locus of criticism for season two. This potentially interesting character (although Coster might push him a bit too far in Don Vito direction) isn't allowed to insinuate anything in his conversation with Semyon. It's all spelled out; not just the details of their corruption, but the travails of the mayor's son and apparently his own history with...psychedelics? I can appreciate that Pizzolatto wants to include the whole scope of the California scene, from grimy metropolitan politics to the hippie subculture but sometimes it feels like he's trying to jam together too much.
More problematic than what the characters say is how they say it. "Some people can't handle the deep trip," the mayor philosophizes in the middle of a verbal showdown with Semyon (talking about his son, whose coke-fueled hit-and-run was covered up). "I fear he is a destroyer. In my day, you understand, it was about consciousness expansion, tracing the unseen web. Children are a disappointment. Remain unfettered, Frank." There was a lot of dialogue that toed the line in season one, but between Matthew McConaughey's delivery and the other characters' propensity to roll their eyes it worked. Now everyone is waxing grandiose, and the performances and direction can only take it so far. Detect This!, a True Detective podcast I've been listening to recently, played a clip of Bezzerides' father lecturing her and dumping huge chunks of artificially artful exposition about her past. It was a bit of a struggle on the show itself but listening to it without any visuals, the scene was really quite cringeworthy. You want your actors to sell the script, but when they're the only thing standing between a reserved acceptance and laughing out loud at the screen, you're in trouble.
Ok, enough of the potshots. Googling for actors' names, I've already glimpsed some criticism of Semyon's opening monologue, in which he recalls his traumatic childhood while staring at two water stains in the ceiling (which, a bit too on-the-nose, dissolve into Caspere's empty eye sockets). Compared to some of the other monologues, at least, it worked for me - garish and over-the-top (I can't wait to see the inevitable parodies of season 2's ruthlessly bleak outlook) but still compelling in its grisly detail. I'm not sure if Vince Vaughn is miscast yet, but in general I think he's giving it his all. The character offers an intriguing combination of smooth calculation and matter-of-fact ruthlessness: gangster-as-businessman rather than the gangster-as-psychopath. In that sense the stunt casting works.
I also found Velcoro easier to digest this time. Others noted how cliched he seemed in episode 1, but this time - with less emphasis on his family, and more on his job - his individuality and complexity swim into focus. He knows he's a bad cop and, even though he denies it to his ex-wife, a bad man (in a scene that plays much more strongly than it has any right to, thanks in part to Abigail Spencer's excellent performance). Season 2 may redeem him somehow, but it's still refreshing to see a main character who is not "kinda a bad guy" but just plain straight-up bad. Even his desire to be a father to his son is pure selfishness - as the boy's distraught mother pointed out, if he really cared about him he'd get the hell out of his life.
Bezzerides and Woodrugh are not quite as colorful as the two antiheroes but interesting threads are developing there too. Rachel McAdams is quite good in her less flashy role, never overplaying the potential brittleness of the character nor trying too hard for audience sympathy. She's certainly the most admirably professional member of the investigation she is leading, and you can see her demeanor start to rub off on Velcoro by episode's end, maybe reminding him of a time when he was more "decent," as his ex-wife puts it. But Bezzerides also has her dark side, and her hypocrisy; at the end of the episode, we see how easily an inquiry into Caspere's vice connections shades into a prurient descent into hardcore pornography. Coupled with her first scene in episode 1 (in which a sexual partner is unnerved by something she tried to do in bed), it seems that maybe her condemnation of her sister arises from a personal sense of shame.
Woodrugh remains the most isolated of the four protagonists. We do get to see him interact with his uncomfortably touchy-feely mother and frustrated girlfriend, and we start to glimpse why he may have needed artificial stimulation to sleep with his lover: it is strongly suggested that he is a repressed homosexual. He mostly broods in his own corner, and I'd have to say he's the least compelling character so far although there's plenty of potential there too (particularly learning about his experiences as a wartime mercenary). Meanwhile, there are many procedural elements to this episode - as a shrink, hooker, and political acquaintances all hint at Caspere's desire for sexual subjagation and voyeurism - but not too many details about why he was killed. The strongest plot thread results from Semyon's realization that his land deal has died with Caspere, driving him back into the underworld he was trying to escape. For the most part, though, right now the investigation serves to reveal the detectives' characters rather than expose too much of the mystery.
Then, of course, in the final moments of the episode Velcoro is shot inside Caspere's Hollywood apartment, which Semyon sent him to investigate. A set-up? A last-minute ploy to take out an unreliable ally? After all, Velcoro has just told Semyon that he's done being his errand-boy. The corrupt cop doesn't see the point anymore, since he has nothing left to lose. What's interesting is that only as the character gives up on his life does he discover a capacity for doing the right thing. As with Cohle last year, Pizzolatto depicts despair and nobility going hand-in-hand; will Velcoro be martyred for this semi-awakening? He is felled not by one shotgun blast, but two, the second at point-blank range. Is he wearing a bulletproof vest? Is the gunman using real bullets, or is this meant to be a warning to Velcoro?
I couldn't see any blood either on Velcoro or on the wall behind him, just a lot of a smoke. Incidentally, look at the feathers on the shooter's shoulder - I'm guessing it has something to do with the bird we saw in Caspere's limo; either a mask or a stuffed avian perched on the shoulder, pirate parrot style. (the screen I was watching this on was unfortunately pretty dark, but when I rewatched this clip it was perfectly obvious - albeit still somewhat cloaked in shadow - that the shooter was wearing a giant bird mask, a detail I absolutely love - ed.) The preview for next week continues to tease us, featuring no shots of Velcoro at all, with an officer saying "one of our men was shot" rather than "one of our men was killed."
I'm trying to figure out how the series could get away with dispatching a major star so early, and whether this would be a bold move or a cheap trick. The character gets a tiny bit of closure in that bar scene, but not enough to justify his death as anything other than purposefully fucking with the audience. I think he'll still be around next week, and that this was a warning to him (I think the killer is using blanks or similarly non-lethal ammo, though someone with better knowledge of artillery than I will have to verify if they could have the effect on him that they do). But I think he'll be largely inactive as he recovers from whatever injuries he sustained, forcing Bezzerides to dig into Vinci's corruption without him as a guide. Perhaps she'll form a working relationship with Woodrugh. At this point the element of True Detective which most intrigues me is the interweaving of these different characters, and the potential they have to bounce off each other.
The central mystery could improve, but so far I'm a little weary. All the most interesting bits (the cultish religion of Bezzerides Sr., the interlocking corruption of the Vinci elite, the psychosexual shame of Caspere) remind me of the stuff Pizzolatto dropped like a hot potato at the end of season 1, without ever really digging into. If one of Caspere's contacts drops a casual mention of the Yellow King, I'll start to perk up about the intrigue, but for now it's the still-barely-tapped ensemble dynamic that has me cautiously optimistic for the prospects of season two.