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.
The stakes of last week are almost instantly lowered, as most of us probably suspected they would be. Velcoro is not dead; he was sprayed with buckshot either as a warning or perhaps to make a show for the camera taping him while he "died." That camera, and the drive connected to it, were stolen while Velcoro was passed out, and he seems obsessed by what else they may have captured inside this possible snuff film studio. Velcoro, already souring on his corruption at the end of "Night Finds You" is now openly defiant of Semyon and less committed than ever to the police culture of Vinci. He begs to be taken off the job and is hesitant to sell out Bezzerides when his police press him for clues; likewise, while she calls him a "burnout" Bezzerides does not seem particularly keen on exposing him to her authorities (one of whom presses her to seduce information from him).
By the end of the episode Velcoro and Bezzerides' emerging camaraderie proposes an interesting twist on last season's buddy formula, both a repetition - like Cohle and Hart, working conditions subtly bond together these two very different people - and a variation - because unlike Cohle and Hart, Velcoro and Bezzerides aren't really being forced to get along; their bosses would actually rather they didn't. This is, so far, the most compelling angle True Detective season 2 has going for it: the intersection of interest and how individual loyalty often trumps institutional loyalty. I'm not sure if that's true, but it makes for pretty good television. We even get hints, in the preview for next week, that Velcoro and Woodrugh will have some of those legendary True Detective ridealong chats.
When Woodrugh bumps into Semyon in a club (the cool gangster easily stares down the "angsty cop," as a savvy hustler calls him) we are reminded that actually these four characters have not interacted too much yet. To the extent I am anticipating the upcoming episodes it is to see how these personalities play off of one another. None of these characters looks to be as singular or memorable as (obviously) Cohle or even the underrated Hart, but Farrell and Vaughn are doing their best to develop complexity with the oft-broad material they are handled while McAdams moves in the opposite direction, carving a complex, nuanced, and highly watchable interpretation of a character whom I suspect would feel much flatter and thinner on the page. Kitsch still struggles to hold our interest, but his role is the most one-note so it's hard to blame him.
Anyway, Woodrugh does get a bit more interesting this episode, due entirely to the interplay of his macho homophobia and the increasingly clear source of that homophobia. A meet-up with a war buddy suggests (well, pretty much outright states) that they had a romance in the desert and that perhaps Woodrugh is as traumatized by this memory as by the violence he took part in. And when he's tasked to question hookers, he realizes that he has much better luck with the male population than the females even though everyone in this episode assumes that his good looks will charm the ladies. I like how Kitsch plays this moment. If we're going to see the character inch out of the closet this season it may be due more to professional duties than personal commitment.
Likewise, Velcoro grows more sympathetic and seems more human when he's playing cop than when he's playing dad (or Semyon's hired thug). The dull stereotype of episode 1 is becoming a richer character when he stops trying at his family life and starts trying at his job. Semyon, on the other hand, seems less and less an efficient, professional criminal-gone-straight - still with one foot on the wrong side of the law but relatively likable. Instead he comes off as a ruthless, truly bad guy, ripping gold teeth out of his minion's mouths and, even worse, darkly threatening wives and children while leaning on businessmen he has helped. Vaughn, whom many worried would seem non-threatening in the role, is genuinely effective, translating his height into a threatening presence and his sarcasm into an intimidating viciousness. But his tongue still gets tied by the the verb-less street talk Pizzolatto crams into his mouth. Vaughn just doesn't seem like a man who rose from the gutter and he stumbles with some of the dialogue.
If I haven't spoken much about the case itself, that's because there isn't much to say. What do the characters discover in this episode? That Caspere liked to party, something we heard early in episode two and have been hearing ever since. Everyone the investigators talk to offers that same insight, over and over and over - the mayor's debauched son, the hustlers at a decadent nightclub, the pretentious director of a movie Caspere was funding (whose man-bun some have taken as a barbed reference to season one's director Cary Fukanaga). We get it. The man liked hookers, and - to quote Chauncy Gardener - he "liked to watch." It's possible I missed something, but I didn't feel the episode offered any new insight into Caspere's place within the corrupt ecosystem of Vinci, or the role of his sex life in his death.
The only real plot advancement occurs in Semyon's storyline, as one of his associates is found dead (though the men around Semyon are so faceless I couldn't remember who he was). Semyon also openly speculates that Caspere may have been killed by the Russian gangster who came to town in episode one and was skittish about deal-making even before Caspere showed up. Much of his screentime is spent with his wife, their relationship fraying from the stress of Semyon's business collapsing - and from his inability to impregnate her even through artificial insemination. This is a bit of a retreat for her character, who seemed to be more of a partner in early episodes and is now reduced to pouting around the house with baby issues. So far Semyon's story feels very disconnected from the rest of the cast, and as their interlocking relationships grow more compelling, that distance becomes a liability.
Many noirs contain impenetrable plots that are difficult to follow and/or not especially alluring in their actual mystery (municipal corruption is a constant theme of L.A. detective fiction). Instead, these tales rely on atmosphere and character to generate excitement. That seems to be what Pizzolatto is going for here, but the trophy wives stomping through mansions and set photographers whispering of decadent parties do not feel as fresh or interesting as the trailer-park madam or grieving bayou fisherman of season one. And Janus Metz Pedersen, taking over for Justin Lin, does not imbue any of these sequences with visual interest or an eye for detail. The one memorable scene is the episode's cold open, an Elvis impersonator (okay, okay - Conrad Twitty impersonator - ed.) writhing in the spotlight as a bleeding Velcoro commiserates with his father in a bar.
The surreal setpiece (which turns out to be a dream - a first for True Detective, if I'm not mistaken) is a clear nod to Tony Soprano's bold hallucinations on another HBO show, but the one eye-catching detail grows thin very quickly, and the location (that bar, again?) is fairly unimaginative. Its ability to spark our curiosity and inability to sustain it may unfortunately be reflective of the show itself. To achieve greatness or even satisfaction, True Detective needs character, atmosphere, and mystery. Right now it is barely coasting on only one of those qualities (the first - and that's due in large part to the performances). I didn't find episode three as disappointing as episode one, knowing roughly what to expect by now, but it also wasn't as promising as the best bits of episode two. I will say I enjoyed watching the episode as it unfolded but I never felt deeply invested.
I think episode four will be really crucial in determining what season two has to offer. Will it be just another routine cop show, with good actors and some interesting tangents to nibble on, or will it surprise us with something deeper and richer? We're approaching the halfway point and sad to say, the smart money is on the former. That's fine in and of itself. But at the end of season one I wrote that it was a tremendous kickoff for a great series, with the best yet to come. Specifically, I cited that arresting shot of Cohle entering Carcosa, his eyes just above the camera line, as a hint of what True Detective was capable of. I hope I was right, but am afraid I was viewing the beginning of the end.