The mask is pallid like the moon, save for some war-paint red marking. They accent the pinhole eyes, suggesting illumination. Three bloody dots in the middle of the forehead form a triangle, a humble third eye chakra. The rest of the head is covered by a hoodie, the rest of the body clad in black. He—or she—is an occult figure: hidden; esoteric; a mystery representing awareness of secret knowledge. He could be a character from a Grant Morrison comic book. Maybe he is. But then, what isn’t a Grant Morrison reference, or an allusion to… well, any number of pop culture things? Cormac McCarthy. William Wyler’s Detective Story. Xena? In the paper mache world of True Detective, everything is recycled pulp.
The phantom stands across from a car that’s been set ablaze, gazing upon Ani Bezzerides and Ray Velcoro as they scan the area for the person responsible. Watching the detectives, just like us. The phantom risks being seen… but that might be what the phantom wants. More mystery dance in a season of illusion and misdirection. That mask looks like a Japanese theater mask with some Mr. Robot contour and bulk. This Noh-Man’s malingering? Could be Kabuki. Regardless: When Velcoro glimpses the creep, the creep runs.
The chase cuts through a homeless encampment in a vacant lot. The vibe: post-apocalyptic wasteland. The phantom navigates this obstacle course of wrecked humanity and cultural debris with American Ninja Warrior ease, hurdling cinder barricades and pushing through anyone in the way. But Ani Bezzerides is close behind, and Ray, close behind her, despite his aching chest. The chase is a metaphor: Investigators scrambling after enlightenment in the dark, in a world where everything is filth and lies, for dubious reward, risking doom. Is their quarry trying to elude them? Or leading them somewhere…
The phantom scampers down an embankment, sprints across a two-lane highway, leaps a guard rail and drops out of sight. Ani’s quarry is going to get away unless she can cross the blacktop or put him down ASAP, and so she jets into the highway with gun drawn…
Just as a truck roars around the corner of a dead man’s curve.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?
True Detective season 2, episode 3
The Doom Patrol
Buckshot Apocalypse. Last week’s episode of True Detective ended with an Angry Birds shocker. Dirty pig Ray Velcoro was blown down by a gun-toting bogeyman wearing a dusky avian mask—most likely the same headdress that kept Ben Caspere’s corpse company during the drive in ep 1 to its final resting spot. But maybe not. Perhaps a murder of crow-helmed cosplayers is flocking around Hollywood. (Of course, the ornithology of that mask is still a puzzle. Crow? Raven? Falcon? Hawk? For now, we call this nightmare creature The Birdman.)
This week, we met Ray in dreams. Frank Semyon’s tavern clubhouse, to be exact, where a country crooner in a powder blue suit was throwing himself with passionate theatricality into a (lip-synched?) performance of “The Rose,” perhaps best known as one of Bette Midler’s signature hits. Elvis impersonator? Wrong. Conway Twitty impersonator.* Ray sat at the table usually reserved for his testy tête-á-têtes with the devil that owns him, Frank Semyon. But sitting in Frank’s spot was a symbol of rectitude and authority, an older man in a cop’s uniform played by Fred Ward. He looked like a smoked and severe David Lynch with tamer hair. A choice homage, given the Lynchian vibe. Welcome to Country Western night at The Black Lodge.
*Conway Twitty’s version of “The Rose”—recorded for his album Dream Maker—was a smash for the country legend. The B-side of that single? Twitty’s 1958 classic “It’s Only Make Believe.” He co-wrote it with frequent collaborator Jack Nance, who just happens to share a name with… frequent David Lynch collaborator Jack Nance. You know him best as Eraserhead.)
On the surface, the scene smacked of judgment. The subtext—animated by the Conway Twitty homage artist going through the motions in the background—spoke idol worship and subverting influence. We would come to know later that the gray-haired lawman sitting in Demon Frank’s spot was a representation of the dark man who sired him, Ray’s ailing, retired cop father, a grumpy old racist who pines for the days when there were strong, proud toughs like Kirk Douglas and white men could enjoy their privilege without feeling bad about it.
Here, though, Dusty Authority Dream Archetype spoke of Ray’s pops in the third person. “You have your father’s hands,” said DADA. Ray examined his fingers. The knuckles were chucked bloody. (Maybe from meting out some brutal justice to, say, the speed freak that raped his ex-wife Alicia?) When Ray confessed that his father made him nervous, DADA got frank and Frank-like bitchy. “Maybe you were already nervous. Maybe you lacked grit.” This indictment could mean any number of things regarding Ray, but what immediately came to mind was how Alicia judged Ray for his lack of courage to “stay decent.” Now that’s true grit.
DADA said Ray was a small man running for his life through a forest of giant men. DADA said they were aiming to shoot him to pieces. DADA said they wanted him dead. As Fake Twitty sang of “a soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live,” Ray finally questioned this nonsense. Where are we? “I don’t know,” said DADA. “You were here first.”
NEXT: Ray is pissed.[pagebreak]
Fake Twitty receded from the blue hued spotlight and faded into the dark, singing of nights of loneliness that feel like endless winter. But “The Rose” is not a song about death. It’s about the hope for spring. It’s about resurrection. We heard that Romantic optimism as the scene cut to back to Velcoro’s still body laying on the floor of Ben Caspere’s Hollywood bungalow, morning light illuminating the space. The song emanated from the old time radio, courtesy of “Monstrous Mike’s Morning Mash-Up.” Just remember in the winter, far beneath the winter snow/Lies the seed that with the sun’s love/In the spring becomes the rose…
Ray Velcoro woke up, gasping for air. He pulled away his shirt, revealing a bruised chest but no gaping hole. He had been pelted with buckshot, not bullets. He hadn’t been killed, but put to sleep by a sinister Sandman pelting him with some seriously strong grit. I saw one irony: Birdman blew him down him with bird-hunting ammo. Ray saw another: He, a cop, was shot with cop-issued riot shells. If the man behind this fowl façade isn’t Michael Keaton (because how awesome would that be?), then I’m putting my chips on… Ani’s partner, Det. Elvis. (Say that aloud. “Dead Elvis,” yes?) Third choice? Caspere himself! CON-WAY CASPERE THEORY: Just like Elvis… Caspere lives! The scheming Vinci manager—key player in a conspiracy to either bring down his corrupt world or simply make a lot of money—set his plan in motion by faking his death. That corpse? He worked with his pal Dr. Pitlor and his team of plastic surgeons and specialty MDs to turn a look-alike into a doppelgänger.
Did you feel bait-and-switched by this buckshot twist? What a CON! No WAY! True Detective, you TWIT! Ah, we should’ve seen this coming. If I weren’t so ignorant about firearms—if I was more knowledgeable about the symbols of this world—I could’ve Sherlocked the possibility. I liked how the storytelling choice mirrored the themes of deception and misdirection, conspiracy and occultism. The show was steering us toward wrong conclusions the way Ray is supposed to be steering the investigation into Caspere’s murder on behalf of varied Vinci puppet masters pulling his strings. What Conway sang: It’s only make believe. More on this as we go—especially as the episode brings the Hollywood dream factory to Vinci and gets into the business of moviemaking.
Sniffing Out The Filth. Ani Bezzerides was p.o.’d that Velcoro went solo into Caspere’s raunchy rookery. She’s lead detective! They’re task force partners! They were getting oh, so close with their near-transparency last week! Ray should’ve come to her with his “pross tip” courtesy of his confidential informant. The fact that Ray had found a treasure trove of clues and Caspere’s murder scene didn’t do much for Ani. It only fed her worry that he couldn’t be trusted. Ani sniffed. “God, what smells like piss?!” It was Ray. The dirty detective had wet himself during his near death experience. She stomped off toward the crime scene. Ray cracked wise about Ani’s hard-ass lack of concern. “So I guess I’ll take the day, Xena?”
Inside, the warrior cop found more lawless disrespect. Ray’s even-more-dirty boss had not only taken charge of her crime scene but was tampering with it as he pawed the place looking for… something. Stuff of interest to the Vinci overlords he served. Ani chased him away, then got busy processing the space. The soundproofing tiles affixed to the walls interested her more than the animal masks mounted on the walls. Missing from this make-shift studio: The hard-drive from the digital camera hidden in the closet, positioned behind the one-way mirror.
Further probing dug up more connections and intrigue. The Hollywood house was leased for Caspere by Catalyst, the relatively new company driving the scheme to purchase soon-to-be priceless tracts of land throughout California’s in-process light rail corridor. (Catalyst owned Caspere’s car, too.) Caspere also kept a safety deposit box. Inside: diamonds and docs, articles of incorporation for Caspere’s LLC, Porpoise. (The name means “pig-fish.” Hmmm. Was fishy Caspere a cop working a deep cover? Note the growing zoo of “Animal Man” motifs. Birdman. Porpoise Man. That damn dirty Russian Oslip, “half anaconda, half Great White.” Some “monstrous mash-ups” there.) Phone records showed frequent calls to another home across town—the Bel Air mansion of Vinci’s mayor, Austin Chessani.
“Maybe Tomorrow’s” major detective-work set pieces emphasized the larger themes of the episode. Mad, maxed-out masculinity. Generational influence and generational sins. Cultural decadence and collapse. Illusion, performance, pretending. It’s only make believe. The aforementioned phone records sent Ani and Paul Woodrugh to the first stop: Mayor Chessani’s mansion, where huge portraits of his forefathers framed the front door and lined the upstairs walls. (We remember Chessani’s grandfather and most likely his father were previous bigwigs in Vinci.) The theme was reinforced in Chessani’s study, where there were photos of Chessani with the second Bush president, son of the first, the one who finished the business his daddy started by initiating the quagmire in Iraq that would leave Paul profoundly messed up.
Chessani’s family was immediately suspicious. There was the trophy wife, a vapid Eastern European beauty who spends her days haunting her faux palace in a slinky gown, cutting pictures of models out of Bella Flora ads, and treating her asthma by bagging. She took an instant shine to hunky Paul Woodrugh. (The Chippendale’s-cut CHiPsy cop immediately understood his purpose in this moment: distracting her with his Magic Mikeyness so Ani could case the joint. Key find—a survey of California land titles.)
There was also Chessani’s twentysomething son, probably not much older than his stepmom, a hard-bodied, hard-partying douchebag who strutted around the house wearing a open robe and a rude boy gangsta personality—practice for his aspiring Hollywood acting career. (Ani sniffed out his phoniness in a second.) Son of Chessani said he worked as “an organizer”—an event organizer (“all kinds”)—and we remember that Caspere attended a party at Chessani’s house the night of or shortly before his murder. He declined when the detectives asked him to elaborate on his profession: “You best get to stepping before my man Bodean/Bo Dean/[sp?] come in here with my lawyer to chew your asses out!” This man-child is painful. (By the way, feel free to Google “Bo Dean.”)
Finally, there was Chessani’s teenage daughter. Ani found her sitting in her room, examining what looked to be a road map of California. “Everything all right?” Ani asked. The girl replied by shutting the door in Ani’s face. Guess not.
NEXT: Everyone gets pimped out.[pagebreak]
Sneaker Pimping. Chessani went ballistic about Ani’s ambush on his home. He called her a certain C-word. He wanted her badge. And he and his cronies wanted Ray to wrap the investigation ASAP with a hasty, who-cares-if-it’s-the-right-guy arrest. Ray tried to get them to give up on him. He was too beat up from the buckshot blast. Ani didn’t trust him. “And I ain’t ever exactly been Columbo.” Still, they wouldn’t relieve him of “steering” duty. Ray felt gross…
Just like Ani. While Ray was getting squeezed to screw over his task force partner and undercut the Caspere investigation, Ani was getting pressured by the attorney general’s office to suck Ray into their Vinci probe by screwing him. They showed little interest in Caspere’s murder—a posture that clearly perturbed Ani. They only had Veni Vidi Vici = Vinci! on the brain, and they were hot to turn Ray into an asset by any means necessary. “He’s a man, for chrissakes. I’m not saying f— him, but let him think you might f— him.” Ani was exasperated. She also didn’t say no…
Just like Paul. Once again exploited for his looks, the trophy cop was tasked to work Vinci’s streetwalkers for intel on Caspere, a voracious consumer of sex workers. It was Ray’s idea to pimp Paul (see last episode), though it was Ani who gave him the assignment. Paul—a good soldier—obeyed, but with passive aggressive snark (mocking Ani’s E-cig), and the work would have a degrading effect on the widening gyre of his crumbling identity.
Paul wasn’t the only man that felt used by Ani in “Maybe Tomorrow.” Steven—the former lover and fellow cop who blanched at her request for rough sex in the premiere—confronted her in the squad room for staying distant. When Steven huffed and puffed, Ani made like this week’s chief tough guy detective touchstone, Kirk Douglas. (Sorry, Columbo.) “You talk to me like that again, you’ll need a little baggie to carry your teeth home.” Her partner Elvis—feeling some need to stand up for Ani—took a shot at Steven’s masculinity as he stormed out. “Mama’s boy!” Ooo! Burn! Steven’s parting shot to Ani: “You’ve got serious problems. Her retort: “Whittling them down.” Ooo! Double burn!
Doom Patrol. “Maybe Tomorrow’s” second major procedural sequence brought Ani and Ray to the set of the major motion picture filming in Vinci. They were following up on a promising lead: Traffic cams caught a car traveling the PCH not far from the location of the Caspere body dump around the time Caspere’s body would’ve been dumped. It was indeed the same poop-brown Cadillac that ferried the corpse up the coast in the premiere, and the same vehicle that was parked outside the Hollywood house when Ray showed up to search it.
Turned out the car belonged to the movie production, a big budget wannabe blockbuster like so many other big budget blockbusters these days, “some collapse-of-civilization revenge flick,” the film’s set photographer told Ray. So basically Mad Max: Fury Road, but campier. So Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. I think those costumes—a glammy mash-up of bikerpunk and steam-punk—were swiped from Duran Duran’s Wild Boys video or something. Anyway: Here was Hollywood shooting some generic dystopian pop in the wastelands of corrupt, dystopian Vinci, in a show that itself represents more Hollywood pop portraying Western culture as a corrupt, dystopian wasteland. Very meta. Watching one of the film’s characters attempting to climb a mound of trash, I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles,* when a villain—in a surreal dream sequence—explains the underlying point of our fixation with fatalism: “You wonder why the children of America are obsessed with death? You wonder why rock groups that look like corpses and zombie comic book heroes are so goddamn popular here? … The American empire is dead and does not know it. … It’s only aware of it, of the truth in its sleep.” I’m not sure if I agree with that, but I think True Detective does.
*I’m not the first to see The Invisibles in True Detective. I got the idea from Grantland’s Alex Pappademas, who saw Morrison all over season 1. I didn’t buy it then, but I’m kinda buying this season now. Among many intriguing connections: The theme of “Everything is a lie” and the perspective that what we experience as “reality” is “like a movie,” all manipulated narrative and illusion.
The scoop from the set: The Death Caddie was stolen a week before Caspere’s death. Caspere had been a friend to the production; he helped the producers acquire permits and make local business contacts in exchange for a co-producer credit and back-end pay. (Apparently the city is now re-claiming all that paperwork from the production. Cover up?) He also attended a party with the film’s haughty, demanding, allegedly alcoholic director, a wild bacchanal with lots of women that took place somewhere above Ventura County. Organized by Chessani’s son, perhaps? Did it go down in a place we know? Possibilities: Dr. Pitlor’s self-improvement clinic, The Panticapaeum Institute, and Guerneville, where commune-raised Ani lived with The Good People. All three locales are certainly north of Vinci, which is located in L.A. County. But north of Ventura? Guerneville, yes. Not sure about the other two.
Ani and Ray visited the inner city home of the driver assigned by the production to the missing Caddie. He’d been MIA from work for about a week taking care of his ailing mom and nursing a back injury. He seemed innocent enough… but then a column of fire rising from a spot down the block lit up the night like a flare. Sprinting to investigate, Ani and Ray saw that someone had blown up a car. Ani I.D.’d the vehicle: It was the poop-brown Caddie. And it was here that Ray saw the Noh-man watching them from across the street. Was this phantom menace planting the Caddie to implicate the Mama’s Boy driver? Or was he just there to mess with and terrorize Ani and Ray?
NEXT: Quimper theory.[pagebreak]
Now, at the beginning of this recap, I suggested that this masked man (?) resembled a character from a Grant Morrison comic. That character would be Quimper from The Invisibles. A sinister agent employed by an occult conspiracy that secretly controls the world like it was a machine, Quimper was once a maker of short films who wore a mask—a monstrous mash-up of influences, part Noh mask, part gimp mask (according to Morrison)—to hide grotesque injuries to his face. He hates mirrors. In his major story line, Quimper, a psychic, meddled with the minds of the comic’s heroes, subverting their sense of identity, confusing their agendas, and manipulating them into serving the conspiracy’s interests.
I know I come up with some crazy-ass stuff and make some dubious connections, but if that doesn’t sound even a tiny bit like what’s happening right now with Ani, Ray, and Paul, then you and I are watching different shows. I mean, you saw the Archon of The Outer Church take possession of Mayor Chessani’s body, right? RIGHT?! (Just be glad I decided to cut my 500 word digression about Tex Porneau, a character from Morrison’s The Filth, a nihilistic porn director who unleashes an apocalypse of toxic masculine energy—a plague of giant killer sperm—just to film the spectacle.)
And so we come back to that chase through that blighted, fiery, trashed-strewn lot—prefigured by the visit to the film set’s crap heaps and ashen terrain—that culminated with Noh-man* escaping and Ani nearly getting flattened by a truck barreling from around a bend in the road. Ray lunged and grabbed and pulled Ani away just in time. “Thank you,” she said. Ray—who previous to this sequence had been tipped by his ex-wife that the state was investigating him—knew how Ani could make it up to him: “You want to make it up to me, tell me what state has on me.” She said she didn’t know, and we left them gasping for breath and grasping for answers. Maybe tomorrow.
*In the spirit of covering all possible connections: Mr. Pallid Mask could be directing us back to last year’s big literary reference, The King In Yellow. There, you’ll find a menacing character—an agent of The Yellow King—known by a few names, including “The Pallid Mask.”
CON-WAY CASPERE THEORY (CONTINUED)! We know Caspere was deep into erotica. His Vinci house was lavishly tricked out with arty lewdness. His Hollywood sex pad had a book by arty bondage photographer Araki. Yet we remember the characterizations of Caspere provided last week. Passive. Liked to watch. Strange that a guy so outré about sex would be so reserved when it comes to the deed itself. Perhaps this was more wink-wink feinting in the direction of the possibility that Caspere—this Watchman whose name evokes a friendly pop culture Spirit—was pursuing some secret heroic mission.
But there is another kind of passive watching that actually isn’t passive at all. It’s performed by a certain kind of participant voyeur—a film director. If Caspere was (secretly?) recording kinky horseplay, then for what purpose? Was he producing customized kink for a sex addict’s porn collection? Did he fancy himself a wannabe Kenneth Anger, producing Thelema-worshipping, Do-what-thou-wilt pagan sex ritual flicks and collecting Hollywood Babylon smut? Or we could be looking at that old pulp fiction play, the blackmail tape.
So here’s what I’m thinking: Caspere’s ostentatious, vaguely occult “sex obsession” was itself a mask for a more mundane kind of criminality, putting rich and powerful people in compromising positions in order to screw them out of money. His erotica-cluttered McMansion in Vinci? A means to tag and bag prey—a honey-trap loaded with conversation-starting bait. Those who betrayed a proclivity or weakness for transgressive behavior were invited to Hollywood kink shack to get their freaky pagan on and hump like animals for “I just like to watch” Caspere and his hidden camera. Maybe f—ing with the man (or woman) got him killed… assuming Caspere really is dead.
Crawling from the Wreckage. Death-dodging Ray was born again pissed following his apocalypse in the Hollywood underworld. Frank Semyon was the first to feel the blaze of his “apoplectic” righteousness when they met at the tavern for a debrief. Frank—one of Ray’s manymanymany masters—had given him the tip about Caspere’s hideaway, so he held him responsible for the Birdman ambush. “You walked me into something,” he seethed. He wanted to know what kind of man Caspere was and he wanted to know why Frank had such a hard on for him. “There was some f—ed up psychology at work in that place long before it was a murder scene,” said Ray. “Are you going to tell me what Caspere was doing with you or do I have to walk into another dark room, this time with real bullets?”
Frank didn’t have answers for Ray, and he didn’t care for his “stridency,” either. But Ray didn’t care that Frank didn’t care. This Ray was different from the boozing, beaten mutt that usually sits across from Frank or nervous pup humbled by DADA earlier in the episode. This was angriest-dog-in-the-world Ray. And he wanted to stay that way. He stuck with water, passing on shots and beer. He didn’t want anything to numb his newfound edge.
What happened to Ray? asked the scarred bar maid with the Velcoro crush. “Somebody murdered him,” Frank said, all ironical and stuff.
Ray’s doctor would consider this a good start. Forced to return to the task force by his other showrunners, Vinci’s corrupt powers that be, Ray needed clearance by the P.D. physician. Doc shouldn’t have granted it, but I don’t think Doc had any choice, either. He did confront Ray on his drinking, drugging, smoking, and general poor health: “It’s certainly possible to live with some unhealthy habits, but it helps if you don’t have every one under the sun!” Ray got the picture. Literally. In a scene that flirted with self-awareness, Ray looked away from the doctor and met the camera’s gaze. He wasn’t looking at us, he was looking through us in order to gaze into his chest X-ray. He looked like a man looking into the abyss. Call it: a moment of clarity.
But will it stick? If we’re to judge a man by the books he keeps laying around his house, then maybe: Late in the episode, we went inside Ray’s home, and we saw Ani pick up a thick tome and give it a brief look. It was a collection of writings by Meister Eckhart, a.k.a. Eckhart von Hochheim, a 14th-century Christian theologian, philosopher, and mystic with significant, widespread influence across many different belief systems, Western, Eastern, and esoteric (re: occult). Time prevents a deep dive—I trust the Internet will do the work that’s required in the week ahead—but one quote attributed to Eckhart speaks to the season’s eye motifs (Caspere’s burned out orbs; Noh-man’s enlightened third eye), Ray’s comprised soul and the push-pull of competing spiritual ideals and worldly values:
“The two eyes of the soul of man cannot both perform their work at once: but if the soul shall see with the right eye into eternity, then the left eye must close itself and refrain from working, and be as though it were dead. For if the left eye be fulfilling its office toward outward things, that is holding converse with time and the creatures; then must the right eye be hindered in its working; that is, in its contemplation. Therefore, whosoever will have the one must let the other go; for ‘no man can serve two masters.’”
Which master will you serve, Ray? Vinci? Frank? Or yourself?
NEXT: Watching movies with Papa Velcoro[pagebreak]
Detective Story. Nudged by the dream of his dad and some Copland questions he wondered if his father could answer, Ray visited his old man, a retired L.A.P.D. officer who lived alone and had many things in common with his son—specifically, all of his vices. Alcohol. Drugs. A whole lotta cynicism. We found him watching an old Kirk Douglas movie (I’m pretty sure it was Detective Story) and trying to gulp a shot with a shaky hand. Ray steadied his rough-hewn mitt to help him sip it. He brought him a bag of pot, too. Some good stuff this time. Not like the last batch, which kept him up all night. Ray called it “medicine.” He said it would help him sleep. Keep enabling him, Ray, and soon your father will be nodding off to The Big Sleep. But then, maybe that’s what they both want, anyway.
Ray noticed that the old man’s badge wasn’t on the shelf with pictures and mementos of his past. Apparently, Papa Velcoro chucked it into the trash after seeing something on the television that irritated him. Ray fished it out of the garbage and told him not to do that again, adding that if he didn’t want it, he’d pass it on to Chad. “I won’t miss it,” Dad grumped. “There ain’t no P.D. anymore.”
Papa Velcoro’s complaint and worldview became clear as he responded to Ray’s questions about his other Vinci showrunners, Chief Holloway and Kevin Buress, both former L.A.P.D. officers. He admired both men, especially Holloway, a “hard-charger” who worked “them tough beats” under former L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, “back when you could do real police work.” He praised Holloway for getting out of L.A. and setting up shop in (and selling out to) Vinci, making big money policing the big business interests of the crooked city. “F—ing smart,” Dad said with a bit of envy and regret. “I should’ve been looking ahead. Wouldn’t have no half pension now.”
Papa Velcoro’s regard for Gates was romantic to say the least. His long, innovative, and controversial tenure as L.A.’s top cop included a fraught focus on L.A. gangs. (This was the era of the N.W.A. gangsta rap anthem “F— The Police.”) Gates was one of the founding fathers of S.W.A.T. tactics, and his queasy legacy includes our current paramilitary cop moment. He resigned from office in 1992 in the wake of the violent riots spurred by the acquittal of the white police officers who viciously beat Rodney King for “resisting arrest.”
While there’s no mention of “Ferguson” during this sequence, you wonder if it’s there in the subtext: The events of this season are taking place in late October of 2014 (Caspere was killed on 10/27/14), which means we’re a few weeks away from the second wave of Ferguson unrest, prompted by the grand jury’s decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
With this in mind, consider the closing moments of the scene. We saw Papa Velcoro light up a joint and take delight in watching Kirk Douglas rough up some guys trying to bully him. (He’s a detective, but the scenes we glimpse don’t identify him as such. Without context, Douglas comes off a bully.) Once upon a time when movies were black and white—when we liked to believe everything was black and white—we recklessly idolized these severe, hardboiled lawmen the way Ray Velcoro once idolized his dad. (Now we know where he gets the “be strong, be proud” machismo he tried to pump into Chad in ep 1.) The archetype still has a hold on our imagination, but it perhaps—perhaps—it’s becoming more difficult to romanticize it, when the news brings us images of police responding to protest dressed like Robocops and gunning down people in the street like Dirty Harry. FUN FACT OF POSSIBLE RELEVANCE TO THIS DISCUSSION OF CONFRONTING AND RETIRING PROBLEMATIC HERO ARCHETYPES: Ben Caspere’s murder took place on Oct. 27, 2014. On Oct. 27, 1977, is the day that James M. Cain, who helped to pioneer the hardboiled genre, died.
“Look at that s—t. Kirk Douglas!” Papa Velcoro raved. He then turned the title of a neo-western, quasi-apocalyptic crime novel about the fade of old school heroism in an era of cynical, moral ambiguity into a self-indicting pun. “No country for white men, boy.” Ray looked at his dad with those X-ray eyes of his. “I guess I’ll be going, then,” he said sadly. He pondered his father’s old shield set in a clear cube of hard plastic, suspended and frozen, then left his dad to his black and white fantasies…
Which is not to cast shade on Detective Story. In fact, one of the many ironies at play with this reference is the fact that Detective Story is a critique of the way Douglas’ character practices both masculinity and law enforcement. Even more meta: The character is basically a composite of this season’s anti-hero leads. (Or so I gleaned from the Wikipedia summary. I haven’t seen the movie myself.) Raised by a criminal dad who drove his mom mad, Jim McLeod is a tough guy cop with a loving marriage fraught with fertility issues. He risks becoming akin to the cruel father he hates via an obsessive pursuit of a bad guy that exposes dark secrets close to home. SPOILER ALERT! Jim dies at the end, though not before asking for and receiving forgiveness from his true love and bestowing second-chance grace on a criminal—proof that he had once and for all conquered his daddy issues. It’ll be interesting to see how much more of Jim’s arc will play out in the arcs of our True Detective characters.
NEXT: Frank and Paul, star-crossed Scorpios[pagebreak]
Scorpio Rising. Per astrology, the late October time frame of True Detective means the Scorpio season has just begun. You could you say that in this world, Scorpio is rising. Is it purely coincidental that the traits associated with the “Scorpio Rising” type are either spot-on or relevant to many of the show’s characters? They don’t like to be pushed around. They command respect, even fear. They’re paranoid. They like to control their surroundings. They prize loyalty. They’re vengeful when betrayed. They are ambitious, and tenacious. They seek financial glory—they are likely to be a CEO—and are adept at getting out of financial jams. “They don’t realize that they appear to look through another’s façade, and see what is beneath the superficiality,” according to alwaysastrology.com. “For a visual metaphor, see: Ray Velcoro, staring through the camera, into his X-ray.“ (Okay, I might have added that last bit.)
No one was more “Scorpio Ascending” in “Maybe Tomorrow” than Frank Semyon, who spent the episode dealing with renegade elements threatening to unravel his life’s work and immortality project. It was a growing club whose membership included born again Ray, treacherous business partners like Caspere and Russian rogue Osip Agranov, ascendant underworld princes like Danny Santos, and his own suddenly sputtering manhood.
Frank and Jordan headed to a fertility clinic to commence the project of seeding legacy Semyons that could carry forth their name and inherit their land. But when Jordan went down on Frank to draw the necessary ingredients, the embattled empire builder couldn’t get it up. Et tu, mi mentula? Frank pulled up his pants and tried to flee. Jordan protested. Let’s go to a hotel and try again. This is important. “There is no part of my life not fraught with live-or-die importance!” Frank snapped. “I take a s— and there’s a gun to my head saying, ‘Make it a good one! Don’t f— it up!’” He began to blame-shift and shame. He slagged the “unnatural” nature of artificial insemination. He slagged Jordan, revealing that the doc had told him that his swimmers still had the right stuff. Jordan did not take kindly to Frank’s—what would he call it?—stridency. “God forgive me for misreading what subtle clues you embedded for me in your limp dick, which is as wishy-washy as your mood. Like I’m an incubator!” she snapped. She exited on this line: “Go suck your own dick.” I have to say, this made me laugh, and retroactively earned the season’s near ridiculous oral fixation.
Frank spent the rest of the episode trying to get his big dick mojo back. His first stop in this quest was appropriately phallic. Needing cash, Frank bullied a contractor building a vertical mall into giving him a quarter of his monthly profits. Mission accomplished. But it wasn’t enough to firm up his fortunes and faith, especially after that damn dirty Russian Oslip made it clear he had no intention of honoring a previous agreement to help him buy into the transpo-corridor land grab scheme. Oslip, in fact, left him feeling even more impotent, and not just because he spied him sliming Jordan with a goodbye kiss. The Russian’s power play activated Frank’s anxiety about his obsolescence, not to mention his obsolete attitudes and penchant for obsolete jargon. Did the “Commie Jew” “prefigure” Caspere? Was there a “causal” relationship between Caspere’s murder and the Russian’s arrival and departure? Basically: Did Oslip whack Caspere or what?!
Frank’s paranoia escalated when one of his lieutenants was murdered. “Who the f— is coming after me?!” Suspecting insurrection, Frank ordered his remaining men to round up “anyone who works our property or worked what used to be our property” for a loyalty check, ASAP, at The Poker Room, the club run by Frank’s prime suspect, the thug prince with the “F— You” golden teeth, Danny Santos.
The story of Frank’s faltering manhood was mirrored by—and ultimately intersected with—Paul’s own struggle with identity. We saw him take a break from detective work to attend a dirt bike* race with an old comrade from his soldiering days. Both of them were pretty messed up during their time in the desert. The friend was in therapy. Paul had given up on it. Too much to think about. Too much he didn’t want to think about. “Yeah, but the thing of it is, some of that knowledge they spew makes sense,” said the friend, “the stuff about the past, not denying it, letting it become a part of you.” Apparently, one thing that the friend didn’t want to forget, a truth he had learned that he had decided to incorporate into himself, was something that occurred between him and Paul during an intense three days of combat—an intimate, most likely sexual encounter. The friend wanted to know if there was any possible way he and Paul could revisit that place. Paul wanted out of this conversation, and when the friend pushed him on it (“Hey, dude, don’t pretend – “), Paul pushed him to the ground, cursed him, and stomped away. Meanwhile, in the shadows, a man was snapping photos. It was Teague Dixon, Ray’s corpulent, grizzled Vinci P.D. partner. Why was he following and spying on Paul?
*I’m totally convinced True Detective is winking at Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger’s 1964 art flick. Homosexuality, masculinity, motorcycles, occult symbolism, white supremacy, old Hollywood hero worship—it’s all there.
NEXT: Upstairs, Downstairs[pagebreak]
Paul brought his issues with him into his field work, interviewing prostitutes about Caspere. The signs and symbols, sights and spectacle of the street unnerved him. A man wearing angel wings having sex in the bushes. A billboard for American Sniper. He found a guy who knew a guy who might know something. The hustler had Ray’s X-ray eyes. He saw through Paul’s “angsty cop drama” and was both amused and moved by what he saw; he wanted to help him. Yeah, he had seen Caspere. Saw him trolling for upscale Eastern European escorts at the club run by Danny Santos, a place I thought was called The Poker Room (maybe it once was) but is now known as Lux Infinitum or something (makes sense Danny would want to rebrand whatever he inherited from Frank). Paul’s new friend offered to play a different kind of escort and guided Paul into and through the club, this hellish little hotspot in Vinci’s sexual underworld. Walking across the dance floor, Paul bumped into Frank Semyon. Scorpio Rising, meet “Scorpio Rising.” Frank blasted him with affronted male heat vision; Paul tried not to wilt from the stare. They moved on. Each had business to attend to, one upstairs, one downstairs. As they say in occult circles: As above, so below.
Upstairs, Paul met with another hustler who knew Caspere. Said guy said that Caspere once paid him to have sex with a female prostitute—Tasha, the same woman who told Frank about Caspere’s Hollywood house last episode. She was now missing. Rumors abounded. Went north to work a big party and never came back. (Time to interview Chessani’s son again!) Found a sugar daddy who spirited her away. Paul was scoring some solid intel for the investigation, but hanging with a couple of gay guys, talking sex, was making him very confused. We left Paul breathing hard and looking disoriented, asking for a drink. “Doubles.” He needed courage—or blitzed numbness—for whatever needed to happen next.
Downstairs, Frank and his dwindling posse of loyalists met with Danny Santos and an assortment of pimps and such that managed the criminal empire he gave up to go legit. He wanted to know who was moving against him. No one confessed, but Danny Santos, for one, didn’t like being stepped-to by flagging Frank, and didn’t mind telling him that he considered him diminished. Word is you ain’t got nothing worth taking. You ain’t what you used to be. Back off. Frank didn’t like Danny’s lip—so he grabbed it and yanked it. The gauntlet had been thrown. The fight was on. Frank won going away. With Santos pinned, Frank held out an open hand. One of his men filled it with a pair of pliers. “I always hated these f—ing things. What kind of way is that to greet the world?” Off that quip, Frank proceeded to extract Danny’s golden “F— YOU” teeth one by one.
Point made. Catharsis achieved. Manhood restored? Not quite. In the coda, Frank returned to his glass home on the hill and dumped those gold teeth on the counter like a bunch of loose change. Jordan was waiting for him. She wanted to talk. She wanted to make up. She wanted to keep giving this baby-making thing a shot. For the longest time, Frank said nothing. His face was a mix of emotions, not dissimilar to Paul’s face in the club. Confusion. Self-loathing. Impotence. I wondered if maybe Frank’s regress to monstrous behavior had discouraged him from making more monsters like himself. (“Stay unfettered, Frank,” Mayor Chessani told him last week.) I wondered if his desperate flailing to shore up his manhood had left him too spent to even use it. I wondered if Frank Semyon just couldn’t can’t get it up, even if he wanted to, even if he tried. I wondered if I will ever again think this much about Vince Vaughan’s penis.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Frank said, and he went to bed.
So will I.