The HBO crime anthology heads west for a slow start to season 2.
Credit: Lacey Terrell

The polarizing sensation that is True Detective is back, whether you want it to be or not. By the end of season 1, viewers were debating the groundbreaking crime anthology’s prestige TV bona fides as much as they were the identity of The Yellow King. Year one of Nic Pizzolatto’s novel franchise blended serial killer mystery with Southern gothic, cosmic horror, and existential pondering. Time is a flat circle. The world needs bad men. We are the stories we tell ourselves. And a lawnmower man runs through it. The follow-up regenerates by trucking West for a sprawling sun-bleached neo-noir about corrupt empire builders, fallen fathers, and despairing dicks of all kinds, set to a sexy-sinister Leonard Cohen tome poem beat. In season 2, I see the structure, tropes, and some of the indulgences of James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential (the best known of his “L.A. Quartet” novels) and American Tabloid. We have a three-headed narrative, pocked with vice and steeped in themes of sin, penance, and flailing redemption. This year’s collection of characters and the storytelling don’t capture my imagination the way Rust Cohle, Marty Hart, and the time-toggling, unreliable narrator yarn-spinning did last year. So we hope-watch, to borrow from Alan Sepinwall. May the season catch fire, or I’ll be as sad as Colin Farrell’s droopstache.

“The Western Book of the Dead”

Episode 1’s title riffs off The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a tome that charts the experience of the deceased as they progress through the afterlife—the way, say, a certain dead body was chauffeured by an unseen psycho pomp up stygian rivers of freeways to his final destination. Tibetan Buddhism promises—or threatens, depending on your perspective—the prospect of rebirth. This season’s “heroes”—Ray Velcoro (Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch)—could certainly use new life. They’re all stuck on wheels of suffering; fixations with past pain, obsessions with worldly desires, so much self-loathing and wrath. Other allusions speak to other kinds of death marches and perilous roads to resurrection. Vince Vaughn’s criminal entrepreneur Frank Semyon—dressing for a date with destiny that has him mad anxious—tells his wife, Jordan: “Behold what was once a man…” The line is a variation on Pilate’s wry observation of Jesus after the scourging and ironic crowning and before the trudge to Golgotha. “Behold the man.”* I suspect True Detective has stages-of-the-cross on the brain: Behold a passion play pulp fiction.

*In Latin, “Behold the man” = Ecce Homo. Nietzsche’s last work of philosophy was entitled “Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is.”

But back to Buddhist cosmology. The “Preta Realm” of existence—located one step beyond Hell—is populated by “hungry ghosts,” characterized by “desires that torment them, but they are completely unable to satisfy themselves.” Again, the potently quotable Semyon: “Never do anything out of hunger. Even eating.” The premiere made him eat those words by making him dangerously dependent on others to satisfy his worldly wants, including that aforementioned corpse, whose name evokes the cartoon kingdom’s friendliest ghost. We’ll get to kinky Caspere in a moment. But let’s start with True Detective’s hungriest ghost of all…

Ecce homo, Ray Velcoro? Talk about scourging. How many miserable cop clichés can a story inflict upon this anti-heroic baddish lieutenant? Velcoro—I hear the rip of Velcro when I see his name—is a boozing, coke-snorting, power-abusing, self-loathing divorce and bad dad. We meet him sending his meek, doughy, son off to school with a brand new pair of sneakers, exhorting him to be the “strong” and “proud” representation of manhood that he himself wishes he could be. Chad ain’t buying what his floppy-haired father is hard-selling. His desperation is as pungent as the whisky rank that must steam from his pores.

Ray watches Chad march his own death march past a schoolyard tough. With his round shape and crimson air, Chad is a walking bullseye, and the punk can’t resist throwing darts. Chad shakes him off. Ray can’t. Bully boy will come to regret picking on Ray’s mini-me.

Ray works the streets of Vinci, a city of industry most foul. The population is so tiny, even the mayor doesn’t even live there. But its significance to SoCal’s economy—and criminality—is huge. It’s a bad bardo of fallen souls and princely demons. Polluting factories, dive bars, dull, beige suburbs, and one bumping casino, Vinci Garden Casino, the throne room of Frank Semyon, a new century gangster with pretensions of legitimacy.

Ray toils for Frank as a bagman. Back in the day, when Ray was a non-mustachioed sheriff’s deputy, his then-wife was beaten and raped. (Nine months later, Chad was born. Is Ray really the father? Ray wants to believe so, but they never tested.) Frank—not yet wearing three-piece suits and living in an ultramodern home on the hill; still running his underworld biz out of a tavern—tipped Ray to the speed freak responsible. No strings attached. “I wanted to do this. Now it’s done,” Frank said in between slurps of coffee. “Maybe we’ll talk some time. Maybe we won’t.”

They did. “Talked.” Many times. Now, Frank owns him, maybe because Ray thinks he forever owes him, or maybe whatever he did with the intel Frank gave him left him feeling so damned, he feels he deserves no better than doing this devil’s will. Or maybe it’s too early to draw conclusions about how Ray became what Ray is.* “I welcome judgment,” he tells the Frank-supplied lawyer trying to help him win custody of his son. Spoken like a blameless man who has no shame, or a man mad from guilt who wants to be put down like a rabid dog.

*Ray Theory! I’m predicting Ray is going to supply us with a twist by season’s end. My first thought? Ray is working a long-term undercover assignment, trying to bring down Frank and maybe all of corrupt Vinci. He’s in too deep, lost his moral compass and his identity, wants out or death. The Leonard Cohen lyric from “Nevermind,” the season’s theme song, could be a clue: “I had to leave my life behind/I dug some graves you’ll never find/The story’s told with facts and lies/I have a name but never mind.” I’m banking on a future flashback scene in which we learn he got deep cover coaching from one Rust Cohle.

NEXT: The many sides of Ray

Ray is given separate missions by his rival masters. Job No. 1: Ray the detective is tasked with tracking down Vinci’s suddenly-missing city manager, Ben Caspere. A trip to the Vinci functionary’s ransacked home reveals a man of kinky, decadent tastes. Erotica on the walls, dildos under the bed, a skeleton topped with a crown and a Virgin Mary-blue head scarf behind the desk. Caspere’s computer: gone. Ray’s gut tells him that all of this is all kinds of wrong. He suspects The Powers That Be that ordered his bosses to put him on Caspere knew exactly what he’d find—in grimy Vinci, everyone dirty—and he resolves to classify the Caspere sitch as a kidnapping in order to punt the case to someone else.

Job No. 2: Ray the bag man is tasked by Frank to stop a local newspaper reporter from finishing a six-part series exposing corruption in Vinci. Frank isn’t mentioned in the first piece, but he doesn’t want to pop up in the next five, nor does he want the problem of not appearing in any of them, which would be just as suspicious. The series is hitting at a tender time. California is building a high speed rail line linking Los Angeles to the Bay area, and Frank is using shell companies to buy land throughout this transportation corridor to develop businesses, apartments and the whatnot. (Frank is throwing a bash to woo investors, including some duplicitous, waffling Russians, and a key player in the pitch is MIA Caspere. So Frank is keen to locate Caspere, too.)

Ray roughs up the journalist, although we never see it. The camera stays in the street outside the apartment, looking up at a blinded window. We hear sounds of violence, we see the blinds go askew. Maybe director Justin Lin was just trying to be cool here—a nod to a similar scene in last year’s other brilliant crime anthology, Fargo—or maybe the storytelling wanted to save the sick spectacle of Ray going full metal brute for his other big bullying moment later in the episode. The theorizer in me wonders if the assault even happened at all, if we might eventually learn that Ray was only making it look like a beat-down was going down in that apartment.

Ray’s arc peaks with a combination punch of scenes concerning his son. It begins when Ray learns that the mean boy at school stole his sneakers and shredded them. Enraged, Ray bullies his son into giving up the kid who’s been bullying him, a boy named Aspen. It’s a humiliating shake down, marked by name-calling and actual shaking, powered by his self-hate and sense of emasculation. Ray insults Chad’s weight and his masculinity, he threatens to “pull down your pants and spank you in front of the entire cheerleading squad.” Chad coughs up a name. Aspen. “Aspen?! That’s a boy’s name?!” hollow-macho Ray snarks.

Ray tries to mellow out, tries to make amends with his son by dictating an apology into a tape recorder. (Communicating via recorded messages is the only way Ray can be vulnerable with Chad. It’s an idea he got from a book, apparently. Sweet, but pathetic. And hasn’t he heard of texting?) Still, Ray can’t let it go. He calls on Aspen at his home and makes Aspen watch as he punches his father senseless with brass knuckles. Then, this: “If you bully or hurt anyone ever again, I will come back and butt f— your mother’s corpse on the front of this goddamn lawn. 12 years old my ass. F—. You!” I guess that’s one way to feel like you actually have balls. Way to strike a blow against bullying culture (Not!), Mr. Dark Knight Detective. It was an outrageous scene of abuse, and a provocative, queasy example of how True Detective wallows in the nihilism and noxious pulp masculinity that it clearly abhors.

Ani are you okay? Are you okay, Ani? The first season of True Detective was criticized for its poor representation of women. Nagging wives, horny mistresses, whores, and victims. Season 2 offers a correction in the form of a sheriff’s detective Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides. Improvement? Debate. Ani’s expressions of “strong female character” are blunt force edginess. The first thing we learn about Ani: She really likes knives. Dig her reading material. Knives. The Complete Book of Knife Fighting. Master of the Blade: Secrets of the Deadly Art of Knife Fighting. There are two other knife-fighting tutorials, but they also double as works of philosophy. There’s A Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, a 17th-century Kenjutsu swordsman, but the book that’s most prominently featured is Hagakure: The Book of The Samurai. The text winks back at the title of episode, for the perspective of its master warrior, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, is that the way of the samurai is “the way of dying,” which is to say that a samurai must be willing to sacrifice his life for higher ideals at any moment. Or so Wikipedia tells me. What this means for Ani remains TBD. Perhaps these books signify that Ani possesses a codified spiritual dimension to her warrior archetype, or that she’s searching for one, or that she lacks for one, like the other “hero” cops of TD season 2.

The other thing we immediately learn about Ani is how she likes her sex. Because this is really, really important when it comes to introducing female characters: Their position on sexual positions with men. It goes unspecified, but whatever it is, it’s enough to shock her most recent sexual partner to non-performance. He’s embarrassed and wants to try again. She’s done with him and needs to get to work. So we are presented with a woman who enforces rules for a living and breaks the rules in bed… Oh, God. Did I just write that? Sorry.

One of the things that I, a SoCal resident, found amusing about the first episode was how it made the vast expanse of the greater Los Angeles area seem like a really small town. Everywhere Ani went for her job, she kept running into family. During a raid on a farm suspected of housing a bordello or unlicensed porn studio or some illegal sex thing of some sort—it turned out to be a perfectly legitimate webcam/cybersex operation—Ani found her troubled sister, Athena, who thinks of herself as “a performer,” not a sex worker. Cracked Ani: “So is this some Meryl Streep expressive type of creativity?” Athena—who’s gone off her meds for an unspecified mental/emotional condition—pushed back by blasting Ani’s “unhealthy” attitudes about sex, although she seemed to intimate that Ani’s problems were rooted into prudishness. What she doesn’t know: Ani is a jumble of paradox. Sex paradox! Sex sex sex! Can we get back to the knives? Maybe next week.

NEXT: Ani’s family tree grows

Another work assignment leads Ani to another member of her family. Looking into the matter of a missing woman that city police refuse to investigate (suspicious), Ani and her partner Elvis (the names on this show!) learn that said woman, a maid by trade, was briefly employed by an alt-religion retreat center known as The Panticapaeum Institute. The hippie-ish leader of this maybe-cult preaches a gospel of soulful existentialism that asks adherents to reconcile two opposing notions: That everything is meaningless and that God did not create a meaningless universe, a profound paradox (more paradox!) that says he learned at the knee of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Basically: It’s New Age Ecclesiastes. Panticapaeum’s paterfamilias also happens to be Ani’s father, and their relationship is marked by high drama history and a strong difference of opinion about proper parenting. Back in 1978, Ani’s mom—an actress—committed suicide. Walked into the ocean and never stopped. Very Virginia Woolfy. Since that day, dad has been loathe to “impose my will on anyone”—including his children. Ani resents her father for abandoning the business of parenting; she thinks that even now, he should be trying to guide and correct wayward Athena. Dad accuses Ani of demanding this of him not out of concern for her sister, but out of selfish anger toward him, a provocation intended to “engage me through argument.” He then suggests (I think) that the only reason she decided to join law enforcement—to join forces with The Man—was to stick it to him, Mr. Counter Culture. “Prick,” she says, walking away. “Talk to your daughter.” Quipped the prick in return: “I just did.” Burn!

Some notes about Ani and the Bezzerides clan:

First: The chaotic mash-up of West and East in their distinctly American, deeply dysfunctional family. The name Bezzerides is Greek. Panticapaeum was the name of an ancient Greek city. (Today, it’s Kerch.) Athena is a Greek deity, the goddess of wisdom. Antigone, an icon of ancient Greek lit, was the product of the illicit coupling of Oedipus with his mom, Jocasta. After the Gods rain havoc in their world as punishment for their sexual transgression, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. (As I write these words, a tangential thought hits me: Chinatown, the greatest L.A. noir ever to come out of Hollywood, hinged a family secret involving incest.) Antigone’s name means “in place of one’s parents.” Antigone’s rebel, fatal heroism was located in putting higher ideals—divine law—over the law of men. Now, here’s True Detective giving us a family that evokes all that Greek stuff, yet has them looking to other traditions—or crazy—to find meaning. Somewhere in the stars, Athena weeps for the death of reason. We’ll see how much more of this gets reflected and played out in Ani’s story.

Second: Given True Detective’s genre and genre-aware storytelling, “Bezzerides” is surely a shout out to crime novelist and film noir screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. His books include The Long Haul, which was turned into the movie They Drive By Night, and his scripts include the wild and weird Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly, famous for its A-bomb anxiety and apocalyptic ending.

Third: Through the fragmented Bezzerides clan, True Detective introduces a conspicuous theme, the business of acting, and the risky, unhealthy practice of pretending to be someone you’re not. We’ll get more of this in Paul Woodrugh’s story line, too.

He Drives By Night. Paul Woodrugh’s story line was the least serviced, but he made a big, intriguing impression, especially in scenes in which women seemed keenly bent on servicing him… if you know what I mean. (Sorry.) We meet the strapping motorcycle cop—cue CHiPS theme song!—as he pulls over a stoned wannabe starlet driving recklessly on the PCH. She tries to get off by strongly suggesting she’d be willing to get him off. (Again: Sorry.) We are led to believe that this Dudley Do-right just said no. The actress plays woman-in-red femme fatale and gets revenge by claiming Paul propositioned her, not vice versa, and so Paul is relieved of duty pending the outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation.

Paul’s internal affairs are murky, for sure. His suspension drives him bonkers. The cop—a war veteran with secret scars to prove it; an action addict who may have also spent some time doing some (shady?) merc work for a private military contractor—needs to be on the street, needs to be in the s—, otherwise, he’s lost. He seeks sanctuary at the apartment of his very hot girlfriend, who apparently does nothing for a living except wait around for him to show up and screw her. You’re ready to throw a rock at True Detective for giving us one more woman defined by her relationship to sex and men when we realize it’s a passable set-up for an important character reveal: We learn that Paul can’t get it up without popping some little blue pills, and more, takes no pleasure in being pleasured by her. Is he impotent? Is he sexually confused? Is he suffering from PTSD? Is he hiding something? Paul is curiously strange, indeed.

And he’s yellow. Paul—spooked by intimacy—can’t sleep or won’t sleep with this girl. This hurts her; she clearly digs him, and not just for his body. He gets on his bike and rides the winding curves of Highway 1. He guns it, then kills the headlights. He’s roaring blind through the dark. He’s a dead man’s curve away from going James Dean when he chickens out. He clicks the lights back on and skids into a rest stop…

…Where he finds the corpse sitting at a picnic table. Eyes burned out. Belly gutted. Crotch bloodied.

It’s Ben Caspere, of course. Throughout the episode, we’ve watched a mystery man long haul Caspere’s lifeless body up the freeway, a peculiar black object by his side. It looked to me like… The Maltese Falcon? The mounting dread produced by this creepy what-is-it?—very film noir—was probably my favorite thing about the episode. The convenience/coincidence of Paul stumbling upon the body made me roll my eyes, but I can roll with it.

And so it goes that all the story lines converge. Ray is sent to manage the sitch by the Powers That Be who have him chasing Caspere. Ani and Elvis are assigned to the case, as Caspere landed on their turf. They meet Paul, everyone introduces themselves, and Justin Lin’s camera soars high and away, the lit-up crime scene blazing in the dark, as a grunge cover of “All the Gold in California” plays. So endeth “The Western Book of The Dead”; so begins the second season of True Detective.

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True Detective
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