Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

In True Detective, Southern Gothic is a state of mind. First it was Louisiana, now it’s California. Nic Pizzolatto’s crime anthology grieves and revels in moribund cultures mad with rot, the denial of death, and dead-end ideas. Bad men abound. Good men are hard to find. Only violence can bear it away. Season 1 was a Flannery O’Connor-ish sermon for audiences with a religious passion for pulp fiction, maybe too much so. Complacent, hypocritical good old boy Marty Hart got his wake up call when his long-suffering, fed up wife went femme fatale and forced change by wantonly screwing his partner and leaving him. Said partner, Rust Cohle, rethought his extreme philosophical nihilism after a monstrous reflection of his abysmal belief system gazed back and gutted him. Both walked away lame yet improved, born again humbled, with eyes to see hope for a better future in the darkness of the present. “My audience are the people who think God is dead,” O’Connor once said. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” True Detective aspires to similar Pulp Revelation. It achieved near-transcendence last year for me; I was riveted by the Apocalypse of Hart and Cohle. This year, I struggle with it, a true believer riddled with doubt.

Pizzolatto has relocated his veritable viral ministry to Southern California this season, though the story remains Southern Gothic at heart. The setting isn’t a spoiled Eden but a cankerous Gotham. Founded by criminal enterprise, built on a landfill, and run by generations of greedy stewards and carpetbagger dreamer-schemers, Vinci exists to serve the wealthy, mostly white, and exploit the desperate, mostly not white. It’s now a sprawl of gross, polluting industry. It sits at the center of a web of evil that extends throughout California like its tangle of freeways, from Hollywood to the Lost Coast. One of my favorite details about Vinci is that its employs tens of thousands of people each day, yet only 93 people officially reside there. Actually, “employs” is the wrong word for what we’ve been told: Vinci is a giant sweatshop, and has fought long, hard and dirty to stay that way. It’s a dehumanized machine running on disposable human batteries. It’s city as voracious predator; it’s this season’s Yellow King, with the caveat that it doesn’t operate in secret. The villains of season 2 — Vinci’s executive branch, the enforcers of the law — are openly corrupt. Here, the problem of evil is as banal as a strip mall. It’s the good that is occult, which is to say, hidden. Masked mystery men work the shadows, sewing… justice? Redemptive anarchy? More evil? Dunno. How hopelessly dystopian is dystopian Vinci? Hollywood is using it to shoot “a collapse of civilization” flick. Vinci is mad to the max.

Yeah, it’s a bit much. True Detective lays the shitty on thick. But exaggeration comes with the genre territory; Southern Gothic often skews absurd with its preachy commentary. So, too, the California Gothic of season 2, though it could be more so; it worries too much about being taken seriously to let the dark comedy really rip and let the freaky Birdman stuff fly. What I can’t tell is if True Detective believes in its cynicism or if it’s mocking pulp pop cynicism. Is True Detective a wannabe Chinatown? Or does it want to be the Nightmare Abbey of Chinatown-esque narratives?

True Detective’s damaged protagonists are as cracked as their environs. Shaped by the sins of their parents, warped by a wicked world, and damned by past choices, their madness manifests in the form of hard-boiled personas that undermine intimacy, muffle their virtue, and rob them of authenticity.* They yearn to be old fashioned tough guy heroes, but it’s a way of being that has no place in the modern world and keeps them alienated from it (see: Velcoro’s outrageous action against the father of his son’s bullying persecutor in the premiere; Paul Woodrugh, realizing last week that his want to be a simple minded G.I. Joe super-soldier thing doesn’t work anywhere outside of a war zone), and their crooked culture insists on casting them in anti-heroic parts. Ani Bezzerides, Ray Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh are members of a team investigating the murder of Vinci city manager Benjamin Caspere, but the task force is a hollow Trojan horse. Their rival masters either don’t want them solving the case they’ve been assigned or don’t care if they do. Even the group’s secret mission, to collect evidence to bring down Vinci, might’ve been a shakedown sham. They’re ironic representations of the title of the show. They struggle to be true, they’re barely detectives. Their identities are masks that allow them to hide from themselves and everyone else. Will they find the courage to peel them off and deal with what they see? “I don’t know who the f— I am anymore,” said Paul last week after a shit-faced sexual encounter with a former Army buddy. Instead of wrestling further with the matter of his true orientation, Paul, confused and ashamed, jumped deeper into closet by proposing marriage to his pregnant girlfriend. Wrong direction. Is Ani ever going to wonder if the increasing number of links between the mystery she’s investigating and her painful past might be more than just coincidences? Perhaps last week’s brush with mortality – that terrifying shoot-out that brought the first half of the season to a close – is just the catalyst she needs to start asking the right questions about herself and her world.

*Put another way: Ani, Ray and Paul are dangerously addicted to these identities the way we’re addicted to pulp archetypes, be it the badly broken anti-heroes of cable TV or the superheroes on the big screen. This might be part of Pizzoletto’s point. Or maybe I’m just “seeing things,” to borrow an season 1 title: As I write these words, I have Alan Moore on the brain. He’s making news this weekend with his denunciation of the culture’s romance with superheroes which he helped to supercharge, much to his chagrin. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that is it, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to the times.” I see something of this alarmist perspective expressed through this season’s over-boiled toughs and certain scenes layered with knowing subtext. Example: When Ray visited his retired-cop father and suffered his racist, wrongheaded harangues about a world he no longer understands, if he ever did at all. During the scene, Dad was geeking out on the black and white flick on his TV: Detective Story, starring Kirk Douglas as a square jaw tough guy with a morally simplistic code of justice. Detective Story was actually about questioning and subverting the archetype Douglas was playing. (Papa Velcoro is basically the Watchmen fanboy who missed the point that Alan Moore was satirizing nihilistic vigilante Rorschach, not celebrating him.) That irony goes unstated in the Ray-Dad scene, thought that irony is the entire point of the Ray-Dad scene: We are left with the impression that Ray is seeing his dad — and by extension, himself — with enlightened eyes. The epiphany: My father’s example is insufficient and irrelevant, and maybe so am I.

Masks are a major motif in True Detective. Pizzolatto might’ve been spelling out his philosophy of characterization in the third episode of season 1 when he made a traveling preacher preach “You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knew you” and “The world is a veil, and the face you wear is not your own.” (If Paul Woodrugh was working that detail and hearing those words, he’d be shivering and ordering doubles.) My tangent-prone brain redirects to C.S. Lewis, and his explanation for the title of his book, Til We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, and the idea that a human person “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines it desires), being for good or ill, not any mask.” True Detective seems to believe that no one willingly or easily commits to reflection and transformation. They need a catalyst (one of the season’s most conspicuous words), some of that O’Connoresque “violent grace,” to spur metamorphosis. Case-in-point: Velcoro – boozer, drug abuser, dirty bag-man; a good man who lost the courage to be decent — the character who has changed the most and for the better so far this season. His twin blasts of enlightenment: His ex-wife Alicia blowing up his delusion of fatherhood and a black-feathered Birdman blasting him with buckshot. His baptism? His pissed pants. He’s been slowly spiraling upward ever since – staying sober, playing straight with Ani, following her lead, reflecting on his flawed father’s imprint, risking his life to chase the truth. But will his salvation stick? Can he divest himself from rotten Vinci and its influence? How does he atone for his original sin, the murder of Alicia’s rapist? TBD.

True Detective’s most ironic protagonist isn’t a cop but a criminal desperate to be legit, but not necessarily good. When we met Frank Semyon, the casino owner and would-be land baron had divested himself of all his illicit enterprises, although it was almost impossible to tell, thanks to the dubious company Frank keeps and the scuzzy places he haunts. He’s been driven by the usual TV anti-hero hero projects. Worldly significance. Self-engineered redemption. Immortality via material legacy. He wanted to snag these ultimate rewards quasi-cleanly, without breaking too bad. Fail. Frank’s legitimacy was an ill-fitting mask, and it fell away, along with his entire fortune, with the murder of his duplicitous business partner, Benjamin Caspere. Since then, Frank worked to reclaim his criminal enterprises for the purpose of raising funds to go legit again. In doing so, Frank has re-embraced his bad self, which is arguably is most authentic self, even though he’s living out the antithesis of his golden rule: “Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating.”

I find Frank’s ironies within ironies fascinating, but miscalculations in storytelling have sabotaged his power and potential. Many have complained about the inconsistencies in Frank’s language — thuggish-blunt one moment, tortured erudition the next. I think the intent is clear. Frank’s attempts at talking fancy are one more way he’s trying to better himself, transcend, go legit; the erratic execution and phony sounding-ness speaks to the buggy, fraudulent nature of his redemption scheme in general. Regardless, the show has failed to properly stage his arc from the start, and thanks to Vaughn’s too serious, mostly ruthless tenor (there have been a few, striking exceptions), there doesn’t seem to be much of an arc at all, just a flat line of ruthlessness. He’s trying too hard to be worthy of prestige TV, in a role that falls short of it.

So has the whole season so far. It’s watchable, and not in a hate-watchy way, but in a hope-watchy way; I keep waiting for this engrossing but frustrating story to go next level, engage my emotions and not just my head, and find a groove of sustained, artful drama. I tend to overthink things (see: this essay), and I usually justify it as an expression of enthusiasm for a well-told story that is capturing my imagination. But there’s another kind of overthink, the kind we do when we’re trying to make sense of something that’s confounding us, when we’re trying to make something work that doesn’t. I think I’ve been doing more of the latter than the former this season. The season is overambitious and underworked at the same time. There are too many characters, and the cost is screen time for more careful, credible character development for each of them. I’m not sure I trust the vision for some characters. I like Ani as a critique of bad-ass female archetypes. But I’m worried that the show actually agrees with her dad’s critique of her choice of profession and man-eating proclivities, that she’s basically stuck in a rut of never-ending rebellion against her him and punishes the men in her life with her unreasonable father issues. Can’t a girl just like knives and sex without being a bitter misandrist? The show’s depiction of Southern California makes for a great character — it’s the best character on the show! — yet paradoxically, the more I learn how profoundly corrupt it is, the less I care about it. It certainly makes a compelling argument for that violent grace idea: Maybe the Birdman conspiracy should just firebomb the place and make everyone start over. Similarly, I could care less about catching Caspere’s killer: If the guy was as slimy as we’ve been told, well… good riddance? As the geographical scope of the story expands and plot accumulates, Vinci has become frustratingly fuzzy. I’m increasingly unclear of its relationship to other key locales (or if that’s important), the idea that only 93 people live there is becoming harder to believe. Last week’s explosive but empty climax should have brought character arcs to a mid-saga boil, but it had little emotional or character resonance. Watching Ani and Ray gasp for breath in the aftermath of that shoot-out, I saw a season spent from the strain of trying to generate traction, intrigue and thematic significance. I saw something of myself, too, winded by the work of hope-watching.

As I catch my breath and prepare for the second half of the season, I’m hoping to work a little less. You have my attention, True Detective. Time to earn it.

Episode Recaps

True Detective
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