[This is a review of True Detective season 2, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
The two sides of what makes True Detective alternately exasperating and captivating are so perfectly represented in the opening and closing scenes of 'Night Finds You' that it is almost like watching the show come to terms with its own nature. After the hour-long narrative tease that was last week's dad-punching premiere, the wheels have begun to turn in a fashion familiar to anyone who's ever dipped their toe in the grimy waters of crime fiction.
And yet, even after 'The Western Book of the Dead' delivered a much-needed momentum-building sequence in its final moments, bringing together Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch, the second episode takes its sweet time putting that drive to good use. The episode opens up with Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon in bed with his wife, drearily ruminating on how a water stain on the ceiling makes him think everything is made of papier-mâché. It also makes him ponder the time he was locked him in the basement for the better part of a week while his father apparently tied one on in epic fashion.
It's not just that Vaughn's speech is an unnecessarily long momentum killer, or that watching a man contemplate two brown stains on the ceiling is a far cry from seeing barbital-aided hallucinations transform a flock of birds into an archaic symbol tied to The Yellow King; it's that the combination of performance and dialogue is so inadvertently airy it runs contrary to the increasingly weighty events that take up the rest of the hour.
Despite the introductions to the expanded cast True Detective handed out last week, it's clear the show is still in the getting-to-know-you phase of its eight-week engagement. As such, the necessity of Vaughn's meditation on his childhood rat-squashing days makes sense, even if it doesn't actually tell us anything compelling about this gangster looking to legitimize himself. After all, with Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh working the case together, they all have someone to bounce lines off of; lines such as: "I like to get wet now and again from a number of bad habits" and "I support feminism; mostly by having body image issues." Aside from some Russian gangsters, some yes men, and a large fellow with a charming message emblazoned on his gold teeth, Semyon doesn't have a partner to volley lines with in order to develop his character. Kelly Reilly makes Jordan seem emotionally affected with her husband's story, but her reaction doesn't excuse the dialogue's flaccidity. Things might have been different if we could have gone back to that place with him, and been allowed to experience the moment as it unfolded, but to spend that much screen time on backstory being told as recollection is tantamount to the story slamming on the brakes.
Thankfully – and this is strange to say – the episode regains its momentum when it ends with what appears to be the unexpected death of Ray Velcoro, after a hot tip from Frank sends him to the sound-proofed sex pad of the recently deceased Vinci city manager, Ben Caspar. Depending on how this plays out, True Detective may have just made the bold move of brushing arguably the biggest name to appear in the season right off the board.
It would be a bold move because up to this point, Farrell has been an enthralling onscreen presence. Last week he was simmering with self-loathing and anger toward his inability to be a father to the son that may not be his. This time around, with the help of the consistently fantastic Abigail Spencer as his ex-wife, Farrell delivers a raw performance in which years of pent-up rage, frustration, and maybe even regret are transformed into complete vulnerability. Velcoro's admission that Chad is the only thing he has in an otherwise ashtray-like life is possibly the truest thing uttered in all 10 hours of True Detective. To make the unlikely move of sacrificing Velcoro at this point must mean Pizzolatto's either pulling one over on us, or McAdams and Kitsch are really ready to step up to the plate. Either way, having a dude in crow mask pump two shotgun shells into a protagonist's chest in only the second episode should at least get people talking.
But beyond the cliffhanger, there is something else worth discussing here. In just the second episode, the series has begun to look and sound much more like a typical cop show. And for a series that relies so much on creating a persistent miserable feeling and sense of otherness, such a transition into the banality of interviewing suspects, and investigating paper trails presents some challenges that offers the series a chance to explore the depth of the season's character roster.
As with the premiere, there's evidence that the playing field has been expanded significantly to the overall benefit of the show. Ritchie Coster once again steals all the scenes he's in as Vinci's unabashedly drunk and corrupt mayor, Austin Chessani. Coster looks like a crumpled paper bag sitting in that chair from which he conducts his various business dealings, rising only to refill his trusty steel tumbler with a healthy pour from the office decanter. Afterward, he slumps down on a sofa, forcing Bezzerides and Velcoro to turn around in their chairs to continue asking him questions.
There's not a lot of room for subtlety in the world of Nic Pizzolatto and True Detective, and while that has generated plenty of big moments, the finesse with which Coster makes use of his time onscreen is as memorable as any of those more sizeable instances. The same goes for W. Earl Brown and his interactions with Woodrugh. It all feels like the sort of bristling amongst disenfranchised veteran cops and the eager-to-make-a-difference interlopers we've seen a thousand times over. But somehow Coster and Brown's performances make the familiar feel welcome. Throw in Rick Springfield as a therapist who resembles Rob Lowe's character in Behind the Candelabra, and the series violently cranks the wheel away from the tedious sameness it has been on the brink of plummeting over the edge of.
If anything, in 'Night Finds You,' we see that Pizzolatto isn't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel; he's just trying to steer it down a patented self-serious path. Some characters have lightened up a little bit, which is good – even if it means Velcoro saying things like trying to smoke and e-cig made him feel "it was smoking me" – while Semyon and Bezzerides continue to travel increasingly dark, ponderous paths. But maybe that's the point of seeing Velcoro gunned down in the final moments: Live or die, there's a price to pay for daring to crack a joke amongst this much misery. Perhaps True Detective isn't wrestling with its nature after all.
True Detective continues next Sunday with 'Maybe Tomorrow' @9pm on HBO.