This week’s episode of True Detective is depressing. I don’t mean to say that it’s sad – restorative sadness is one of television’s most satisfying emotions – but I mean that each scene, oozing with ugliness and despair, made me dread what lies ahead. Once again, Pizzolatto and Lin takes two steps forward and three steps back, mostly in terms of character. The only exciting thing about this episode is its “cliffhanger,” but it is transparently misleading. There is nothing wrong with moody noir storytelling – hell, I have a film noir-inspired tattoo on my left arm – but it’s hard to maintain faith in this season thanks to Pizzolatto’s faux-edgy, mean-spirited tough guy point of view.
In last week’s recap, I wrote about how I hoped the show would remember it’s a procedural at heart, and finally we get the beginnings of the case. Our stiff is Caspere, city manager of the town of Vinci, and this week we learn the queasy particulars of his death. His eyes are missing – a nod to Oedipus – and so are his genitals (the abrupt shot of the body’s crotch is jarring). Pizzolatto’s script jumps around here: he cuts between the medical examiner, along with the detectives receiving orders from their superiors (this is a contained, albeit fun riff on the cross-cutting timeline of season one). There are some details involving money, underage prostitutes, and a Los Angeles bungalow, yet the only real, albeit depressing insight comes from Ray: if these detectives are the brass’ top choices, then they’re not exactly looking for a resolution.
Before I get into the troubling parts of “Night Finds You,” of which there are many, let me briefly note what held my interest. The best scenes in the episode are the informal interviews with Ray and Ani: we learn a lot about Vinci, a decrepit city that now produces the majority of California’s toxic waste, which helps establishes a distinct atmosphere (the best shot in the episode, incidentally, is when the camera pans forward toward a chasm, like a descent into post-industrial hell).
The shots of the highway cloverleaves are shrewd, creepy breaks in the story: the circular roads lead nowhere, creating a visual sense of angst, and leads me to wonder whether the roads will literally “unwind” as the season continues. And like last week’s episode, Vaughn is the show’s MVP. His opening monologue, delivered straight to the camera, in unnerving, and he outshines Farrell in their scenes together. There are several discussions of corrupt land deals in this episode, many of which involve Vinci’s mayor drinking vodka from a steel glass, and while they have echoes of Chinatown, it is more compelling to see Frank take steps toward illegal, violent self-determination.
Frank’s story notwithstanding, the successes of “Night Finds You” are in terms of plot, so the character moments of the three actual cops are either cringe-worthy or vulgar. This is where Pizzolatto’s point of view comes into play: there have been countless shows about anti-heroes and nasty characters, and what makes them potable is how their respective showrunners invite judgment. Don Draper is an narcissistic alcoholic, for example, but Hamm’s performance and Weiner’s perspective lets us know they know it, too. I realize this is the second episode, but I cannot shake the impression that Pizzolatto is unapologetic about his characters. The line “I welcome judgment” is a trick: he enjoys their hyper-masculine edginess – some scenes practically celebrate it – and he is so sympathetic that deviation seems impossible.
Let’s start with Paul, a character whose existence I still don’t fully understand. This week he walks out on his girlfriend – he seems to believe his delusions that it’s her fault – and goes to LA for background Caspere research. He seems like a competent investigator, but when one of the others (W. Earl Brown) tells him to put a lid on it, this is Paul’s idea of small talk: “Oh, and this one fag at the bank tried, like, hitting on me… I almost clocked the guy.” Kitsch, who played a gay character in the brilliant HBO Film The Normal Heart, does not seems what to do with Paul’s homophobia, so the casual epithets stick out like an infected zit (Friday’s SCOTUS decision only add’s to the tone-deaf delivery). In the episode’s final images, there is some suggestion that Paul is a self-loathing gay man, except that’s probably giving Pizzolatto too much credit. More importantly, Kitsch has the luxury of knowing Paul’s whole story, and his performance does little to suggest there is more depth to come.
Ani and Ray do not fare much better. Their discussion of womanhood and feminism is bizarre, using physical terms exclusively. They have several scenes together in the car, which were some of the best moments from the first season. While Rust and Marty argued philosophy and the case, Ani and Ray engage on a baser level. In and of itself, that is not a problem, but neither detective seems too curious about the other, so we cannot muster curiosity about them. Their scenes apart are even worse: Pizzolatto gets his jollies by forcing Ani to watch hardcore porn, as if she should be ashamed of her suggested virility (the scene also rings hollow because McAdams is dressed as if she’s out of the shower, despite wearing full make-up).
Once again, the ugliest scene involves Ray and his family. Instead of his son, this time Ray confronts his ex-wife outside a shopping mall. We learn more details about her rape – my guess it’ll eke out every episode – and Pizzolatto writes from the perspective of a disgruntled men’s right activist. Ray makes the rape all about him, even defending the beating of the rapist as “natural law,” while Pizzolatto couldn’t give two shits about the ex-wife. To Ray, she is just another annoying roadblock on his path toward alpha-male status, and everything about this episode indicates Pizzolatto is utterly sympathetic. This is a backwards, depressing worldview, as if Ray is a Quixotic hero and his version of windmills are decades of social progress.
At this point, Ray is such a loathsome, irredeemable character that the episode’s conclusion is the only exciting thing about it. Based on a tip from Frank, Ray visits the LA pad where Caspere would conduct his unseemly trysts. The scene ends with someone in a black bird mask shooting Ray in the chest, twice, at point blank range with a shotgun. The episode ends on a cliffhanger – maybe Ray is dead(?) – but that’s probably total bullshit. Pizzolatto would never kill his darling like George RR Martin might, and we know from trailers for this season that there are scenes with Colin Farrell we haven’t seen yet. Ray’s death would represent a great twist, and Pizzolatto finding genuine shock instead of the pretense of it. But he’s alive, depressingly, so the season marches inexorably in step with the natural right of Ray’s backward masculinity.