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