A review of tonight's “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I support feminism by having body image issues…
“But us, the investigation… I don't think it's supposed to work.” -Ray
“Night Finds You” could be a tricky episode for me to write about, since it ends on a cliffhanger with Ray getting shot in the chest by Caspere's killer (or by another man with a very particular bird mask fetish), and since you know I've seen next week's episode and am therefore aware whether Ray lives or dies. Fortunately, I don't need to dance around what I do and don't know, and what I'm comfortable hinting at, because I can share exactly how I reacted in the moments immediately after I finished watching this one:
“Huh. I was not expecting that.”
If Velcoro is dead, then all the time spent trying to cast that role represents a classic example of PR as narrative misdirection. Surely, no show would allow such a big deal to be made about casting a part that would only be in the first two hours of an eight episode season – unless that's exactly what Nic Pizzolatto and HBO wanted us to think. Maybe the way that Ray, above all this season's other main characters, is wallowing in misery and rage and alienation was all part of a big feint. Maybe Ray's archetypal bordering on cliché damaged alpha maleness was setting us up to see the rest of the season be carried by the other characters, who could take the whole thing in a different tonal direction, even though they're not exactly laugh riots. And maybe all the scenes this week of Ray being confronted – by his ex-wife, by Ani, by Frank, and by the unfortunate nature of his position in the Vinci PD and Frank's organization – with his many failings as a person and as a man weren't there to set up Ray's growth arc for the season, in the same way that Rust Cohle's rigid philosophy was so often verbalized to make us fully appreciate the moment at the end when he began relaxing it. Maybe all those encounters were a way for the show and its world to let us and Ray Velcoro know how much better off everyone would be without him.
This is what I thought in the minutes after the final shotgun blast, anyway. And then I began to wonder whether any of our other three leads, and their stories, would feel significantly more compelling than watching Ray try to drag himself out of this pit he's been digging for years. After all, the others are fundamentally broken, but are they broken in interesting ways?
The episode opens with Frank telling Jordan about the particular psychological abuse his drunk father would perform (under the guise of protecting him) by locking him in the basement during a bender. It's a colorfully grim monologue involving rats and literal darkness, and the camera keeps pushing in closer and closer on Vince Vaughn's face as he delivers it. It is meant to be a moment, in the same way that so many of Rust's beer can man dissertations were moments. But Vaughn's struggle to deliver Pizzolatto's stylized dialogue – already apparent last week in moments where Frank said things like, “Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” – only grows in this episode, starting with the rat story and continuing for most of the hour. As a physical presence, he's good in the role, but he just can't find a way to get those words to come out of his mouth in the right order and have them sound remotely natural. It's a thing you would occasionally see on “Deadwood,” or in David Mamet movies: some actors are built to adjust to an idiosyncratic writer's verbal rhythms, and some aren't. I don't know how many actors could have made the “Not even eating” line sing, but Vaughn unfortunately isn't one of them.
Taylor Kitsch is in a nearly opposite situation, as Paul Woodrugh's particular hang ups have turned him into a man who listens a lot and speaks as rarely as he can. Between the heavy-handed, “me thinks he doth protest too much” anecdote about the “fag” at the bank who made a pass at him, and him looking sadly at the gay couple in angel costumes holding hands, it becomes clear that he wasn't taking ED pills last week because of physical or psychological problems, but because he's gay and trying very very hard not to be. It is, like the conflicts at the heart of each of these characters, a familiar one, but the issue with Paul is less that this is well-trod ground than that he's the most disconnected of the three cops. Ray and Ani ride around in the car and try to get to know each other a little, while Paul is off on his own little mini-show. If Ray's out of the picture, maybe that changes quickly.
And if Ray's gone, Ani seems the character best equipped to carry more of the show. She's no less familiar than the others, but Rachel McAdams has a hidden advantage over her male co-stars: because so much of being a Hollywood actress involves playing roles that are thinly-drawn and/or recycled from lots of similar films, she has more practice at trying to find unexpected shadings and other things to play that aren't necessarily on the page. The scene in the car where she and Ray discuss the knife collection she carries on her person was the closest anything in these two episodes has come to evoking the earliest parts of the first season. It's not just that it involves two partners driving around talking about the way they view the world, but that there are a few hints of actual partner chemistry between Farrell and McAdams – nothing explosive, but still livelier than a lot of what's been happening as they go between the many different moving parts of this season's investigation.
And because I felt ambivalence about so many of the other main characters, I ultimately couldn't decide at the time whether I wanted Ray to be dead or not. But there's something to be said for it being the first real surprise of the opening chapters.
Some other thoughts:
* While season 1 had a few recognizable guest stars and recurring players, virtually everyone who's popped up this year ranks as a Hey, It's That Guy! or higher. Among this week's guest stars: Abigail Spencer from “Rectify” as Ray's ex-wife, Michael Hyatt (Brianna Barksdale from “The Wire”) and C.S. Lee from “Dexter” as the prosecutors looking into Vinci, Yara Martinez from “Jane the Virgin” as the scarred bar manager who likes Ray, Lolita Davidovich as Woodrugh's creepy mom, and the one, the only, '80s soap star turned rock star Rick Springfield, going full Rob Lowe in “Behind the Candelabra” to play Caspere's doctor.
* Speaking of Springfield, I was amused to see that HBO's press notes listed his identifying credit not as “General Hospital,” “High Tide,” or even “The Human Target” (the early '90s version, not the one with Mark Valley), but his one shot at movie stardom, “Hard to Hold,” which is a terrible film, but which gave us the most excellently '80s song “Love Somebody.”
* The shot of Caspere's mutilated corpse was more graphic than most of what we saw last season, where the show tended to tell us about horrible things far more often than it let us see them. On the other hand, when Ani goes looking at the different escort websites, all the images tend to be just slightly out of focus, or just enough out of frame to obscure what she's seeing.
* Embedded above is the season 2 title sequence scored to the season 1 theme song. Better than using the Leonard Cohen? Worse? Same?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com