A review of tonight's “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I'm running a yogurt stand…
“Is Ray hurt? What happened?” -Felicia
“Somebody murdered him.” -Frank
At the end of the first season of “True Detective,” Nic Pizzolatto expressed some frustration that his audience had spent so much time fixating on the show's oblique references to the supernatural. “I'm interested in the atmosphere of cosmic horror, but that's about all I have to say about weird fiction,” he told me. “I did feel the perception was tilted more towards weird fiction than perhaps it should have been.”
The viewers who latched onto that part of Rust and Marty's story weren't imagining it. Those references to “The Yellow King” and Cthulu were there in the show, even if they weren't intended to be viewed as the larger point of the piece. Those viewers were disappointed when the solution to the mystery turned out to be so earthbound in origin, and you couldn't blame Pizzolatto if he chose to drop all the otherworldly hints in this and other future “True Detective” stories.
But the Weird Fiction aspects of the first season are still here in season 2 – and they've tended to be the best parts of it so far.
We'll see what our killer is ultimately up to, and why he would have let Ray Velcoro live – having hit him with a non-lethal shotgun round – but that image of him in the bird mask is more compelling than any of Frank's monologues have been. And Ray's brief stay in Limbo – where he and his cop father (played wonderfully by Fred Ward) are serenaded by a Conway Twitty impersonator singing Twitty's version of “The Rose” – was a marvel, whether you want to catalog it as metaphysical or just view it as a dream (that song is, after all, playing on the radio in Caspere's apartment when Ray wakes up). The grief-stricken, uniformed version of Ray's dad doesn't quite match with the bitter retiree he visits later, but it's not hard to view this as Ray's idealized version of the old man: still on the job, and still caring about his son's well-being. So much of this season has involved well-worn devices that have maybe outlived their usefulness; here, the strange atmosphere, the song and the stakes all added up to something that felt like more than the sum of its parts.
That opening sequence, and the episode that followed, were directed by award-winning Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen. He's an unlikely choice, but he brings more visual flair to “Maybe Tomorrow” than Justin Lin did to the season's opening chapters.
And while Ray's survival – coming out of the incident with little more than a literally aching heart – could feel like a cheat after the way last week's episode ended, the notion of him as a dead man walking finally pulls him out of the wallow he was in for the previous two episodes. He's not a barrel of laughs (though he does call Ani “Xena” at one point), but the near-death experience forces him to reexamine his whole tortured life in a way has more promise for the rest of the season than seeing him stay on the previous path would have.
While Ray's adjusting to not being dead, the focus shifts a bit to the other cops. Ani's torn between pressure from the bosses to get Ray by any means necessary – “I'm not saying fuck him. Just saying make him think you might fuck him.” – and a growing sense of loyalty to a guy who's her reluctant partner, and who here saves her life by shoving her out of the way of an oncoming car. She's an enigma, so we'll see what she ultimately wants out of this case, but she seems a sharper investigator than Ray, who even admits that he's no Columbo.
The episode also casts even more light on the idea that Paul is in denial about his sexuality, particularly after he recruits a male prostitute to help him explore Caspere's weird sexual habits and how they might tie into the larger case. That Teague Dixon is taking surveillance photos of him complicates a narrative that's perhaps already too busy, but it's not hard to imagine the corrupt Vinci cops finding a way to blackmail Woodrugh should they discover the secret that shames him so.
Speaking of too busy, most of the material with Frank remains hard to either follow or invest in – how can you appreciate his freak out over Stan's murder when the show hasn't really established who Stan is? – though at least the fight with his former underling makes better use of Vince Vaughn than the dialogue has.
This was a stranger episode than the first two, and a slightly better one. Is that a coincidence, or is it that Pizzolatto, like Paul Woodrugh, needs to accept a part of him (or, at least, part of his writing style) that he tries to dismiss?
Some other thoughts:
* The actor playing the director of the “collapse of civilization revenge flick” isn't a dead ringer for Cary Fukunaga, but it's hard to look at the way he was styled (albeit with a ponytail instead of a braid) and not view that whole scene as Pizzolatto throwing some shade at his former collaborator.
* Ray's father is watching 1951's “Detective Story” with Kirk Douglas when Ray comes to visit.
* In addition to “The Rose,” songs in this episode include Warren Zevon's “Detox Mansion” (also playing on Caspere's radio), “Set Us Free” by Black Mountain (playing as Paul stands near an “American Sniper” billboard), and “Intentional Injury” by Bonnie Prince Billy over the closing credits.
* The visit to the mayor's house was strange in its own right, though everything involving him and his family feels in a different key from the rest of the show. The decadence of the super rich is a long-standing aspect of California noir, but usually involving sleuths more given to wry observational humor than Ani and Paul.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this is the last of the three episodes HBO sent out in advance, and it's unclear whether additional ones are coming. With screeners, I'll likely continue these reviews for Sunday night. Without them, they'll either appear sometime the next day, or I'll just wait until the season is over.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org