'True Detective' Recap: Let's Get Brooding

"The Western Book of the Dead" is dark as hell

The second season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective begins as the first did: with something we don’t get. Season 1’s first scene took place in the dark as someone drags a corpse into a field, which then gets set on fire. The next shot cuts quickly to Woody Harrelson’s character in a starkly bright conference room at a police station in 2012.

Season 2 begins in the daytime with a shot of white stakes with pink ribbons tied atop. The next scene is Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro in the car with his son before school. No dead bodies, all daylight, but True Detective feels much darker than ever. There’s a palpable sadness between Velcoro and his son that was largely absent at the beginning of season 1.

From there, we learn that Velcoro’s wife was raped around the time the couple was trying to get pregnant. Velcoro’s son may not be his own, which could explain their physical and emotional differences. But Velcoro’s own doubts could also explain the differences. His son is terrified of him, and for good reason. (A drunk Velcoro later calls his son a “fat pussy.”) Velcoro’s disappointment (in his son and in himself) casts a dark pallor over much of the first episode.

Velcoro’s own dark past is our introduction to Frank Semyon (played by Vince Vaughn). In our first (and only) flashback scene, Velcoro nervously approaches Semyon, who has the identity of Velcoro’s wife’s rapist. Velcoro grows close with Semyon, we learn, and becomes his muscle; we can only assume that Velcoro beat the rapist to a bloody pulp.

Semyon is a quiet man. He is preparing to present a new project to the politicians of Vinci (a fictional city in Los Angeles County). It’s worth repeating, Semyon is exceptionally quiet. He spouts some McConaughey-lite wisdom (“Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”), but otherwise relishes in silence’s darkness, which is to say, he lacks some depth right now. There’s a lot of money and power on the line with his new project – a high-speed trans-California railroad – but his motivations are still unclear.

The surface-level depth continues with Rachel McAdams’s Ani Bezzerides (her full name is Antigone). We first see Bezzerides in her apartment, which is furnished with a copy of the Hagakure, an often self-contradictory Japanese text that is considered the basis for samurai code (or bushidō, the way of the samurai). The Hagakure is a subtle touch, but only if unfamiliar with its complex messages. In Bezzerides’s apartment, it becomes a token nod toward self-discipline. In her first scene, Bezzerides does show her strength, belittling her latest fling, who finds that Bezzerides is more sexually adventurous than he is, and also wants to take the next step toward a relationship – she’s not feelin’ it.

Later, we meet Bezzerides’s sister, who is doing webcam pornography at a house Bezzerides’s unit raids under suspicion of prostitution. Bezzerides’s sister chews her out for judging her; she’s a recovering addict, who is slowly getting her life together. We also meet Bezzerides’s father, who is a preacher at a New Age resort. He also (calmly) lectures Bezzerides, outlining her crippling character flaws, mostly as a result of her mother’s early death. As a character, Bezzerides is the example of what is currently not working for True Detective. Everything and everyone is so brooding and serious, but only they know why. We, as viewers, have to buy into this world, but have not been given a good reason why we should yet.

The final member of our dour quartet is Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). Woodrugh is a motorcycle cop, who, apparently, belongs on the road. He gets put on leave when his boss thinks he is lying about a report he files about a woman he catches speeding. All we know about him at this point is he is suicidal and has erectile dysfunction. As with Bezzerides, we can’t quite know yet why he is so upset. The plot has yet to catch up with the mood.

At the end of the episode, the characters are given reason to come together: a dead body. We know from the beginning that city manager Ben Caspere is missing (and dead) because there are several cutaway scenes to his corpse being disguised as asleep and driven far, far away. Woodrugh finds Caspere’s body late at night (as he is contemplating suicide). Bezzerides and her partner respond immediately. Detective Velcoro drunkenly shows up just before morning. The three of them are to work together on the murder. Velcoro already has a conflict of interest: Semyon needed Caspere for his railroad project, and Velcoro needs Semyon. It’s not yet clear in what direction the next episode will go, but we may get the substance we were so sorely lacking in the new True Detective’s first episode.

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