In which this is my least favorite life.
So MAN ceased to be MAN-a rational, moral creature, a being who once transcended the causality of nature. Instead he became a meaningless, enigmatic machine-like piece of MATTER. Even the MANIPULATORS who controlled UTOPIA ceased to be MAN in the old sense of the word. After denying their mannishness for so long, they finally lost it and so became the most terrifying animal on the face of the earth. (The Western Book of the Dead/1970)
Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” (“Form and Void”/Season 1)
What’s that Rust? That valedictory sentiment about the stars in the sky symbolizing the worth of fighting against a seemingly overwhelming universal darkness? Have you been to Vinci, CA Rust? Have you ventured out of the Louisiana backwoods since going mano y mano with death and the great beyond?
The brilliance of the first season of True Detective was born from many mothers. Its limited run format ramped up the tension of the week to week plot progression, the specter of resolution of some form lurking at the end of Episode 8. The way that Nic Pizzolatto deftly played with tropes from the Southern Gothic tradition, Lovecraftian horror, the great Noir canon, and a very post-millenial sense of guilt and paranoia tapped into the zeitgeist from several different angles. And the casting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, stoner icons extraordinaire, to play the embittered, hollowed out knights of the Vermillion Parish highways engendered a level of audience identification and affinity that allowed the show’s various plunges into the abyss to retain some semblance of meta-narrative comfort.
It was all very deep and dark nightmare juice that flowed through that first season. The waking terror of the past living in the present on the gnarly, alcohol-ravage face of a once studly detective. The tales of late night ceremonies in the woods which conjured something deeper than just child abuse for their youthful victims. The suspicion that something greater than all of us was enacting its bad juju on the corporeal forms which populate the inner recesses of the gulf coast, those abandoned farm houses that we all pass during road trips through the country, the ones that we always fear might be host for some real Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style perversions turning out to be exactly that. And the very real possibility that the existential speechifying of one Rustin Spencer Cohle was, in fact, all true. That the secret fate of all life is that we are all doomed to be reborn into the profoundly fucked up lives we inhabit, like a nightmare that we keep waking up into.
But even at the show’s darkest, the easy charm and charisma of McConaughey and Harrelson offered reassurance to viewers. Both actors turned in career best performances, sacrificing ego to explore their own inky depths. Star power, however, will always hold sway over any twisting of perception. And like it or not, this dysfunctional buddy cop duo was still entertaining as hell to watch each week. There’s an inherent pleasure to laying witness to the personal apocalypses on display in Season 1, a good horror story that adheres enough to a traditional quest narrative that dipping your feet in that black pool of madness offers a thrilling frisson, but also an easy way back to the safety of your normalcy. The world of Vermillion Parish can still be tucked away when you finish that first season. The darkness might still be out there, but, significantly, it’s out there. Moral and ethical corruption that deeply rooted is relegated to a part of the country where snakes are still handled in religious ceremonies. And as shown in the final episode, the supernatural fog that threatened to envelop the world was merely humanity showing its nastier side.
Which is why True Detective’s second season exists in such stark contrast to the first. Gone are the troubling, yet still accessible, boogeymen of cult rituals. Gone are the lush Southern Gothic vistas. Gone are the sexy, charismatic leads to serve as dual Virgils in the journey through the underworld. What remains is something altogether more disturbing, and impenetrable, and darkly seductive. Time’s flat circle come back around, echoing in the dankest recesses of the mind.
It’s fitting that after an enigmatic opening scene featuring pink-ribboned wooden stakes in a field, Season 2’s first character introduction is that of washed up detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), dropping off his son to another day of the interminable hell of middle school. As his son leaves the car, the scene cuts to Ray being interviewed by what will be revealed as a lawyer attempting to expand his visitations rights. At first blush, it’s a visual callback to those long police interviews with Hart and Cohle from the show’s first go around. But this time, the camera slowly creeps toward Ray, and the soundtrack gradually envelops the ear with a vague, unsettling rumble, cutting off only as the lawyer notes that the man who raped Ray’s wife (thus producing the son that the Velcoros were so desperately trying to conceive on their own) was never found. And then Ray tries to bribe the lawyer to grease the skids for him.
It’s almost as if Pizzolatto is serving up swift and immediate refutation of Season 1’s more charming aspects for those viewers expecting a repeat of bleak mystery tinged with a smattering of “All right all right all right.” Even the opening credits song (Leonard Cohen’s minimalist “Nevermind”) is a reversal of the dark, lush romanticism of The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road.” Farrell and McConaughey have both played their share of pretty boys and steamy sex symbols, but the latter’s easygoing demeanor provides a much easier lure for the viewer. Farrell has been pitched as leading man material for more than a decade, yet there’s a flatness to his persona that often distances him from fully engaging an audience in classic star system fashion. For me, his peak came in Michael Mann’s maligned 2006 big screen version of Miami Vice, in which Sonny Crockett is more conflicted collection of cop/noir/spiritual detective tics and mannerisms than fully cohesive human being. The tension that comes from his state of being, and the fulfillment he finds in his partnership with Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) is compelling stuff, a broad commentary on male bravado.
That same quality is what makes Farrell such a hypnotic presence as Ray, a man who has seemingly lost all hope for life. Rust Cohle may have bottomed out, but he was enjoying his time running from the pain of the case that got away. Ray is wallowing in his own worst instincts, and in the bleak ravages that time and misfortune visit upon so many. A bitter alcoholic, a cop in servitude to corrupt forces of all stripes, a failed father prone to irredeemable acts of violence (including assaulting the father of one of his son’s classmates, while forcing the son to watch and promising the infliction of even more graphic harm in the future)….he’s a crushed, hollowed out shell of humanity in every possible way. There’s a palpable brutalism to his character, with nary a romantic notion of gumshoe intrigue to be had. (As his ex-wife spits at him in the second episode “You were fine as long as everything else was fine. And then something happened, and you weren’t strong enough…”) And there’s that stare of his, the one that Farrell is proving to wield with mastery. Several times in the first two episodes, the camera focuses on a first person POV of Ray…and then allows him to stare back with a blankness, an emptiness that is uncomfortable on several levels. McConaughey’s glare always carries with it a hint of dreamy sexuality. Farrell’s heavy brow creates a visage in which his eyes sink back into darkness, eradicating any appeal in favor of a deep stare into the unknown.
The long stare seems to be a signature shot of this second season, as one of the most memorable scenes in “Night Finds You”, the second episode, features a haunted Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) gazing at a rorschach blot of a water stain on his ceiling, those old 3am insecurities leading him to tell his wife the tale of his childhood entrapment in his basement (a protective measure by his alcoholic father). The creeping despair that eats away at his cool exterior (“What if I’m still in that basement…in the dark? What if I died there?”) is ballsy material for classic life of the party Vaughn to embrace; it’s all played in another single first person POV shot, one which requires him to unleash his sadness in unforgiving detail. But in a way, Vaughn is as perfect for this role as Farrell is for Ray. Both men have enjoyed the Hollywood high life in their time, and the physical toll of those good times has created weathered complexions well-suited for the portrayal of two beaten down characters. Look back at Swingers-era Vince Vaughn and you see a guy who likes his women and drink, but whose rakish charm is ably abetted by a rail thin physique. Over the years, that body has become bloated by time and habit, heavy bags settling under his eyes. This Vaughn is what is needed for reformed sleaze merchant Frank and the world-weariness he mixes with his salesman’s magnetism (“Behold, what once was a man” as he dryly jokes to his wife.)
Physicality seems to play a large role in all three of the male leads, as Taylor Kitsch attests to in his portrayal of exiled motorcycle cop Paul Woodrugh. Kitsch has also had his time in leading man training, but his flatness of affect sometimes makes Farrell look like Jim Carrey. That and the almost blank slate quality of his looks. He’s handsome, but more in the manner of a porn star or a soldier than a Hollywood star. Which makes him an ideal vessel for Paul, the former Black Mountain (see Blackwater) mercenary turned wandering motorbike samurai by way of Electra Glide in Blue. He might not carry the nasty mojo that Ray packs in every day, but Paul’s tortured psyche can be seen in his sub-Oedipal relationship with his mother (Lolita Davidovich), in the mysterious scars that tattoo the left side of his body, in the midnight ride of doom he takes, hurtling along the Pacific Coast Highway toward death (which he unexpectedly finds in the emptied out corpse of Ben Caspere.)
Paul might hint at Oedipal mythology, but Rachel McAdams’s Antigone Bezzerides goes full blown old school in this respect. The daughter of New Age guru Eliot Bezzerides (whose Panticapaeum Institute pays tribute to a prominent ancient Greek center of commerce), she’s trapped in a world in which her younger sister (and recovering addict) Athena works as an online porn star, and in which, much like Sophocles’s heroine of the same name, she rails against the actions of her godlike elder. As Creon’s sister Jocasta killed herself following Oedipus’s moment of Anagnorisis, so too does this Antigone’s mother drown herself shortly after Eliot’s spiritual conversion, his refusal to guide her away from her fate a major bone of contention for his daughter (there’s also a hint of deeper sleaziness in Eliot’s moral relativism, especially in regards to Athena’s new job.)
And Antigone’s last name hearkens back to a mythology of a very different sort. A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides was a notable crime novelist and Noir screenwriter, most famously penning the script for Robert Aldrich’s revisionist and harrowing Kiss Me Deadly. There’s a lot of that film’s Mike Hammer in the character of Ray Velcoro, both men serving as brutalist caricatures of the masculine imperative in the crime milieu. When Ray and Antigone share a car ride in Episode 2, it almost plays as a parody of those classic Hart/Cohle voyages of the first season, Ray’s blunt and profane musings a far cry from the existential poetry that Rust espouses. The manner in which the film veers away from sanity and into an apocalyptic crescendo of violence can also be seen in the general tone of Season 2, especially in the abandonment of any vestige of charm from the first season (much as Mike Hammer is stripped of his classic allure in Ralph Meeker’s uber-misogynist take on the character.)
“Buzz” Bezzerides also worked as a communication engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power….and those words will arouse the morbid passions of any Noir aficionado, so tightly are they forever connected to the nightmare labyrinth of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. In teasing the development of Season 2, Pizzolatto voiced his desire to explore the “psychosphere ambiance” of Southern California, and it’s through this that he introduces the show’s uncredited lead performer: the toxic hamlet of Vinci. Based on the real life corrupt town of Vernon (read one L.A. Times reporter’s testimony here), Vinci is less a physical space than the manifestation of all that is rotten about the American/capitalist way of living, filled with toxic waste and migrant workers who serve as pawns for the high-monied machinations of would-be kings of industry. It’s a spiritual sister to that classic Fitzgeraldian purgatory of The Valley of Ashes, a way station where dreams go to die. Some of the most striking, haunting shots of this second season are the aerial establishing ones of Vinci’s factories and dead end-corners, the proto-industrial hum of the soundtrack evoking Eraserhead’s depiction of the 1970’s Philadelphia of David Lynch’s nightmares. As Ray tells Antogone’s partner when he asks what Vinci is, “a city…supposedly.”
But Vinci can only exist as an extension of the great sprawl of Los Angeles, and that’s the character which haunts all of these actions, and all of these failed dreams. The long aerial shots of the 405 and the maze of branches of that great quagmire of a freeway system play like a penetrating gaze into the circulatory system of a cancer-ridden, faded beauty. It’s the Los Angeles of Noir fame, with shadowy forces as the puppetmasters controlling the lives of the weak and disaffected. It’s also the promise of the Los Angeles dream, with Frank and the three police officer leads desperately trying to escape their pasts in a city founded on the allure of the new day. As Thom Anderson wryly notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, his epic testimony to the city on film (it’s on Netflix right now…you should really see if you already haven’t), the dream image of the city so often centers on the downtown area, which is one of the lesser visited and inhabited sections of the region. The Los Angeles of True Detective is much more representative of the city as a whole, the distant neon glow a faint remedy for the often heartless hustle that dominates survival in such a setting.
Which brings us back to the quote from The Western Book of the Dead which opens this essay. That slim volume from 1970 (which also gives Episode 1 its title) offers a quasi-Zen reading of the history of mankind, one which concludes with about as fatalistic an assessment of this thing we call human progress as you can find. This is the world that Rust Cohle preaches about in Season 1, only to eventually dial back his rhetoric in favor of a philosophy that acknowledges hope. But Season 2 (at least so far) fully embraces this reading of existence, its characters wandering through their lives as enigmatic machine-like pieces of matter. Season 1 might tease the presence of a Lovecraft monster at its heart, but the more reality-based wasteland of dehumanization that Season 2 offers is more gut-wrenchingly disturbing. To once again offer a nod to Polanski and Robert Towne, it hearkens back to Noah Cross informing Jake Gittes that “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.” And so, we have the corpse of Ben Caspere riding through the city all throughout the first episode, his hidden life of sexual depravity now behind him as he rattle through the night toward his date with the three officers. And so, we have Frank’s bedtime speech about the world being as fragile as papier-mache, his vision of the water stains on the ceiling crossfading into the burned out eyes of Ben’s corpse, a fitting symbol for the emptied-out husks of Ray, Antigone, and Paul. And so, we have the mysterious man in the black bird’s mask seemingly murdering Ray via shotgun at the end of the second episode.
Season 2’s full embrace of this nihilism can be daunting the first time around. It took me a second viewing of both episodes back to back to be sold on the whole thing. Like Lera Lynn, who plays the freak-folk, narcopop songstress who serenades Frank and Ray with “This is My Least Favorite Life” at the dive bar where they meet, the show has a siren’s dark allure in the hypnotic vision it transmits from the ninth circle of Hell. Comfortable it ain’t. But sometimes crashing into the rocks can still be redeemed by that intoxicating siren’s plea. And the dark journey through the California nightmare makes True Detective as enticing as any classic tug of war between Eros and Thanatos. Or a midnight motorcycle ride to oblivion.