The cops in True Detective's second season are so world-weary, it's a wonder they're able to move. They're so stern, grim-faced, and defined by work, they're puritan. They wrap themselves in strip clubs, perps, and denial as they move about their fallen world. In real life, in the age of small cameras, cops can be terrifying. An iPhone can take corruption and put it online for all to see. But in fiction, police are vehicles for philosophy. The detectives and officers who solve the world's mysteries on our screens always have reasons to step over the line and are always negotiating them. They're the protagonists. The citizens they rough up are, depending on the show's level of grit, incidental to the larger goal of getting the bad-guy-of-the-week.
Their weariness is part of the time-honored existentialism of detective noir, making sense of a world and finding your own code within it. True Detective's Season 1 wore this on its sleeve. Its most pure expression was its opening credits, which took images of the actors and story and mixed them like a soup. The appeal in Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle was his ability to take atheistic observations about the world, sprinkle in some nihilism, and serve them in a movie star's mouth. Cohle and Woody Harrelson's more lived-in Marty Hart were both fully realized characters, darkly funny amid all the Gothic imagery. Most everyone else was Southern stereotypes, and HBO-mandated nudity ate the agency of the female characters whole. But ultimately, everything was abandoned in an unconvincing last-minute switch to optimism by Cohle.
This season the grimness takes the forefront. The weary cops' stories unwind in much more regular fashion. We have no Cthulhu mythology and unreliable narration to sift through. Rachel McAdams' Bezzerides has problems with sex caused by her growing up in a cult her father ran. Her most prominent quality is that she smokes an e-cigarette. Taylor Kitsch's Woodrugh's sexual repression is defined by an unhealthy relationship with his mother. He likes to drive fast on his motorcycle, on highways we're repeatedly shown in beautiful aerial shots. Farrell's Velcoro is a crooked alcoholic cop who beats up the father of his son's school bully. He works for mob boss Semyon (Vince Vaughn), after the former helped him kill his wife's rapist years ago. They're terse, they're pissed off, they're told they need therapy, and all they've got in the world is this case they're obsessed with unraveling.
They aren't different enough from the thousand previous iterations of these archetypes. Learning about their ex-wives and boyfriends feels like work. Some of the most effortless, efficient characterization so far has been Farrell's hair. The Cape buffalo bangs and droopy moustache scream that this man has stopped caring.
Promisingly, each episode has gotten weirder, with small Lynchian touches. Water stains on a ceiling crossfade into carved-out eye sockets. A Russian trophy wife huffs pot smoke out of a bag. A character shot with rock salt hallucinates a Conway Twitty impersonator singing "The Rose." Oral sex is a running theme.
But the weirdness isn't enough to help Vaughn's delivery of a speech about having to crush a rat with his bare hands as a child. It's the moment when things should come together, told in a dead-eyed close-up at the start of the second episode, when his mobster's money worries should take center stage. Vaughn always seemed capable of more since he carried the movie Swingers 20 years ago, but instead he has gotten less and less expressive with each role. He is better irritated and frantic than mournful and sad. His flashes of anger work, but the glum nervousness about his position in life doesn't come across.
It's a slow burn with wet kindling. Unless the weirdness builds or the performances build — or its depiction of police corruption comes to feel as immediate as watching a viral video — it might be more interesting if the characters actually went to therapy.
True Detective Season 2