“What if I’m already dead?”
Hidden elements are the fuel behind a good detective story and True Detective is no different. What sets the show apart from the genre in its title though, is how it uses those hidden elements to cross the border from hard boiled pulp into the realm of abject horror. The greatest fear is fear of the unknown, and that’s why detectives are heroes — they discover the unknown using powers of deduction and put it behind bars or six feet underground. But what if the unknown is unknowable?
One of my primary worries when casting was being announced for True Detective season two was that by expanding the cast to include a criminal (Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon) the show would get rid of that occult element that made “The Case of The Yellow King” so scary. The more pieces you have on the board, the broader the perspective you have and the less mystery. The equation reduces to this: the more eyes you have, the less things remain hidden. Thankfully “Night Finds You,” the second of season two’s eight episodes, has locked my initial apprehensions in a basement and fed them to the rats.
Frank Semyon (Vaughn) officially kicks off the season’s horror element with an act one monologue worthy of the True Detective brand. Staring at two water stains that have appeared on his bedroom ceiling, Frank admits to his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) that he’s never known what to do with money. Likening his house to papier-mâché he jumps into a story from his childhood. Frank’s father would lock him in the basement when planning to go on a bender. One time, Frank’s dad didn’t come back for days while the little boy ran out of food, and then the lights went out. A rat began to nibble and eventually chew on little Frank’s hand, prompting him to smash it against the ground until it was goo. Rescued days after the rat’s death, the adult Semyon sometimes wonders if he actually died in that basement and everything else is just an illusion — papier-mâché.
The monologue is simply a frame of Vince Vaughn’s head on a pillow, with the occasional shot of Kelly Reilly listening, framed by pictures of the ceiling stain. It’s the simplest form of storytelling, a person just speaking, and it is effective in that minimal way that made Rustin Cohle such a hit last season. The takeaway at the end, as the episode takes off, is that there are somethings in this world that are simply unknowable and for Frank Semyon, those things are money and death.
Death can sit in the back seat for the time being though, as Frank’s biggest headache in “Night Finds You” is financial in nature. Ben Caspere, the tortured-to-death city manager at the center of this season’s Vinci City mystery, was supposed to broker land deals that were essential for the high speed rail scheme in which Frank is a stakeholder. Poor Frank finds out the hard way that Caspere didn’t buy the property he was supposed to, but that he essentially died with Semyon’s millions of collars on his acid washed corpse. Both of Frank’s property assets are double mortgaged and he’s lost in his own fog of commercial ignorance.
Frank does damage control in the mayor’s office, insisting that he can come up with the money again, and the detectives get started on “The Case of the Eyeless Sex Freak.” Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) each represent a different law enforcement body in California and are pinned to the special assignment representing their respective employers’ interests.
Woodrugh, as the first man on the scene, carries the flag for the State Police. Paul’s storyline still remains the least intriguing of the four main characters, as his negative character traits keep him at arm’s length from the primary action. We learn more about him and the mysterious Black Mountain Security job that gave him is sexy burn scars, we see him at his mom’s trailer, and back at his lover’s home, and the plot thickens in regards to the circumstances surrounding his suspension from highway patrol — Paul is either a deeply ashamed gay man wearing the mask of a violent homophobe or just an actual plain old creepy violent homophobe.
The last of these Woodrugh considerations is expressed through an anecdote he shares with Detective Teague Dixon (Velcoro’s VCPD partner), about wanting to punch a man who allegedly hit on him, juxtaposed with a scene of Paul scoping out places to cruise for dudes. The initial reading of this comparison, combined with the Viagra blowjob from last episode, suggests that Paul’s outward homophobia is cover born of insecurity and self-hatred. There is also the possibility, however, that Woodrugh is just a homophobe with an unhealthy fixation on his bigotry.
Velcoro and Bezzerides fare much better in “The Case of My Favourite Characters This Week.” Ani is assigned to the Ben Caspere case by Ventura County law enforcement since she was the first responder and the body was found in her jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Velcoro is insisted on by Vinci City police for two reasons: First, he and Dixon were already investigating the missing persons case before Ben was found, but mostly Vinci wants him there to act as a control factor. Vinci City is a cesspool of corruption, and Ray is the vector that will taint the case — reporting his findings back to his superiors who have personal stakes in the case. His presence will ensure that the right clues remain wrongly undetected.
Pounding the pavement and having some ace in-car dialogue, Ani and Ray give Rust and Marty a run for their money in terms of loveable buddy cops. Their banter is endearing and serves as a way to really understand them as people outside of their darkest places. What’s more is through their shallow interactions they affect change in one another.
Velcoro, compromised the whole time, comes to a moral turning point as he and Ani follow up on some honest to god solid detective work. Spurred on by the unsurprising consequences of last week’s dad fight (his wife is filing for sole custody and requesting an emergency injunction for supervised visitations until then, threatening a paternity test that Velcoro will most definitely fail) Ray finds in Ani an ally.
Admitting a level of ignorance in terms of his own level of corruption, Ray confides in his new partner that he doesn’t know if they are supposed to solve the Caspere case. The admission, though Ray knows he can’t expand on it, is played as a big get for Ani. Velcoro sees a chance to be a hero in the sense of all true detectives, but bringing an unknown into the light, but he’s trapped to an extent.
In the bar where they usually meet, Velcoro expresses his moral dissatisfaction to Semyon, who wants Ray to check out Ben Caspere’s second residence in Hollywood. Frank is shaken by Ray’s crisis, pays him for his crooked services, and promises to make him chief of Vinci City police when all is said and done.
Frank is first to leave, with a warning for Ray to get his priorities straight. Velcoro, in a bit of prophetic dialogue with the server, says that the only vacation he’ll ever get is death. His ultimate decision to go rogue comes as he leaves Semyon’s dirty money on the bar table on his way out the door.
Alone, Velcoro makes it to Caspere’s Hollywood home. The initial read is what you’d expect. Sex stuff and hidden cameras, blood on the floor. All very intriguing in addition to the radio which is still playing. And then True Detective goes all in: A man in a raven mask shoots Detective Ray Velcoro with a shotgun. Ray, lying on the ground at his most heroic, staring into the unknowable, is shot again in the stomach at point blank range.
As the final scene of an episode, Ray Velcoro being double shotgunned by a mysterious bird-man is the show-don’t-tell equivalent of Frank Semyon’s basement of death monologue. Did Ray die failing to be a hero, looking to reveal the hidden and encountering a question that can’t be answered? Or is he by some painful grace still alive, denied his much needed vacation beyond the pale? Thanks to season two’s strong decision to anchor us in the present timeline these high stakes questions can actually be asked. Whereas Rust and Marty were almost always protected by a fun time-jumping literary device, there’s no nifty framing to cleverly diffuse the tension of Velcoro’s masked menace encounter. All we have this year is a dark basement of unknowing in which we wait for relief, hungry and alone, with the spectre of death gnawing at us.
We Get The Roads We Deserve – Interesting that most of the scene transitions use footage of California traffic from a bird’s eye view. The image evokes the many moving pieces and byzantine connections of the story: so many moving parts it might be unsolvable.
Light Versus Dark – Further to that point, Woodrugh’s transitions are often the exceptions to the above motif. His are a night sky filled with stars, which fans will recognize as the ultimate philosophical symbol of True Detective’s first season.
Complex History – We learn a lot about Bezzerides this week, most interestingly that her first name is Antigone. The name speaks to her father issues as it’s the name of Oedipus’s daughter in Greek mythology and means “worthy of one’s parents.” We also learn that Ani was one of five children who grew up in her father’s commune cult, The Good People and that her dad does have a name (Elliot).
Nevermore – So, big Ravenman questions: is the guy who shot Ray the same guy who drove Caspere to his final location? Is it someone who we’ve seen already? Was the second location actually a set up by Vinci City stakeholders? One thing we can know for sure is that the Ravenman isn’t known to Semyon, because Frank had too much personally invested in Ben Caspere.