True Detective, Season 2: "Maybe Tomorrow"

This week on Dear Television:

  • “Mad Pitz: Fury Road,” from Sarah and Phil

Dear Television,DEARTVLOGO
PHIL: So many topics to discuss this week, Sarah! Rachel McAdams is dumping some dude like she’s Regina George, Riggins had a lost weekend with a fellow male mercenary, Frank is taking a stand against both IVF and grillz, and Ray Velcoro has the audacity to still be alive!

SARAH: Omg, Phil! Ray’s being alive is the worst! Well: it’s pretty bad. Probably the actual worst is The Pitz’s perplexing decision to double down on mournful fellation as a topic of great narrative significance. Also I want to tell you right off the bat that I saw Magic Mike XXL this weekend and it really skewed my perspective on Ol’ Gloomy TD. Partly that’s because TD’s first close-up shot of Vince Vaughn made him look a little bit like Channing Tatum and I had this momentary burst of confusion when I thought I’d get to see Vince Vaughn in a g-string! (Sigh; no.) More to the point, both Magic Mike and True Detective feature dudes grappling with power, finance, gender, aging, and contracts, but I swear to you that Magic Mike — which knows that delight can teach us as much as anxiety — offers the fresher and more provocative take on all these subjects.

Maybe this episode would have been improved if, when Ray went through his David-Lynch-Afterlife portal, he’d gotten a pep talk from Matt Bomer instead of that Leonard Cohen-look alike? Maybe then I’d be more interested in his continued survival?

PHIL: Last week, when we rhapsodized about the dramatic possibilities of Velcoro’s death, I think we both knew, in the secret places in our souls, that it could not be true, that Pitz would not kill his Main Pitz so early or at all. Part of what got us so excited about Ray’s death, I think, wasn’t so much that such a loss would hurt, but that it would be a recognition on Pitz’s part that we don’t really care that much about Ray Velcoro. Because we don’t! To remove Velcoro would have been to acknowledge the paint-by-numbers (using only grayscale) quality of his plotline and our weak attachment to his dark heart. Instead, with Velcoro alive, not only are we left without such a self-aware reorientation of the series around its more compelling Canadian Super Couple, but we also now have to go back to the slog that is Trying To Care About Ray Velcoro. His ex-wife offered him $10,000 to not challenge her custody request; I bet we could pull together a Kickstarter to offer him $10,000 to leave the show. Maybe that’s harsh.

SARAH: Yeah, I would rather use that money to fund some pole dancing lessons for Taylor Kitsch?

PHIL: Seriously, though, Sarah, do you really believe Taylor Kitsch needs the lessons? He doesn’t. He’s a five-tool player. I should say unequivocally that I love Colin Farrell, and I even like the work he’s doing with Velcoro. I would, in fact, like more Colin Farrell in a perfect world. Honestly, I don’t even mind Velcoro that much — the most promising angle the show’s working, in terms of its bureaucratic drama, is the position Bezzerides has to negotiate between solving the case and busting Velcoro — but the prospect of his sudden absence was so much more tantalizing than anything I can imagine the show doing with his continued presence.

SARAH: Right. I liked the juxtaposed scenes of Ani and Ray getting grilled by their respective senior officers, and I appreciated the show’s attentiveness to the ways both characters are instrumentalized — and, really, sexualized — by bureaucracies, and by other characters’ ambitions. As much as I complain about this show’s clichés, I appreciate that none of its cop characters suffer from the all-too-common illusion of believing in their own independence from the systems in which they move. There’s no sense of trying to get to a corruption-free promised land. No one’s trying to part the Red Sea here; everyone’s just trying to stay afloat.

Ani and Paul
But then: maybe that’s why it’s hard to care about? There are some stories that matter to us — stories of freedom and redemption — and there are characters we care about, usually because they manifest a sort of detailed human realness that makes us encounter tragedy in a cathectic way. And no one is doing it for me thus far. The person I really want to care about is Ani but, and it pains me to say this, I think Rachel McAdams is not quite pulling it off. When Ani confronts Ray about sneaking into the crime scene without her, her body posture is all strange and wrong: timid, pulled in, not convincingly powerful enough to really challenge him. Now, I guess this comes back to the question we were raising last week about how strange it was to watch Ani’s Ambivalent Porn-sumption — that is, we couldn’t tell if McAdams was just doing a bad job, or, as you put it, showing us something we don’t yet understand. But at some point we need to have that question answered, and feel connected to her in the moment. However, it does seem very Pitzian to get off on withholding Ani’s real motivations until the end, so that we’d need to rewatch in order to appreciate McAdam’s work. Phil: I am not excited to watch this show twice.

PHIL: You won’t have to, Sarah, I promise. But you’re right about Ani being a bit abstract to us still. Honestly, the shift in focus onto her was the thing that most excited me about Velcoro’s exit. Our payoff would have been a show for which this intriguing side character became the protagonist. But, with Frank and Ray and their angst in the picture, it’s easy for Pitz to keep Ani in a holding pattern, forgetting her there assuming that McAdams can keep us interested.

There’s one person, though, that The Pitz and I can’t get off our minds: Cary. Joji. Fukunaga. Back in the days of yore, when Nic Pizzolatto was just a glimmer in Nic Pizzolatto’s eye, there were two things that were notable about HBO’s forthcoming show, True Detective. The first, of course, was that the leads were going to be two huge movie stars; the second was that one director was going to direct the whole series. Both of these factors were unusual for TV, and both turned out to be hugely important. McConaughey and Harrelson delivered career-best performances, and Cary Joji Fukunaga took the rare opportunity he’d been afforded to direct every episode of a television series to blow our minds out of our heads. The show looked great, its flashback structure always felt fluid, and, more than any other contemporary television series save Breaking Bad or Hannibal, it showed that the elaborately-orchestrated, cinematic set-piece could work on the small screen. Fukunaga’s famous tracking shot was the thing that brought him to the forefront, but actors don’t just deliver great performances unaided, sequences like the Carcosa battle aren’t just triumphs of set-design, and even good teleplays don’t shoot themselves. To me, Fukunaga was the real revelation of True Detective. (Not to mention that he’s got USWNT-level side-braid game.)

SARAH: BRAID GAME! Okay, look, I am glad you mention this, because the US Women’s Soccer triumph is the other thing I watched this weekend that seemed smarter about gender and agency than True Detective. I was really hoping the internet would explode today with Braid Analysis Color Commentary, because I really think those braids were important! Stay with me because this is about cultural capital and thus relevant to TD: we hear a lot about how football is “the beautiful game,” but usually that beauty is coded as antithetical to feminine technologies of beauty like braiding. Braids and beautification, we’re told, are frivolous, passive, weak! (You know The Pitz thinks so, too.) But when these incredibly powerful women athletes embraced braids — the braided Ref!! — it felt like a radical statement about what range of behaviors can matter, aesthetically, competitively, and socially. And this feels similar to what my friends and I were noticing about the dudes in Magic Mike (you didn’t think I was done talking about Magic Mike, did you?). They keep saying: we are male entertainers. Finding life pleasurable does not diminish us! Finding WOMEN’S PLEASURE IMPORTANT does not diminish us! Okay: I’ve gone a long way here from Fukunaga. My point is that I am really glad that the Male Harm and Misery Aesthetic that The Pitz seeks to promote is not the only game in town this weekend. And, it’s hard for me to watch True Detective and not to think about the ways our culture is trying to decide what kinds of pleasure it finds valuable.

PHIL: I’m with you on the USWNT as a counterweight to this. I, and certainly many of our readers, turned directly from the thrilling end of the World Cup Finals to find that, despite everything Carli Lloyd had just done for us, even she couldn’t put Ray Velcoro in the ground. (How much would you pay for Premium Cable if HBO produced a weekly Hard Knocks-style show about the U.S. Women’s National Team?) The problem for me isn’t just, or even primarily, the Male Harm and Misery Aesthetic. Instead, the problem is that this look is clearly and irrevocably headed toward redemption. We’re supposed to see Frank Semyon’s CONFLICT about this woman who won’t stop pleasuring and supporting him no matter how much he keeps negging her and hope he gets over it. There were two endings to the first season of this show. One ended in a dark cave, and one ended gazing hopefully at the stars. It’s probably an oversimplification, but I credit that opera of mythic violence to Cary Fukunaga and its snappy coda to Pitz. That tension was interesting to me even as it made for a somewhat unsettled or even disappointing finale.

Either way, I’m no auteurist, but, after that season — and in conjunction with the recent triumphs of Todd Haynes, Jane Campion, and Steven Soderbergh pulling similar feats on their own series — it seemed like we had maybe learned something about new possibilities for an evolving narrative medium. Feature directors have long shown up to take on the first couple episodes of a new show, almost to set up a style guide for the series, but they almost never stick around, often for logistical reasons. But in the wake of True Detective, I thought about other feature directors who might be great helmers for TV series — how is Spike Lee not a showrunner yet, come on! — but also about what the world would look like if clutch TV directors like Michelle MacLaren or Jennifer Getzinger were handed 12 continuous episodes of something rather than just one or two. I’m not suggesting we shift the balance of power from writer to director in TV, but I think True Detective proved that the unusual occurrence of full, season-long buy-in from a writer, a cast, and a director is something worth replicating.

SARAH: I’m not sure I can respond to this substantively because I’m now devoting all my mental bandwidth to imagining a Spike Lee show about braids, women’s soccer, Channing Tatum’s sweat pants, tWitch’s popping, Taylor Kitsch’s soulful gaze, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s pantsuits. Spike would totally have given tWitch more lines!

On the other hand, as much as I’m 100% pro Spike Lee, I’m with you that what’s exciting isn’t so much the auteur as the sustained collaboration (which, just saying, is the moral of both Magic Mike and the World Cup Final. Also possibly of TD season one, but that was less “collaboration” and more “sustained circle jerking.” Okay now maybe it’s my turn to be too harsh.)

PHIL: Exactly, sustained collaboration! What do you think about when you think about Aaron Sorkin? The Walk and Talks! But that signature device was developed by the director Thomas Schlamme to visualize Sorkin’s style. Sorkin wasn’t just better because of his collaboration with his director, he became Sorkin through that collaboration. But that realization was lost on somebody along the way. After the end of last season, Pitz became a villain, and Fukunaga became a hero, and HBO apparently decided that, for season two, it needed movie stars, and it needed The Pitz, but the solo director was more trouble than it was worth. (There was a brief, too-good-to-be-true rumor circulating that William Friedkin was attached to direct the season.) The first two episodes of this season were directed — in a hallucinatory flurry of on-the-nose, awkward dissolves to highway interchanges — by Justin Lin. This week’s episode, directed by Janus Metz Pedersen, marks the end of True Detective’s interest in directorial consistency. It also, maybe not coincidentally, features some crazy shade thrown at Fukunaga in the form of the doppelgänger director of a post-apocalyptic B-movie that Ani and Ray interrogate. (For what it’s worth, when Pitz conjured this particular degrading scenario for his former director, I bet he wasn’t thinking that Mad Max: Fury Road was going to be the most critically-acclaimed film of the year.) I’m okay with TV showrunners being goons, especially when they do good work, but I think my frustration is less with The Pitz and more with a world that hasn’t reckoned with the possibility that McConaughey, Harrelson, and Fukunaga were also the brains behind the operation. I’m sure Pitz hated working with Fukunaga, and vice versa, and I don’t think Fukunaga is a transcendent genius, but here’s a fact: True Detective was better with P & F working together than it is with P, all alone.

SARAH: Phil, that is indeed a true fact! But maybe let’s turn to this glum material we’ve got to work with here, maybe by way of our likes and dislikes. Can I start with a dislike?

I am completely hating that squeaky Mayor Chessani. I hate the mayor’s strung out and sexualized child bride; I hate his agro be-pantied son; I especially hate his excessive use of the word “cunt.” (Note: I was going to make a derogatory comment about the mayor being married to both members of Die Antwoord, but actually Die Antwoord would have been a much more interesting casting decision.) To my mind, this whole narrative arc augers nothing but misery. We’re going to watch something miserable happen to the child bride (she may or may not get some sort of token revenge, shoehorned in to justify the suffering); we’re going to watch Agro Son do miserable things to other people, probably (UGH) Ray. We are also probably going to have a lot of judgmental footage of that horrible house with its big weird doors — here’s maybe where I’m missing Fukunaga. I hated how we’re supposed to buy into this strangely ethnicized critique of gaudy wealth. I hated the comparison of Mayor Vinci’s baroque cruelty with the sleek mid-century modern architectural lines of Vince Vaughn’s marital grief.  

child bride
PHIL: I’m a little more forgiving of that mealy mayor, in part because, as I mentioned last week, he speaks like an extra from Deadwood. That said, I’m with you on being a little underwhelmed by this season’s uninspired depictions of lurid wealth. (See Boogie Nights, Big Lebowski, and the collected California films of Sofia Coppola for more interesting mansion mise-en-scene.) For my dislikes, I feel like I’ve already shared quite a bit. Please let the above transcript stand as my “dislike” for this week.

SARAH: Done, Sir! Let the record show: much mutual disliking. As to what I liked, there are two things I’d mention, one speculative and one specific. Here’s the specific one: I liked when Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch bumped shoulders in the bar. And I want to emphasis that what I liked was the actors bumping shoulders, more than the characters — or rather, that this was one of the moments this season when I felt like the associations we bring to those two actors was used in a generative way. When they bumped into each other, I really cared! And that made me hopeful about what might transpire between them. I’m not even going to get hopeful about Pitz treating Paul’s tortured closetedness with any subtlety, but I’ll light a small candle around Pitz’s interest in Vince and Taylor’s homosociality.

Similarly, I felt some hopefulness about Ani’s interactions with Paul. I liked her practicalness about his good looks, how it genuinely wasn’t flirting. I guess this is another way of saying, yet again, that I most liked the storylines that didn’t involve Ray! But, at the same time, I actually still think that Ray is doing the best acting here. Oh: and I liked the dystopia mockery! Even as someone who would choose epic dystopia everyday of the week over dreary noir.

PHIL: My “like” for the week is also about our players. I asked, several weeks ago, that Vince Vaughn be let out of his cage, and that is happening. I’m not sold, necessarily, on his dark glower, but the weasly, wily, tough, fast-talking, arrogant gangster that’s rising back up in Semyon’s throat is somebody I want to spend some time getting to know. If the return of this particular monster is the upshot of all those sad BJs and lame Power Point presentations, then that’s fine. Frank Semyon doesn’t want to be happier as a manipulative thug but maybe he is, and, if that’s the case, we were meant to feel bored and annoyed by Sad Frank along with Sad Frank himself. Being a respectable real estate developer’s no fun! (Just ask Donald Trump.) One of the great things about McConaughey-Harrelson was how evident it was — without breaking character — that those guys were having a really swell time playing these parts. Vince Vaughn looked and sounded like Vince Vaughn for a few stretches this episode. Pitz is a Serious Auteur, and we don’t have Fukunaga to get crazy with the camera this season, but Vince Vaughn is showing up. It’s nice to see somebody having fun.

Sincerely, sidebraids,

Phil & Sarah