True Detective, Season 2: "Night Finds You"

Dear Television,DEARTVLOGO

SARAH: PHIL! NEW THEORY! All of True Detective is actually Game of Thrones fan fic! Yes? No? I don’t know! But I do know that suddenly TD’s California is very Westeros, what with the reintroduction of weird mysticism to a cold political world, and especially with Colin Farrell getting Jon Snow-ed in this new episode, and BY A CROW! (Okay okay: by a raven.) I still think the point stands, and the point is that after nearly two hours of self-important noir tedium, True Detective season two might actually be getting interesting. Dark wings typically bring dark news, Phil, but Farrell getting whacked by a bird-dressed dude — can we call the bird dude Olly? I’m going to call him Olly — is, to my mind, the most entertaining thing to have happened so far this season. So much for staring at sad things! Mystical surrealism, YES!

PHIL: Night finds you, Sarah. And it is dark and full of terrors. But if that was rock salt, I’m going to be very upset. That dude better be dead. Like Ned Stark dead, not Beric Dondarrion dead. I get that, in this day and age, it’s a cliche to kill off the lead in a surprising way. The Shield did it a million years ago, Thrones does it every couple of episodes now, but at least it’s a new cliche. We’ve spent two episodes dutifully rifling through Ol’ Pappy Pitz’s Almanac of Neo-Noir Conventions, so it’d be refreshing if we were at least running an update on the app here. Because, even if we’ve seen it before, it still feels jarring to lose someone like that.

SARAH: FOR SERIOUS. Dude, I am sorry about the all-caps (NOT SORRY, ACTUALLY!) but I am so thrilled to have some interesting storytelling to talk about! I think the question is: what do we make of this death? That’s a question both about Dead Collin Farrell, and about death here more generally. It’s actually something of a category error to compare Ray to Jon Snow, because Jon Snow, like Ned, was a hero figure and whatever Ray Velcoro is, he’s not that. He was always clearly marked for martyrdom, but I had imagined his death would come later so that it could more clearly be tied to the Meaninglessness Of All Things than I expected this show to narrate to us. But what does his death mean now? What does death mean to noir, Phil? Phil! Do you like noir? I find it so confusing!

Related: I approached this episode with a weird sort of creeping dread. Like, last night I would pretty much rather have watched anything else. Sad Things Happening to Unlikeable People is one of my least favorite televisual experiences — especially when the sad things are really predictable and you just have to sit and wait miserably while they march slowly at you. But now I’m pumped! This death seems, interestingly, to have made more things possible, to have opened up the world a little bit. Now that I know that weird ominous murder is part of the plan, I’m actually more excited. NOIR! What is that?

PHIL: That’s what it feels like when True Detective is fun again! This whole episode seemed built to get us started on the new snappy automotive repartee between Ray and Ani and to expand our idea of Ray’s life outside work. None of this was particularly compelling — we’ll get to Ray Velcoro’s hot take on Jezebel below — so if it was all an elaborate fake-out leading to Ray’s death, then count me in! But, again, if that was rock salt, or if he miraculously survives, I will be writing a strongly-worded letter to Home Box Office. I think, despite all of our shots at him, The Pitz is trying to do interesting things with genre, and with noir specifically.

Last season, the Louisiana setting forced some immediately compelling revisions to the mode — especially since noir tends to live more as a visual style than a coherent set of themes — but, this season outside LA, the revisions have felt more standard, less insightful in and of themselves than derivative of an earlier set of revisions. (Notwithstanding the clever subbing out of the classic noir cigarette for McAdams’s eCig.)

SARAH: Well, partly last season did a better job of blending the traditions of noir and gothic — that’s what was great about it. But until at least the end of this episode, The Pitz didn’t seem to have much of an idea about what California Gothic might look like.

PHIL: True. But if Colin Farrell is dead, then Pitz is doing something slightly trickier. As Michelle Chihara pointed out on this site, True Detective is very much a product of and a comment upon the politics of prestige at HBO, so it makes a lot of sense if Pitz really is stealing plays from the Maester’s playbook. Let’s not forget that the structure of Game of Thrones was essentially that of a classic detective story in its first season, with Ned Stark investigating corruption in the capital, getting in too deep. But, as we know, in Westeros, what happens to nosy fellas is that they get beheaded in front of their daughters. So, if Ray Velcoro is actually dead, then, at the very least, the rest of this season might draft off of some of the destabilizing energy that makes the best seasons of Game of Thrones fun to watch.

SARAH: Destabilizing, yes! What was interesting about the Westerosi death situation is that Ned’s death, like Jon’s (maybe), so clearly disrupts the familiar values of the fantasy genre, which typically works to protect heroes. But death in noir works a little differently — tell me if you think this is right — because noir doesn’t ever “believe” that the world protects heroes. In fact, quite the opposite: noir already believes that the world is fallen, and that heroics are sort of futile.

And that’s why it’s interesting that this death came here, so early on, and in an episode that was really focused on establishing the show’s value system. To wit: The Pitz trotting out Ye Olde Noir Cliché of bringing in a long-suffering woman, otherwise ignored by the show, to exposit about morality to a dude who must then make A Moral Choice. It happens twice here, first when Ray’s ex-wife laments his decline in the mall parking lot, and then later when Em (wearing pants this episode, but still super hot and tank topped, don’t worry) chastises Taylor Kitsch’s Paul. Arguably the scarred waitress who tries to take Ray to Mexico fills the same role. The show seemed most interested in what the ex-wife (does she have a name? Not sure the show cares: she has suffered and moralized so it’s probably done with her now!) has to say: that Ray wasn’t strong enough to be decent in a shitty world.

That’s a key moral lesson for where the show seemed to be going: the “be decent, even if it’s futile” view of human action against the more cynical, it’s always already your fault “we get the world we deserve.” What seemed most interesting was how the show was playing Ray and Frank’s warped attempts to be decent, to somehow reform, against each other. But now Ray is dead, so that particular dudefest of sad moral anguish is about to be reconfigured (WHICH: YAY!). Ray’s death, which was neither heroic nor conventionally tragic, actually seems to make the show’s moral world more interesting. The choices that have to be made now are more challenging.

And yet, without Ray, what’s left? Papier-mâché? Did you buy the papier-mâché speech, Phil? I really wanted to! I’m pulling for Vince here, I am. But, you know, with the rats and the drunkenness, it was a little too 13-year-old-who-just-read-1984 for me.

PHIL: Reader, I did not buy the papier-mâche speech. Unless the implication is that Frank Semyon is auditioning for a part in the third season of Ed Wood’s True Detective. The best thing about it is when Frank’s wife Jordan verbally acknowledges how improbable it is that they’ve been married for so long and she’s never heard this story. I was about to say that out loud in my own home, and she beat me to it!

This brings us to something that I think gets papered(!) over even in critiques of this show. That is, the dialogue is pretty purple. Plenty of people were not having it when Rust Cohle was yammering about flat circles, but, to me, that was the style of dialogue that worked: baroque, hallucinatory, cartoonishly poetic. (The closest relative this season is the very Milchian mayor Austin Chessani, played by the great character actor Ritchie Coster.) In other words, the catchphrases from season one were an element of the style, part of what made the show distinctive whether you liked them or not. What never worked for me were the straight-man exchanges surrounding those moments. As far as noir goes, this should be the bread-and-butter, but it’s always a little off on True Detective, the observations a little too canned and the punchlines a little too forced. Re-watch the first long Rust and Marty car-ride, and tell me that Woody Harrelson, as great as he is, doesn’t sound like he’s reading lines of dialogue on a page. The Pitz has done some great speeches, but his pithy back-and-forths have always felt staged to me, and it was the same deal with Ray and Ani in this episode. (Was there a Vaudeville audience on the other side of that dashboard?) Frank’s monologue, unfortunately, felt more stagey than staggering.

But, beyond my stylistic nitpicking, what did you think about this — potentially finished — relationship between Bad Dad and Sad Kid?

SARAH: Well, what was potentially interesting was how that dichotomy was playing out among the four main leads: Frank and Ray were positioned as parents (Sad about Parenting!) whereas Ani and Paul are positioned as children. I’m not sure the show had anything interesting to say about that dialectic, though, and I’m not sorry that it’s now been disrupted.  Without Ray to rebel against, Ani and Paul are going to have to be the grown ups, and that’s going to be more interesting, maybe.

But then again: maybe not? Ani and Paul, while not so far indulging in any moral torments (I think we’re meant to imagine that they’re both basically “decent,” in the show’s lexicon) definitely are meant to have strange sexual torments.

Which makes this as good a time as any to address what Ani is doing here. What do you think of Ani? I said last week that The Pitz’s great subject was Serious Men Staring at Sad Things, and one of the big questions I had gearing up for this season was how Rachel McAdams’s character would fit in. Would she also be primarily interested in The Sad? What kind of looking would The Pitz allow her to perform? This episode seemed an attempt to answer that question: the scene when Ani semi-watches porn is at least nominally about the question of what she wants. But: does it answer that question? McAdams is playing Ani as existing behind an extremely thick protective layer, and that makes connecting to her as a character kind of difficult. She looked kind of into the porn, but that  interest was conveyed more through the cinematography — the brightness of the screen lighting up her face — than through any emotions of her face itself.  I think maybe McAdams should take some Brow Furrowing lessons from Maisie Williams: Ani’s got kind of an Arya thing going on, but Arya, despite her control, never reads as flat.

PHIL: Yes! I keep wanting to read something in McAdams, but it’s frustrating because it’s so unclear what’s there. And that might be a strong-suit of the show’s. Serious Woman Staring at Potentially Arousing But Also Potentially Disturbing Things It’s Hard to Tell I Don’t Know. You’re very right about the Badness-Decency flip flop going on between Ray and Frank. They’re both very conventional trajectories, but their interaction makes them somewhat more complicated. Who’s rising, who’s falling, and when? Paul and Ani are both harder to read. And maybe that’s the point.

I’ll choose, despite being particularly uncharitable toward The Pitz so far this week, to believe that these two are not just underwritten but actually, honest-to-goodness mysterious. In other words, McAdams isn’t struggling to show us something that isn’t there; she’s successfully showing us something we’re not yet aware of. In any case, it strikes me that whatever mysteries these two hold, there’s a substantial erotic component to them. (Maybe Antigone Bezzerides is also into birds.)

SARAH: CARRION CROWS?! (Q: How many people are googling “bird imagery in Antigone” this week? A: SO MANY.)

PHIL: Ani’s been presented to us as a card-carrying member of a particular party of misandrist feminism that Ray has apparently read about on the internet and against which Shailene Woodley and other young actresses often pontificate in the pages of women’s magazines. But what else is going on? And, not unrelated, were we getting heavy implications this episode that Paul is gay or at least bi-curious? There was a lot of sex in the first season but not a lot of sexuality, if that makes sense. Sex was either a crime or a symbol of dominance for Rust and Marty. So, on the surface, it’s encouraging to see this show tip-toeing into a more complicated set of erotic entanglements. What does True Detective do with lived sexual desire that doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the vice squad? I’m both intrigued and concerned. Oh, Pitz, what are you getting yourself into?!

SARAH: I have the same question! Sensuality and desire would be really fruitful topics for this show to explore, except that I have little faith in The Pitz’s ability to navigate them with any insight. Like, I sort of think it would be amazing if Rachel McAdams turns out to be a dominant and, like, works it out with Taylor Kitsch! Like, that would be SO interesting if what Tim Riggins really needs is to be someone’s bottom! Or if Regina George and Tim (sorry, Ani and Paul: I guess the question here is: just how smart is this casting?) could kind of bond over their mutual and amorphous closetedness; that could be interesting too. But there are so many ways this could go poorly. SO MANY.

Maybe now would be a good time to get to our likes/dislikes? I think I already talked about what I liked: that by killing off a lead character so early in the season, and by doing so in a way that jolts the other characters out of the formula the narrative seemed to have been mapping out for them, the show seems to have expanded what kind of transformation these characters might experience over the course of the story, and expanded what this story might teach us about the world. This kind of genre bending makes me feel like the show is at least trying to be interesting: the attempt will be fun to watch and talk about, even if the execution doesn’t quite cut it.

PHIL: Sarah, #DeadColinFarrell was easily my favorite part, too, for all the same reasons. But, I’ll be more specific, because this gets to a place where I think the show improved this week. I liked Colin Farrell getting shot dead, but I loved that he got shot dead by a person wearing a bird mask. It was creepy, it was haunting, surreal, spooky, but, let’s be honest, also pretty funny. Were you laughing in delight at the end of this episode? I was! Last week, I asked that this show get its sense of humor back, and — despite a couple of real clunkers in the actual “joke” department — this was a good one. What did you hate?

SARAH: For my dislike, I’m going to pick something really minor: I DISLIKE, in a VERY ALL CAPS WAY, the folk singer in the bar where Ray and Frank meet! WHY IS SHE THERE? Did she get lost on her way to the new Twin Peaks sound stage? Has The Pitz ever been to a bar? In what world do dirty cops and mobsters hang out at bars where angsty ladies in ill-fitted floral dresses sing their weird folksy tunes? I mean, I understand that the Sad Lady Singer is there to express the Sad Seriousness of the Sad Men’s Souls, but this is a complete break in the show’s verisimilitude. Also, I live in Los Angeles, and I guarantee you that any place where that skinny white lady would be singing, you’d have to fight your way through the skinny-jeaned hipsters if you wanted a corner table.

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PHIL: Mind-meld! That singing lady is too much. In fact, I think those scenes are what the kids on the internets like to call “thirsty.” I would almost respect it more if she were literally narrating the series, like the minstrel rooster in Disney’s Robin Hood. “Now there’ve been a whole heap o’ legends and rumors and tall tales ‘bout old Ray Velcoro, but we here in the City of Vinci have our own version of what happened, the real version, and I’m a gonna tell it to you…”

But I’ll go one further: I think the music this season is too pushy in general. I’m not going to say a bad thing about Leonard Cohen, but that gravelly, stylized, Profound opening credits song feels unearned, so did the Nick Cave that ended that episode, and so do these indie folk jamz at the Seedy Underbelly Bar. Somebody needed to say, “Look, you can have Leonard Cohen or you can have Nick Cave or you can have the sad lady singing in the bar. You gotta pick one, dude.” You know who would have been good at saying something like that? Cary Joji Fukunaga…


For the watch,

Sarah and Phil