For the entirety of this season, True Detective has been coated in a thick layer of smog, obscuring everything from basic plot to character motivation. Narratives have been picked up and abandoned seemingly at random and tidbits of character history have been peppered here and there, all in a swirling hodge-podge of withering looks and occasional bursts of violence. None of it seemed to be adding up to anything and after four episodes, the show was threatening to collapse under the weight of all its disparate parts. Last week, I wrote a pretty pessimistic summation of the season so far with a list of grievances that I felt needed to be fixed or the show was doomed. So before we get into the nitty-gritty of this episode, I’m going to briefly go over those points.
First, the show desperately needed a narrative sharpening. It needed focused, clear plotting with a definitive through line for the four main characters to follow. The season thus far has had five or six stories sort of bumping up against one larger, unifying story that, for whatever reason, Pizzolatto and company were refusing to share. We needed a unifying struggle, or everything was just going to get lost in the weeds.
Second, the bloated cast of secondary characters needed to be either winnowed down or heightened to a place of resonance for the audience. The show really can’t afford to have eight or nine characters whose names we don’t know spewing exposition and delivering plot obstacles for the detectives. This follows with the first point and basically comes down to one word: simplify.
Third and perhaps most importantly, our four main characters needed to be fleshed out. Before this latest episode, all our detectives were basically the same. Brooding, somber, very, very serious. Dialogue could be given from one character to another and, I can tell you right now, I wouldn’t have noticed. These are fine actors and they deserve to work with something better than character looks at second character, this means something important.
So keeping that in mind, let’s move forward.
It’s 66 days after the shoot-out, now being called ‘The Vinci Massacre,’ that ended last weeks episode. The investigation into the death of Caspere, the man whose death triggered the events of this season, has been shut down. Velcoro (Farrell) is now working private security for Frank (Vaughn) and has gotten sober and misplaced his mustache. Bezzerides (McAdams) has been transferred to evidence locker duty after a sexual harassment complaint was filed. Woodrugh (Kitsch) has been promoted to detective and is working in the insurance fraud unit while being caught in the midst of a false sexual misconduct case. And Frank has been given the opportunity to get back into the project he helped create if he can find a missing hard drive that belonged to Caspere. State attorney Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt) has decided to re-open the investigation into Caspere’s death, bringing in Bezzerides, Woodrugh and Velcoro who will all be working under the radar, away from the prying eyes of the department. They all agree, after some hemming and hawing from Velcoro. Bezzerides makes a connection between Caspere and a stash of missing blue diamonds. Woodrugh follows up on the diamonds and discovers that Dixon, another cop in the department, had been following the detectives through the previous investigation. This leads them to believe the investigation was compromised. Bezzerides and Woodrugh follow the last known movements of Vera, the missing prostitute from earlier in the season, to a bloodied sex dungeon in the middle of the woods. And finally, Velcoro finds out that the man who raped his wife, and likely sired his son, has been put behind bars. However, this is problematic as Velcoro has already killed the man he thought raped his wife, based on a tip from Frank. The episode ends with Velcoro knocking on Frank’s door, saying quietly that they need to talk.
Easy, right? This is actually about as straight froward as the season gets plot wise. I left out some important character stuff, but this is the basic narrative thrust of this episode. This is the simplest the season has been so far.
And it’s a massive relief.
I finally get what Pizzolato was going for for the first half of the season. The main mystery of True Detective is finally, finally starting to be addressed. I didn’t even really bother to write about the central mystery of the season last week because the show didn’t really seem interested in exploring it. I now understand why he was stringing us along, allowing the characters to believe Caspere’s death was tied to the Mexican gang that was central in the shoot out last week. Our detectives needed to think the case was closed while simultaneously being in a compromised position. The mystery needed to be so byzantine that even the characters in the show didn’t really have a grip on what was going on. Now it’s clear that Caspere’s death is tied up in a corruption plot that goes all the way to the top of city government. All the dust has been blown away and now it’s up to these detectives to figure out why Caspere is dead. No more subterfuge. The real plot is out in the open. And after a frustrating first twenty minutes or so of the episode, I was actually enjoying watching the plot unfold. It just took way to long to get here.
The narrative has been streamlined and now we can finally follow the plot.
Grievance one: check.
As for the secondary cast, many of the nameless thugs and bureaucrats seemed to have drifted into the shadows and the truly important supporting players have come into sharp focus. State Attorney Katherine Davis has given our heroes a clear path to follow. Bezzerides’ former-prostitute sister will help her infiltrate a prostitution ring that Caspere help set up. Woodrugh’s mother stole $20,000 from her son in a weird oedipal plot to prevent his happiness. Everybody who’s name isn’t in the opening credits now has a clear purpose that will either further the plot, present an obstacle, or deepen the pathos of another character. Those are the only reasons to have a secondary character in the first place and now those are the only ones who are still around. No more walking exposition paragraphs.
The cast has been winnowed down to only essential personnel, allowing the viewer to concentrate on who and what is important.
Grievance two: check.
But all this aside, what’s most exciting to me about this episode is how the main character’s are being treated. The writing and direction are allowing our four protagonists to linger in moments that give glimpses into who they are beyond the tired and simple “moody anti-hero” template. Early in the episode, McAdams is allowed to relish a moment in a sexual harassment seminar where she tells a room full of men how much she loves big dicks. The scene is important as a moment of levity in a dreary world and also as a moment to show McAdams’ character actually does have a sense of humor. Taylor Kitsch, after last week’s beautiful breakdown, gets a quiet moment of desperation as he silently struggles with his choice to marry his girlfriend. The camera lingers over his strained smile as his soon-to-be mother-in-law gives him and his future wife parenting advice over dinner. Farrell is allowed to swing for the fences as he receives perhaps the most important plot point of the season so far: the fact that he has killed the wrong man. Watching his face as his entire world comes apart is devastating and Farrell deserves recognition for communicating everything with ten seconds of facial contortions. Granted, there is some rather irritating histrionics, especially between Woodrugh and his mother, a character who seems to only be there to make him miserable. And Vaughn and Kelly Reilly still struggle to illicit any sort of poignancy from their inability to conceive and Vaughn’s financial woes.
So for the most part, our main characters have begun to be delineated in interesting and nuanced ways. For the most part.
Grievance three: mostly check.
Much to my relief, basically everything the show could have done to improve on the so far dismal season has been done. Things are picking up pace and I’m actually looking forward to what the next episode has to offer. But I have to include this caveat: this was not done well. We as viewers are finally in a place we want to be, but it took a very frustrating four weeks to get us there. If your story is worth telling, it should not take you that long for your audience to be excited. I understand the desire to make a compelling mystery and the desire to make that mystery complex. But if you’re going to make a puzzle box mystery, you cannot put all your eggs into the assumption that your audience will be fascinated by your characters and story simply because you are fascinated by them. Pizzolatto has to prove to us that this is a story worth following. And after four arduous weeks, we have finally been given a reason to believe he has something worth watching.
Tags: Colin Farrell, Nic Pizzolatto, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, True Detective, true detective season 2, Vince Vaughn