Season Two of ‘True Detective’ Needs More of the Surreal

Is decoding director Justin Lin's second season of True Detective important, or just thought candy for TV snobs?

Director Justin Lin fixates on roads, highways and interstates throughout the first two chapters of the second season of True Detective. He uses them as ligaments to connect the series together, splicing a few seconds of roadways between shifts in story lines. Yet the only street name he shows to the viewer is for Mulholland Drive, an Easter egg reference to David Lynch’s classic 2001 movie Mulholland Dr., which itself was originally intended to be a TV series.

There are several parallels between True Detective and Mulholland Dr. Both the series and the movie overlay images in silhouettes and use ghostly images of the main characters in their opening credits. The second episode of True Detective‘s second season, “Night Finds You”, opens with Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon recounting a childhood drama, and concludes with another nod to Mulholland Dr. Semyon considers that he could have died there, and that his current life is a dream, “something’s telling me to wake up, like I’m not real, I’m only dreaming.” Later on, there is a scene where the three different interests — the city, county and state — discuss the creation of a task force. This scene is staged very similarly to a scene in Mulholland Dr. At this point, there is no way to tell if there are going to be some additional linkages to the movie, or if it was just Lin injecting thought candy for film geeks.

We get introduced to four main characters of True Detective‘s second season in the first episode; in episode two, it is now it is time to put the players into action. Lin and writer Nic Pizzolatto spend the most of the first half of the episode laying out Semyon’s motivation. It seems that the murdered man was his partner. He died holding five million of Semyon’s money. Lin explains this narrative in excruciating detail, up to having Vaughn tell a colleague that both of his properties are double mortgaged. It is strange and out of character with the tone of the series to have this detail just blurted out, a deliciously enticing detail though it is.

Semyon’s desperation could be a great character arc. Some of the most fascinating character studies in movies have used the figure of “the criminal in way over his head”. In John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), Bob Hoskins’s portrayal of Harold Shand, a small time London hood who does not understand that the IRA does not play by the same rules as the mob, is absolutely riveting. So too is Al Pacino’s turn as Tony Montana, a mob boss who ends up on the losing end of a drug war, in Oliver Stone’s remake of Scarface (1983). Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for his turn as Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt cop, trying desperately to save himself in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001).

So far, this potential is not fully realized. In a few scenes, Semyon comes off as too clever by half. This goes against what made Vaughn’s portrayal so captivating in the first episode. Semyon does seem to right himself by the end of the episode, when he meets up with Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro. Velcoro suggests that he wants out. Semyon makes it clear that leaving is not an option. Playing the character in a taciturn fashion with an affable persona as a guise for a psychotically ruthless personality, Vaughn echoes Giancarlo Esposito’s portrayal of meth kingpin Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013). Even with the missteps, the potential of marrying Fring with Shand, Montana or Harris is enough to entice. The question is: can Lin, Pizzolatto, and Vaughn deliver?

This scene ends with Semyon leaving a few hundred on the table. A waitress comes over and the two talk for a bit. Velcoro leaves the money on the table; when pointed out to him, he responds, “That’s not my money”, thus ending the episode’s character arc for Velcoro.

Farrell does his best selling the character’s reformation. There are little external forces to prompt Farrell’s Velcoro’s reform. At one point, his ex-wife Gena Brune, played by Abigail Spencer, informs him that she is pursuing sole custody of their son. This could be a wake-up call; although Velcoro’s narcissistic response offers no clue of any self-actualization. In the first episode we learn that Velcoro is corrupt, sadistic, alcoholic, and embittered. Lin expects to believe that the man who is sleepwalking his way through life can turn into an honest cop. While possible, usually a conversion comes with some epiphany, and the closest he comes to a moment of self-realization is earlier in the episode, when he is flipped off by a few youths. He turns and says, “Yeah, fuck me”. Hardly the kind of personal revelation that will lead to a personal metamorphosis.

Lin underlines another cultural reference about halfway through the episode that ties together the two other leads. Rachel McAdam’s Ani Bezzerides’ full first name is Antigone. Antigone was the daughter of Jocasta and her son King Oedipus. Oedipus was the king who murdered his father and then married his mother. Her plight was famously staged in her eponymous play, the last of Greek playwright Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy. Antigone is condemned for trying to give a proper funeral and burial for her fallen brother Polyneices. Perhaps this details foreshadows one of the other officer’s deaths, as well as her ultimate fall.

The Oedipal reference also resonates with Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, and adds into this a backstory where he comes from a dysfunctional family. Earlier, we are introduced to his mother, played by Lolita Davidovich. Holding a drink and cigarette in her left hand, rubbing her son’s head with the other, Cynthia Woodrugh replies to being called mom, “Don’t give me that Mom shit; it’s too late for us to start all that now.” Throughout the scene, she caresses him, licks salt off the lip of her margarita, and belittles any women who had a relationship with him.

Lin and Pizzolatto include several details about the character suggesting he is a repressed homosexual male. In the first episode, Woodrugh slips into the bathroom to take a Viagra before making love to his girlfriend. Early in the second, he goes into an out-of-character homophobic rant. Near the end of the episode, we see him standing on a hotel balcony looking down at the city streets. When Lin turns the point of view to his point of view, we see him tracking two men wearing white wings and tight shorts, holding hands and skipping down the street. He then turns to watch a male prostitute get out of a car and wait for his next trick. All of the details Lin gives us about Woodrugh suggest at he is a room filled with gas, just waiting for the slightest spark to ignite.

Near the end of the episode, there is a reveal. We see the killer, who during the kill wears a ceremonial black headdress. In the first episode, it was sitting in the passenger seat of the killer’s car as they drove around. This seems like a clear nod to the Maltese Falcon (1941). That movie ends with Humphrey Bogart defining the object, the Maltese Falcon as “The stuff dreams are made of.” In True Detective, when we find out the killer wears a mask for his murders, we can speculate that any of the three male leads could be the killer. Such a fact would be highly surreal, but not impossible.

At this point, True Detective plays a little too conventionally; however, a little touch of the surreal and the impossible would be a good thing.