True Detective season 2 premiere recap/ review
The Western Book of the Dead
All recaps have blatant spoilers as they recapture the plot.
Now that HBO’s cornerstone program, “Game of Thrones,” has ended for 2015, their next most-popular show, “True Detective,” begins its second season a year-and-a-half after debuting in January 2014 to critical and audience acclaim. Viewers immediately connected with the flawed, complex leads and winding plot that danced between past and present. Academy Award-winner Matthew McConaughey starred as the pensive, brilliant, and ultimately jaded detective who often thought aloud about existential topics as Woody Harrelson offset his co-lead’s intensity with a cheating family man digging himself into deeper trouble. Although the payoff concerning the Yellow King didn’t equate to the mid-season finale that featured a continuous six-minute closing shot, the overall mystery narrative stuck with viewers as much as the compelling character arcs. Going into its second season, creator/ writer Nic Pizzolatto had a daunting task to match the alluring darkness of the first. Nobody wants a rehash, but viewers always want some air of familiarity. For example, FX uses new, single-season plotlines for their popular show “American Horror Story”—each season is a different story but carries the same amount of grotesque, terrifying shock value.
There are a lot of changes to the framework of “True Detective’s” second season. Instead of following the past & present partnership between two flawed detectives and the case they never solved, Pizzolatto presents four main characters thrust together: three vessels of law enforcement (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch) and a career criminal (Vince Vaughn) making a play to go legitimate. It should be noted, however, that viewers quickly learn of the past association between Farrell’s cop and Vaughn’s organized criminal. The setting changes from the swampy Louisiana bayou to sunny southern California, but with a seedy, film noir twist. The rhythms stay the same despite the expanded leads and relocation. Although Vaughn plays a career criminal, the three investigators on the newest “True Detective” case carry their guilt around with transparency as if they’re more ashamed of their past than the outright mobster. Imagine a deeply psychological Elmore Leonard story and you have the character dynamic—a healthy respect between both sides of the law.
After thematic opening credits reminiscent of last season’s titles, director Justin Lin (Fast Five, Fast and Furious 6) opens on a field populated with red ribbons tied around stakes in the ground. Lin then takes us to Farrell’s (Total Recall, Minority Report) Ray Velcoro at a school, dropping off his son, Chad, at a junior high school. Chad has a melancholy look on his face, dreading another day of social awkwardness and bullies. Velcoro half-heartedly tries to cheer up his son, but the man looks even more defeated than the boy—as if he doesn’t even believe the “encouraging” words coming out of his own mouth. He tells him that the boy’s mom and her new partner will pick him up after school. It would appear that Ray really only just had the weekend with Chad before dropping him off for classes. As Chad walks into school, Ray sees his son walk by a few boys who bully him for seemingly no good reason at all. Lin stays with Ray for the next scene when the detective pays his lawyer a visit. The scene begins in media res with Ray answering the lawyer’s questions about Chad. It sounds like Chad may have actually been the child resulting from the rape of Ray’s now ex-wife. Ray optimistically states that they “think” she may have been pregnant before the attack, but can’t definitively say as they never had a paternity test taken as Chad was born nine months following the rape. “They never caught the man who did it, correct?” his lawyer asks. He agrees but asserts that Chad is his son no matter what a blood test reads—he’s been around for the boy more than the mother has. Velcoro can’t really come up with much more to say, prompting him to fumble through his jacket pocket and produce a wad of cash for the attorney. She then asks if any history on the police force will come back to haunt him in court, “No, I welcome judgment,” he says without flinching.
Lin keeps with Ray for a third consecutive scene, this time in a flashback. A younger, clean-cut Ray arrives in a little dive joint wearing his police uniform. He approaches a man (Vaughn—Wedding Crashers, Unfinished Business) sipping coffee out of a mug at the bar. “Deputy Velcoro, right?” the man asks. The man knows something about the recent rape (we’re flashing back in time) of Ray’s wife and has information regarding the suspect/ perpetrator’s whereabouts. This coffee-sipping man understands that sometimes people aren’t on the same side for business reasons, but what happened to Ray’s wife goes beyond that understanding. The officer approaches the counter to retrieve a photo and address from the mysterious coffee drinker. The man says the suspect is a drug addict—not one of “his” people. The man further states that the suspect bragged about an attack that matched Ray’s wife’s account of the rape. The fact that this mystery man knows her account upsets Ray, but the man continues, saying, “I wanted to do this. Now it’s done—that’s it.” The cop asks what the man wants in return, but he doesn’t want a thing. However, the man also reserves the right to maybe call the cop one day. Vaughn’s mysterious character asks if his wife is “doing any better.” Ray doesn’t respond and keeps walking out of the bar. It looks like Ray found an unlikely criminal ally a long time ago that could come back to bite him in court. Perhaps he won’t welcome such a judgment.
The scene closes on the man sipping his coffee, transitioning back to the future where the man sips coffee outdoors before dawn, on the lawn of a sprawling, modern, ranch-style estate. He checks himself in the mirror before dressing—does he notice any age? His robed wife (Kelly Reilly—Sherlock Holmes, Flight)greets him as he affixes his cufflinks. She asks if he slept last night—he didn’t. “Big day. All the marbles,” he says. She helps him with the cufflinks as he asks a few nervous questions running around his head. “Don’t put on airs, you’re not like them,” she advises. The next shot establishes the water tower for the fictional city of Vinci, California. California residents may recognize the exterior shots as Vernon, California—an industrial city much like the way Vinci is presented. The camera dives inside the Vinci Casino where people gamble and dealers divvy cards and chips. Vaughn’s mysterious character runs this casino from an overlooking office. It seems like none of his business partners arrived for their meeting, probably due to an eight-part series (raspberry) about Vinci corruption in the local periodical. While everyone in the room tries to calm him, the casino runner wants Velcoro to handle it. Hmmm...
An aging man sits in the backseat of a car with a stuffed bird as the vehicle takes off across the southern California highway. Lin elects not to follow this up in the next scene, jumping to a house, instead. A couple comes walking out of the bedroom after one of them ruined a sexual experience for the other. They don’t get into the details, but only the male participant wants to discuss what just happened whereas the female (McAdams—Wedding Crashers, Midnight in Paris) wants to forget about it and move on without speaking. The guy, Steve, wants to take things forward, but she reiterates that now is not the time for such a conversation. She coldly tells him to gather his things because she has to “get going” to work. Lin then jumps to an orchard with a two-story compound for a residence. McAdams’ character is one of several police raiding the compound; her vest reads “SHERIFF” across the back. She asks if one of the men inside is “running hookers,” and instead the raid only turns up a bunch of cam girls who all claim—in English—to be US citizens. She interrogates the man some more, but stops when she recognizes one of the girls that the police file out of the house. McAdams begins the conversation in the orchard, confessing that she ran the operation because she heard a rumor. She shames her sister for doing “porn” despite what the sister defines as pornography—saying that cam girls are “performers.” They have a fight about what is “healthy” and “right.” Her sister claims to be “straight edge” and “clean,” prompting the cop to direct her sister back to drugs to get her away from the sex industry. Talk about terrible advice. Another officer approaches McAdams after her sister points out that she’s transferring her issues. They got nothing; the suspect in the house even produced a business license.
Lin again shows several quick, wide shots of industry before resting the lens on Ray again. Ray exits his house, which is right beside Vinci City Hall, and notices a ticket on his vehicle as he walks next door to City Hall. A few cops talk to Ray about the newspaper series that had Vaughn’s mysterious casino owner upset earlier in the episode. Ray asks about subpoenas, but the other detectives want him to investigate a missing city manager. They assign a partner to Velcoro and send him off for the city manager’s office to investigate. After a few coastal shots, we follow a highway patrolman, Woodrugh (Kitsch—John Carter, Savages), who pulls over a pretty, young woman with an ankle bracelet who can’t afford another blemish on her record. She then offers “a trade” if he will “escort” her back home without ticketing her. Before we see the rest of this encounter, Lin jumps to Woodrugh’s department where he learns that he’s going on paid leave “just until I.A. finishes” because the woman he pulled over was an actress. Even though he followed the letter of the law and she ignored it at many avenues, Paul Woodrugh looks to be the fall man in another case of misplaced celebrity privilege. “The highway—it suits me. I’m no good on the sidelines,” Tim says to plead a case for himself. When Paul exits, a few officers tease him as he walks by them.
After more aerial shots of California industry, Lin checks in on Vaughn’s character. He and his wife rub elbows at a social gathering, they even speak with the mayor, who’s not really concerned about what the newspaper says as long as federal funding comes through for whatever project they’re there to introduce. Vaughn assures the man that the newspapers have been handled. His wife leads the mayor to some food before he acknowledges a well-dressed stranger at the bar. One of his associates then informs that the city manager, the man set to give the presentation in the next few minutes, has gone missing. A lot of people want this city manager today. Lin jumps back to Velcoro and his assigned partner, Teague (W. Earl Brown—Wild, The Sessions), interviewing the city manager’s, Ben Caspere, office assistant. She tells them he was a bachelor that didn’t often travel. After requesting a list of his properties, Ray and Teague visit Caspere’s residence where they immediately walk into signs of a violent struggle all over the house. They walk around the crime scene covered in erotic art and Ray determines they’re on to something. Teague (or Det. Dixon) notices that Caspere’s computer is missing as Ray notices a map on the computer desk. Velcoro, as lead investigator, wants to call tech in to swab for prints—anything—however, Dixon thinks they should “let the bosses know first.” Velcoro submits they already may before suggesting that it looks like a kidnapping. “We don’t belong in this.”
The camera returns to Vaughn’s presentation. A Russian mobster emerges to embrace the man he calls Francis (Frank) Semyon—Vaughn. They have a history together that Frank would prefer to acknowledge elsewhere. Frank’s wife, Jordan, leads the mobster’s entourage away and into the party. Lin jumps away quickly to show some aerial shots of California countryside and settles on the car from earlier ferrying the old man and the stuffed bird. The vehicle heads around a bend in the road, causing the man to shift and lay his head on the window—he’s been killed since we last checked in with him. Another quick cutaway takes us to McAdams’ cop and her partner delivering a bank foreclosure to a residence. The matriarch of the home isn’t too pleased, saying the police should spend their resources to find her missing sister. For a foreclosed home of an impoverished family, they aren’t doing poorly in the television and video games front. Before cutting to yet more industrial aerial shots, McAdams gets a lead on the missing person from her sister—her last place of work was a religious institution. At the presentation, we join Frank trying his best to fill in for Caspere. Construction is set to begin on a $68 billion dollar project to build a superhighway across California. He adds, “The feds have guaranteed cost overages.” This statement sparks a minor stir in the crowd, impressing many potential investors. The constant aerial shots don’t create a mood or an atmosphere like what Fukunaga did last year. It just feels like Justin Lin was trying to copy the director’s style to keep an overwhelming sense of continuity.
McAdams’ and her partner arrive at the religious institution from their lead. Hippies populate the area walking and meditating. She stops at a room to listen to a man (David Morse—The Green Mile, “Treme”)presumably teaching some sort of spiritual awareness class. They ask a few maids some questions but it doesn’t amount to much. Lin gives us a few quick shots of investigators at Caspere’s house before landing on Ray drinking liquor in his vehicle—psyching himself up for the job Frank mentioned earlier. He reads the street but the only real threat of a witness is the crack addict currently partaking just around the dumpster. He witnesses the journalist pull in, dons a ski-mask, and breaks into the man’s apartment to complete the task Frank wanted. Lin doesn’t capture the violence, but rather lets the exterior camera allude to what’s going on inside. After this, we check back in with McAdams walking and talking with the teacher from earlier—he recognizes the missing person but not much beyond that. They pause by a totem pole where he says that his involvement has declined by the year and how he often wonders of her (his daughter, Antigone or Ani). He’s more at peace with her sister, Athena’s, decision to “perform” online. This is certainly a Greek family as both sisters have Greek names, their surname is Bezzerides, and the compound is called “Panticapaeum” (written in Parthenon font). She then tries to engage him in an argument, but this enlightened hippie is every step ahead before a disagreement can begin. She walks away, instructing him to talk to and help his daughter; however, he says he “just did.”
Lin returns to Velcoro, seemingly the main protagonist as far as “The Western Book of the Dead” goes. He hurries to catch up with his son after school to drop off a gift of a sleeping bag for his camping trip. However, Chad’s stepfather, Richard, interjects and reminds Ray that the trip was last week and that it didn’t turn out so well. Then Ray notices Chad isn’t wearing the new shoes he got him which came up in their first scene together. Richard picks up that Ray’s been drinking and notices blood on Ray’s sleeve as Ray presses his son for answers about the missing shoes. This corrupted officer loves his son (biological or not) and it would seem like every terrible sin he’s committed has happened in the name of family. A fine line Walter H. White treaded on “Breaking Bad” before he tipped the scale toward full megalomania at the end. For all of his despicable flaws, Farrell creates a complex, layered cop who is nothing but crooked and compelling. Chad hesitates to speak, prompting Ray to violently grab his shoulder and demand to know what happened. “This isn’t good for him!” The stepdad tries to interfere as he notices others noticing the spectacle, but Ray brushes him off to grill Chad. Richard then explains that some boys cut them up to bully the kid. Ray asks for a name from Chad, calls him a despicable name, then threatens to spank him “right in front of the cheerleading squad” if he can’t produce a name for his father. “Aspen Conroy!” Chad shouts before his father reaches his three count. Chad runs away and Richard corrects Ray for his hostility before we jump ahead in time to Ray recording an apology for his son into a digital recorder while parked at a cul-de-sac. He also tangents about childhood being “scary” and his childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut, “…but astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.” A call from dispatch comes in and Ray gets the address for “that Conroy place” he presumably asked about during the time jump. More violence ahead in his day?
Lin then checks back with Ani and her driving partner on the road. Roads and transportation play a big part of this second season: Frank’s presentation covered a multi-billion dollar presentation regarding highway construction, Woodrugh works as a highway patrolman (however suspended), plus director Lin has experience with the Fast and Furious franchise and adds his knack for cinematic photography inside a vehicle. Didn’t we just catch up with Ray inside of his parked vehicle for the second time this episode? Her partner brings up her father to break the silence, but she quickly shuts that down, too. “Don’t talk about my family.” The director then takes us inside a police locker room where we catch a glimpse of Ani’s routine, which includes hiding a combat knife in her combat boots. When she closes a door, another one opens to take the viewer to Woodrugh entering his girlfriend’s bedroom. It’s been over a week since they saw each other and she’s very thrilled to entertain his company. He enters the bathroom to shower and later looks at some ugly shoulder scars in the bathroom mirror, then pops a little, blue pill before checking his watch and sitting on the toilet lid. A time jump takes us thirty minutes ahead in time despite promising her the shower would only take five. He has some erectile dysfunction. She then sexually engages him but the expression on his face remains in a sad, stoic manner. A clean cut takes the camera to Frank and the Russian mobster, Osip. “Caspere’s absence don’t mean a thing,” he assures the mobster. Frank reveals his plan to get the fed money through their holding companies and set up through catalysts. “This goes beyond us—a legitimate legacy,” Frank says. The Russian would prefer to speak about it over a meal, which leads Frank to excusing the entire room to have a one-on-one. “I thought we already had an agreement, Osip.” The gangster describes an old series of checks and balances on behalf of his organization and will close on the deal when he pleases. “I look forward to meeting Caspere,” Osip says as he leaves the room with a grin. Frank isn’t as upbeat, to say the least.
Lin then makes good on the Conroy promise from before as Ray knocks on the Conroys’ door looking to speak to Aspen. He starts out aggressive when Aspen appears. Aspen’s father tries to interject, but Ray has a fistful of brass knuckles for him and closes the front door to make the son watch his father get beaten within an inch of life in retaliation for bullying Chad. Before he departs, Ray threatens the untouched Aspen in a most terrifying, disgusting fashion to prevent future bullying. The camera again checks in with the vehicle ferrying the dead body with the stuffed bird. It’s still tooling along the highway deep into the dark night and pulls into an open roadside area. The driver—we only see him or her from the knee-down—drags the corpse from the vehicle as Lin fades back to Woodrugh, who can’t sleep. He has to leave to help on a fake case he makes up as an excuse to keep awake and ride. His girlfriend wants him to stay over just one night, but what more can she do? Lin keeps with the insomniac officer as he speeds along the dark highway. 73 mph, 74, 75, and accelerating before transitioning to more aerial industrial shots and settling on the dive bar from Ray’s flashback. This isn’t a flashback and Ray smokes a cigarette in Frank’s company.
A folk singer on the bar stage plays a beautiful, sad, winding tune that plays over the intercut sequences of Woodrugh speeding as Ray and Frank unwind over a drink. The mobster can’t wait to become a legitimate businessman as the detective devolves deeper into criminality. I predict Ray will ultimately have to give up any remaining credibility in order to make Frank a clean man and won’t be able to stop a damn thing without sacrificing something. The crooked cop turns over the journalist’s laptop and paper files, assuring the mobster the journalist won’t dig up anymore dirt. “I asked him how long he thought it took Stephen Hawking to type a piece of investigative journalism.” They share a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, but Ray refuses to savor it. Swallowing shot after shot to forget about the day. Frank asks about the lawyer he set Ray up with, and the cop isn’t too optimistic. Before Semyon departs, he advises Velcoro to find a good woman to curb his “baser instincts.” Frank thanks Ray for a good job with “the thing” as Ani Bezzerides gambles and Paul Woodrugh hits speeds over 100 mph on his motorcycling daring to race into the darkness before surrendering and coming to rest at a roadside area where his headlights illuminate the corpse dragged from the car from just a few scenes ago. He investigates the body, finding the wallet and ID conveniently under a hand on the lap. Paul calls 911 as the camera moves over Ray passed out in Semyon’s bar and Ani getting booted from the casino and getting a call. A phone call wakes up Ray, who joins Ani and Paul at the crime scene in Ventura to investigate the murder of Ben Caspere. The camera pans over each cop looking at each other before it zooms away to an exterior shot revealing the sun rising over the Pacific on the other side of the mountain roadside area.
Just like last year, Pizzolatto packs so much philosophy and suspense into a slow-burning hour of quality television. The flashbacks only demonstrate the relationship between characters as opposed to being a part of the overall plot like in Fukunaga’s first season episodes. A touch more of originality and a few longer, suspenseful shots with a rewarding payoff will send this season into true “True Detective” mode. Despite the expansion in leads, it feels like the dynamic of Rust and Marty has been sacrificed for a culmination of damaged, flawed individuals who have a more of a respective stake in the murder of Ben Caspere than any one of them might expect. Except Frank—he seems to know exactly how screwed he is without the city manager. Oh man, I wish I could binge all eight episodes of this show.