Nic Pizzolatto ripped apart the conventions of the detective story and rebuilt it from the ground up with the first season of True Detective. Not only did it feature ridiculously powerful performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, but Pizzolatto’s writing sizzled with a fire that matched genre masters like Chandler, Hammett and Ellroy. The season followed two Louisana detectives, Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, tracking a killer over a two decade timeframe. Pizzolatto infused his tale with the macabre, embracing the American gothic horror and nihilism to add a texture as thick as McConaughey’s accent. It might have been a TV show but it played like one glorious, epic eight hour film.
Following up that masterpiece was never going to be easy and Pizzolatto refused to take the easy way out. He removed all the elements that made the first season a success – new cast, new location and a new story. However, he once again tore down genre conventions but this time when he constructed his tale he decided to go in a very different direction.
The central mystery at the heart of the second season of True Detective isn’t important. It might be what sets the story in motion but this is all about character. This time around we don’t have two detectives, but three:Ray Velcro, Ani Bezzerides and Paul Woodrugh (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch). The trio are investigating the death of a corrupt politician, Caspere in the fictional Californian township of Vinci. Unlike Cohle and Hart, who are interdependent on each other, the three are disparate and unable to connect on an emotional or professional level. The camaraderie of the first season has been displaced by mistrust and anger. The added element of Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, adds to the complexity of Pizzolatto’s narrative. Semyon wants to become a legitimate businessman but the death of Caspere snatches that dream away from him. In many ways he’s the only one eager to find the killer and that may actually make him the show’s True Detective.
Vinci’s close geographical proximity to Los Angeles means that Pizzolatto is able to delve deep into the seedy world of LA noir. He embraces the political aspect of the show and looks at how each character is a pawn in a much larger game. The only person who is eager to resolve the case is Semyon because of the financial implications of Caspere’s death meaning that he has had to restart his business from scratch. The purpose of this second season is to delve into the characters of Velcoro, Bezzerides, Woodrugh and Semyon. They’re all complex characters with their own personal problems. Velcoro is an alcoholic and a drug addict on the cusp of losing custody of a son who may not even be his. Bezzerides is filled with anger stemming from the death of her mother and the difficult relationship with her father and sister. Woodrugh is a closet homosexual with a pregnant girlfriend and an Oedipal relationship with his mother. Semyon is the only character with emotional stability. When the series begins he has a firm relationship with his wife (Kelly Reilly) but this begins to crumble when his financial woes return him to a life of crime. Semyon has a ‘professional’ relationship with Velcoro, who acts as a heavy for the mobster because he had previously led to to the man that potentially raped his wife and fathered the child that Velcoro brings up as his own.
As a writer, Pizzolatto weaves around the central murder focusing on the lives of the main characters. The smallness of Vinci means that he’s able to weave a lot of coincidence into the show, as the family of Bezzerides may be directly involved in the murder and the peripheral crimes of drug dealing and prostitution. At times it seems that Pizzolatto is actually disregarding the plot to focus on character but that’s not the case – he’s simply dancing around the genre conventions adding a touch of realism into the murky fictional waters. Life is without narrative and many questions go unanswered. The first four episodes build Pozzilatto’s dark world but the show literally explodes into action during the end of the show’s midpoint. The climatic shoot-out is a stylised Hollywood affair, it’s a gritty and violent sequence which sees a lot of intense and unexpected death. The violence takes its toll on Farrell and McAdams’ characters, leavening them physically shaken. This is a far cry from the glamorised take on action normally delivered by Hollywood. The only person not impacted by the shooting is Kitsch’s Woodrugh. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he finally comes alive and springs to action. He’s later described by Farrell’s Velcoro as a ‘god warrior’ and it shows that Woodrugh’s inner-rage can be focused when it needs to be.
The shadow of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown looms large over the second season of True Detective. That noir focused on the importance of water to Los Angeles, while Pizzolatto’s piece involves land. When characters drive to the dusty wilderness we don’t see beauty but a grimness as grimy as the criss-crossing freeways that cut-through each episode. These tangled masses of concrete are not only reflections of the show’s interwoven themes, but also the complexity of its characters.
At times it might seem that Pizzolatto’s writing is tired and stereotypical but these are the only concessions he makes to following the genre that he’s deconstructing. Without these, the detective elements would be barely recognisable as a ‘whodunnit’. Pizzolatto gives each of his characters the troubled genre tropes but the acting makes them very real. Look at the terror on the eyes of Farrell and McAdams after the shoot-out, the rage in Kitsch’s eyes when he realises his mother has stolen money or the pain on Farrell’s face when he realises that the man he murdered for raping his wife may have been innocent. These aren’t the performances that you would usually get in a TV crime drama.
The use of Leonard Cohen’s Nevermind during the show’s opening credits perfectly matches the pessimistic themes of Pizzolatto’s writing and each verse encapsulates the characters of the show…
Velcoro: I had to leave, my life behind, I had a name, but never mind
Bezzerides: Names so deep and names so true, they’re lost to me, and dead to you
Woodrugh: The games of luck, our soldiers played, the stones we cut, the songs we made
Semyon: Our law of peace, which understands, a husband leads, a wife commands
The second season of True Detective offers viewers something very different from the numerous other detective shows on television. Pizzolatto’s takes a dense, almost novelistic approach to the series, taking his time to create characterisation over the first half of the show before the true detecting begins. Naysayers don’t appreciate the bravery in Pizzolatto’s writing and how he’s purposely working against the genre conventions. Few would have the courage to turn their back on what made the first season so successful but the writer refuses to give audiences the hints and tip-offs that usually permeate the genre. If this season of True Detective has a downside is that it’s coming after a piece of television that was so transformative. Both seasons of True Detective shouldn’t be compared – they are different entities that just happen to be set in the same oblique world. We may not have been given the show we expected but we definitely got the one we deserved.