Season two of “True Detective” is certainly off to a very different start than the first season. Whereas season one dealt with a pair of homicide detectives who investigated a bizarre case in a non-linear fashion, season two is (mostly) linear, and follows several different people – both cops and civilians – as their stories converge.
Let’s start with detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a former LAPD officer who now works in Vinci, a small industrial town in Los Angeles County. He drops his kid, a chubby ginger kid named Chad, off at school and tells him remain proud and strong. The kid is obviously being bullied, and since Ray and his wife are divorced, he doesn’t get to see Chad very often. In a scene clearly meant to evoke Matthew McConaughey’s character in season one, Ray appears to be giving a deposition; in reality he is meeting with an attorney about getting more visitation with his kid. We find out that roughly a decade ago, Ray’s wife Gena was beaten and raped… nine months later, Chad was born. The attorney questions Ray’s paternity; it has never been tested, and Ray doesn’t want it tested. Chad is his son, no matter what. Gena left Chad and Ray for a couple months and when she returned, she asked for a divorce. Gena’s attacker was never found, but in a flashback, we see a much younger Ray meet with a local gangster, Frank Semyon, who passes him a photo and address of Gena’s attacker. Frank “wanted to do this,” and doesn’t want anything in return. “Maybe we’ll talk some time. Maybe not.”
Ray is asked to look into the disappearance of Ben Caspere, the city manager. His assistant doesn’t know of any enemies, but he does hold the purse strings. Ray and Dixon, a fat, shlubby detective, go to Caspere’s home, a place that is surprisingly large for a bachelor on a government salary. A struggle definitely took place in Caspere’s home, and his computer is missing. The detectives also discover that Caspere had a taste for kinky sex: enormous dildos, bondage art, and all manner of sex toy are strewn about his house. Ray believes this should be treated as a kidnapping, which means its not their case.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) has moved up the gangster ranks. He runs the Vinci Gardens Casino with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), and they live in a beautiful home in the hills. He is nervous, as he has a big deal that he is hoping to close on. Frank’s consigliere, Blake, brings him the Los Angeles Times, with the first of an eight-part investigative series on Vinci being the most corrupt city in Los Angeles County. Franks tells Blake to put Ray on it – clearly, the two talk. Ray, when he is not half-assing his job as a detective, is a thug-for-hire. He waits outside the apartment of the journalist who wrote the story, and beats the hell out of him.
The big deal Frank is nervous about has to do with a $68 billion high-speed rail project that is in the works for Vinci. With Caspere missing, he is forced to pitch the investors alone. Tracts of land have already been bought adjacent to the rail line with promises of federal grants coming in. The crowd is impressed that the feds have guaranteed cost overages. However, Osip, Frank’s main investor, is getting a little wary of the project, especially since Caspere is missing. Osip promises he is just doing his due diligence, and will close when ready – he does not want to be rushed.
Ray isn’t just a thug-for-hire; he also thugs for the little guy. The little guy, in this case, is his son. He goes to school to drop off a sleeping bag for Chad’s camping trip (which, it turns out, was the week before). He flips out when he sees that Chad isn’t wearing the expensive sneakers Ray bought him. Chad is afraid to admit some kids stole them from him, but after Ray starts yelling and cursing at him, and threatens to spank him in front of the cheerleaders, Chad finally gives up the name: Aspen Conroy. “Aspen is a boy’s name?” A call in to the department yields the Conroy’s address, and Ray heads over there. He speaks to the kid’s father, promising he just wants to talk about some stolen property. The dad relents and goes to get his son. While he is gone, Ray slips on a pair of brass knuckles. When dad brings back Aspen, Ray goes into a barrage of cursing, calling the kid “evil as f*ck.” He then beats the hell out of the dad, holding Aspen so he is forced to watch. “I thought seeing people in pain got you off.” Aspen is crying at this point, and he leaves him with a final warning: lay off the bullying or Ray will “come back and buttf*ck your dad with your mom’s headless corpse.”
From there, Ray goes for a greasy dinner at the dive bar in which he first met Frank. Frank is sitting with him, and Ray delivers the journalist’s notes and computer, promising he won’t be writing that story tomorrow. Ray is drinking heavily, and Frank attempts small talk, but Ray is too drunk and too high to participate. Clearly, their positions are very different today than they were when they first met.
We have a couple more characters to meet. First is Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a sheriff’s detective with a really bad attitude. We meet her as she is kicking a man out of her apartment, uninterested in discussing the sex they had that made him nervous, and really uninterested in talking about their relationship. She is late for work, a raid on a small farmhouse that she was tipped off to being a brothel. The raid shows it is merely webcam sex shows; all legal, with all American girls. The “pimp” even has the proper business license. One of the girls, Athena, she takes outside to talk. This is her sister and Ani is mad that this “isn’t healthy.” Athena apparently has a history of sex work and mental illness – Ani asks if she is off her meds. Athena insists she is straight edge and likes the work she does. Ani is disgusted by her sister’s life choices.
Later, Ani and her partner Elvis deliver a foreclosure notice. The homeowner is angry and suggests they start looking for her 24-year-old sister, who has been missing at least a month. She tried telling the city police, but they did nothing. The sister’s roommate said she left about six weeks ago, quit her job, and left no forwarding information. The last place she worked was as a maid at the Panticapaeum Institute, a religious commune not dissimilar to the Eslan Institute, or the place where Don Draper ended up in Mad Men. Ani is familiar with this place: her father started it. Unsurprisingly, father and daughter are not on good terms. Ani tells dad that Athena is doing porn. She wants him to be angry or offended or embarrassed, but dad is very zen about it and won’t impose his will on anyone. Ani is bitter because she blames her father for her mother’s suicide. Dad offers her some zen nonsense advice, and she demands a clearer explanation. He thinks she is angry at men, has dysfunctional relationships with them, has a false sense of entitlement, and became a cop purely as an outlet for her rebellious nature.
Finally, we come to Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a CHP officer who pulls over an actress, Lacey, for reckless driving. This isn’t the first time Lacey has been in trouble: she wears a monitoring anklet and offers to take him back to her place and have sex with him if he forgets all this. We don’t know for sure if Paul goes with her or not, but he is placed on paid administrative leave while IAB investigates Lacey’s claims against him. It seems pretty clear that Paul is not at fault, though. When he goes to his girlfriend’s apartment, she can barely keep her hands off him. He insists he just needs a quick shower; instead, he hides out in the bathroom while waiting for his Viagra to kick in. Paul is ex-Army, and his body is covered in scars and burns. His girl asks him about them, but he doesn’t want to talk about them. They weren’t from his Army days; they came before. There is also mention of Black Mountain, something Paul insists was “working for America.” I assume it is some kind of morally ambiguous military project.
Paul declines spending the night with his girl in favor of “helping a friend” with a “side job.” Instead, he takes his motorcycle out on PCH, driving recklessly fast, and without a helmet. He gets up to 100 mph, he cheeks flapping in the wind, before he starts to lose control and turns off onto the shoulder.
Meanwhile, throughout the episode, we see an older man being chauffeured around town by an unseen man with a raven mask in his passenger seat. It quickly becomes clear that the man is dead, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, with sunglasses on to give him that “alive” look. It is evening before the driver arrives at the final destination and drags the dead guy out of his car. The dead guy is seated and posed at a picnic table on the same shoulder that Paul pulls on to. He sees the man and calls it in. Ani gets the call as she is being drunkenly escorted from the casino by bodyguards – this is her jurisdiction. And Ray gets the call, passed out drunk at the bar well past closing, because this was originally his case. The dead guy is Caspere, and his eyes have been burned out, as if by chemical burn.
One of the things that really seems prevalent after seeing only a single episode of season two is that there are no likable characters. They are all bad people who do bad things with bad personalities. At least in season one, detectives Cohle and Hart were likable characters who did unlikable things. Personally I have no problem with “no likable characters,” it just makes it difficult to connect, and in this case, at least two of the characters (Ani and Ray) are extremely unlikable.
As a native of Los Angeles, there is a strange sense of deja vu to this season. Los Angeles is certainly no stranger to city and police corruption, but this season is specifically based on corruption in the city of Vernon, a tiny industrial city in LA County that currently has fewer than 100 residents and massive corruption that began when the city was founded in the 1900s. Vernon has faced a cleanup in the last five years, and no longer lives under the thumb of government embezzlement and corrupt officials.
You can watch a preview for the second episode of “True Detective” Season 2 below. Titled “Night Finds You,” the episode was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Justin Lin.