It was fun, for a moment, to imagine that True Detective was going to do the truly unexpected in its second season by killing its most interesting character in the second episode. It wouldn’t be unprecedented – Hitchcock did it to Janet Leigh in Psycho 55 years ago – but it would be highly unusual.
It didn’t take a genius to guess that Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro was going to survive that pair of shotgun blasts to the torso, but even the most skeptical TV fan wouldn’t have imagined that he would wake up not even bleeding, get up and call himself an ambulance, and be back out there trying to solve his own attempted murder – chasing dudes over fences and across highways – in the very next episode. They didn’t even bother with the old “actually I was wearing a bulletproof vest” or “he just got me in the shoulder” – they just decided that, in the True Detective universe, buckshot is pretty much the same as a BB gun.
Ordinarily it’s the kind of plot point that would draw a lusty cry of “BS!” and popcorn thrown at the screen. But here it somehow worked, because it’s serving as Detective Volcoro’s wake-up call. He’s now very interested in solving this case, he’s not so interested in doing Frank Semyon’s bidding, and he’ll do anything, including drink plain water, to get the job done. If this season turns out to be about the redemption of Ray Velcoro, I can think of worse ways to spend eight hours.
Elsewhere in the episode we got confirmation that Woodrugh has some skeletons in his sexual closet he’d just as soon forget, in the person of his old buddy from Afghanistan. He also took a couple of rides with Bezzerides, and was able to generate a little more chemistry than Velcoro by saying what everyone watching this show is thinking about her e-cigarette. Bezzerides, meanwhile, has been directed by the Sheriff’s office to nail Velcoro for his various corruptions, even if she has to use her feminine wiles to do it, even as the debauched mayor of Vinci, outraged by Bezzerides’ unannounced visit to his home, issues a fatwa on her.
The case is gradually getting more personal for each of the cops, but other than Velcoro, none of them has as much on the line as Frank Semyon, who’s lost $10 million – his life’s work – and resorts to tapping some of his old revenue streams, hitting up an old construction partner for monthly “protection” payments and getting his hands dirty in a way he clearly hoped never to do again in getting Old Grillface (the guy he sold his club to) and his other associates on the same page in terms of figuring out who took his money and killed Caspere.
This was clearly the best episode of the first three, as all the throat-clearing is out of the way and the plot is clear enough that they can start throwing curveballs, which is where Nic Pizzolatto and True Detective excels.
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix liked the choice to keep Velcoro alive:
We’ll see what our killer is ultimately up to, and why he would have let Ray Velcoro live — having hit him with a non-lethal shotgun round — but that image of him in the bird mask is more compelling than any of Frank’s monologues have been. And Ray’s brief stay in Limbo — where he and his cop father (played wonderfully by Fred Ward) are serenaded by a Conway Twitty impersonator singing Twitty’s version of “The Rose” — was a marvel, whether you want to catalog it as metaphysical or just view it as a dream (that song is, after all, playing on the radio in Caspere’s apartment when Ray wakes up). The grief-stricken, uniformed version of Ray’s dad doesn’t quite match with the bitter retiree he visits later, but it’s not hard to view this as Ray’s idealized version of the old man: still on the job, and still caring about his son’s well-being. So much of this season has involved well-worn devices that have maybe outlived their usefulness; here, the strange atmosphere, the song and the stakes all added up to something that felt like more than the sum of its parts. That opening sequence, and the episode that followed, were directed by award-winning Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen. He’s an unlikely choice, but he brings more visual flair to “Maybe Tomorrow” than Justin Lin did to the season’s opening chapters. And while Ray’s survival — coming out of the incident with little more than a literally aching heart — could feel like a cheat after the way last week’s episode ended, the notion of him as a dead man walking finally pulls him out of the wallow he was in for the previous two episodes. He’s not a barrel of laughs (though he does call Ani “Xena” at one point), but the near-death experience forces him to reexamine his whole tortured life in a way has more promise for the rest of the season than seeing him stay on the previous path would have.
Salon’s Sonia Sariya finds Velcoro’s survival a little too pat, and looks to the smaller supporting characters for life:
There are a few exceptional details, though. If I can locate what interested me most about this episode, it comes down to a handful of moments. James Frain as the corrupt Vinci official hassling Ani’s crime scene. Paul and his buddy from the war, swaggering exaggeratedly outside the arena, the macho posturing of two men with too much to prove. (Later, an “American Sniper” billboard looms large above Paul as he questions sex workers.) Frank’s wife Jordan, played by Kelly Reilly, throwing the plastic sperm cup at his head, adding, “Suck your own d–k,” which matched up with Ani asking the man she was breaking up with to be “a little mature.” The guy in Frank’s club giving information to Paul about the circuit of sex workers ushered from place to place, before hurriedly adding: “I wouldn’t talk to any of them. You’d just get them in trouble.” These brief moments and skipped scenes and slight glimpses are all we get of the other story of “True Detective,” the story of the other people in this world. Jordan, Ray’s ex-wife Gena, the women who are exploited, the dissipate starlet who accused Paul of taking advantage of her state, the one who Ani refers to as “loaded”: They made a chord of dissonance, a chorus of frustration running against the prevailing melody of “Maybe Tomorrow.” They are almost all nameless—it’s hard to pinpoint Jordan’s or Gena’s names in the narrative; the prostitutes are interchangeable; the starlet is just referred to as a “chick.” And yet the palpable vexations and tensions of all these women, as well as the undeniable presence of e-cig-toting Ani, says to me that “True Detective” has no illusions about its men and its concerns. (As the bright-eyed male prostitute Paul gets information from concludes, this show is rollin’ “angsty cop drama.”)
Chris Ryan of Grantland pinpoints David Lynch as a central inspiration for the season:
True Detective needs the signifiers of our world, but not the rules. It needs the corruption, the graft, the institutions, the laws, and the crime, but that’s it. Characters on this show don’t talk like us, and they don’t act like us. They are of this world but not in this world. This is “Los Angeles,” not Los Angeles. Once you accept this, True Detective becomes a different kind of show, and it makes a certain kind of sense. Last season, the unreliability of our two main narrators was established through a series of backward-looking interviews. Memory and self-perception were adversaries to the truth, and Cary Fukunaga and Adam Arkapaw’s camera worked to create a world that existed largely in the minds of two storytellers — Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. In the absence of the singular vision of Fukanaga and the interview gimmick, the show’s directors (so far, Justin Lin for the first two episodes and Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen for Episode 3) have turned, consciously or not, to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a central text. Lynch’s 2001 film looked at Los Angeles — from the Hollywood Hills mansions to the sun-baked parking lots outside of doughnut shops — and saw a city that could contain infinite possibilities, horrors, timelines, and realities. Nic Pizzolatto’s story is following suit. Those overhead shots of freeway interchanges are overused and serve mostly to transition from one scene to another, but when viewed as part of the dizzying narrative that is being assembled, they make sense. These roads are Carrie Mathison’s or Lester Freamon’s cork boards — they indicate the interconnectedness of the evil that lurks in the light. Think about how many different faceless organizations, departments, and corporations we have been introduced to in just three episodes: holding companies like Catalyst and Porpoise; security companies like the one Paul Woodrugh worked for in the desert; all the various arms of the law — Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, the state attorney general’s office, Vinci P.D. And then there’s the underworld — the various dark forces controlling everything from prostitution to construction. They build your house and tell you who you can sleep with inside of it. Ever so slowly — I would argue a little too slowly — a picture is being drawn: a conspiracy of entities, civic and criminal, involved in the assembly of the California dream (the high-speed rail line through Central California) and the facilitation of its underbelly. The murder of Vinci city manager Ben Caspere — killed in the Hollywood apartment rented for him by the shadowy Catalyst — threatens to unravel this conspiracy. Ironically, the three cops charged with solving the case are also — knowingly or not — supposed to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson thinks the show might be setting up a fictionalized version of the very real secret society known as Bohemian Grove as the season’s Big Bad:
If we were to pinpoint one theme the series seems to be hitting pretty hard this year it would be frustrated masculinity: from Frank Semyon’s impotence and possible infertility, to Paul Woodrugh’s self-hatred surrounding his homosexuality, to Ray Velcoro’s utter failure as a father and husband, to the penis envy on Ani Bezzerides (what, you missed the part where she said she armed herself with knives to be more like one of the guys?). And if you want to look at bastions or frustrated masculinity, look no further than the Bohemian Grove. Though there have been four honorary female members in the group’s history (including the club’s librarian!), no woman has ever been given full membership to the Bohemian Club. Women are allowed as daytime guests of the Grove, but they’re not allowed to the upper floors of the City Club nor are they allowed to attend the main summer encampment at the Grove. The Bohos were sued in 1979 for not hiring women and the case went all the way to the California Supreme Court who ruled, in 1986, that they would have to start hiring women at the Grove. In short, the Bohemian Grove is the very definition of the old boys’ club. How clever, then, if Nic Pizzolatto were to use this location to address the male-driven sins he was accused of indulging last year. It’s clear from a few rocky lines of dialogue that Pizzolatto is trying to directly address the gender criticisms from Season 1. Could striking at the heart of a fictional Bohemian Grove be the ultimate way to show his critics, once and for all, which side of the gender war he fights for? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for certain: this isn’t the last we’ve heard from the mysterious goings-on in Northern California.
And Jeremy Egner of the New York Times has some ideas about who’s under the bird mask:
We perhaps, got some further insight into who the birdman might be or might be working for, based on the fact that he let Ray live. I’m no Columbo (loved that scene), but here are a few candidates: Lt. Burris — There’s something off about this guy, right? He even has a raptor-esque face, speaking of birdmen. He appeared to be the first one on the scene and he’s also, obviously, a cop. (Remember Ray talked about the ammo being shells “like cops use.”) Burris is also aggressively steering Ray toward a pimp or some other perpetrator related to Caspere’s perversities, discouraging deeper investigation. I could see him being involved, perhaps in league with … The Mayor — We saw his bloodthirsty side on Sunday when he learned that Ani visited his house. I don’t think he’d do any actual killing himself but could he be using henchmen to consolidate his power? Or working with someone like Osip — who seems almost too obvious as a suspect — to force Frank out? Whatever he may be up to, he would have to know a dead cop would draw more scrutiny from the state authorities. A turncoat in Frank’s camp — We saw what little respect Frank’s criminal cohorts have for him these days, and who, besides his own people, would realize how much money he’d given to Caspere? Now another of Frank’s associates has been murdered and his enterprise continues to crumble. But why would one of Frank’s guys spare Ray? Because they think he’s a burnout who will bag the case after a good scare? A spray-tanned Rick Springfield — Not actually a suspect. I just hope he comes back.