“Everybody gets touched.” – Jordan Seymon (True Detective season two, episode one)
There was something special about watching the first season of HBO’s runaway hit miniseries, True Detective. Each episode was covered in a thick layer of Bayou sludge, but that’s exactly what made them so exciting. Viewers had to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to truly be invested in the characters, and ultimately decide if these guys (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) were trustworthy. It’s this distinct lack of interactive camaraderie—between the show and the viewer—that makes the start of True Detective’s second season so dull, despite its lofty goals.
While the highly stylized title card and credits suggest a familial bond between the two seasons, layered portraits of brooding characters and all, that is where the similarities of the two abruptly end. Season two trades the dank and humid swamps of Louisiana in for the dust and dry heat of California, and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s sweeping tracking shots of lush southern landscapes were replaced with Justin Lin’s nighttime aerials of the urban sprawl and interlocking freeway systems of the Golden State. It’s true that both are aesthetically pleasing, but without the real earthiness and natural qualities present within the main characters, all that’s left is the cold, concrete world of Pizzolatto’s sole industrial vision, without any room for interpretation or, most importantly, criticism.
Take Ventura County Detective Antigone Bezzerides—the first major female True Detective character that does not exist solely as a love interest. Antigone is a seemingly direct, yet still slightly one-dimensional response from Pizzolatto to those who believed he used women merely as props and plot catalysts in TD’s first season. In the first couple episodes of season two, “Ani” (played by a tight-lipped Rachel McAdams) had little more than a few key scenes that dipped our toes into her shadowy backstory, which includes having a spiritual commune leader as a father, a webcam performance artist as a sister, a mother who committed suicide, and an intimidating knife collection that travels on her body at all times when she’s out in the field (“Any man lays his hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.”).
Through our brief moments with Ani, it’s revealed that she’s a loner and has deep-seated issues with sex, but we’re never given enough time to unpack those traits and decide if we care before we’re confronted with a new (male) main character and, in one instance at least, his five-to-ten minutes of exposition about why he’s here, and why the gruesome death of Vinci city manager Ben Caspere matters to his bosses (legitimate or otherwise).
The rest of True Detective’s new batch of women unfortunately have the same level of framework asMichelle Monaghan’s take on Harrelson’s not-so-doting wife within the show’s debut offering. While we do see Jordan Seymon (an undervalued Kelly Reilly)—wife of desperate Southern California gangster-turned-entrepreneur Frank Seymon (an often emotionless Vince Vaughn)—attending the business meetings with her husband and acting as a sounding board for Frank’s past traumas and fears, she offers no true value to any of these situations beyond a concerned look. Frank says she has “brains,” but from the audience’s perspective, we can’t tell that yet. Even more minimal are the hyper-sexualized characters of Ani’s aforementioned sister, the boozing starlet that frames CHP officer Paul Woodrugh (a largely forgettable Taylor Kitsch), and his kind-of girlfriend, Emily, who is always sprawled out on her bed. From the stilted dialogue and incredibly short scenes that feature these women, Pizzolatto makes it abundantly clear that this season, once again, is all about the boys.
But even when we try to focus on the showrunner’s badge-holding darlings, it’s difficult to get acclimated with, let alone become invested in, these grim cops that we’re told are troubled souls, including Raymond Velcoro (a masterful Colin Farrell)—an ultraviolent Vinci detective who’s haunted from (probably) murdering his wife’s rapist and slowly drinking himself to death, all while being in the back pocket of Frank—whose assets are all tied up in a seemingly doomed deal at the hands of a dead man with no eyes. This is especially fitting, considering the large amount of dead-eye close-ups of our four leads at the end of the season two premiere, “The Western Book of the Dead.”
Three different forms of law enforcement are thrust together to solve the murder of Caspere, but no one seems particularly invested in actually accomplishing that feat. It’s in Ray’s best interest to find out who killed the city manager and report it to Frank instead of following through on his civic duties. Ani’s just been assigned the case because she’s “reliable” and since the body was found within her county. Woodrugh is the one who actually found the corpse, but doesn’t care about the blind and castrated stiff—he just wants to get back out on the highway after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct. If the minds of our anti-heroes are elsewhere as they stare death literally in the face, why would the viewer stay transfixed on solving the mystery of Caspere’s fate?
Toward the end of “Night Finds You,” the second episode of True Detective’s sophomore season, Ani asks Ray—her new forced partner on this convoluted murder case—about his past without any fear (or emotion) in her eyes: “You want honest? Tell me, how compromised are you?” He hears her, returns her gaze, but he doesn’t respond. This should be a major moment of confrontation and either bonding or dissent within the episode. Instead we get neither, as Ray shuts the door and walks away. Ani doesn’t press him for answers and neither does the audience because we all already know for a fact that he is compromised. His soul is blemished with a large dark spot, but instead of being invested in this moment of true clarity, the audience watches passively after having been spoon-fed the plots of four very similar dark paths with no levity or texture over the course of two hour-long episodes.
No one gets dirty by hearing about hard work; therefore you can’t get the satisfaction of cleaning the mud off of your hands. Why isn’t Ani’s confrontation of Ray as powerful or as scandalous as the time-shifting lies of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart from season one? Because we weren’t assigned to this case, we were just told about it in passing.