True Detective's second season is two things: depressing and confusing.
If it were a video game, its difficulty would be set to hard. Or extra-hard. Or double-extra-super-pro-n0-n00bz-allowed-hardcore-xtreme.
Its morose density isn't necessarily bad thing. It's just challenging, emotionally and cognitively. I was reminded of that on Sunday, when I watched the second episode and realized that I was woefully underprepared. So I went back to the season opener. And now I'm taking you with me.
True Detective's second season premiere demands your attention and concentration to a far greater extent than even the philosophically heavy first season. This year, the anthology series is blazing a different path than its predecessor.
The show's creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, eased viewers into the mysterious world of True Detective's first season with a mystery on top of which the lives of exactly two main characters layered, deeper with every episode. Pizzolatto is still at the helm, but he's taking a different approach.
He isn't easing anybody into anything. He's throwing viewers into the deep end and forcing us to sink or swim on our own as we flail to learn about four main characters.
It's a lot to absorb, in other words.
So before it's too late — before we all get too deep and too confused — were going to take a step back, examine each of the characters and recap the first episode in exquisite detail. There's no other way to keep it all straight.
We have to meet and understand the characters before we can understand anything else about this show. Here's a brief overview of each.
A drunk, a father and a detective in the Vinci, California Police Department. He's out of control. More than a decade ago, his wife was beaten and raped. Nine months later, she had a child. Ray's son looks about as much like him as Ron Howard looks like Charles Barkley. As far as law enforcement is concerned, the rapist was never officially caught. But Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) found out who it was, told Ray, and they took care of him. Ray has been entwined with Frank ever since.
A career criminal who looks like a businessman, his focus is on securing investors for a high-speed rail project set to begin construction next year. He's securing funds in partnership with Ben Caspere, the Vinci, California city planner. He has an office at the Vinci Gardens Casino, where the investor-focused fundraiser takes place. A decade ago, he helped Ray Velcoro find his wife's rapist and, apparently, dispose of the body.
A detective in the Ventura County Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigation Division, seemingly devoid of any emotion other than anger. She has a father, whose into "hippie shit" as she calls it and runs or speaks at a commune. She also has sister, Athena. We met Athena when Ani and her law enforcement partner, Elvis, burst into a house where Athena and several others were doing webcam porn. Her mother is dead, possibly drowned. Ani is divorced, according to her father.
A California Highway Patrolman who, in the first episode, gets suspended with pay after pulling over a woman who offers a sexual favor in lieu of a ticket. A couple of offhand comments indicate that he worked with a private military contractor, Black Mountain Security, presumably in Afghanistan or Iraq. He has burn marks across much of his upper body.
The city planner and apparent partner of Frank Semyon. He's referenced many times in the first episode but he doesn't have a speaking role. He's missing. When Ray Velcoro and his partner, Teague Dixon, visit his house, they find all manner of sexual paraphernalia. Caspere becomes the glue that binds four distinct characters when he shows up dead at the end of the first episode. His eyes were burned out with acid. We learn — and see — in the second episode that his genitals were shot off, too.
Before we discuss an episode, we should look at what starts them: the title sequence. It weighs in at 90 seconds, and, like the first season's, contains a montage of abstract images, silhouettes and still-frame character shots.
Behind it all, a raspy Leonard Cohen sings "Nevermind," a song that appears on his 2014 album Popular Problems. It was first published as a poem on The Leonard Cohen Files website in 2006 and the following year in Book of Longing, a collection of Cohen's poetry.
It's chopped up in True Detective's second season title sequence, but here are the stanzas that made the cut:
The war was lost
The treaty signed
I was not caught
I crossed the line
I was not caught
Though many tried
I live among you Well disguised
I had to leave
My life behind
I dug some graves
You’ll never find
The story’s told
With facts and lies
I had a name
I had to leave my life behind
The story's told
With facts and lies
You own the world
My woman's here
My children, too
Their graves are safe
From ghosts like you
In places deep
With roots entwined
I live the life I left behind
The war was lost
The treaty signed
I was not caught
I crossed the line
I was not caught
Though many tried
I live among you
The song's steady 4/4 pattern carries viewers through the minute and a half as images of this season's main characters appear in various degrees of legibility. They're superimposed and interspersed with images of industrial parks, radio towers, California desert, palm trees, highways, satellite images of farmland, helicopter shots of residential neighborhoods. Red, the color of blood, is the primary hue.
It doesn't tell a story, exactly, but it establishes a location and sets a tone. Its title card, though, might be the most direct visual metaphor.
The show's name superimposed over a rat's nest of cloverleaf onramps and offramps implies much, but perhaps nothing as strong as intersection. If you think of us as viewers, the people behind the camera at any given moment, peering into this world, this shot sums up our role perfectly. We watch from above and outside as the characters travel and intersect.
The challenge within the first episode is that it is nearly an hour's worth of dense exposition presented at a steady clip. It's backstory. It's characters being established and built in front of you. The plot is barely moving. We're just learning gobs of information in scene after seemingly unrelated scene.
So, given that we're going to go through the episode, person by person, event by event. There's a lot to take. We'll talk it out.
The first episode's title alludes to the Book of the Dead, an ancient collection of Egyptian texts designed to assist the deceased on the journey through the afterlife. It is not, to be clear, an actual book. The collection's medium spans from wall engravings to papyrus and encompasses illustrations, spells and other religious texts. It tells the story beginning with the deceased entering a tomb, its descent into the underworld, an explanation of the gods' origins, the deceased's journey, judgment and, ultimately, transfiguration to godhood.
Its relationship to True Detective's second season is allegorical. There is, of course, a dead man, and the second season begins with a chronicle of what happens around and after his death. The second season is, itself, a journey.
That journey is told thorough the lives of four characters. Rather than telling them sequentially, it feels like creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto wrote the story beats out on individual pieces of paper, shuffled them like a deck of cards and stuck with the order that emerged. It's an interesting Citizen Kane-like way to tell a story, but it's also confusing. To combat the confusion, we'll break "The Western Book of the Dead" into sections divided by characters.
"The Western Book of the Dead" begins with Detective Ray Velcoro, who's dropping his son Chad off at school. The two look nothing alike. Chad doesn't want to go. Ray tries to cheer him up by asking if he likes his new shoes. That gets a little smile. He tells his son to keep his head up and be strong. He says he loves him. His son, worried, doesn't respond.
Ray meets with a lawyer to discuss the possibility of expanding his visitation rights. This is as close a scene as we get to True Detective's first season, at least from the camera's perspective. Ray sits at the end of a table, wearing a bolo tie, sporting a most of a tough guy's handlebar mustache. The camera sits on the opposite end.
The meeting brings the painfully obvious into question: Are we sure that Chad is Ray's son, biologically speaking? It's a question Ray doesn't want answered. Chad is his son, and that's all there is to it, as far as he's concerned. But the truth is more complicated. Ray's ex-wife was beaten and raped nine months before Chad was born. How's their relationship? Good, he says. They exchange messages on voice recorders. He slides wads of cash across the table, says the lawyer should just figure something out. Is there anything else the attorney should know, she asks? "No," Ray says, "I welcome judgment."
"Maybe we'll talk sometime. Maybe not."
That leads into the episode's only flashback, a scene set a dozen years ago where Ray meets Frank, who says he can name the rapist. The perpetrator bragged about it. Frank's people heard. "This is only information, man," Frank says. "Shit in the air. I'm sharing with you. I wanted to do this, and now it's done. That's it." What does he want in return? Nothing. "Maybe we'll talk sometime," Frank says. "Maybe not." Ray walks out.
Back in the present, Frank is nervous, getting dressed for something big. He hasn't slept. We meet his wife, Jordan, who calms him. At Frank's office in the Vinci Gardens Casino, his right-hand man hands him a copy of The Los Angeles Times, opened to an article called "City of Vice: Is Vinci the Most Corrupt District in L.A. County?" Frank tells his underling/henchman, Blake Churchman, to have Frank Velcoro (Farrell) learn what he can about the reporter who wrote it.
Then comes a short, strange, unexplained scene in which a big, old, burgundy Cadillac pulls out of a house in broad daylight and drives down Highway 101. A raven's head mask sits in the passenger seat. In the back is an older man wearing sunglasses, motionless.
We meet Sheriff's Detective Ani Bezzerides just after she's been intimate — or attempted to be intimate — with her apparent boyfriend. He's all apologetic for … something that isn't quite clear but that happened when they were intimate. She's not really upset. She's indifferent. She apparently has no emotions. At the very least, she's not into the guy she's sleeping with. He wants to talk about taking the relationship to the next level. You're a nice guy, she says, but this ain't the time.
In the next scene, Ani and her partner, Elvis Ilinca, lead a raid on a house in which women are making pornographic webcam videos. Here, she finds here sister, Athena, who is not ashamed. Ani is furious.
Ray Velcoro sits in a chair while the chief of police discusses the LA Times article, which talks about "municipal salaries, undocumented workers, pollution, policing practices." They transition immediately to news that the Vinci city manager, Ben Caspere, has disappeared. It's a missing person's case, the Chief and a Lieutenant say. Velcoro's on the case, and he's been assigned partner, Teague Dixon. Ray ain't happy.
California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh is riding his motorcycle on the highway. A red Mercedes pulls onto the road at a crazy speed, crosses the center line. Woodrugh pulls the car over, suspecting the young blond inside of a DUI. She's wearing an ankle bracelet. She's clearly drunk or high. "Look," she says, "maybe you could just escort me home. And we can talk … or do something? Trade, like." She smiles, bites her lip. Woodrugh looks on, stone-faced.
"Look, maybe you could just escort me home. And we can talk … or do something? Trade, like."
It's not clear whether Patrolman Woodrugh took her up on her offer, but in the next scene, we learn that Woodrugh gets suspended — put on paid administrative leave — because of the incident. The woman he pulled over, the actress Lacey Lindel, says that Woodrugh solicited oral sex. He seems horrified at the idea of a forced vacation, even though his boss frames it as such and tells him it'll all blow over. "I like the bike, sir," he tells his boss. "The highway. It suits me. I am no good on the sidelines." He mentions something unexplained, unprovoked, as he leaves the room. "Black Mountain. We were working for America." Sounds like maybe civilian contractors in Afghanistan or Iraq.
There's a party in the Vinci Gardens Casino ballroom, and the establishing shot centers on a large poster advertising the California Central Rail Corridor. Frank and his wife Jordan are in attendance, drinking champagne among the formally dressed attendees. The mayor, Austin Chessani, is there, as is his young wife. He's pissed about the LA Times story. Let them write all the stories they want, he says, but after the "contracts come through." Frank downplays it, saying it won't be a problem. (Remember from earlier that he's having Ray Velcoro look into it.) Jordan, Frank's wife, plays diplomat to diffuse the rising tension. The angry, drunk mayor walks away, and Franks lifts his glass to toast an unnamed man in the distance.
This is when Frank finds out that Ben Caspere, the city planner, hasn't been to work in two days. Caspere was supposed to make the railway pitch at the party.
Velcoro and his forced partner Dixon visit city planner Ben Caspere's office and speak to his secretary. She's new. She doesn't know him very well. Does Caspere have any enemies? Not exactly, she says. "Mr. Casper sort of holds the purse strings for a lot of stuff. A lot of people have to go through him."
"Hey, you see that, too, right?"
Velcoro and Dixon visit Caspere's home, and Velcoro picks the lock on the door to get in. Here's the very first impression we get, without a word: A large bowl of what look likes milk sits in the middle of a glass coffee table. Inside, a Barbie doll-sized nude Asian model floats, breasts exposed. "Hey," Velcoro says to Dixon. "You see that, too, right?" The place is a mess, in the way that movies and TV shows tell you bad guys have been here looking for something. Picture someone with a knife cutting through pillows. "Now we got us something something," Velcoro says. In Caspere's bedroom, at the foot of the bed, there is a small chest full of sex toys. The shot's maybe a second long. You could miss it. It is important. There's a painting of an orgy on the wall, phallic statues in his office. The only obvious thing we know is missing from the house is his computer, which Dixon points out.
Based on what he hears and sees, Velcoro assumes two things: The city manager's been kidnapped, and his bosses already know that. "Teague, we don't belong on this," he says.
Meanwhile, back at the Vinci Gardens Casino party for the proposed railway, Osip Agranov arrives and greets Frank warmly. Agranov appears to be a Russian mobster. He's there with his attorney, Michael Bugulari. "This man in the 90s," the Russian says about Frank to no one in particular, smiling. "What a terror. The good life suits you." Frank seems furious.
It seems like Frank's trying to go straight — or has been for some time. Once again, Jordan steps in to play diplomat and ease the tension. Agranov introduces Bugulari to Frank, says they didn't meet in Paris, though we don't know when that was or why they were there. They have a stare down. Jordan escorts the visitors to meet others in attendance, like contractors.
The old, burgundy Cadillac returns. The car hits a bump on the highway, and the passenger in the back seat slumps against the window. He looks like he's passed out. Or worse.
Back at the party, Frank, alone, pitches the group on the $68 billion high-speed rail project that would begin construction next year. Anticipating the project, several holding companies have already purchased land adjacent to the proposed railway, and they're expecting hundreds of millions in federal grants. The Feds, he says, have guaranteed cost overages, news that causes an excited murmur in the crowd. One man, the person Frank tipped cheers to across the room earlier, looks unimpressed.
Ani Bezzerides and her partner serve a notice of foreclosure to an upset mortgage holder, Danielle Delvayo. She mentions, in disgust, that her younger sister has been missing for at least a month, after last being seen at some sort of religious community. "Panticapaeum?" Ani asks. Yes.
Ani and her partner visit Panticapaeum, which turns out to be something like a commune. Ani watches a gray-hared man lecture to a group of devotees. He quotes Ginsberg, speaks of "the final age of man." They catch each other's eyes. Ani walks away. The episode smash cuts to Ani quizzing a couple waitresses about the foreclosed woman's sister. They say she left for a better paying job a couple months ago.
Police are taking photos at the city planner's wrecked house.
"When you see only with God's eyes, you see only the truth. And you recognize a meaningless universe. Ginsberg said this to me once, and it was a gift. So, today's exercise is to recognize the world as meaningless and to understand that God did not create a meaningless world. Hold both thoughts as irrefutable and equal. Because this is how we must live now, in the final age of man." — Eliot, Ani's father'
Velcoro tugs from a small bottle of bourbon while sitting in his car outside of an apartment building. He's visibly upset, huffing. He's tracked down the LA Times senior staff writer, Dan Howser, who drives up to his apartment in a crappy old hatchback. Ray puts on gloves and a mask, follows Howser up to his apartment, kicks in his door and beats the living hell out of him. This, remember, is Frank's bidding.
We're back at Panticapaeum. Ani is quizzing the teacher, a man in his late 50s with a short beard and long, gray hair past his shoulders. He tells her that he might recognize the foreclosed woman's sister, but just from seeing her around, nothing more. This is Ani's father. They don't get along. They argue. Eliot defends Ani's sister, Athena. "Athena, the goddess of love," he says, bemused. "She's doing porn," Ani says. "Well, what exactly is porn?" he says. Ani is the precise opposite of her father. And her sister. They argue. "You're angry at the entire world for something you never received," he says. She leaves angry.
Drunk and with blood on his sleeve, Ray walks through a parking lot with a sleeping bag under his arm. He's at his son's school. So is his son's stepfather, Richard. The sleeping bag is a gift for a camping trip that the stepdad says was last weekend. Ray notices that his son isn't wearing the new shoes he referenced in the first scene. He demands to know what happened, screams and threatens his son until he gives up the name of the bully. The bully's name is Aspen Conroy.
In the next scene, Ray is talking into his voice recorder to his son while sitting in his car. "Totally my fault," he says. Also that he used to want to be an astronaut, "but astronauts don't even go to the moon anymore." The dispatcher comes on the radio, says she has the address for Conroy that he requested. He appears to be smoking a joint.
She and her partner drive down the highway. Elvis tries to sympathize. She says don't talk about her family.
In the next scene, she's getting dressed in the police department's woman's locker room. Alone.
Woodrugh, the highway patrolman, arrives at his girlfriend's apartment. She's in the mood for love. He begs off, says he wants to shower first. Won't take five minutes. He takes a Viagra and a shower. He emerges from the bathroom half an hour later, wrapped only in a towel. He's full of scars. They start fooling around. He doesn't look the least bit happy. He doesn't tell her about his day.
Frank is pitching directly to Agranov, who's not exactly on board. It's cool, they explain. There's precedent with the subway system. Money flows through holding companies — all sorts of weird, quasi-legal, probably illegal stuff. "This goes beyond us," Frank says. "A legitimate legacy. A chance for the grandkids to be part of one of those old California companies, don't even remember where the money comes from." Frank asks everyone else in the room to leave. Frank thought Osip was here to close the deal. He tells Frank not to rush him, says he looks forward to meeting Caspere and leaves the room. Frank utters the missing man's name, throws his glass against the wall, shattering it.
Ray is at the Conroys' house, where the kid who took his son's shoes lives. He's talking to the father on the front stoop. Says he wants to talk about some stolen property. Bring your son out, Frank says, and we can do this off the books. He slips on a pair of brass knuckles and beats the living hell out of the father in front of the son. He makes the son watch, threatens to come back if he ever bullies anyone again.
It's the Cadillac again, with the older dude slumped against the window. It's night now. The car pulls off to the side of the road. The driver gets out, drags the man's body from the car. As the driver drags the man in the sunglasses across the dirt, the latter's legs do not move. Rigor mortis.
Paul and his girlfriend lie in bed. She asks about the scar on his shoulder. She thinks it's from when he was in the army. "It's not from the army," he says. "It's from before, a long time ago." He gets out of bed, says he's taken a side-job and has to go. Turns out he never spends the night, and she doesn't like this. His life is messed up, he says. He needs to work. She says come back to bed. He kisses her and leaves.
Now he's driving his motorcycle down the highway.
In a dimly lit bar where a woman plays guitar and sings "This is my least-favorite life, the one where you fly and I don't," Ray sits at a booth in a bar, smoking, drinking.
Frank is there, too, sitting across from him. It's been a bad day for everybody.
Ray passes the LA Times reporter's files and laptop across the table, says he won't be writing that series about corruption anymore. Frank gives Ray an envelope, presumably in payment. They drink, pouring from the same bottle on the table. Frank asks about Ray's son and the lawyer. Ray is getting super drunk.
A waitress with a pronounced scar brings a beer to the table, kind of flirts with Ray and ignores Frank. Seeing anyone? "Nah," Ray says. "Not interested in anything like that anymore." Frank's advice: "A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies." Says he and his wife are trying to have kids, trying in vitro fertilization.
Smash cut to the singer, singing "This is my least-favorite life."
Frank's assistant comes to the table, says Jordan (Frank's wife) has their friends (whoever they are) at the Soho Bar (whatever that is, wherever that is). Frank leaves, puts his hand on Ray's shoulder. "Take care, Raymond. Talk soon." They aren't even looking at each other. Frank's guy tries to take the bottle from the table. Ray stops him. He leaves it and Frank pours himself another double, about the fifth since the scene began. He stares into the distance.
Ani sits, drinking, playing blackjack. Orders another drink.
"This is my least-favorite life," the singer sings. "The one where I'm out of my mind. The one where you're just out of reach. The one where I stay. And you fly. And I'm wondering in the shade. And the rustle of falling leaves. A bird on the edge of a blade."
He speeds down the highway on his motorcycle. He turns off the headlight at some point after exceeding 100 mph, as if he has a death wish. He changes his mind, turns the light back on, and pulls off to a rest area on the side of the road, shuts off the engine. "Stop it, you motherfucker," he says to himself. He looks up. There's an older man sitting at a picnic bench in the darkness. "Sir?" No response. He eases the man's sunglasses down. Then back up. Sees a wallet on the man's left thigh. Opens it carefully. It's the city manager, Ben Caspere. He's dead. "Fuck," Paul says as he calls 911.
Two waitresses clean at the bar. Ray is where we last left him, passed out. The waitress with the scar who flirted with Ray earlier tells the other waitress to keep quiet and let him rest. He's snoring softly.
She leaves the casino, still drinking as she walks out the door. She gives the bouncers escorting her out the finger, throws her cup at them a few adult words and then walks to her car. Her phone rings. She answers. It's her partner, Elvis.
His phone vibrates and wakes him from sleep. He answers. Someone on the other end of the line says Frank needs to get on the Pacific Coast Highway and drive to to Point Mugu. Use the sirens. Why? "They found Ben Caspere," the voice says.
Ani, Elvis and Paul are standing around Caspere's body. Someone from the Ventura County medical examiner's office is explaining the situation. Caspere's eyes have been burned out by acid. Some entity called Catalyst Group maintains this part of the highway. He doesn't know when he died but "bled out somewhere else. Severe pelvic wound."
Ray pulls up, late, smoking, chewing gum. Introduces himself. "This man's a missing person with us," he says. They all introduce themselves. Size each other up. Everybody gives everybody else the side-eye. They're all miserable in their own weird ways.
The episode ends.
That's the story, beat-by-beat. Ray's beholden to Frank. Frank's beholden to the very dead Caspere and his investors. Ani is lost and angry, at war with her family. Paul is lost and alone.
That's it, but True Detective's second season carries a weight far heavier than those four factual but understated sentences could possibly explain.
The first time I watched the first episode, it seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time developing characters and barely nudging the story forward. Its breakneck pace confused me. Going back, slowly, helped.
It remains to be seen whether True Detective's second outing will be able to recapture the magic of the first season. I suspect, however, that everything that happens for the next seven episodes is bound to flow from what we saw here. Hence, the arguably excruciating detail. And if the magic does return, it will only do so because we viewers put the time and effort to truly understand these poor, unfortunate souls whose paths collided in a freeway rest stop, huddled around a cold, dead body.