How does a television writer insert philosophy without the words feeling forced, or pretentious? How does a director film those scenes so that they fall within the rhythm of the action rather than stalling it completely? How does an actor sell the line to avoid sounding like the writer’s ventriloquist dummy, as though this is exactly what the character would say at that moment?
In season one, Nic Pizzolatto confined most of his overt philosophical musings to Rust Cohle, and he endowed the character with a cynical worldview—complete with a literary obsession for pessimistic thinkers. Cary Fukunaga filmed the scenes amidst the backdrop of Louisiana’s eerie southern gothic atmosphere, and set Cohle in the shadows, so that we could almost feel the demons haunting him. And Matthew McConaughey delivered the lines with a shattered intensity, selling his pain and confusion past the point of doubt, and transforming the words into a natural extension of Cohle’s suffering.
Like many great artistic achievements, the end result looked effortless, disguising the sheer difficulty of the collaboration. What they achieved, I think, is an interesting standard by which to judge the second season. Unlike that first season, Pizzolatto has spread the philosophy out among his characters, which is a risky decision because it provides more opportunity for acting failures. Additionally, there is no longer just one director, so a unity of vision is necessarily harder this time around. And unlike Cohle, none of this year’s characters are literary types, so we can’t ascribe anything they say to an intellectual background, or an earnest autodidacticism. Knowing that, season two’s characters faced a far stiffer challenge—and it wasn’t exactly easy in the first place.
So how are they doing? Let’s start with the positive—Colin Farrell, as Ray Velcoro, continues to shine. It’s very easy to believe in Velcoro as a tortured man holding on to the last shreds of hope, well past the experience of joy. He has his own kind of resilience, but mostly he’s an embodiment of the line from the famous song: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” And because this is Colin Farrell we’re talking about, there’s an element of dark humor running through his character, not dissimilar to what we saw in Cohle last year. I don’t think you can underestimate the utility of this weapon—the idea, that deep down, the character understands that life is a game, and his life in particular, despite the endless suffering, can be viewed in a certain light as a bad joke. It adds perspective, and a surprising lightness, that paradoxically gives weight to the raw pain he suffers in the worst moments.
“Down Will Come” gave us an excellent example of how Farrell uses that penumbra of humor to arm Velcoro. It came when he and Bezzerides visited her father, and he tried out a line on Velcoro, bringing up his “green and black” auras.
“You must have had hundreds of lives,” he says.
“Well,” Velcoro responds. “I don’t think I could handle another one.”
The line works because we know he’s sincere, and has become weary with the world. But at the same time, even though he’s not smiling, there’s a clear sense of humor here—an understanding that Velcoro simultaneously recognizes the bullshit coming from the mouth of the guru, but also understands himself, and the ways in which the wreckage of his life are darkly funny. It doesn’t reduce the weight on his shoulders, but it reveals an understanding that extends beyond himself, to the hopeless but still fascinating nature of existence itself.
Why is Farrell so adept at using humor to increase the gravity of his character? We could talk about technique all day, but in addition to whatever methods he employs, there is undoubtedly something inherent in the actor that allows him to access this kind of depth in front of a camera. Call it natural talent—great actors are born with an ineffable something that you’d be hard-pressed to name, and, in the end, can only approach. It’s a natural talent that lets them fit comfortably into a character’s skin, and espouse whichever worldviews a writer like Pizzolatto wants to throw at them. Like McConaughey, Farrell makes the final product looks effortless.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Vince Vaughn. He’s a different kind of actor than Farrell—a lesser one, but not a bad one by any means. In fact, when a writer allows him to work in his wheelhouse, he can be terrific. As Frank Semyon, he’s wonderful when asked to play a calculating gangster, and the sinister moments he delivers when backed into a corner are exhilarating and terrifying. That’s what Vaughn does well—he’s great at playing a bully, and a manipulator of people; someone who uses his natural charisma to exploit the weakness of others, while insinuating himself into their lives to the point that he gains the power to destroy them. As a charming sadist, Semyon is a smashing success.
As a philosopher, though, what started out as serviceable in the “rats in the cellar” scene became excruciating in last night’s episode.
“Right now there’s so many things for me to go about the wrong way, I’m losing my fucking vision,” he says to his wife in the opening scene, and the effect is off-putting at best.
“I don’t do somebody else’s time,” he continues, on the subject of adoption. “You don’t take on somebody else’s grief. I mean, they all come in with their own. Don’t you and I and every other hapless monkey on the planet?”
It’s hard to describe how effortful and forced those lines felt, and the most I can say is that it made me feel frustrated at Pizzolatto for making Vaughn chew this verbal fat, and frustrated at the director, Jeremy Podeswa, for letting the camera hit Vaughn so directly, and putting a spotlight on an excruciating philosophical melodrama. Those lines lasted maybe 20 seconds in total, but I believe that most TV viewers—especially those watching shows like True Detective—are keenly aware of emotional falsity. When the character drops away and we see an actor merely parroting the words of a writer, we know it intuitively, and it ruins the mood and takes us out of the story. As with everything, the creation of an engrossing work of art takes immense effort, but the destruction of that atmosphere can be accomplished in a thoughtless moment.
It happened again with Rachel McAdams, when she visited her sister to speak about her mother.
“The big dresses,” she says, remember her mother at the beach. “I lost her in the light. Light off the water. Those moments, they stare back at you. You don’t remember them. They remember you. Turn around, there they are. Staring. Maybe I could get one back.”
McAdams is a strong actor, but this is a bridge too far even for her. Looking at those lines, I can’t imagine that they’d feel less than overwrought for anyone—it reads like mediocre poetry to me, and I doubt even Farrell could pull it off. Then again, if I read that passage in a book it might be effective. In his novel Galveston, Pizzolatto was able to pull off these types of ruminations without violating the aesthetic of the story. (In fact, it helped build that aesthetic.) Here, though, it destroys it utterly—watching McAdams deliver the lines was purely painful, and added nothing to her character, since we already knew she was sad. Imagine if an indie musician covered a superficial pop song, but totally without irony, and you’ll have an idea of the awful sincerity Pizzolatto forced McAdams to bring to the scene.
As with Vaughn, I don’t think it’s her fault. Bezzerides has been a semi-decent character, and McAdams is the best part of the equation. She brings a smirking type of swagger to the detective—the physical manifestation of a resolute decision to hide the pain of her upbringing and its deleterious lingering effects (we learned more about the extent of her gambling problem last night) behind a facade of aggressive stubbornness. You can’t blame McAdams for the fact that she’s the least-served of any actor by the writing. Her backstory, her motivations, and her development are cloudy at best, and the fog isn’t the kind that makes you lean in and search for answers, as we saw with Cohle, but the kind that makes you think the writer hasn’t finished his own search.
When I think of Bezzerides, I keep going back to the irrational criticism Pizzolatto took from the Internet reactionaries who didn’t like his female characters in season one, and I wonder if he wrote Bezzerides in his own reactionary moment, in act that was equal parts capitulation and defiance. And I wonder further if he’s not very adept at writing women—I thought the sexual harassment exchange between Bezzerides and her boss was a tacked-on bit of amateur gender philosophizing—and if he should have thumbed his nose at the critics rather than altering his approach in an attempt to prove something. But that’s just a guess, and I don’t pretend to know what’s happening in Pizzolatto’s head. What I do know is that Bezzerides has been a wasted opportunity, and the writing is not up to the actor’s talent.
At this point, I’ve devoted a lot of time to a collection of scenes that may have amounted to three minutes of an hour-long show. What I would argue, along the lines of the world-destroying theory above, is that these small failures and successes influence how a viewer will experience the really big moments. Which us brings us to the gunfight. After watching the shootout twice, I’m not sure if I feel it was powerful and justified, or like a Grand Theft Auto rampage I once watched a friend play out in college, where the endless civilian death was nothing more than some kind of massacre porn with little emotional impact. As an answer to last season’s mind-blowing continuous shot orchestrated by Fukunaga, also in the fourth episode of the season, it felt very flat, and it was probably a bad idea to follow the rhythm of that infamous scene so directly and thereby invite the comparison. But as a standalone scene, it wasn’t awful, and I wonder how I might have felt without the philosophical failures that came before.
Philosophy aside, the show’s plot is beginning to hit its stride. Velcoro, Woodrugh, and Bezzerides are clearly being set up as scapegoats in a shakedown happening far above their heads, and will have to become a seal-tight unit to survive. Somebody—probably Chessani—is setting them up not just to fail, but to die, and those forces don’t even value men like the dissolute informant Detective Dixon, who is thrown into the same maelstrom as the rest, and comes away with a bullet in his head. This is a cold, ruthless world when compared to the bayous of Louisiana, where at least the evil was being perpetrated in the name of some bizarre religion. Here, we see only the cold results of capitalism and greed, and the rampant amorality leaves a harsh aftertaste.
In that sense, it’s a naked look at America, and a bold one. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is still one of the most interesting shows on television, and I’ll be here for the resolution. But the special feeling many of us associate with season one came about because of the controlled way the entire True Detective team deployed philosophy. They reined in the writer’s worst impulses, and the impact, when it came, was precise and devastating. This time, left to his own devices and with the kind of individual mandate you rarely see in television, Pizzolatto has made use of his full philosophical arsenal. It’s still effective when it hits, but too often, it works like a grenade that he drops at his own feet.