Last night, as I watched “Maybe Tomorrow” for the second time—the first came when it was released on HBO’s preview app weeks ago—I was struck again by the power of the opening scene. And because I’m just as entrenched in the world of instant reaction as anybody else, I took to Twitter to write a note, since deleted, about how unfortunate it was that the rest of the episode suffered after such a strong start. That’s what I remembered about the ensuing 53 minutes—an underwhelming installment complete with an erratic plot, rampant cynicism and a convoluted message. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when anybody asked for my early take on the new season (reviewers were shown the first three episodes): The third episode will really let you down.
And then I watched those 53 minutes again, and saw something completely new. It felt like great television, with details and connections I’d missed the first time around, and a far more cohesive story imbued, at times, with great impact. Even the darkness that had weighed on me the first time around now seemed meaningful, and a somber kind of intelligence had replaced the vague sense that I was watching a cliche.
Now I’m a bit befuddled, and I can’t remember a show making me feel this way before. It’s a far cry from the rapturous experience of season one, but I’m slowly warming up to the idea that we’re witnessing a new kind of excellence. Even in the golden age of television, where difficult shows are allowed to flourish, I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a show whose reason for being wasn’t apparent by the third episode. Here, we might have that rare animal—a work so thematically difficult, and so committed to a strange worldview, that it requires a new kind of participation from the viewer. It would be ridiculous to compare it to a book like Ulysses, since this is still television and True Detective is still fun to watch, but maybe our usual levels of immersion aren’t adequate here. And maybe there is a rich experience waiting for those who can bring the kind of intense focus that season one pulled from us in an almost involuntary way. It’s not quite as beckoning as the world of Cohle and Hart—Pizzolatto is adamantly unafraid of playing hard-to-get this time around—but the rewards might not be as diminished as they felt on first viewing. They might not be diminished at all.
Let’s return to that first scene: A man—a garish sort of Johnny Cash/Elvis knock-off—spotlit in a dark, empty bar, crooning (read: lip-synching) Conway Twitty’s version of “The Rose” in a classic baritone, gyrating and emoting and milking every ounce of melodrama from the words. Meanwhile, in a booth to the side, Ray Velcoro sits across from his father, confused. They are in a type of purgatory, but that label would be too simple—just like it will be too simple when everyone compares this scene to Twin Peaks, or any other work by David Lynch. I don’t deny the influence, but unlike Lynchian productions, which drip with insincerity and an eerie misanthropy, there is something very earnest at work here, and it’s more than just the dream-like near-death ravings of a detective who—to everyone’s great relief—is not actually dead.
And in fact, this is an important point—not only is Ray Velcoro not dead, but that other adjective I just used, “near-death,” doesn’t apply either. In fact, he was just stunned by riot shells, and though he sustained a few cracked ribs, it wasn’t anything close to fatal. So we can forget purgatory—that’s not what Ray was experiencing in his dreams. We need to look closer, and listen to the conversation:
Father: You step out the trees…you ain’t that fast…ah, son, they kill you. They shoot you to pieces.
Son: Where is this?
Father: I don’t know. You were here first.
There is no such thing as “just a dream” in Pizzolatto’s world, and though it’s tempting to believe that Velcoro’s dream-state has gone through a sort of reality-fusion, seeing as how “The Rose” is also playing on the radio when he wakes up, the real lesson of this scene comes in a bit of philosophy we learned in season one: Time is a flat circle.
What Ray saw, in that bar, was like a premonition. The word doesn’t quite fit, though, because that prefix, “pre,” implies a sort of chronology, and what we witnessed in his interaction with his father was an example of Pizzolatto’s conception of time—it all happens at once. So what’s the true meaning of this meeting? Simple: Ray’s father is showing him how he dies—a flight through trees, a hailstorm of bullets. The place where they sit is somewhere you go after death, but Ray’s father is still alive, and that last line delivers an important message: Ray died first, and was waiting there, in that empty bar, when the father arrived.
An obvious question follows: Is this the kind of warning that can alter his fate? By the father’s tone, you would guess no; there is something resigned and weary there, and sad. It lacks the urgency of a message conveyed from the future. And the question goes deeper, into the depths of free will—even if Ray wanted to prevent his death, would it be possible? And the way this season resolves could provide an answer to that riddle, at least as it’s conceived in Pizzolatto’s mind: Can we ever, really, change our path?
Then again, it may answer nothing, because as Ray indicated quite clearly in a disastrous meeting with his doctor, there’s no clear sense of whether he really wants to save himself. His life has gone to pieces, and the specter of suicide accompanies him like a shadow, a silent companion and a constant escape valve that Ray considers with a practical, rather than philosophical, interest. He’s survived the shotgun blasts, though, and though the pseudo-near-death experience doesn’t revive him totally, there is a perceptible change in how he deals with the world.
For one thing, he refuses to drink when he meets Semyon in the same dark bar of his dreams—he wants to “stay angry.” Semyon, who has nearly lost everything and is grasping at his last bits of influence, using the figurative spit and shoe polish of physical intimidation and memories of his former power, is no less enraged, and is not impressed by Velcoro’s attitude. It leads to a verbal stand-off of such high quality that it would have stood out even in the universe of season one:
Semyon: There’s a certain stridency at work here. I’m going to put it off to you getting blasted.
Velcoro: Oh, frankly…I’m apoplectic.
Semyon: I’m feeling a little apoplectic myself.
In the staredown that follows, Vaughn manages to keep pace with Farrell—they are two furious men who don’t intend to concede an inch to the other, but finally recognize the desperation in the counterpart. Neither of them are putting on an act, and Semyon—the man with the power—finally has to give Velcoro the information he never wanted to release about his relationship with Caspere, and the land deals that fell through. The scene is a masterpiece of dramatic rhythm and confrontational psychology, and the subtle genius at work is another of those stunning elements I missed on first viewing.
It may seem as though I’m excessively focused on Velcoro in this review, but that’s for a good reason: Colin Farrell is absolutely electric in this show. He’s so good that I legitimately believe he’s cementing his place as one of the greatest actors in the world. He inhabits the lost soul of Velcoro so thoroughly, and with such intensity, that Velcoro is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic characters I’ve ever watched.
And Vince Vaughn is a close second. It’s always been somewhat incredible to me that he spent his life cast as in comedic roles, because as early as Swingers, his characters have struck me as vaguely sinister in the way they use charisma and manipulation to achieve their ends. Here, Pizzolatto seems to see to the core of his strengths—Semyon is a bully, at heart, with a deep understanding of human behavior and a keen eye for weakness. He is “street smart” personified, and watching Vaughn play a criminal backed into a corner is thrilling—you get the sense that the legitimacy Semyon strove for with the land deals was never his destiny. Instead, on the topic of fate, he belongs in the trenches, visiting old underlings to extort money from a place of no influence, or establishing his dominance in a brutal fight with a gangster who identifies that weakness and tries to exploit it. This isn’t a man who belongs at cocktail parties, or in the sterile atmosphere of a fertility clinic—he came from the gutter, and that’s where he operates best. Vaughn, with his cool sense of savagery, fits the role perfectly. (If David Simon had made a sixth season of The Wire, this is what it would have been like to watch Marlo Stanfield regain his status as the baddest man in Baltimore.)
On the other hand, Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh and Rachel McAdams’ Bezzerides never hit with quite the same impact. While Semyon and Velcoro seem like fully realized characters with compelling histories, the backstory of True Detective’s other main characters feel tacked on: One is gay, the other comes from a cult. Woodrugh’s homosexuality, hinted at from the start, feels at the moment like a giant crutch, and—not to overstate the recent progress on that front in America—maybe even feels slightly anachronistic. As for Bezzerides, I always feel like I’m waiting for something more. While Kitsch seems to be locked into a state of agony, without much room for dramatic range, McAdams is allowed a bit more leeway, and is very compelling on camera. Still, there’s a missing hook—who is this person, really? Are we supposed to content ourselves with the fact that a rough upbringing made her super-driven but also emotionally stunted, and leave it at that? Is she just someone Pizzolatto wrote because a lot of people got mad at him for not having strong females in season one, but who he failed to make an actualized human? With Woodrugh and Bezzerides, do “gay” and “shitty father” stand in for the complex backstories we see in Semyon and Velcoro? Are they stick figures?
I haven’t given up on them yet—my misconceptions about the season have taught me something, at least—but for the moment they aren’t in the same weight class.
As far as plot relative to the actual detective story, we didn’t make huge leaps and bounds last night. The lazy drunk detective is spying on Woodrugh, Caspere was involved with the entertainment industry, and the city of Vinci is scrambling to prepare themselves for an inquiry as the bosses continue to play the detectives against one another. “Maybe Tomorrow” was more about the private lives of each character—Semyon scratching back turf as his world collapses around him, Bezzerides attempting to get close to Velcoro as she weighs the pros and cons of bringing him down, and Velcoro himself gradually losing his grip on the things that matter.
At the final moment, when Velcoro saves Bezzerides from certain death, it introduces a moment of possibility—what would happen if the two become aligned? Aligned against the killer, aligned against their bosses, aligned against the encroaching corruption on ever side. It’s an intriguing possibility, and for the first time since the new season began, I can honestly say that I’m dying to see what comes next.