The Louisiana bayou of True Detective’s first season was a wet, fecund, thriving place where evil seemed to grow from the soil in a way that was both primordial and inevitable. Just like the Childress family, it was tangled up in the history of the environment, and seemed to stretch back centuries, millennia, and perhaps all the way to the pervasive darkness engulfing the stars in the sky. It was so thick and so deep that you could only eradicate the menace where it poked its ugly head above the swamps, but you could never find the roots.
In the second season, there is an acute aesthetic difference, and it comes from the fact that the evil feels very new, and very opportunistic. This is not the mystic Creole voodoo of the ancient bayou, and this is not even the glistening opportunistic evil of California cast as a national land of opportunity. This is an industrial hellscape, and the evil that exists here is the kind that occupies the void after a very human failure. It’s a darkness that has patiently waited to seep into the cracks, filling the vacuum of morality inch by inch where greed and passivity have left the doors ajar.
If the message at the end of season one, despite the early nihilism of Cohle, was that goodness is a newborn force that is slowly chipping away at inhumanity and terror in our universe, the message here seems to be exactly the opposite: Finally the best laid plans of well-intentioned people fall short, and that’s when the inevitable black winds come sweeping in to destroy it all—a purging force that leaves in its place a world where only malice can thrive.
The texture of this season is clear—it’s the American dream rotting out at its core. And what better staging ground for that immorality play than California, the state that symbolizes hope and glamour and beauty and wealth?
In the second episode, “Night Finds You,” we learn up top that Pizzolatto has not stopped considering the mystery of time—or at least exploring the possibility that it is not quite as straightforward as we believe, watching the seconds and minutes and hours and days tick by. Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn—who, by the way, is better in the role than anyone expected—considers a water stain on his ceiling, and it brings him back to a horrifying time in his childhood when his father kept him locked in a basement for days after getting arrested on a drunken binge. The horrors mount—the food runs out, the light bulb dies, the rats emerge. Today, Semyon wonders if he’s still somehow in that basement—if the eventual return of his father, and the rest of his life since, has all been imaginary, and he’s still la little boy stuck in a locked room.
Do you recognize those last two words, by the way? Maybe this quote rings a bell: “To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream—a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person.”
But unlike Cohle, the thought doesn’t simply depress Seymon—it spurs him to action. When city manager Ben Caspere dies, tortured and murdered, he goes out with $5 million of Semyon’s money. It represents his life’s work—he mortgaged everything he had to buy parcels of land from a company called Catalyst, and that land, via federal grants, would have yielded an enormous profit. But it turns out that Caspere never finalized the purchase, and now Semyon is left with nothing—no land, and no money. Which, of course, leaves him in danger of losing the rest, from a poker room that yields important bribes to the Vinci mayor to his house to—we can read between the lines—his life.
“Am I diminished?” he asks himself, and the answer is obvious. But Semyon is not a man who calmly accepts fate, and his only choice is to become proactive and revert to his gangster roots in an attempt to right the ship, recover his money, and renew his stake in the land.
Meanwhile, the Caspere investigation continues, and it’s possible to see this episode as character building for our three protagonists. Each of them is a pawn—there’s a neat moment up top where all three have meetings with their bosses, who set their agendas in no uncertain terms. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is in bed with the corrupt power base in Vinci, and his only job is to obfuscate—there is no real mandate to solve the crime, only to protect the corrupt city interest and deliver an easy resolution with “no surprises.” Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is not only tasked with identifying the murderer, but also with working against Velcoro to help the state in its investigation into Vinci. Finally, Woodrugh has a chance to save his career with the state, but they also align him against Vinci.
In fact, Vinci has a lot of enemies—as the worst air polluter in the state and a hotbed of nightmarish industry producing tons of toxic waste, it comes under constant attack, and survives only by virtue of the money it can produce, which buys off cops and attorneys and produces courtroom wins against the EPA. The people who live and work there are little more than ignorant prisoners—”vaya! peligro!” Velcoro shouts at a group of children playing near what looks like a river of toxic sludge, but their only response is to give him the finger.
Not that Velcoro’s life is much better. He has ruined his relationship with his son, and now he’s on the verge of losing custody. Things have turned so dark that even Semyon’s lifelong blackmail—he gave Velcoro the man who raped his wife, and the ensuing murder is held over his head—no longer registers. Instead, he’s legitimately considering suicide, an idea that infuriates a fighter like Semyon.
Bezzerides, tough and unflappable, has her own backstory. Her old man was a hippie guru, and she grew up fending for herself in a cult-like environment. Of the five children to grow up there, she points out to a psychologist she interviews about Caspere—a man who looks like a slimmer, creepier version of Benedict Cumberbatch—two killed themselves, two are in jail, and the fifth, Bezzerides herself, is a detective. There is a darkness at her core, and as she watches pornography in a hotel room late in the episode, it’s not clear if she’s simply following up on the events of the first episode, or if there’s a grim pleasure in it for her.
As for Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), the one time he attempts to make conversation with somebody or establish even a faint hit of a connection, it comes in a brief aside to the alcoholic schlub Teague Dixon, his new partner, to whom he tells a story about “some fag” hitting on him in a bank. “I almost knocked him out,” Woodrugh says, but Dixon—a very Pizzolatto-an take on an lazy cop, considering his deep strains of cynicism, intelligence and meanness that run alongside the incompetence—isn’t buying it. If we operate under the assumption that there are no throwaway lines in this world, then this is a clear example of foreshadowing, rather than an attempt to characterize Woodrugh as a bigot. Otherwise, we see the strange dynamic between him and his mother, and a failing relationship with a girlfriend. “I’m not doing this,” he insists as they fall apart, desperately trying to deny the unavoidable truth that our lives are largely scripted by what we don’t do—inaction is just as powerful as action.
The three of them chip away at the mystery of Caspere, but the biggest coup comes from Semyon himself, who provides an address to Velcoro that the city manager had used for his sexual encounters. In following this lead, Velcoro makes himself vulnerable, and suffers the ambiguous setback at the conclusion—a cliffhanger that will reveal itself next week either as a misdirection, or a very unexpected early twist.
Through it all, the visions these characters experience are of concrete and suffering and pessimism—that last word, in fact, has replaced nihilism as the operating philosophy behind the show. There are moments of humor—Velcoro gets all the best lines, from comparing vaping to “sucking a robot’s dick” and quipping that he supports feminism “mostly by having body-image issues”—but these are even rarer than in the rather somber first season. And the thematic line comes when Bezzerides, in vaguer terms, asks Velcoro how he lives with himself as an apparatchik of the state’s most corrupt city: “My strong suspicion is…we get the world we deserve.”
Pizzolatto’s achievement, thus far, has been to create a worldview more impermeable than even the bleak outlook espoused by Rust Cohle. The pleasure of this series will be in watching how hope blooms between the cracks in the cement—or whether anything blooms at all.