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Frank Semyon: "You bang down my door for a staring contest?"

True Detective: Season Two

Nic Pizzolatto’s second effort stands tall among competing shows if only to the shoulder of its predecessor. The action is exciting; the dialogue is mad but fun; whiskey, guns and cigarettes will always be cool; and, arguably because it is hard to follow, you never know where it’s going to go.

It is a typical hardboiled setup – a murky Californian underworld presided over by a corrupt police department – with a murder mystery at its centre.

The murderee, Ben Caspar, was a sex mad city manager, attendee of Eyes Wide Shut kinds of parties, and associate of crime boss Francis “Frank” Semyon.

Semyon is overplayed by Vince Vaughn, although given some of the clunkers he has to deliver, he does well to keep a straight face. Semyon: “Behold what was once a man.”

In season one, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) had some out there lines – “I can smell the psychosphere.” – but they worked because of the dynamic he had with Woody Harrelson’s straight man, Martin Hart, who would pull a face. Two employs no such device. Pizzolatto’s characters wax lyrical like it’s normal. And, though season one has by far the better lines, herein lie the clunkers of two. Though, as I said, the hardboiled dialogue is fun and the season is stylistically less real anyway.

For example, there is, who looks like, the same girl singing and playing guitar, in the spot light, on a bar stall, in everyone of the bar scenes. She’s always there. Also, scenes between Officer Paul Woodrush, (Taylor Kitsch) and his mum, in her caravan, where she is always drinking or drunk with the curtains drawn, so you don’t know if it is night or day.

– Woodrush has his problems too, besides his mum. A veteran whom most everyone suspects is messed up by the Afghanistan or Iraq War. But what it is is he is gay and the show is so macho he can’t tell anyone. –

It seems deliberately dreamlike. There was a touch of the surreal to season one also, but it was contextualised. – There were, for instance, the hallucinations in Cohle’s eyes, the result of drug taking during years undercover.

Also the strangeness of the Louisiana backcountry, which Pizzolatto would have known well having grown up there. It is a place of ghost stories and nightmares, well suited to the material. Season one undoubtedly benefitted from its location but then it was well chosen and also shot with such imagination. I remember a great tanker in a canal, shot from behind a grass verge so it appeared as though sailing surreal through the landscape. There was also that long continuous shot of episode four: Who Goes There, possibly stitched together digitally though seamlessly, in which Cohle fights his way out of drug denned project.

There is nothing quite so innovative thus far in season two but it is a good piece of work and I liked the shots of motorways and intersections, in particular, filmed from helicopters at night. They call to mind Michael Mann’s Collateral. Director of Photography is Nigel Bluck, who worked recently on Julius Avery’s Son of a Gun (2014). Bluck is a constant in a season of many directors – arguably contributing to the shows fragmented feel – replacing Cary Joji Fukunaga who directed season one solo and is executive producer on two. – Bluck has said of the aerials, in an interview on Vulture.com: “There’s a sense of menace they can impose.” Pizzolatto, ever the cod philosopher, added: “With the freeways, you’re free to choose a direction but not free to choose your choices. But if that’s all nonsense, and it might be, I think they’re just interesting transitional shots.”

The season begins, chronologically, with the story of Raymond “Ray” Velcoro, Colin Farrell’s moustachioed burnout of the Vinci Police Department. In episode one we learn Velcoro had a wife and she was raped, leaving the provenance of his son, born nine months after the attack, in question.

Velcoro meets Semyon in a bar, in what is to be the first of many meetings. “This filth, hurt your women…” Semyon begins, drawing comparisons, inadvisedly, with Marlon Brando in Godfather I and the line: “This scum who ruined your daughter…” Semyon goes onto identify the man who attacked Velcoro’s wife.“What do you want from me?” Velcoro asks.“Me? Not a thing.” Semyon replies, “Maybe we’ll talk some time, maybe not.” Again, ripping off the Godfather’s agreement with the undertaker, Bonasera: “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” So Velcoro makes his deal with the devil, killing the man, which leads to the breakdown of his marriage, the beginning of his relationship with Semyon and the bottle. – Dr Burke: “Can I ask how much you drink in an average week?” Velcoro: “All I can.”

Present day, Semyon has been manoeuvred out of a land deal which could have seen him achieve the ambition of his wife Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly), and him and go straight. Instead he loses the money he put up and is left scrambling to bolster his various businesses with the old vices – running drugs and women out of his poker room. In an office there, Semyon bemoans: “The enemy won’t revel itself.” Another theft from the gangster trilogy. – This time Al Pacino’s Don, who bemoans similarly: “Our true enemy has yet to show his face.” A scene impersonated once before in The Sopranos by Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt). And you could describe Vaughn’s Semyon as an impersonation.

In the faceless enemy Pizzolatto recalls the device of season one, where the monster grew in the mind, taking form as Jack the Ripper through his works. In two there is an arch villain also, a puppeteer in the city night pulling the strings, but the device works to lesser effect. For the bad guy in one was the stuff of Grimm’s fairy tales but in two more suited to the business section. – A maker and breaker of land deals.

The dead Caspar is driven into town, propped up, in sunglasses, dropped off on a bench. No one knows why he had to die or whodunnit. The season follows the cops who arrive on the scene and go on to form the task-force to investigate his mystery.

Woodrush (Kitsch) is first on the scene, followed by Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a tough, tired-eyed detective of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division.

Bezzerides has a dark past. Growing up in a hippy commune, a bad place. Her father is the high priest figure. She says: “Five kids living there when I was growing up. Two are in jail now, two committed suicide.”

In Bezzerides Pizzolatto is perhaps attempting to answer critics of season one’s female characters – two-dimensional females, normally sex objects, or else there only to further define the male parts. – And Pizzolatto does paint a female true detective, reeling off the same hammy lines as her male counterparts. – “Those moments, they stare back at you. You don’t remember them, they remember you.” – However, it remains a man’s world. Arguably illustrating the machismo of the setting, its hardboiled roots, its writer, or all three. And Bezzerides is again defined largely by her sex. Musing: “The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.”

The sister is a jarring plot device. – A webcam porn performer whom Bezzerides runs into on a raid of what was supposed to be some kind of drugs den or stash house. – A roadblock of misinformation typical in this season’s convolution. – Designed by a corrupt police higher ups, in league with Semyon and bad guys unknown, to stall the good guy’s investigations. This is apparent in Velcoro’s one question of the higher ups in the department, “am I supposed to solve this or not?”

The sister is able to move the plot along again by providing information on Caspar’s sex parties. – Where it turns out, even more improbably, the kinds of land deals Semyon is being manoeuvred out of are being discussed.

Velcoro arrives last in a sleek black mustang and is put on the task-force so the corrupt police higher-ups and bad guy cooperative will have an inside-man. To what end is mysterious.

And the emphasis of this murder mystery is on mystery, to its detriment. – It puts you in the mind of the detectives and Semyon, presenting you with as complicated a plot as they an investigation. However, such is its determination to mystify, it loses some cohesion.

E.g. Velcoro is ambushed and apparently murdered by shotgun at the end of episode two, but rises again next episode, having been shot with buckshot. What kind of self respecting gangster carries buckshot in their gun?

Though I hope for an explanation to this and all its other mysteries to myriad to get into, I suspect this maze of intrigue a convoluted mess. That said, and accepting all its flaws, it is fun. It is also ambitious in its complexity and though it may fall short of those ambitions this is an rare quality amongst the general slew of t.v. dramas.

HBO’s True Detective: Season Two continues Monday night’s at 10 on Sky Atlantic.

By Harrison Drury

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