It seems so long ago that Rust Cohle and Marty Hart stumbled wide-eyed into Carcosa to take down The Yellow King. By that stage True Detective had become a huge hit and had ignited theorists all over the internet to speculate daily on the nature of those totems, the location of Carcosa and the identity of The Yellow King. That the finale never quite hit the heights the rest of the series had promised was almost moot – the whole series was a bold, visually stunning, supremely acted crime drama of epic proportions. Nic Pizzolatto had crafted a television drama so dense and rich it felt like a novel, intertwining existential philosophising with noir and procedural tropes, which were all played out across the mystical, sometimes other-worldly and sultry Louisiana bayou. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and it was flawed in places. But its scope and ambition just about blew every other crime drama of the past 10 years into dust. In my eyes it was that good. So to say series two was highly anticipated was an understatement. And, after all the waiting, speculating and clenching of fists, it was here.
From Carcosa to California, and its de facto capital Los Angeles. An urban sprawl synonymous with glamour, sun and stardom it’s a place of stunning contradiction. In reality it’s a city made up of small, industrial towns, like Vinci featured in this series. The city has always held a fascination for me, with LA noir being one of my favourite literary sub-genres. Ellroy, Chandler and, outside of crime fiction, Bukowski are just some of the authors that have depicted LA for what it is – a poisonous flower in the desert. Beautiful and deadly; seductive and dangerous. An entirely human-made paradise; an El Dorado of the damned.
Because LA was built from nothing, there are layers of human endeavour, of shady deals, blackmail and corruption all buried deep beneath the freeways and buildings and the new towns that didn’t exist a century ago. And yes, there are probably a whole load of broken dreams down in its primordial soup too, if you want to throw in an extra cliché.
So LA promises much or, as the tagline for the second series, whispers, ‘We get the world we deserve’.
This series introduces us to three main characters. First, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) a man so broken by experience he exhibits scary levels of nihilism and fly-by-night definitions of good and bad, it marks him out to be the most comparable to Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from series one. In fact, the first time we see him he’s in an office talking with a lawyer in a bid to increase access to his son. It looks almost identical to the office Cohle was interview in throughout series one. Perhaps this was Pizzolatto having a bit of a wheeze, because the dual-timeline approach that was successful in series one didn’t take flight in this episode.
We soon learned that Velcoro’s life was turned upside down when his wife was brutally raped and, hellbent on revenge, he did a deal with the devil (in this case Vince Vaughn’s gangster and property developer, Frank Semyon) – in return for the identity of the man who raped his wife, he placed himself squarely in Semyon’s pocket. Today, he’s a shell of a man, propped up by bourbon and hellbent on self-destruction, carrying out ‘errands’ for Semyon and meting out bloody revenge to anyone and everyone who happens to get in his way. Like the boy and his father who bullied his son at school, for instance. In some ways Velcoro, who stomps about menacingly and breathes heavily into his moustache for most of episode one, is a cartoon damaged cop, and as such gets all the scene-stealing lines. “I welcome judgement”, “I used to want to be an astronaut but astronauts don’t even live on the moon anymore”, and, “Stop? I thought that got you off, kid. Seeing people in pain. You ever bully or hurt anyone again, I’ll come back and butt fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.”
There’s a magical scene where Velcoro and Semyon meet in a seedy bar, with an intoxicating, breathy twangy folk song played in the background (I REALLY need to find out who this song was by and who it was performed by). They’re both sitting opposite each other. One’s good, the other’s bad, but we’re not sure which one is which. It’s like the scene in the movie Heat, where Pacino’s cop and De Niro’s criminal face off in a diner, unsure of which side of the coin they represent. Semyon and Velcoro look at each other for a long time, Semyon’s manicured weariness contrasting with Velcoro’s teeth-clenching angst, an unspoken bond between the two underwriting the silence. Velcoro informs Semyon that he’s taken care of one of their problems (he’s roughed up a journalist who had been threatening to highlight the city’s crime and organised crime), then Semyon starts to ask if Velcoro is alright, expresses concern over his drinking and even asks if he has a woman in his life. He tells his henchman about starting IVF with h is wife. Semyon feels like a three-dimensional villain, and in some ways just as human as anyone on Velcoro’s side of the law.
Also on Velcoro’s side of the law is Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). One of the criticisms of True Detective was that the female characters were little more than an afterthought and when they were seen onscreen there they were underwritten and mere stereotypes. Bezzerides instantly felt like an interesting character, almost stereotypically masculine in her personality, although… All the female characters we saw in this opening episode seemed to be framed in a sexual context. The first time we saw Bezzerides she was turning out some bloke after a night of interesting sex (it was intimated it was kinky, but the nature of it wasn’t revealed), her sister was a webcam girl, and the girlfriend of the third main character (we’ll come to him in a bit) wants his dick and not much else. So is this the female equality people screamed for? I’m not so sure.
But back to Bezzerides. She also has anger issues from an unconventional childhood spent in California’s other great, human-made scam – the hippie commune movement. She now hates men with a passion, even though her mother took her own life and left the family in the hands of a cult-like leader of a father.
Thirdly, there was Paul Woodrugh, a Californian highway patrol man (yes, CHiPs!) who is battling, yes, anger issues thanks to a stint in Iraq (which was available in the synopsis but not necessarily gleaned from this episode). He’s scarred physically and mentally from his experiences and has to take Viagra to have sex. He’s also been suspended from duty after he accepted the offer from a starlet who was trying to get off a drunk-drive ticket. Again, a female character framed in a sexual context.
So we have three characters, actually if you add in Vaughn’s Seymon we have four, each suffering from extreme anger. Unlike Cohle and Hart, there didn’t seem to be much counterpoint, much yin and yang. In series one we had one man, Cohle, who was desperate to die, and another, Hart, whose life was so mundane and lacking any emotion, he was desperate to live. Here, Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh were all starting off from the same place – anger. Anger at the rape of a wife, anger at a fucked-up family, anger at war and a world that doesn’t understand. If Cohle and Hart were ripe for pastiche from all corners of the internet, then look out Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh – their unrelenting gloom will have satirists frothing at the mouth.
It remains to be seen how these characters will work together and mesh. They finally came together in the final scene, converging on the dead body of a man instrumental in Semyon’s high-speed rail contract deal. He was found on the side of a coastal road with his eyes burned out by acid. Woodrugh found the body after an aborted death ride (speeding on his bike at 100mph and turning off his lights), Bezzerides was called out to investigate and Velcoro, investigating the victim’s disappearance for Semyon presumably, had also been called to the scene.
Things are set up nicely for the rest of the series and once again there was a richness and lyricism that made me swoon in places. But there were differences to series one. While series one took more risks in its storytelling (different timelines etc) – which gave it a more hallucinatory, dream-like feel – and was more flashy direction, this opening episode was set up in a much more conventional, linear way. It felt like normal TV rather than a thrill-a-minute EVENT. But there was still much to like. The soundtrack was superb (half 70s thriller minimalism, bits of jazz and some portentous folk) and even though director Cary Fukunaga is no longer involved there was some visual impressiveness on show. I do wonder if having four main characters is too many – for all the multi-timeline approaches and the rambling philosophising in series one, there was a clarity and simplicity there that didn’t seem to be present here.
Still, it’s (very) early days yet and it’s unfair to keep comparing it to series one. I applaud the anthology route and, despite a few reservations, there was enough amazing stuff in this first episode to make me want to see episode two immediately.
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