My issues with the first episode of True Detective stemmed from an awkward, somewhat flat sense of execution. While it is turned inside-out creatively, compared to the first season, Justin Lin is no Cary Fukunaga; somewhat hobbling showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s sophomore salvo, which so far lacks the immediate sense of elegance that one (probably) unreasonably expects. Different yet strangely formulaic, it’s hewing to classic (perhaps worn) L.A. noir tropes that didn’t burden the first series.
With “Night Finds You,” Pizzolatto and Lin double down on the Chinatown meets Twin Peaks cocktail they’ve concocted (with a twist of The Wire, for good measure), taking a Nestea-plunge into a labyrinthine plot — yet miraculously sticking the landing in a big way.
This time we open on a quiet moment with Frank (Vince Vaughn) in bed with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly) as he tells her a horrible (yet comforting?) memory of his father, who locked Frank in the basement when he would go on benders. On this occasion Sr. doesn’t come back for three days, during which time Frank cowers and starves until he gets gnawed on by a rat that he beats to pulp. Perhaps he even ate it to survive. “Sometimes I wonder how many things you have like that, that I don’t know about”, Jordan says. “What if I died there?” Frank responds. It’s a calm moment of reflection before the storm. After all, Frank’s out five million bucks.
The recipient, Caspere (the pervy, corrupt, city manager found dead with his eyes burned out) is on the slab, and Ani (Rachel McAdams), Ray (Colin Farrell) and Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) are on the case. There’s a feeding frenzy over the murder investigation involving different agencies. The state Attorney General is looking into political corruption in Vinci, while the Vinci PD engages in some jurisdictional dick-waving with the CHP over the homicide, since Woodrugh found the body. The state investigators put Ani and Ray in charge of the murder inquiry, while warning her that Ray is “bent.” Meanwhile, Ray’s CO makes clear that he needs to control any unwanted interest in how Vinci is governed. “Am I supposed to solve this or not?” Ray asks. Probably not.
Beyond that set up, it’s a quick slide down the rabbit hole of political skullduggery, Frank’s mounting desperation as he begins beating the bushes for his cash, and Ray’s reckoning when his ex-wife hits the paternal reset button. Daddy issues are the overriding theme here. Be it Ani and Ray talking about her yet-to-be revealed childhood and possible abuse at the hands of her morally opaque dad; Ray losing everything when his personal chaos ends his lame attempts at fatherhood; or Vaughn’s desire for redemption from himself, the man his father made.
While Lin hasn’t gotten any better at staging scenes or eliciting great performances, the way Pizzolatto has begun dropping strange nuggets of information within his increasingly dense, exposition-packed narrative, is intriguing. Woodrugh’s past at “Black Mountain Security,” a weird cosmetic surgeon who recalls Twin Peaks’ Dr. Jacoby, corrupt business machinations that reveal the hidden history of Vinci (a town where seemingly no one actually lives), and hints of a bizarre and deadly sexual underground; they all tease the deeper mystery. Lin stitches it together into a competent Lynch impersonation — though I rather like the foreboding shots of the twilight industrial wastelands and arterial highways dotted by glowing white and red blood cells. But Pizzolatto’s creation deserves more. That’s (hopefully) a non-issue next week.
I’m into the possibilities of where the story will go more than the characters we’re following to get there. They are archetypes (and none more so than Ray and Frank). Ani still feels like a woman written by a man. Woodrugh’s story, and that of his sought-after girlfriend, feels like it’s waiting to become relevant. And my favorite performance so far is Ray’s VPD partner, Teague Dixon (W. Earl Brown), a grizzled, ran out of fucks-to-give detective, who somehow magnifies the over-acting on display through the lens of his blasé line readings. “Something happens to me, you burn all my shit.” I love that guy. And empathize.
But the climax? You’ll have to see it for yourself. Suffice to say: if you’re just marginally on board, so far, Pizzolatto hurtles into the end zone and effectively spikes the ball.
There’s already only six episodes left and they’ll blow by before you know it. Like last week, “Night Finds You” is a mixed bag. But despite the unevenness, True Detective is still something to savor.