Cream rises to the top; in the case of Nic Pizzolatto, creator-writer and fame founder of his original show True Detective, it’s safe to say his recognition will come in due course, most likely when fellow audiences and critics alike have managed to digest the well-tailored and ambitious concept of his latest series. Our second installment, of what appears to becoming a continuous franchise, showcases some of the greatest acting talent and bravest storytelling methods attempted for television making it possibly the most underrated and under-appreciated television show in most recent history. God forbid we accept we’ve been outsmarted by TV show.
Yes, the first series of True Detective was a monument of exceptional TV. Yes, we loved the ritualistic and satanic themes and narrative elements that created a creepy atmosphere and an America unexplored. Yes, the partnership of Marty Hart and Rust Cole was as iconic as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad but is that what we wanted round two? Repetition? A lack of originality or unique identity? It surely wasn’t what Pizzolatto wanted and he made it his objective to pursue different avenues in order to explore more adventurous ideas for his second installment.
Set in Vinci, a fictional industrial town in California, city manager Ben Caspare disappears soon before he is to present plans for a real estate development with business partner and former crook Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), winding up dead, on a stretch of highway: both eyes burned out and his genitals shot in what appears to be an act of castration. Caspare is discovered by conflicted Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), who takes a late night suicidal bike ride after being suspended for being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by a wild-child actress violating her parole. The body being found on Ventura soil, which neighbours Vinci, Ventura County detective Antigone ‘Ani’ Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is assigned leader of the special investigation whilst also following up a lead on a missing girl, Vera, who’s recently disappeared without a trace. The final of our three detectives assigned to the case is washed-up Vinci police detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell); an alcoholic in long running conflict with his ex-wife over the suspected murder of her rapist and the paternity of his son, also working for Frank through mutual debt.
With little to go on, the three, along with obnoxious Vinci detective Teague Dixon (W. Earl Brown), keep in the shadows as they investigate the recent activity of Caspare and his lifestyle; Velcoro constantly reminded by his superiors, Police Chief Holloway (Afemo Omilami) and Lieutenant Kevin Burris (James Frain) to close the case as soon as possible to prevent trouble with Ventura insight. From visiting his mansion, seeing it’s been turned upside down, to meeting his shrink, the suspicious Dr Pitlor (Rick Springfield) who recognises Ani from her fathers former commune, ‘The Good People’, the group show little progression with discovering the mystery surrounding who killed Caspare and why. Meanwhile, Woodrugh’s sexuality insecurities create strain with him and his girlfriend, Ani’s missing girl has links to to her fathers wary institute and Frank’s out of pocket five million due to his investment money being in Caspare’s pocket and his co-partner, Russian mobster Osip (Timothy Murphy), is backing out meaning Frank and his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) are broke, and have nothing to their name.
Falling back into the world they so desired to turn their backs on, Frank and Jordan ‘re-acquire’ their former clubs, down to Frank’s firm and intense negotiating tactics. However, with the recent death of close friend and ally Stan, who dies in similar circumstances to Caspare, he believes he’s being targeted. When various leads wind Velcoro to Caspare’s second house, a secret sex-dungeon where a camera is recording activity and a pond of fresh blood lies on the floor, it’s shortly after discovering that this is the place Caspare was murdered that Velcoro is shot twice by a man, wearing a large crow mask hiding his identity. Thankfully, Velcoro awakens the morning after realising the bullets were in fact empty shells. This acts as a realisation for Velcoro to put his mind to the case and prove he is better than his peers believe.
After the discovery of rare diamonds found in Caspare’s private safe, the team are put on to a lead believing the Mexican cartel are behind the murder; an unexpected shoot-out ensures with many left for dead including Dixon and the man wanted in question, who’s accused of killing Caspare. Two months later, Frank and Jordan are back at square one, Velcoro’s battling his ex-wife in court whilst working for Frank full-time after quitting the force, Woodrugh’s similarly battling with the actress falsely accusing him of misconduct and Bezzerides has been demoted, working in the evidence room whilst picking up where she left off with the missing Vera case. Whilst investigating pictures sent to Vera’s house, Bezzerides makes a connection between Vera, the blue diamonds and exclusive sex parties attended by mysterious men and women in Vinci. This causes their former boss Katherine Davis (Michael Hyatt) to reopen the case, assigning the three as special task force members to bring the true killer to justice.
Woodrugh, working the diamonds discovers they belonged to the Osterman family murdered in the riots of 1992 who owned a jewellery store; their two young children becoming orphans in the process. Meanwhile Frank learns of his right hand man’s betrayal, secretly working with Osip and others (including Caspare) to double cross him causing his downfall, whilst Ani infiltrates an exclusive sex party with the help of her sex-cam sister, where she sees many of Vinci elites including Police Chief Holloway and finds Vera, highly drugged. Killing a security guard in her escape with Vera, Bezzerides makes herself a wanted woman in Vinci, realising they’ve all been double crossed by Vinci superiors. Similarly, Velcoro is made a prime suspect after the murder of Davis meaning both must act as ghosts whilst only Woodrugh can manoeuvre through the shadows. When questioning Vera, the team discover more about the sex parties, the attendees, the women including one killed for attempting to blackmail Caspare (murdered by the Mayor’s son in a cabin) and a smarter woman called Laura.
Researching the diamond heist in 92′ Woodrugh concludes Holloway, Dixon, Burris and Caspare (all corrupt members of Vinci P.D) used the riots to steal the diamonds from the Osterman’s, kill them, and buy into power in Vinci; the wreckage of Caspare’s house was most likely Burris and Holloway searching for the stones rather than the killer. However, when Woodrugh is called away and blackmailed with pictures of his sexual affair with a former male lover by Holloway, he attempts an escape, only to be killed by Burris. Meanwhile, Velcoro and Bezzerides find solace in each other, causing them to spend the night together.
Piecing the missing pieces of the broken puzzle together, Velcoro and Bezzerides discover Caspare’s secretary Erica is in fact Laura (Courtney Halverson), the woman from the pictures and one of the Osterman siblings whilst her brother, Leonard (Luke Edwards), works as a set-photographer, and the two have killed Caspare in a revenge-campaign for orphaning them as children. As Bezzerides and Velcoro are both wanted by Burris and Holloway, Laura, who was in fact the brains of the operation, manages to escape with help from the detectives. Meanwhile, Leonard intends to meet with Holloway to kill him, pretending to trade the stolen hard-drive for his family diamonds. Assisted by Velcoro and Ani, they plan to frame Holloway, recording their conversation, but when Holloway reveals Caspare was the illegitimate father to Laura, Leonard lashes out, stabs Holloway before he’s shot himself. The recording is destroyed in the action but Velcoro and Bezzerides make an escape, join Frank and plan to travel to Venezuela to meet with Jordan and to start a new chapter of their lives away from Vinci.
With one final job, Frank and Velcoro join forces to kill Osip during a trade of twelve million dollars for an investment of the real estate project. Osip dies in the action and all seems well as Velcoro and Frank leave separately, planning on meeting in Venezuela. However, Frank is soon caught by the Mexican’s he’s ruined business with, taken out to a desert and killed whilst Velcoro is followed by Burris and his men who give him one final chance to throw Bezzerides in the firing line for all those who’ve wound up dead; in the action, Velcoro dies with dignity. One year on, Ani hands over all the evidence she has to a journalist who was prepared to soil Vinci early on in the series, saying out of respect to those that lost their lives the true story needs to be told. Heading back to her room, she finds Jordan caring for her and Ray’s 2-3 month old baby. Joining forces, the pair head off, leaving the disaster and muddy water of Vinci behind them, working together to sustain a safer future for each other and the baby.
The scope of the story’s very broad and hardly straightforward; Pizzolatto enjoys testing his audience. You want a simple who-done-it and True Detective is not the show for you. The above plot is merely a brief synopsis of what happens throughout the eight-episode series; an extensive breakdown would result in a dissertation. Names are fired around, separate storylines run parallel and motives are left in mystery all to make sure you’re engaged with the narrative, as if Pizzolatto’s the teacher and we’re the students sitting his exam of understanding.
Unlike series one, the story is extremely complex; layer after layer, in earlier episodes it’s fair to say you find yourself questioning the importance of everything explored, or whether certain aspects of the narrative is simply background noise. Not until the final episode do all the narrative strands interlink and the story become full circle; everything from the sex parties to the Panticapaeum institute to each characters individual family arc have purpose. In earlier episodes it seemed a strain to juggle multiple storylines, most probably due to the lack of a consistent director, unlike the first series which was perfectly envisioned by Cary Fukunaga. Series one did showcase a variety of storylines, but not to the extent where most if not all have some input in the final outcome of the show. A prime-example is of Rust’s lack of relationships; yes it developed McConaughey’s loner character, gaining a clearer insight to who he is but on the whole it didn’t affect catching the killer. Introducing Ani’s sister early on, it’s easy to see her as a typical ‘filler’ character, however without her, the group wouldn’t have gained access to the exclusive parties. Keeping interests within all the storylines seemed to have proven troublesome but in the end it paid off.
Similar to the first series, Pizzolatto’s best written character is in fact the setting: the corrupt and soiled city of Vinci. Louisiana, the home of series one, had it’s own unique and individual identity: it was a darkly disturbing place, full of mystery with creepy character conformities. Vinci, this time a fictional setting, provides an alluringly false sense of glamour and an unscrupulous underworld of bitterness and depravity for the audience, the end result proving there isn’t enough justice in the world to conquer corruption. Strangely enough, not only do some of our villains win in our final episode, but so does the city; a bold move by Pizzolatto which some may deem disappointing and dissatisfying, which none the less is a vitally realistic execution of a narrative. Vinci quite frankly can’t be saved; it’s corruption stems from the scum of the petty gangster world to the high ranking affiliates of the city who control everything that happens and sweeps lingering dirt under the carpets as they please without a care of their actions.
Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro is the most recognisable character to the franchise being a combination of both former leads, Rust and Cole, exposing similar traits of both detectives during certain times (highs and lows) of his journey working the case whilst McAdams’ Bezzerides provided the edge to this series. Refreshingly, Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon explores the light and dark shades of a gangster living in Pizzolatto’s world; Vaughn appeared to struggle establishing the character early on but as the show progressed, he came into his own. The most original characters to this years series were Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, unbelievably performed soaring amongst the other leads, and Kelly Reilly’s mysterious and enigmatic Jordan Semyon who provided the heart and soul to Frank he needed to make him more relatable with the audience.
The majority of criticism for the first series targeted the treatment of female characters. Taking the words of wisdom on board for round two, Pizzolatto creates an array of dominant female characters, all active rather than passive. Bezzerides is the easiest example to define as a strong female character, however she’s equally matched with Jordan Semyon; the only person who holds the power to reign Frank in, grounding him firmly in her clutches when his life choices begin to spiral out of control. Although not the person to pull the trigger, Laura Osterman is represented as the naive-brains behind the demise of Caspare, lighting the fuse that exploits Vinci’s darkest secrets; Vera herself brands Laura smart unlike other women she’s associates herself with. All three women represent brave survivors, good or bad, of tough lives and Pizzolatto proves he’s a writer prepared to listen to his audience, learn from his mistakes and challenge stereotypes.
The supporting cast deserve just as much praise as the leads if not more; all embody idiosyncratic characters and prove they’re willing to work hard to be part of television history. From Ritchie Coster’s fascinating on screen presence as sleazy Mayor Austin Chessani to Agnes Olech’s intensely unpredictable portrayal of his wife Veronica all the way to James Frain’s double-crossing Lieutenant Kevin Burris, all bring something innovative and captivating to the screen making the overall product feel a solid collaboration of greatness.
What’s always interesting to read about True Detective are the conspiracies and theories created by fans and critics speculating the anticipated final outcome of the grand murder mystery. Do Jordan’s operations reflect an act of castration; Caspare’s wounds mirroring hers making her the killer? Is the painting of a crow in Pitlor’s office coincidence or purposefully placed as well as the distant sound of the bird as Velcoro and Bezzerides question him? But most of all: will the infamous Yellow King return some way or form? Figuratively, yes.
The investigation into the death of Dora Lange in series one brought to the attention the Yellow King; what appeared to be the leader of a religious cult targeting and murdering women as an act of sacrifice. What we discovered by the end was that the Yellow King was more a supernatural representation of a leader, one without a face; essentially a hierarchy. In series two, the stolen diamonds allow various shady police detectives to buy into power. Caspare, holding onto the stones in his private safe acts as our Yellow King: whilst in possession of the diamonds, he’s at the top of the hierarchy. Although Caspare has a face, he’s already dead by the time we first lay eyes on him, similar to the situation in series one. Iconography such as the yellow crowned skeleton in Caspare’s mansion represents his position. However with series two, we briefly see who sits in the Yellow King’s throne rather than the first where the leader is more or less left ambiguous: some believe the Yellow King passes down generations meaning notorious killer Errol Childress takes over from his father and his fathers father, yet the initial instigator is left off screen.
Taking all this into consideration, Pizzolatto manages to successfully create a twisted tale of greed, manipulation, revenge and betrayal which throws our six leads into the murky sewers of Vinci leaving them to sink or swim. I mention six, as this time, Pizzolatto promotes you, the audience, to detective, rather than a mere viewer. We move in present time with the case, we see every angle, we have our fellow detectives backs and we’re given access to all the evidence; like the rest, the choice to either sink or swim is our own.
Tough is an understatement for the concept of our dramatic second series, but Pizzolatto’s desire to be bold, brave, creative and unconventional certainly pays off. The hate campaigns across the internet will soon fizzle out when critics realise they’ve been quick to judge and narrow minded in their expectations: what did they want, the same again, True Detective Series One Part 2? Newsflash: the concept was designed as an anthology that challenged different ideas, not just tirelessly repeat old ones. In comparison to Game of Thrones Series 5, a lacklustre series that seemed to gain undeserved praise, True Detective stands tall as one of this years finest and most undervalued; heaven forbid people actually show disappointment to Game of Thrones, which as a fan, I’m starting to lose interest due to a loss of drive and direction. Maybe that’s the greatest shame about the reception to the second series of True Detective, people like repetition rather than innovation.