This year's detectives include Vinci city detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic burn-out who will happily bungle or misdirect a case if his bosses tell him to. One of those bosses is Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a local criminal looking to go straight by investing $5 million in land parcels alongside a major California railroad project. Ray and Frank have a long history together, but their fates become linked when the body of city manager Ben Caspere is found by disgraced California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) on the side of the highway. Caspere was the one currently in possession of Frank's money, money which was supposed to go to Jacob McCandless (Jon Lindstrom) and his group Catalast*, which currently holds the deeds to the land that Frank believed he was buying. Ray is not only tasked with the proper investigation, but also finding the money for Frank, and determining an outcome that sits comfortably with the Mayor, Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster) and his superiors, Lieutenant Burris (James Frain) and Chief Holloway (Afemo Omilami). Woodrugh is also assigned to the case, as is Antigone "Ani" Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who has been asked by State Police to try and nail Ray for corruption.
One of the most-talked about aspects of the first season was Pizzolatto's obsession with philosophy. Pizzolatto also came to TV after being a novelist, and those kinds of heady ideas combined with his prose probably fit better on the page than they do on-screen, where actors are faced with the challenge of making his particular turns of phrase or flourishes seem natural. There is the sense that Fukunaga had ideas about how to mitigate and relieve that awkwardness, possibly by tweaking Pizzolatto's scripts, but the second season struggles to find the right degree of heightened reality, often landing hard on the nose (at one point, the characters even drive past a man dressed as Jesus, carrying a full-sized cross on his back). While fans may be looking forward to and subsequently disappointed by this part of the material, Season Two's pulpy, film noir atmosphere and mood keep the show compelling. When we first see Caspere's body, it's being driven down Mulholland Drive with an eagle sculpture in the seat next to him, and many scenes take on the moody lighting of the genre. Ray and Frank's meet-up place is a dive bar called The Black Rose, with the same mournful guitarist singing depressing songs, usually to a crowd that consists only of Ray and Frank themselves, sitting at a corner booth, drinking whiskey. Pizzolatto plunges the viewer into a world of dark alleys and grungy underpasses, of brutal violence and empires built on corruption. "We get the world we deserve," Ray says, and the transition shots of the looping California highway system, with anonymous cars slowly looping around it, suggest that the moral ambiguity of what we're seeing stretches off into the distance.
The second season, as the first to try and clear the gap between the acclaim of the first season, the loss of Fukunaga, an entirely new cast and story, and high expectations, marks an obvious turning point for the show. It's no surprise, then, that turning points appear to be on Pizzolatto's mind. All of the characters are either reaching or still recovering from one: Ray continues to struggle with the ripple effect caused by the rape of his wife, Gena (Abigail Spencer), and his pursuit of the man who did it. Ray, seen in flashback as a clean-shaven, uniformed cop, is a world apart from the hard-drinking, long-haired, unkempt cowboy who would drunkenly assault a man to teach the man's son a lesson about bullying. Meanwhile, Frank wants nothing more than to leave his criminal past behind, to become legitimate. It's a familiar story, but what makes Frank compelling is how honest that desire is. He yearns for that clean slate, that responsibility and respectability in a way that makes his criminal nature -- even when it involves physical violence -- seem like a chore, a necessity that he would rather avoid but has to engage in thanks to the people he's surrounded by. Paul is struggling to accept the truth about himself as a gay or bisexual man, as his girlfriend Emily (Adria Arjona) tries to take their relationship to the next level. Even Ani has her crucial moment, one that she has buried much deeper than the other three. Pizzolatto underlines this in one of the season's most unexpectedly compelling scenes, in which Frank speaks to a young boy whose father has been killed.
Of the new leads, it is surprising that Vaughn's turn as Frank stands out. Vaughn's output as a comedy movie star since the mid-2000s has suggested someone with higher standards but even less investment than Adam Sandler, yet his detached demeanor and slightly intimidating appearance fit in perfectly here. Following the death of Caspere and the disappearance of his $5m investment, much of the season focuses on Frank making back-end deals and re-opening old relationships in order to stay afloat, and in each of these scenes, Vaughn displays an edginess and intelligence that isn't just exhilarating, but helps elevate those around him. Conversely, at a crucial moment, he shares an intense scene with Ray at his kitchen table which taps into Frank's core decency and compassion. His friendship with Ray is genuine, one with real sentiment and respect, as is his relationship with his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly). Although Pizzolatto can't resist giving Jordan a desire for kids and allowing her strength to be undercut by his in the finale, they share a great scene in that episode which illustrates the strength of their relationship, the only one stronger than the one with Ray. Some of the developments in store for Frank as the season draws to a close are set-up in overly easy ways (in the sense that the ways Frank lets down his guard at inopportune moments throughout the season feel less like character flaws than Pizzolatto planning ahead), but they're not enough to take away from the overall impression Vaughn and his character leave on the show.
Aside from Frank, compassion is also an area in which Ray's character gets a chance to shine. A significant subplot is devoted to Ray's son Chad (Trevor Larcom), an overweight, insecure teenager who is picked on at school and may or may not be afraid of Ray. Although they have nothing in common, Ray is undeniably committed to the boy, even when that love tears him up inside. Gena, long-since remarried and concerned about Ray's behavior toward Chad, battles with Ray over custody and visitation rights, and worse, finally insists on a paternity test to determine whether or not Ray or her rapist was the actual father. At times, Farrell's gravelly mumbling can stumble into self-parody, but his desire to do right by his son provides a strong backbone for his character that works even when some of his other threads don't.
The mystery at the heart of season two may not be as compelling as the characters involved in it, and it's hard to say if the season's unique structure -- placing a time jump of 60 days in the middle of the season's eight episodes -- has enough room to breathe the way it ought to. It's also disappointing that the series doesn't make better use of McAdams, who turns in a satisfying performance (both dramatically and physically, in terms of her intimidating knife skills), but just doesn't seem to get as much attention from Pizzolatto as the other three leads. Although her character does eventually talk about her own turning point, it's more vague than Ray or Frank's, and feels brushed over by comparison -- more of an afterthought than a fully-developed revelation. Still, there are things to appreciate about this sprawling, unkempt neo-noir that fans may be better able to acknowledge now that the dust has settled. There is a wistful, sorrowful quality to the season's theme of pivotal moments on the road to collapse, one that lingers after the episodes end.
Note: Although the word sounds like "catalyst", and "True Detective" is frequently on-the-nose, it is consistently spelled "Catalast" in the subtitles on the Blu-ray. I can't remember if it's actually visible somewhere in the show -- if I'd been anticipating the potential confusion, I would've looked for it.
The Video and Audio
All of the video extras are housed on the third disc. The most substantial is "Making the Vinci Massacre" (29:28), which documents the five-day shoot of the season's massive central shootout. The piece is almost as stylized in its cutting between B-roll, glossy interviews, and clips from the finished sequence as the scene itself. It proceeds chronologically, with most of the discussion upfront being background into the development of the sequence while the first day is dedicated to rehearsal, followed by the specific logistics of each day as the production begins filming. It's reasonably interesting, although the style of it means it probably runs a little long (lots of slow motion), and some viewers may be disappointed with how technically oriented it is, with very little input from the cast about their characters or their experience.
The remaining two video pieces are a bit more generic. "A Look Inside 'True Detective'" (10:16) is the more central making-of piece, covering the overall experience of making the second season. Comparatively, it is almost entirely focused on the cast, but it disappoints in that it is so traditional -- they have little to do but explain their characters and their place in the story, and offer some generic ideas on the new season's story and Nic Pizzolatto's writing. The piece gets more interesting in the second half, as the cast talk about the fictional setting of Vinci and the various locations throughout the city, including the small bar where Ray and Frank meet. Finally, "'True Detective''s California" (3:56) isn't even a featurette at all, but a montage of the seasons' second-unit photography of Los Angeles, with one of the songs by Lera Lynn (The Black Rose's ever-present live musician) and T-Bone Burnett laid over it.