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Black Coffee and Papier-mâché:
Noir and the Second Season of True Detective
Gregory Maher

A suave, sad trumpet plays us into scenes, past thick forest crowns, factories drowned in dust and gravel, and all laced through with the tangles of Southern California freeways. A tracking shot pans across a dark city, through sunset glass, and into a bedroom where local mob boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) sits with his dark thoughts. Eyes roving over the white-walled perfection of his modernist house, he fixates on a ceiling leak, a spot of weakness. Sighing to his wife beside him, Frank laments: “It’s like everything’s made of papier-mâché.” And so, seemingly, are the characters of True Detective’s cryptic second season: hard-shelled vigilantes each with their own twist. For this is a detective story told through the chiaroscuro filters of noir.

The second season of HBO’s True Detective, like the first, is instigated by a murder, but this season we have an entirely new plot and a new setting almost 2,000 miles to the west of Louisiana. Fans of the series are holding up the second season to the gold standard set by the first; by most accounts, it falls short. This is, perhaps, to be expected. With an entirely new cast and script, this season is different—entirely different—but it is well worth the time to follow as the contemporary detective genre is turned back to the essence of noir, a plot which in no way leads you to expect a happy ending. We see the characters through the familiar haze that distinguishes True Detective, yet we are offered brief glimpses of the truth. Though each character shows a social mask to the world—and viewer—the music and production design suggest what lies behind it.

Serving as the locale for much of the second season, the fictional city of Vinci plays stand-in for the very real city of Vernon, California, a dismal municipality just south of Los Angeles. Founded in 1905, the city—whose very motto reads “Exclusively industrial!”—arose from a merchants’ scheme to capitalize on the railroad line leading to Los Angeles. Railroad spurs built along the town’s dusty main track transformed the town into an exclusive industrial corridor. Decades of corruption and mafia-like nepotism shaded the local government, a potent parallel to the show in its present iteration. Yet in the Vinci with which True Detective acquaints us, we see not merely the dry, gravel lots of aching factories, but sunlit fruit orchards, deep, rich redwood groves, and the winding roads which follow California’s Pacific coast. In the season’s opening episode, traffic cop Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) finds his victim while speeding down one such road. His headlight cuts around a bend and illuminates a well-dressed man seated at a scenic overlook; only, he is dead.

So begins a complicated investigation, one in which state, county, and local authorities work together to solve the murder of Ben Caspere, Vinci’s city accountant with mysterious ties that unravel as the season goes on. Among our main players are the three detectives who form the State Attorney’s Special Investigation: Paul Woodrugh, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), and Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). Like Vernon, which achieved prosperity through its rail line, True Detective’s Vinci holds exclusive placement along a transit rail under development. It turns out that this rail line is tied up with a considerable amount of speculative investments, investments suddenly voided by Caspere’s death. Vaughn’s Frank Semyon loses out big, having bet on the land where the rail would be built, and he takes it as a blow not only to his finances, but to his entire sense of self-worth. His actions from here on serve only to help him “get back on top,” yet there are moments when his humanity—his empathy—make us forget that he is a villain.

In him we see the dying kingpin, the desperation of being on the edge between perceived mediocrity (his “day job” as a casino owner and manager) and a persistent feeling of being trapped, held down from his own ambition. “Where I am exists contingent on human desire,” proclaims Frank as his wife accuses him of being nothing more than a gangster. He is, of course, a gangster, but his moral compass allows only the otherization of the term; he distances himself from the gang who runs drugs through his club: “Those people would be doing this anyways.” He obviously profits from the arrangement, and power plays—how to appear, and thus be, the more powerful man—are ever on his mind, whether in a swift takedown, a shot of a pistol, or a smirking threat of extortion. What is surprising is how quickly he can shift to being a gentle man: one who loves his wife and supports her through failed attempts at in-vitro fertilization, or comforts the grieving son of one of his murdered partners. This is a character I have never seen, the villain trying to have a baby.

True Detectives screenshotPart of what makes the series so interesting is the oddly close relationship between Farrell’s Ray, a police detective, and Vaughn’s Frank, a mob boss. Their meetings invariably take place in the same bar. Ray’s response to Frank’s surprised query at one such meeting—“what’s with the water?”—makes me think back to Clint Eastwood’s Detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. “Booze tends to take the edge off; I want to stay angry,” drawls Ray—like Eastwood—whose slow anger at “the system” and the higher-ups who control it always seems at the point of boiling over. Callahan seems reborn through Colin Farrell’s Ray, but closer, with greater despair.

Velcoro is heir to a cop father who watches old black-and-white crime dramas, holding on to the soft justice of television. In one poignant scene, the elder Velcoro laments the decline of the police force. Ray sighs, yet still holds his father’s badge like a totem of honor (after pulling it from his father’s waste-bin). It is simultaneously a tender moment of connection and one of deep disconnect, as Ray realizes the kind of denial that faces a lifetime of unsettled justice. How do you come to a personal understanding of “justice” after seeing so much uncertain, upturned, corrupted? But our detective has a son and thus a reason to represent the badge his father now finds meaningless. Unlike the hermetic figure of Callahan, Ray feels a need to provide for both his father and son, even when they don’t seem to need or want his involvement. Seemingly, the badge is the only thing which connects the Velcoro men.

Frank’s office overlooks the floor of his casino, one-way glass facing the tables stretching along the expanse. The walls within are yellow, a dull golden hue decorated with an illustrated scroll. On it, a crocodile clenched in mortal coil with a black-and-red banded snake; equal in virility, the two approach death together. The sixth episode of the season provides a terrifying analog, as Ray goes to Frank’s home to confront him about false information he was given. Frank is soft, accommodating, offering a mug of coffee as the two sit at his dining table. The composition is mirrored, each sitting opposite the other, black coffee in a black mug at their right. Each one’s left hand is flat and relaxed on the table, while both right hands are hidden beneath, fingering guns pointed at the other. The side-facing camera reveals the entire scene, perfect framing as small talk and wafts of steam from the coffee barely mask the underlying tension and potential for violence. Finally, Frank defers, and puts his gun on the table. They both share a glance, a pause, and a realization of the humanness of the other, and the familiar despair which racks each of them. They both reach for their coffee.

“I hardly recognize this face I wear” the series’s tormented singer lilts in the bar at which so many of Frank and Ray’s meetings occur. Her character establishes atmosphere and builds scenes through the mood of her haunting songs. Americana singer and songwriter Lera Lynn plays the bar’s musician, with heavy-lidded eyes and lips, and music sung like each phrase was her last. In one scene, “My Least Favorite Life” aptly scores a vital conversation between Frank and Ray. Their hard masks, spotlit so the lines of the face and circles below the eyes shade black, seem inscrutable. Yet from the songs, glimmers of fear, desolation, and brokenness pass through the barroom haze to wreath the two figures, and we know that there is more to be said.

In viewing True Detective, we might begin to forget that we have entered a world of irrevocable violence as the heavy, warm camera filters seep amber-like into our subconscious. Yet the second season, unlike the first, does not let us forget the bodies left behind. A striking choice on the part of writer and showrunner Nick Pizzolato is to zero in on the moments immediately following acts of violence—Ani infiltrating a party of corrupt officials and businessmen that turns sour—to confront the viewer with the horror which follows such trauma. Ani must spend her life training to protect herself from violence from a man, and this fear and its pervasive influence controls her character. Unfortunately, as is typical with noir, the women in the show (except those with a badge) are helpless, victimized by the actions of the men around them. Ani cannot escape the system which victimizes her, but plays her character with a rare strength. Her trauma is spoken as a moonlit soliloquy, a story retold a hundredfold times at night to herself. It is the acceptance of death, the resulting shock, the memory replayed—indeed branded—in her head as the comfortable world is sleeping. We are led to see that these cops are not invincible, nor too hard-boiled to realize their own fragility and its effects.

The second season of True Detective achieves a tenderness and fragility in its characters unexpected given the violence of its action. There is, for instance, something lovely—as if occurring in its own world—about Ray recording voice messages to his son. In the still enclosure of the vehicle (in which so much of Season 1’s moral debate transpired), Ray drives along moonless desert highways, voice low and face almost soft in the glow of his dashboard lights. The moment is timeless, and these scenes focus us on the intense emotion of his relationship with his son. We might see Ray through his bloodied fists or the wan haggardness of his drinking, but Ray becomes immutable; his tenacity—like that of Ani, Paul, and Frank—carries him through the turbidities of the season. This is the drama that makes it all worth watching: the dual fragility and doggedness which make us human and lets us see past the violence and trauma toward the image of those we love.

 

Gregory Maher is a writer living in Chicago and contributor to KNSTRCT and Newcity magazines.

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