After all the allusions to The King In Yellow and the Carcosa mythos, many viewers were disappointed that the first season of True Detective didn’t pay off in a supernatural event or explanation. It’s fitting, then, that season two is proving to be a ghost story—a ghost story with no supernatural elements.
Everyone and everything in True Detective is haunted: by personal demons and childhood trauma, by expectations unfulfilled and desires sublimated, by a past waiting to emerge at the worst possible moment. Paul Woodrugh is haunted by the man he tries to be and by the man he won’t let himself be. Ray Velcoro is haunted by the fear that his son is the offspring of his wife’s rape and by the fear that this hesitant, soft, bullied child is his own biological son. Frank Semyon is haunted by his failure to go legit and by the lethargy a legit life inspires in him.
Ani Bezzerides is haunted, and “Church In Ruins” delivers a thuddingly predictable revelation of her childhood specter. After all the buildup—a conspiracy of philosophers and free thinkers and bohemians, the succinct history that she’s the only child of the Panticapaeum Institute to avoid jail time or suicide, her mother’s death, her barbed resentment of her father—it was just a hippie in a microvan who abused her body and trust, who left her bitter and bristling with defenses, literal and figurative.
No long-protected cabal of dreadful power, no secret inter-generational plot exploiting the most vulnerable members of a community of zealots. Just one man telling a trusting child there’s a unicorn in the woods, taking her hand, and taking every future moment of trust away from her forever.
The scene—or scenes, flipping between the dim golden light of the house party and the bright sunlit memory of her assailant—is hackneyed, but Rachel McAdams’ deft touch carries the moment. Ani’s eye brim with tears, but her mouth is a hard line as she withdraws from a possessive nameless john, and she manages to retain Ani’s fiercely set shoulders even as she stumbles around in a drug-addled haze.
The men and women—but especially the men—of True Detective are haunted by fatherhood: by their fathers’ failings, by their own failings as fathers, by their failings as sons and daughters. But in “Church In Ruins,” writers Nic Pizzolatto and Scott Lasser remember that not every hereditary visitation is traumatic. In one of his best scenes this season, Vince Vaughn shows there’s more to Frank than a wooden businessman or a grinning gangster. Speaking to the adolescent son of his late henchman, Frank tells the boy, “You got him in you. His fight is in you.”
At first, it sounds like an echo of Ray Velcoro’s grim bits of fatherly wisdom, a rumination on a man’s innate self and the infinite reaches of pain, but Frank’s advice is a genuine gift to a bereaved child, an acknowledgement of his pain and a promise that he’ll live through it. “That’s what pain does. It shows you what was on the inside, and inside of you is pure gold. I know that. Your father knew that too.”
It’s the obverse of the adult fears at the center of every episode: that the terrible secrets they hold inside will spill out for all to see. Frank knows what Stan’s son needs to hear because no one ever said it to him.
Frank knows Ray Velcoro, too. After the revelation everyone but him saw coming, Ray bangs on Frank Semyon’s door, ready to kill him (or be killed by him) for his betrayal. Ray wants to think Frank is the devil who coaxed him to murder, who gave him a name to pin Gena’s rape on “because you knew what I’d do.”
Frank won’t accept that. “I gave you a name and you made a choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting,” he says, and “I knew what I’d do. I didn’t know you at all.”
The camera shows what Frank doesn’t want to see. Frank knows Ray, and he always did. (Or, as Ray tells the actual rapist when he visits him in prison, “You know me. You just didn’t know you did.”) These two men—these two dark silhouettes, each with one hand flat on the table and the other tight on his gun—are echoes of each other. They share investigations and interests, they share legwork, they share Johnny Walker and memories. Their fates are intertwined, for good or ill.
Each man is haunted by his thwarted attempts at righteousness. Ray’s a cop always tilting out of true; Frank is a gangster trying to go straight. Neither really understands yet that, at least in Vinci, there’s no such thing as going straight. There’s only going more crooked, wallowing in the corruption. The statesmen, lawmakers, and tycoons of True Detective’s California are more corrupt than Frank dreams of being.
Even the California of True Detective is a haunted territory, contaminated by industries long departed. “The interior’s poisoned,” Ani Bezzerides tells Ray in “Other Lives,” and though she means a vast stretch of land, her words describe everyone and everything in the story so far. The interior is poisoned—by repression, by denial, by buried history. The land is contaminated, the avocado trees won’t grow, Frank’s seed won’t take purchase in Jordan’s womb. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
That’s unfortunately true of the series, too. I’m always glad to see Michael Hyatt show up on my screen, but Katherine Davis’ presence here does nothing to forward the plot and contributes to the repetition dragging down the whole season. “Work the girls and the parties, and you work the diamonds,” D.A. Davis tells Ani and Paul, reiterating the approach they settled on in the previous episode.
These retreads pad out the episode, making it feel longer than it is without adding anything. Athena warns Ani she won’t be able to bring a phone or weapon into the secret party; another scene burns time while Ani relates that to Paul and Ray. Paul learns the details of the Sable Fine Jewelers’ heist first from a working detective, then from a retired cop. And this despite True Detective’s tendency to cut to and away from conversations as they unfold. Plenty of repeated exposition could be elided in these cuts, but the show doesn’t do it. It’s plodding where it needs to be fleet and vague where it needs to be precise.
In his first review of this season, Erik Adams described how the shadow of season one looms over True Detective’s second outing. But the show is haunted by more than its own success. It’s haunted by its own format, and by the genre it imitates. With its welter of secret land deals, of pork barrel projects, of poisoned run-off and grounds so toxic they can’t be built on, of prostitutes cut to “make eights into tens,” of bacchanals and blackmail, of family secrets so vile they drive women to madness and suicide, True Detective is the vague incarnation of noirs and neo-noirs from The Big Sleep to L.A. Confidential, from Chinatown to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Noir often indulges in unexamined plot lines, connections masquerading as coincidences, and coincidences made to feel like fate. In a 90-minute movie, that’s easy to excuse. In an eight-hour series, those sins loom larger.
But at its heart, True Detective is closer to pulp than to noir. It’s trashier and more lurid that the gritty realism of noir. “Church In Ruins” exults in its pulpy heart, from the tawdry faux glamour of Ani’s costume (“You gotta dress like you’re worth $2000 a night,” Athena warns her, “you’re going to need somebody’s help with that”) to the sweeping music scoring the scene to the sensationalism of the house party where Viagra and molly are the party favors to the dashing escape under the full moon.
It’s not the philosophical ramble or drawn-out character study of season one. It’s a tumble of smut and poison and muddled mystery, a pulpy mess. And it’s finally winding up the line that’s been playing out all season. It feels like the second season of True Detective is getting to know itself a little bit, or like it knew itself all along and just didn’t know it did.
- “Give me some time,” Frank asks; Ray shoots back, “You sure you got time?” True Detective is also under a deadline, and I’m not sure it can get respectable fast enough to save itself. There’s a lot of story to reel in over the next two episodes.
- “These contracts, signatures all over them.” Paul’s pleased to have stumbled across so many names connected to the land deal, but the phrasing suggests a certain artlessness. Yes, there are names on them, sweetpea. That’s how contracts work.
- Paul to Ani: “Get in, and try not to stab anyone unless you have to.” Good advice under most circumstances.
- But sometimes you have to. “A man of any size lays hands on me, he’s gonna bleed out in under a minute,” Ani told Ray, and darned if that isn’t exactly what happened.
- Ani entered the party as Athena Bezzerides, and there’s no reason to think Blake and his goons won’t come after her sister for her attack on a high-rolling client.
- True detection corner: If she was four in 1992, little Laura Osterman, who saw her parents executed in a tactical jewel heist, is just old enough to be aging out of the escort circuit.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me sneak into the True Detective house party! I didn’t even stab anyone. Yet.