Rachel McAdams (left), Taylor Kitsch

Tonight, HBO offers another lesson to aspiring TV coroners everywhere: Don’t declare a character dead until you’ve seen a bodybag, a corpse, or a corpse in a bodybag. After the best dream sequence of the summer, “Maybe Tomorrow” gets right to the point: Ray Velcoro survived the ambush at the end of “Night Finds You,” a bruised chest and some wet pants aside. Considering on how that attack was greeted seven days ago, Detective Velcoro’s response to Monster Mike’s Morning Mash-up—“Pissed myself”—sounds about right.

I didn’t dwell long on the shooting last week, because I was at unfair advantage regarding its outcome. Prior to the return of True Detective, HBO sent the first three episodes of season two to critics. Floored by a second episode that seemingly killed off a character whose casting was the subject of endless speculation, I jumped right into “Maybe Tomorrow.” Nic Pizzolatto and Vinci’s finest Elvis Conway Twitty impersonator left me hanging, but not for long: “The Rose” goes from live performance to radio broadcast, and Ray kicks back to life, given the type of second chance he and all of his colleagues are grasping for.

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Is it an effective cliffhanger? Absolutely, if the reaction to “Night Finds You” is any indication. Is it also a cheap trick played on an eager audience? Certainly, but this sort of narrative bait-and-switch is a TV staple. Would a dead Velcoro make for a bolder True Detective? Maybe, but that boldness would come at the expense of the season’s momentum, and “Maybe Tomorrow” already has enough plot to churn through as it is. Mourning Ray would’ve slowed things down, and as seen in this episode’s climax, the Caspere investigation can’t afford to slow down.

The episode takes some cues from the Game Of Thrones school of serialized storytellng: Start with a bang, advance the ongoing storylines in increments, then end with a louder bang. “Maybe Tomorrow” has a remarkable metabolism for information, which works to the advantage of a case that’s due to close in five hours. Casepere’s connections to the film industry yield the getaway vehicle, while his patronage of the Lux Inifinitum dredges up some new names and another Semyon associate turns up (definitively) dead. Around these new leads, there’s enough room for more background on our primary players, a visit to the stately home of Mayor Chessani, a sneak peek at Hollywood’s latest “collapse-of-civilization-revenge flick,” and a thrilling chase beneath the highways that tie this ball of pulpy string together. It’s still pretty goofy in spots—spots that usually involve Frank Semyon—but the revitalizing magic that “Maybe Tomorrow” works on Ray affects season two as well.

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It helps that some of the light shed this week falls on the rugged young CHiP in the season-two lineup. Paul Woodrugh’s portions of the first two episodes are so inconsequential that it’s easy to miss what seems to be the true source of his self-imposed isolation: He’s gay, and all the macho bullshit of being a police officer and a former military contractor has locked him in the closet. The signs of this inner conflict are there in the first two episodes—the blue pill, the casual/not casual slur he drops in the anecdote about the bank teller, the club-hopping angels spied from the hotel balcony—but a visit from Gabriel Luna (as Paul’s combat buddy, Miguel) makes them clearer.

Hunkered down in an Afghan village, the pair shared what sounds like a romantic bond. “Sounds like” because, as in the first two episodes, no one comes out and says “Paul’s gay, but certain expectations and prejudices are preventing him from admitting it.” That’d be bad writing—not “when I was a kid, I was locked in a dark room and I smashed a rat to death” bad, but “too direct for a show where everyone’s hiding something” bad. Instead, the scene at the motocross track plays Paul’s sexuality like another True Detective mystery, dropping clues here and there. Paul interrupts Miguel’s reminiscence of “them three days,” leaving Taylor Kitsch’s body language, Paul’s violent lashing out, and his previous bout of bigotry to fill in the rest of the story. It’s all performance, like most expressions of masculinity in the True Detective universe—be they facial hair or confrontational dental work. When the angels return later in the episode, it’s a developing season-two motif that gives us a read of Paul’s status: The silent reaction shot.

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Putting Paul’s sexuality in question doesn’t automatically make him a better or more interesting character, and it’s not like True Detective is breaking any ground by suggesting that one paragon of red-blooded, all-American manliness could fall in love with another. From what little of it we hear, Miguel’s recollection of the village outside of Alingar sounds like the preamble to a War On Terror take on Brokeback Mountain. It does, however, add dimensions that distinguish Kitsch’s glowering from that of his glum-faced co-stars. To that end, Paul even cracks a smile when Ani quizzes him about the Lacey Lindel incident, a welcome bit of sunshine poking through the season-two smog.

It also brings Paul into the most intriguing aspect of Pizzolatto’s “Maybe Tomorrow” script, a pattern of communication breakdown that recurs throughout the episode: Miguel talks about one thing (those three days they spent together in the village) while Paul hears another (the entire time they spent together in a war zone). The same effect occurs during the Semyons’ fertility clinic argument and the custody conversation between Mr. and the former Mrs. Velcoro; when Ray visits his dad’s place, the two men hardly look at each other as they converse. Frank eventually calls this pattern out in his meeting with Osip, following a loaded “This is too big to walk away from” that’s probably intended for Jordan: “I wasn’t talking about you. You leaving? Bon fuckin’ voyage.” It’s a neat connection between the episode’s character work and its murder-mystery trappings, some detective-story doublespeak that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Kirk Douglas movie monopolizing Pops Velcoro’s attention. (Which, I think, is Detective Story?)

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It’s also fitting for an episode that opens in a dream, an otherworldly projection that puts Ray in a familiar spot with a familiar person, but keeps everything else oblique and alien. “You ain’t that fast,” Ray’s father says, a prediction of doom for his son that also sets up the conclusion of “Maybe Tomorrow.” If there are other clues hidden in the dream, they don’t reveal themselves as easily—though a connection could be drawn between Ray’s roughed-up knuckles (“your father’s hands”) and Frank’s bare-knuckle brawl in the Lux Infinitum basement. The significance of the ersatz Elvis Twitty also goes unexplained, beyond the obvious tragedy that The King never had a chance to record his own rendition of “The Rose.”

(UPDATE: The original version of this review mistook the performer being impersonated in Ray’s dream. It’s supposed to be Conway Twitty. Obviously it’s supposed to be Conway Twitty—check out how he’s dressed in the YouTube embed below.)

The language of the dream is something to be decoded another time, because “Maybe Tomorrow”’s plate is too full to deal with investigations into the subconscious. The elder Velcoro might think it’s impossible to do police work nowadays, but his son is still pounding the pavement, as are Bezzerides and Woodrugh. They don’t turn up much in the way of hard evidence this week, but the stones they turn provide a fuller look at the world of season two: The wreckage at the mayor’s place makes Caspere’s house look like a nunnery, while the film set suggests deeper depravities and other places where Vinci officials can hide their money. The criminal conspiracy that the city manager was involved in goes all the way to the top, and then winds its way all around and throughout the greater Los Angeles area, squeezing the air out of Frank Semyon’s crew.

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Bigger than the burning Cadillac or Paul’s unspoken love, the major clue uncovered in “Maybe Tomorrow” is the body of Semyon lackey Stan. Here’s one where the coroner should have no problem ruling: The man is dead, his missing eyes connecting the crime to Caspere’s murder. Paul bumping into Frank in the club is more than dramatic irony: Their paths must cross, because the cops don’t solve this case without the gangster, and vice versa. Crime and justice are intertwined in this world, whether or not they’re ready to accept that. Both parties are already being targeted by the killer—though, in the criminals’ case, the killer is (or the killers are) finishing the job.

And like every other fly caught in this web, the killer and the car arsonist (“carsonist”?) wear masks. Like Paul’s sexuality, the “idyllic surface/dark underbelly” path “Maybe Tomorrow” takes isn’t fresh territory for the genre—but it does give True Detective a shot in the arm. The detectives are working a case in a town where everything’s a put-on, from the post-apocalyptic ruins on the film set to the mayor’s son’s speech patterns to the overpasses that cover up a maze of pup tents and barrel fires. Like Ray’s barroom sit-down with his old man—or like the shotgun blasts that pulled him into that sit-down—nothing here is what it seems at first glance. If season two is going to put so much emphasis on its investigations, eventually those façades will have to give way to hard evidence. For now, though, there’s enough bang in “Maybe Tomorrow” to make me wish I could jump into the next installment.

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Stray observations

  • Let’s be honest: The biggest disappointment of the dream sequence is that the Elvis Conway Twitty impersonator only exists in Ray’s head. (UPDATE: You ever hear that old journalistic saw about assumptions? Or that one about making sure you’ve read far enough into the Wikipedia entry on “The Rose”?)
  • Baseless Speculation Time!: Ray is dead, and the rest of season two will play out as his dying, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” dream of redemption.
  • The Semyons better be careful with Frank’s sperm: Vince Vaughn has had bad luck with fertility clinics in the past.
  • Everybody has an opinion on Ani’s habits: “Is that a fucking e-cigarette?”
  • Ray’s dream dad isn’t the only person who can see into the future in “Maybe Tomorrow”: Ani predicts Danny Santos’ impromptu dental procedure when she tells Steve, mid-breakup, “Talk to me like that again, you’re going to need a little baggie to carry your teeth home.” (Then again, Frank takes Danny’s teeth home in his pocket, so maybe he wouldn’t need the baggie.)

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