All is not well in Frank Semyon’s inland empire. He can’t sleep. There’s water damage on the bedroom ceiling. He has to pay a visit to a previous business venture he’d much rather forget. He’s reminded of the time his drunk father locked him in the basement for the better part of a workweek. And, oh yeah: The guy who was holding the money for Frank’s commuter rail payday just had his eyes burned out, his genitals shot off, and his body discarded in a roadside park. All in all, it’s a pretty shitty time to be Frank Semyon.

But it’s a pretty shitty time to be any of the main characters in this season of True Detective. When they’re not getting dumped, being threatened with a paternity suit, revisiting unhappy childhood memories, or losing the financial opportunity of a lifetime, they’re having shotgun rounds emptied into their chest. Ray recites the season two tagline in “Night Finds You”—“My strong suspicion is that we get the world we deserve”—but from the sounds of the rest of the episode, Semyon, Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh don’t just deserve this world—they’ve earned it.

There’s just enough weirdness coursing through “Night Finds You” to pull the episode away from its non-stop misery parade. Paul’s mom’s obsession with Clint Eastwood, for instance, or the tanned hide who gets grilled about Caspere’s proclivities. (Episode two bolsters my suspicion that this season is a stealth sequel to Inherent Vice.) Unfortunately, we’re not far enough into the season for any of these personal tragedies to mean much of anything. When the episode turns away from the Caspere investigation, it tries too hard to get meaningful interactions out of its main characters, who remain little more than indistinct shapes with famous faces. When the faces interacting belong to Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell, some of the old True Detective spark comes into the picture; Vince Vaughn and Taylor Kitsch don’t fare as well.

It might just be that Vaughn struggles to fill Matthew McConaughey’s cosmically sized shoes. The sequence in which Frank lies awake in bed is positioned as this week’s philosophical knockout, a wise-guy-going-legit telling himself “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!” But his proclamations don’t land, despite the moody early morning light, the overhead photography, and the composition that puts Vaughn’s eyes in the same part of the frame occupied by the stain on the ceiling—and, after a spooky dissolve, the hollowed-out eye sockets of Ben Caspere. Two episodes of evidence isn’t enough to say that this type of material is out of Vaughn’s reach, but there’s a lack of gravity to his weighty words about Frank’s past and present. He appears so much more at ease delivering some roadside intimidation later in the episode—a skin Frank wears more comfortably, too.

Advertisement

Advertisement

The difference between those two scenes is indicative of why I’m having trouble plugging all the way in to this new round of True Detective. The gravely serious stuff, the pulpy kicks, and the genuinely silly material is jockeying for the show’s attention, a competition that lifts up “Night Finds You” in spots and drags it down in others. Get a load of Colin Farrell and Abigail Spencer outside the most depressing Buffalo Wild Wings in California, two talented actors delivering performances for completely different shows. Spencer’s acting in a True Detective that hews closer to the flashes of Rectify seen within season one, moments in which the show took crime-fiction conventions and popular notions of the American south and explored the human beings behind those images. But Farrell’s True Detective persona is as big and broad as those tropes and archetypes, a compromised hero with an extreme temper. Meeting up with his ex-wife, Ray’s mustache might as well have a built-in vocal filter that turns all of his lines into Frank Sabotka’s “We used to build shit in this country” speech. The True Detective of season two exists between these poles, in a place where presidents and movie cowboys are no more than two-dimensional photographs; a place where a paternity test is the sharpest knife in Spencer’s arsenal. Whether that’s a place worth visiting on a weekly basis is still undetermined.

On the subject of knives: The episode’s most effective bit of character-building takes place within a throwback to season one. Surprise: Two law-enforcement officers jawing in a squad car is still True Detective’s greatest hit. Ray comes out and asks Ani the question that’s been on everyone’s mind—“What’s with all the knives?”—and she shoots just as straight: “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could physically overpower you?” Forget that Rachel McAdams plays Ani with such low-simmer intensity that Detective Bezzerides could feasibly beat up any criminal in Vinci; forget that the line that follows (“Forget police work, no man could walk around like that without going nuts”) not-so-subtly keeps “Night Finds You” on the impotency-and-emasculation path. (We see you, Paul Woodrugh, spending the night in your childhood bedroom before leaving your main squeeze.) Bezzerides and Velcoro’s ride back from their expedition up north shows an interest in actually getting to know the detectives as people with feelings and opinions, and McAdams and Farrell rise to the challenge—even as Ani keeps her guard up re: her childhood among The Good People. Good for her, because there’s enough backstory in this episode to begin with, troubled childhoods and other prerequisites to brooding that aren’t nearly as interesting as Velcoro’s thoughts on vaping. “Maybe it’s just a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick”: Intentional punchline, or ponderous prattle that’s accidentally funny? Ani’s keeping to herself on that one, too.

Advertisement

While Ray’s going through the e-cig spiel, Ani’s preoccupied with the details of the investigation, something she shares in common with “Night Finds You.” The mystery isn’t secondary to True Detective this year, and while that detracts from some of the things that once set the show apart, it’s nice to see the case of the season compensating where other components are lacking. This week’s all about building a profile of Ben Caspere and sussing out which of the cops assigned to the investigation might be compromised. With Ani, Ray, and Paul all assembled in the morgue, the episode slips in and out of the present tense, elaborating on the jurisdictional pileup that put all three officers on the case and dropping in on the briefings that ensued. The playful sense of time enlivens the sequence, which pumps 27 million pounds of motivation and information into the season’s ongoing arcs: a state probe, an abridged history of Vinci, a potential $900 million windfall for the city. All plausible explanations for Caspere’s death, all secrets that the cops have to keep from one another. Deft touches like these give me hope for season two.

The other great hope arises when “Night Finds You” wipes the scowl from its face, rears back, and goes bonkers. Perhaps the protagonists of the second season are so serious because they’re hemmed in by kooks, my favorite being Mayor Austin Chessani, with W. Earl Brown’s Detective Teague “Harvey Bullockmania: Not Harvey Bullock, But An Incredible Simulation” Dixon a close second. The mayor is a man who so thoroughly deglamorizes drinking in the office, even Freddy Rumsen would be like “Whoa, slow down there.” Ritchie Coster’s scenes this week are meted out to trace the downward spiral of a single bender: He’s lucid and comprehensible in the first meeting with Ray, slurry and forgetful in the presence of Ray and Ani, and Looney Tunes blotto when Frank pays a visit. By the time he’s slurring Yiddish curse words about his children, he’s given up on the perfunctory gesture of pouring his cocktail, instead sipping straight from the shaker. This could be metaphorical—the mayor going straight to the source of drunkenness, just like he dips his hands in the county coffers—but I choose to read it as True Detective awakening to its own absurdity. Because True Detective’s California is an absurd place: It’s a comically snockered city official, a therapist wearing sunglasses indoors, a bar with a live-in singer-songwriter-witch, the middle fingers of kids playing in a dry reservoir, or a pimp with the words “Fuck You” engraved into his Cheshire Cat grin.

Advertisement

If there’s a way to properly mix the show’s warring impulses, Ray may have found it in Caspere’s secret L.A. sex bungalow. Here True Detective’s desires to be artful and to be weird collide in a sequence so stylishly lit and so purposely suspenseful, you can practically hear Justin Lin muttering “Take your tracking shot and shove it” as the camera follows Colin Farrell into the lion’s den. But on top of that, there’s the implication of bestial kink and the Bobby “Blue” Bland cut roaring out of the vintage-style radio, with apparent soundproofing and a hidden camera to go along with the sex swing hanging from the ceiling. We’re getting more of Ben Caspere’s story, but it’s also more of the same; as Ani sums it up earlier in the episode, “Guy really thought about fucking a lot.”

Advertisement

But then there’s the empty dummy head that lets us know the masks aren’t trophies from the hunt, a void that’s filled with the most memorable image from the season premiere. The bird mask is missing, and the bird mask finds Ray before he can find it, and suddenly Detective Velcoro is flattened by the shotgun that likely came between Caspere and his favorite toy. After Ray hits the floor, “Night Finds You” stays at ankle level, dollying away from a scene that’s not unlike the one Frank describes at the beginning of the episode. Ray is alone and ailing and no one can hear him. It’s a hell of a cliffhanger for the second episode of a show that just reinvented itself a week ago. It’s weird, yes, but it’s also unexpected—two habits True Detective would do well to indulge in more frequently.

Stray observations

  • A+ stink eye from Bezzerides, responding to the symbolic office decor of Dr. Benedict Creeperbatch.

Advertisement

  • I wouldn’t have guessed it going in to season two, but the scenes featuring the erstwhile Tim Riggins are the parts of True Detective I’m least excited about. Taylor Kitsch just can’t catch a break! But at least Paul’s getting his name in the papers.

Advertisement

  • Best product misplacement in “Night Finds You”: Buffalo Wild Wings, the place for beer, sports, wings, and sad dads, or…
  • Crosley, the throwback consumer electronic brand preferred by murdered kinksters?

Advertisement