“Am I Diminished?”
The closing moments of “Night Finds You”, the second episode of True Detective’s contentious sophomore season, are shocking and weird in a way that recalls the best moments of the acclaimed first season. It’s hard not to feel the show struggling under the weight of that first season throughout the episode, as creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto alternates between distancing the plot and tone as much as possible from the story of detectives Cohle and Hart’s investigation, while offering the occasional callback. The cliffhanger that brings “Night Finds You” to an end is arguably the clearest evocation of season one’s dark weirdness, which is fitting considering it’s also the episode’s strongest moment. If later episodes can infuse more of the tone and style of detective Velcoro’s late-night rendezvous with a guy in a bird mask with shotgun in hand, the early negative buzz surrounding this season could be deemed premature.
One of the more prominent criticisms of last week’s season premiere was that some of the main characters didn’t get a lot of development time. “Night Finds You” seemingly addresses this shortcoming right off the bat with an extended scene involving a late-night chat between Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon and his wife Jordan. While it feels like the scene is trying too hard to recapture the extended introspection of Matthew McConaughey’s pseudo-intellectual detective Rust Cohle, it still does a good job of establishing Frank’s frame of mind. It becomes clear in short order that city manager Ben Casper’s murder has Frank in financial shambles, causing him to lay awake at night to ponder the truth of his own reality. Frank’s recounting of a childhood trauma is riveting (if a bit unoriginal as a character development device) and the scene’s lighting effectively echoes the literal darkness of the locked basement story. Frank’s focus on the bedroom ceiling water stains is an effective device to establish his vulnerability…and also serves as the episode’s best scene transition, as the stains morph into the burned-out eyes of the deceased Casper.
The investigation into Casper’s murder gets well underway this episode and much like the main investigation in season one, the details of the case aren’t as important or interesting as the character interactions or visual storytelling surrounding them. Unfortunately, there’s a bit too much info-dump here, to the point where the case overshadows pretty much everything else, which is a problem when the show makes the details the least interesting component. It’s intriguing getting to see how Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woodrugh are essentially made to work together while investigating each other, but there aren’t enough scenes featuring the three of them together to make this plot land as well as it should. Meanwhile, Frank is actively trying to put out fires brought on by his $5 million loss as a result of Casper’s death. His motivation in finding Casper’s killer lends some much-needed urgency to the proceedings, as it’s clear that he will become more dangerous the longer he goes without finding his money. Another scene between Velcoro and Semyon takes place at the saddest bar in California (seriously, do they have another stage talent other than “depressing acoustic lady”?), which crackles with tension as Velcoro voices his desire to get out of the game, considering he doesn’t have much to live for anymore with the imminent loss of his son. If he’s still alive next episode, it’s safe to say that Ray will have more bones to pick with Frank for sending him into an ambush.
Fortunately, there are some good scenes between Velcoro and Bezzerides, with some even taking place in a moving car, which recalls the frequently enjoyable car ride scenes from season one. The standout is the one that functions as a reference to McAdams’s character’s inclusion as the sole female protagonist among a group of men, as Velcoro asks her why she carries so many knives. Ani’s response, asking if Ray could do this job if every man was capable of killing him with just their bare hands, was a standout moment for McAdams, who is already delivering a great performance in her role. There is a lot of pain and anger bubbling under Ani’s surface and it’s clear that she’s just as capable — and vulnerable — as the broken men surrounding her. We also now know that those knives of hers are going to come into play eventually, where we’ll see if Ani is as lethal as she seems to be.
The weakest link, yet again, is Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, who still feels like a perfunctory addition to this season’s main cast. That’s no knock against Kitsch himself, as his performance is fine. Woodrugh is simply the least interesting of the show’s four main characters at this point and it’s still not entirely clear what his point is. Right now, all we really know about him is that he really loves being a bike cop, has a mysterious dark military past he doesn’t want to discuss, and his childhood was (of course) extremely troubled. Paul’s mom, played by Lolita Davidovich, is introduced as a part of his past that Paul can’t shake, much like whatever he’s hiding in regards to his military exploits. To the show’s credit, it feels like Paul is being set up to become a major player in the principal action, but it’s still frustrating watching him putter about with no real purpose.
The other character that seems to be emerging is the City of Vinci itself, an industrial wasteland that feels incongruous with the sun-soaked California setting. “Night Finds You” spends considerable time having characters discuss and interrogate the city’s meaning; not only its past, but the corruption and wealth that is the subject of the state investigation running parallel with the quest to find Casper’s killer. Unfortunately, frequent asides about corrupt city officials and state rail plans aren’t exactly riveting material and it’s unclear yet why we as the audience should care about what’s really going on in Vinci. The introduction of booze-hound mayor Austin Chessani and his central connection to the main plot is a good start, but Vinci is just not interesting enough to warrant so much lip service.
The majority of “Night Finds You” feels like True Detective spinning its wheels trying to establish what it wants to be, with varying degrees of success. To its credit, the episode is elevated considerably by that final scene, which as already mentioned represents a welcome return to the creeping dread of season one and raises some interesting questions going into episode three. While it remains to be seen whether Ray is actually dead, his shotgun assault at the hands of Casper’s killer has considerably raised the stakes for a plot that was beginning to meander. One thing’s for sure: True Detective season two can’t be written off yet, especially if it just killed off a major character only two episodes in.
- Ray and Ani’s parting comments to each other were some of the best bits of dialogue and character interaction in the entire episode. Ray warns her that the case isn’t what it seems, but then clams up when she asks him point-blank about how corrupt he really is. It’s a good bait-and-switch and hopefully hints at further revealing exchanges down the road (if Ray is still around, of course).
- The roadside assault offers some punctuated brutality midway through the episode (even if it’s not really clear just who is being assaulted) but the real meat of the scene is Vince Vaughn’s delivery of his not-so-thinly veiled intimidation, which helps establish his character’s menacing figure, which hadn’t been conveyed as well leading up to this scene.
- Paul is asked at one point why he was even put on the case. We’re wondering the same thing.
- Seriously, what a fantastic ending. Everything about that scene is top-quality and shows why this show made such a splash last year. Now just do more of this sort of thing, season two!