TRUE DETECTIVE Review: “Night Finds You”

Phil and Scott take on season two's second episode, are still onboard with it.

Note: Last year, I recapped True Detective on my own. This year, I'm delighted to be joined by Birth.Movies.Death's own Phil Nobile Jr. Let's just get straight to it.

Phil: We open on another sunrise, as Frank (Vince Vaughn) ponders two water stains on the ceiling above his bed, and the traumatic childhood moment which “created” him. Pizzolatto’s long speeches aren’t yet singing for me, even though I like the show toying with the idea of there being one moment when you become the person you’re going to be forever. Frank was created in his dad’s basement the way Ray (Colin Farrell) was created by the way he processed/co-opted his wife’s rape? I wonder if that’s the road we’re going down. I have to say, apropos of nothing, I personally found the idea of a water stain on the ceiling sending an insomniac homeowner down an existential k-hole to be deeply, deeply resonant.

Scott: After the episode aired, I saw a lot of people - even people on Team Season 2 - pointing out the “Rats” speech as a major weak point in last night’s episode. Some of ‘em hated the scene as written, some of them were down on Vaughn’s delivery in the scene...but I don’t know, the whole thing worked for me. It’s true that Pizzolatto’s stylized dialogue doesn’t always flow smoothly out of Vaughn, but overall I think he’s handling better than expected (reminder: I spent the last few months as a serious season 2 skeptic). The truth is, some actors are going to feel more natural spouting this stuff than others. And until we reach an actor who’s just completely unable to sell the material, I’m fine with that.  

Side note: I loved how the shots here transitioned from Frank’s eyes to the water stains to the cadaver’s empty eye sockets. Solid work by Justin Lin there.

Phil: The blocking in the coroner scene, which we’ll get to in a second, sort of tagging in each detective’s flashback, was nicely done as well. You don’t have to overthink everything, directors! Clean work is good work.

But  I’m not gonna pretend Vaughn’s opening monologue wasn’t an unwieldy mouthful, or a little heavy-handed. But his later scene with the guy he has roughed up on the street made up for it. I watched that moment and the knowledge that Pizzolatto wrote that character for him made a ton of sense.

The pushback from Ray to Frank in this episode is interesting. Last week felt like we were seeing a long-term friendship, almost. Frank even seemed caring/concerned about Ray in the bar! This week there’s much less amicable cooperation between them, or even affection. Frank can’t even pronounce Ray’s last name correctly (“Im waiting for this ‘Velcaro’ burnout to make like Rockford?”).

Scott: Frank only concerned about Ray in the same way a drug dealer might be concerned about the health of his best customer. Make no mistake - Frank’s a ruthless mofo. They’ve undersold that a little bit so far by playing up Frank’s insecurities and focusing on him trying to go legit (well, relatively legit), but this week’s episode really started giving us a peek behind that curtain: the scene by the side of the road following that dude’s beating (an episode highlight in general, and my favorite Vaughn moment from the season thus far), Frank’s shittiness towards Ray...I look forward to finding out how low this character goes.

Phil: Part of it, too, is that last week Frank had his smiling legit businessman face on, because things weren’t falling apart. Now he’s out millions and double-mortgaged and, well, fucked, so we’re seeing Old Frank come back out of the basement.

Phil: Last week was a very deliberate “setting of the table” - the show putting everything in its place in anticipation of The Meal, and tonight felt like the first course. Just a big ol’ pile of plot, completely out of balance with last week’s goings-on, but that felt like the point, and I dug it. I also had trouble keeping up with it on first viewing.

Scott: Don’t feel bad: I’ve only had time to watch this episode once, and I definitely had more trouble keeping up with it this week. Not in general, but during one sequence in particular: the coroner scene, the one with all the flashbacks/crosscuts. I dug the mechanics of that scene, but it lost me about halfway through, because I am a dummy.

Phil: I thought the coroner scene was spectacular. A wealth of murder clues (and the crotch shot that will launch a thousand masculinity think pieces) cross-cut with our three “heroes” being given their marching orders from their respective bosses. Really effective way to reset/refresh, and to draw the lines clearly (or clearly on a second viewing, maybe).

Scott: I think a second viewing will definitely help. I know the takeaway there was, “Here are the agencies in play, here are their various agendas, and those agendas are why they are destined not to play nice together”, but the specifics of each agency’s agenda got a little blurry about halfway through the sequence. Break it down for me, Phil.  

Phil: The state police see Caspere’s death as “a window into everything” illegal happening in Vinci, and they use the technicality of their Statie Woodrugh (Kitsch) finding the body as their way in, an excuse to peel back the skin of Vinci to find out how deep its corruption runs. The crime scene means Ventura’s got jurisdiction, so they send in Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and are more-or-less fine with the state’s help, while Ray Velcoro’s  many masters in Vinci give him instructions to gum up the investigation.

“Ray accepts dualities must be effected to serve public interest”, his lieutenant tells the mayor, to which Ray dryly says “I really do.” Farrell’s delivery on that line is amazing. And Ray’s acceptance of dualities is illustrated as he goes to get his other orders from Frank, in one of those secret meetings that is set in a vantage point that must be visible to the entire city.

Scott: Ha!

Phil: Title sequence sidebar: different lyrics! The second half of the pilot’s theme song went thusly:

My woman’s here

My children too

Their graves are safe

From ghosts like you

In places deep

With roots entwined

I live the life I left behind

The war was lost

The treaty signed

I was not caught

I crossed the line

I was not caught

Though many tried

I live among you

Well disguised

This week it was:

I could not kill

The way you kill

I could not hate

I tried I failed

You turned me in

At least you tried

You side with them

Whom you despise

There’s truth that lives

And truth that dies

I don’t know which

So never mind

And not to give anything away, but there are a bunch of other lyrics in that song that I can see resonating for the show down the line. Not sure there are six more episodes’ worth, but I’ll leave that to the Magic Factory.

Scott: This is a really interesting development! Bummer this version isn’t online yet, or I’d include it here. I’m tempted to look up the rest of the lyrics, but I think I’m going to refrain for the time being. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I think I’d prefer to experience this element week-to-week, as prescribed by T-Bone Burnett (assuming he’s the one who’s pulling the strings on this creative decision).

I will say, however, that - as predicted last week - I’m warming up to these credits/this song more and more with each viewing. Got a nice “apocalyptic L.A.” feel to it, I think. On a related note: did you see that video someone cut together incorporating last year’s theme song with this year’s title treatment?

Phil: No! Why would someone do that?

Scott: Because the internet can’t leave well enough alone! Here it is, take a look. 

Phil: As Jacob Hall points out in his Esquire piece, Caspere’s actual murder suddenly seems less of a “Russian mafia” MO and maybe something much more personal (“he liked to watch”). What did you make of all the sidelong suggestions about the specifics of his sexual proclivities?

Scott: I think that, when combined with some of the rumors we heard about this season a few months ago (I’ll refrain from reiterating them here, on the off-chance you/readers avoided them when they were reported), Caspere’s overactive sex life represents the tip of season two’s naughty-shenanigans iceberg. The sex swing and the animal masks towards the end of the ep make it clear that there’s more going on here than a dude who does a lot of boning.

I’m actually more interested in the sexual proclivities of two of our three detectives: this week, we learned that Woodrugh’s boner pills have less to do with malfunctioning machinery, and more to do with his sexual preference. And what was up with that moment where we see Ani browsing the escort site? Is it just me, or did you get the feeling she was lingering on those porn clips a bit longer than professional curiosity might demand?  

Phil: YEP. And I really, really don’t want to drag this point up again, but I’m bracing myself for a “be careful what you wish for” situation here. When folks were clamoring for Pizzolatto to include more diverse characters last year, with the argument that you could just swap the characters out for the less represented and it shouldn’t make a difference, I wondered if they’d thought plan that all the way through. Because if we’re going to turn this:

“In True Detective Nic Pizzolatto, a middle-aged white male, delves into the ugly, innate sexual darkness inside middle-aged white males.”

Into this:

“In True Detective Nic Pizzolatto, a middle-aged white male, delves into the ugly, innate sexual darkness inside a young woman and closeted gay man.

...then gentlemen, start your hashtags, because shit’s about to get #problematic as fuck. 

Phil: Ray’s sneaker-based family problems continue! We’re starting to tell more than show here.

1. Aspen’s dad’s ass-whipping is making some noise, but only Ray’s ex, Alicia (Abigail Spencer) seems to know it was him.

2. Ray’s going to lose custody of his maybe-son.

3. Ray basically blames his wife Alicia for the path down which killing (?) her rapist has sent him, and she smartly refutes that, causing him to change gears quickly to “I HAD A RIGHT!” It goes even further, with her calling him out for not being strong enough to remain decent in the wake of her assault. When she threatens a paternity test, he looks around nervously and almost stage whispers, as if his worst secret is about to be found out. It’s a pretty telling scene.

Scott: It’s an extremely telling scene. Yeah, it’s a little on-the-nose (“You used to be good! Now you’re bad!”), but there’s a lot more happening in that scene than what’s being said, particularly as that pertains to what these characters have become in the years since Alicia’s assault.

And I’m glad Alicia was aware of Ray whooping that dude’s ass. Far too often I’ll see shit like that happen in TV shows/in movies, only for it never to be addressed again. If you show up on a dude’s porch and feed him brass knuckles in front of his kid, there’s gonna be repercussions. Remains to be seen if Ray will be hearing more about this outburst from his superiors (and if they’d even care), but I like that it’s being talked about. And yeah, assuming Ray’s still alive (more on that in a minute!), I doubt he’s going to be spending much time “building models” with his terrified kid. Think that ship’s sailed, Ray.

On a related note, I’d like to pause for a moment to pay my respects to Farrell’s performance. I think everyone (yes, even Kitsch) is turning in solid work this season, but Farrell’s absolutely the standout for me. Here’s an actor who I’ve never really been much of a fan of (even In Bruges didn’t win me over) playing a character whose perfectly-rumpled appearance had me rolling my eyes when the S2 trailers started rolling in, and I’m completely sold. When Ray got shot at the end of the episode, I was legitimately bummed...until I realized that, considering some of the footage glimpsed in the trailers, there’s no way he can be dead at this point in the season.

Phil: I made some noise last year about True Detective being cultivated as a sandbox for actors to come and get to do things they weren’t getting to do elsewhere. People argued whether that was true of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, but I stand by that. And holy shit have they doubled down here. Matt Patches (also in Esquire!) singles out the mixed results with Vaughn, but it’s clear everyone else is going for broke, and Farrell is killing it. People expected a big, showy mess, but Farrell is filling the performance with tiny details that are surprising and amusing me quite a bit.

Scott: Before we get to the big scene at the end, here’s a few other odds and ends I’d like to mention: shout-out to Rick Springfield (yes, that Rick Springfield), playing the late Caspere’s smarmy doctor. The good doctor looks sort of like Benedict Cumberbatch run through a beef jerky machine, but he makes that cravat work, son. Hope we see more of this weirdo.

Phil: I stared and stared at that withered head and could not identify him.

Scott: Also loved that sequence with Ani and Ray feeling one another out in the car. As a number of other people have pointed out, this moment represents the closest thing we’ve seen the to Harrelson/McConaughey interplay of S1, but I enjoyed the scene more more than the nostalgia factor: unlike Vaughn, Farrell and McAdams have no problem making Pizzolatto’s dialogue sing, and I loved that little exchange about Ani’s preoccupation with knives.

Phil: I loved most of that scene, but Ani speechifying about “the fundamental difference between the sexes” makes me nervous. At this point, most of the suspense I’m feeling this season is watching the show navigate Ani and Paul.

Scott: Which brings us to the Big Moment. I’ll open by saying that my favorite part of the entire final scene was seeing that dummy head on the wall, realizing what was missing, and feeling the dread wash over me (“Velcoro: you in danger, girl”).

Phil: He breaks in, hears music playing, draws his gun and Birdman still gets the drop on him?

Scott: Show’s not called Good Detective, Phil.

Phil: I’m nitpicking! But after last week’s closing scenes, where they go to the trouble of showing Ray get all William Holden-style fucked up before going on a call, I wonder if just having him a little more messed up as he entered that house would have sold me on it more. Still, Birdman! I hope Birdman isn’t someone we know. I’m tired just thinking about all the dumb whodunit guesses.

Scott: Yeah, I’m not going to spend any time speculating on that. Too early for such foolishness. Let’s talk about Ray’s fate: guy can’t be dead, right? I mean, trailers feature footage of him we haven’t seen yet, and - as many people have pointed out at this point - the “Next Week On” teaser has him referred to as “shot”, not “killed”. I’m pretty confident about this being the case, but at the same time I’m also already sorta rolling my eyes at however they’re going to explain away the fact that dude just survived two direct hits with a shotgun at close range.

Phil: The “shot” line is easily fudged, but yeah, there’s pics out there of Ray and Bezzerides on a raid or a shootout. So maybe we were never meant to think he’s dead. Does Ray wear a vest every day? On first viewing I thought that second shot was to his junk, Caspere-style, but it’s two hits to the torso. It’s going to be...tidy if my homie Blackbird just left him in that state. Maybe episode three has him shooting his beak off and escaping.

Scott: “He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie sex dungeon!”

Having Ray in a vest is probably the best guess here, but even that feels like a cop out to me. If you stage a scene specifically to suggest that one of the major players has been killed, I’d prefer it if that’s what you were actually doing. Any explanation - no matter how realistic it might be - cheapens the thing. I think more highly of this show than that.

Phil: Gimmicky as hell. Agree.

Scott: Alright, final thoughts: I’m still firmly onboard the S2 train, though I’ll acknowledge that this episode had some rough spots. Some of the dialogue was undeniably clunky, and - as previously noted - that opening stretch felt a little unclear on my first watch (that’s probably my failing moreso than the show’s; I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt on that). But as I was saying on Twitter last night: even when this show’s clunky, it doesn’t bore me. I’m always engaged. I’m very happy thus far.

Also, does Paul’s mom have the hots for him or what?

Phil: If Paul’s mom Oedipushed him into being a closeted gay man, that’s also #problematic. But without copping out, this is a show that’s earned the right  to have judgment withheld somewhat. It’s not the binge-viewing model, where creators have license to be uninteresting for four or five hours. I’m confused and maybe a little skeptical, but I’m still intrigued. If I could have started episode 3 immediately at the end of last night’s episode, I would have. That’s all the show needs from me and, at the moment, all I need from the show.