In Appreciation: True Detective Season 2 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Aug/150

In Appreciation: True Detective Season 2

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TD TitleThe story’s told
with facts and lies
I had a name
but never mind
-Leonard Cohen-

I don't dip into the well of television writing very often with the most prominent exception being our final thoughts on the finale of Breaking Bad.  But the loud and frequent flogging of True Detective's second was both somewhat expected and still unnecessarily harsh.  Nic Pizzolatto won more of the creative freedom he sought after his behind-the-scenes clashes with season 1 director Cary Fukunaga.  As the saying goes, he was expected to put up or shut up, and based on the critical reaction to season 2 it seems many would be fine if he shut up.  Admittedly, I haven't followed many of the reactions closely give or take a casual glance through the AV Club reviews and the writings of Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic I admire very much.  Seitz's reaction went from cautious praise of the first episodes to carefully metered admiration of the few high points in an otherwise deeply flawed season in his later writings.  His reaction, and now my own, are why True Detective's second season is worthy of greater conversation than the first, because the general reaction to the second season shows the way we watch and evaluate television has changed greatly since even The Sopranos or Breaking Bad kick-started the latest televisual renaissance.

Thanks to the wonder of HBO Go, I was able to marathon all eight episodes of season 2 yesterday on my 75-inch television.  I don't point these details out as a lark, but because how I watched it greatly changed my reaction to it.  Television is still in that murky spot where audiences are growing to anticipate each show follow a sort of serialized structure but creators are slowly forgetting that for the serialized structure to hold up each episode has to stand on its own.  Being able to go right from one episode to the next in great visual clarity allowed me to more quickly understand the scope of Pizzolatto's vision for season 2 as well as understand the frustrations of those who had to watch it week to week.  The fifth episode was so wretched and inconsequential that if I watched them as they aired I'm sure I would have either given up on season 2 or adopted a similar position to Seitz's.  Instead, I was able to watch it in great quality and gird myself through the tedium through to the home stretch.  It's a luxury, one not everyone shares, and I don't intend on bashing the critics for not being able to construct the same experience I did.

What I will do is bemoan some of the asinine responses bordering on "buy my True Detective fan-fiction" and concern trolling pieces about the slight decline in viewership numbers.  Both of those articles make a mistake common in criticism by analyzing the product for what the author wants it to be instead of what it is.  I'm not immune to slipping into this mode of analysis and a lot of my early writing flings out terms like "unsympathetic" or "plot hole" as if these were robust criticisms.  The problem with this approach is the product is not, as some have suggested about season 2, a story "bored with itself", but something that requires the viewer to get outside themselves for a moment to try and consider just what the product is doing.  This is why I've gradually shifted from a "will people like this?" approach to reviews and more "what is this doing?"  If you decide to join me in this path, I assure you more works of art, not just movies or television, will appeal to you.

Since I brought it up, what is season 2 of True Detective up to?  Let's start with the lead investigators of season 2, which director Justin Lin creates an instantly recognizable short-hand for in the first episode and the remaining directors (with one notable exception) disregard.

Watching the conspiracy 4Forced to listen 1The saddest blowjob 1A common complaint I've seen thrown around about season 2 is how riddled with cliché's it is.  Problem with this approach is almost all stories are laced with cliché of some type because familiar archetypes are what help guide the audience through a plot.  Neither Rust's tortured soul routine nor Marty's ultra masculine bad cop shtick was new, but McConaughey and Harrelson gave these characters fresh life with Fukunaga's direction and the way they twisted through Pizzolatto's script.

In these three shots, Lin tells us everything we need to know about these characters.  Detective Ray Velcoro (top, Colin Farrell) is shot not with a dead man's stare but a direct gaze at the audience to show how painfully present he is in the moment.  Sergeant Ani Bezzerides (middle, Rachel McAdams) is often pushed to the side and is constantly reminded why by her environment.  She's usually shot with a literal sign around her that gives some clues about what she's thinking but also why she's pressured not to speak.  Officer Paul Woodrugh (bottom, Taylor Kitsch) is the opposite of both Velcoro and Bezzerides, no matter the external stimuli his mind is never where his body is.  In this scene he's being pleasured orally, yet his mind is on whatever he's done in his past, and this tendency to wander back to what he used to be both spells trouble for his relationships and ends up saving the investigator's lives in the episode 4 "Vinci massacre".

Lin's episodes do their best to offer a guideline for future directors in how to frame the characters.  Unfortunately, this framing becomes lost after episode 3 only to be picked back up again in episode 7 by director Daniel Attias.  Not coincidentally, the best episodes of True Detective's second season are the ones Lin (1 and 2) and Attias (7) directed.  One other important thread Lin visually establishes in the first episode is how the conspiracy surrounding Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Woorugh is constantly keeping tabs on them.  A big thing to remember about any criminal conspiracy is that it's as important to understand who possesses what information instead of what deeds they've done in the past.  Lin again created a great shorthand for this with many scenes in the first two episodes.

Watching the conspiracy 1In the above shot, Velcoro is making a deal with Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) for the first time.  Prior to this shot Semyon waves one of his aides away so that he and Velcoro can make the devil's deal that will give Velcoro the name of the man who raped his wife.  Lin and season 2 cinematographer Nigel Bluck make the moral line Velcoro is about to cross influence by both Velcoro and Semyon's moral compasses (solid red line for what Velcoro realizes he is doing and the black acceptance of Semyon).  But instead of having Velcoro cross the space left to right, Lin and Bluck alter the angle so that Velcoro's approach the Semyon is right to left, commonly associated with regression or retracing steps in basic cinematic language.  So the camera affixes itself to a position on Velcoro's right and pans right to left along with him, and what do we see?

Watching the conspiracy 2Velcoro and Semyon aren't nearly as alone as Semyon's previous hand-wave would indicate.  Not only that, the clear moral lines separating Velcoro and Semyon in the earlier shot have been replaced with unseen observers and a more muddled backdrop.  This shows Velcoro is entering muddier moral waters than he perhaps realizes, and Lin shows that no matter how alone or sensitive the information shared between the characters may be there will always be someone else watching.  The conspiracy angle is already making its threat known and we haven't even entered into the investigation that forms the centerpiece of season 2.  Lin reintroduces this element repeatedly throughout the first two episodes, resulting in this great two-shot in the second.

Watching the conspiracy 6The power dynamics of this scene are clear.  Velcoro is assigned to a task force who will track down the killer of a man whose eyes were burned out with acid and whose genitals were destroyed by a shotgun.  Pizzolatto, as a sort of response to the criticisms of misogyny in season 1, stages a lot of the murders based on male genital mutilation and humiliation.  There are still gendered problems with season 2, but establishing the machismo reach of the machine behind the task force's investigation is done early on.  So Velcoro receives a clear talking down from his superiors, and this shot is important in the way it puts Velcoro on the same level as Mayor Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster).  All the characters standing in this scene are arranged left to right in the power we come to find they hold in the conspiracy.  So since another "private" conversation is taking place, look what we find when Lin switches to the reverse viewpoint of Velcoro.

Watching the conspiracy 7Once again, Velcoro is being watched by someone he either does not know is there, or doesn't care to know is there, and observation of this requires a right to left shot transition.  One of the interesting aspects of season 2 is how everyone is aware that their higher-ups are in on some kind of take, but because of the gratification they get they either ignore their involvement or accept it as a necessary evil.  What I like about these two shots is how Lin and Bluck have already created a prison for Velcoro.  The stone interior isn't exactly inviting, and the only natural light entering in the room is done through vertical bars like a prison cell.  What Lin is trying to do with these scenes and character shots is create a guidebook for the rest of the season on how to provide hints about what's going on with both the character's feelings involved in the cinematography as well as what the scenario is doing to them.  I'll get to how this guidebook was abandoned in a moment, because I want to focus on the positive for now and see how Attias brought the visual conspiracy shorthand in episode 7.

Watching the conspiracy 8By this point in the story, Frank's attempts at wheeling, dealing, and beating parties around him into submission have not gone well so he creates a little conspiracy of his own.  He meets a diamond dealer to try and get financial backing for a heist he's about to pull.  Again, it seems to be a conversation between Frank and the dealer about a quid pro quo they're about to enter.  But just when Frank reaches an agreement with the dealer we again do a right-to-left reveal to find:

Watching the conspiracy 9Frank's not alone.  But befitting Frank's character, he has the good sense to look behind him to at least get a glimpse of the people sitting in on his conversation.  Lin created a visual shorthand for the conspiracy in the first two episodes and Attias picked back up on this too late in the season to provide much of a positive impact.  So what happened between episode 2, the last one Lin directed, and episode 7, the one Attias directed?

The problem is that the photographic shorthand Lin established with Bluck was thrown out in lieu of doing whatever Pizzolatto and each episode's director wanted to do for that episode.  As a viewer, it makes the shifting terrain of the conspiracy that much more difficult to follow if the visual information isn't kept as consistent as the conspiracy of season 2.  The problem with this isn't that the conspiracy is meaningless or difficult to follow, as other authors have been able to give a full breakdown of what occurred during season 2, but that we're unconsciously primed to look at similar scenes the same way and future directors abandon Lin's shorthand for other approaches.

Since Frank ends up being the central body the characters orbit around in season 2, lets look at three different shots of him and how the philosophy behind the cinematography changes.

When it still has styleAnd now the style is blehHe's boxed in get itThe topmost image is one of my favorites in the series and comes from the first episode under Lin's direction.  It's complex, with plenty of action going on in the background and multiple lighting sources affecting the bodies of Frank and his cohorts.  But there's a clear target set in the middle with the yellow beams crossing just to Frank's left.  What I like about this is that both Frank's mood and the situation affect the lighting, with his increasing frustration and rage blending in with the decadence of the club.  The target is a great touch because it goes in both directions as Frank is at the club with a specific agenda but also doesn't realize he is also a target in the conspiracy.  The cinematography works on multiple levels and provides information about the environment, Frank's state of mind, and the danger Frank does not yet realize he's in.

Compare that to the relative simplicity of the middle shot.  There's not nearly as much going on in the background but what is there is jagged and chaotic.  At this point in the story Frank is filled with rage and lashing out against his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly).  The complexity of the top shot has been abandoned for more emotional directness as evidenced by the aggressive beam cutting through the light toward Jordan.  The conspiracy, or Frank's current situation, isn't as strongly reflected in the image but it's at least a clear view of what Frank is feeling at this point in time.

The bottom shot is what happens when complexity and emotional texture go by the wayside and Pizzolatto settles on overt visual clues that don't even line up with what's going on.  This shot comes from the nadir of the season, episode 5, when Frank has had to pack his life away and is getting boxed in by the conspiracy surrounding him.  The problem with this shot is its bluntness and awkward framing.  In this the boxes that are closing in on Frank aren't even closing in on his frame, but are separated from him like a thought bubble.  The background is much more simple so those boxes are our primary point of reference.  What's interesting comparing the three different shots is that the scenes actually lose emotional punch as they progress from the series because they get more simplified and moved away from the characters.  We see this in the other interactions as well, such as these shots whose staging is nearly identical:

Watching the conspiracy 5A dull counterpoint conspiracy watch

Once again, the top shot has a greater complexity to it than the bottom.  The surveillance angle of the conspiracy is present with one of Frank's goons listening in on the conversation, light is coming in from multiple sources and there's even generally speaking more stuff (bottle of scotch, condiments, food, files, and so on).  Then as the series goes on and they get lost in the conspiracy the scene becomes smokier, the lighting more harsh, and overall the tone is "moodier" without really giving us more information about the plot.  I'd make the case that the second shot is less complex because Frank and Velcoro are in a worse mood, but their mood is constantly dire in season 2.  Instead the scenes again lose their edge because they become emotionally simplified through their lighting and staging.

It indicates a lack of trust of the audience on Pizzolatto's part that he felt the need to make things visually simpler around the characters even as the conspiracy becomes more complicated.  This also suggests the clash between he and Fukunaga was an easily guessed one, that Pizzolatto had a grand idea but didn't have the chops to visualize it for the audience.  Fukunaga, and McConaughey in a once-in-a-lifetime performance, kept the lighting and blocking philosophy behind season 1 consistent.  Even with the same cinematographer, season 2's visual language is inconsistent and plays a part in losing the audience by switching philosophies between episodes.

None of this is Lin's fault, and he understands the lurid ridiculousness better than any of the other directors.  After all, this is how he decided to finish episode 2:

Jump the birdWith a direct challenge to the director of episode 3 to find a way to top the image of a black bird masked gunman double-tapping Velcoro and his mustache as he stumbled on an animal sex lair.  This, combined with the scenes of Woodrugh screaming into the night as he pushes his motorcycle to 100MPH+, showed Lin understood the inherent camp value in the extreme emotional states Pizzolatto was putting his characters through.  As a result I laughed a lot through the first two episodes, which is a better reaction than those who stumbled through the series and wondered just what the hell Lin and Pizzolatto were up to in the first couple of episodes.

The set-pieces of the series suffer from the inconsistent philosophy of cinematography as well.  To highlight this, I'll focus on the two shootouts which provide the climax to episode 4 and episode 7.

Shootout preparationShootout lightingThe two shots above are from the "Vinci massacre" at the end of episode 4.  It starts decently enough with the characters grouped in their corresponding relationship to the others.  For example, Velcoro and Bezzerides are paired off to the right of Woodrugh, who is on his own and flanked by two officers (providing another sign to his eventual fate at the hands of the security firm he used to work at).  The problems start when the episode moved into the full shootout, as director Jeremy Podeswa takes an unusual approach to the lighting.  The shootout seems to be happening at different points in the day, and we might be able to write that off as differing perceptions of the task force as the fight drags on but since the visual philosophy for the show proper has been slowly phased out from Lin's establishing shots of the first episode the shootout attains a sort of boring chaos.  Now compare this to the stylish way Attias handles the episode 7 shootout.

The proper pre-shootoutProper shootout threatRight away the pre-shootout staging up top is a lot more interesting to look at with multiple sources of lighting and the way the personalities are lined up against one another.  I love the way the flashlights of the security goons flanking Woodrugh create a visual arena on the ground for him and the police chief (Afemo Olimani) to face off in.  It's literally an invitation to "step into the ring" and face the currently known champion of police corruption.

But what happens next is even better and recalls the more complicated cinematography of Lin's episodes.  Woodrugh quickly turns the tables on his aggressors but when they've got all their attention focused on him the light becomes aggressive and cutting into Woodrugh's space.  This does what the first episode shot of Frank did, creating a lighting tableau which combines the emotional viewpoint of Woodrugh while also focusing on the immediate plot impact of his actions.  Looking at Attias' filmography, it came as little surprise that he directed the Stephen King adaptation Silver Bullet way back in 1985.  He's an old pro at bringing somewhat campy material to life.  The other directors either lack Lin's talent, or haven't gotten enough work to really forge a distinctive style on their own.

Now, that brings us to the final question:

What went wrong with season 2?

  • As I've established, a big problem with season 2 was the way the visual philosophy established by Lin in the first two episodes was discarded for different approaches.  This might not have been a problem if only one or two different approaches were used, but each director that came after Lin took a different spin on visualizing the conspiracy and the players within it.  Audiences are a lot smarter than critics and creators sometimes give them credit for, and I don't blame the people who thought that season 2 was difficult to follow because the craft behind each episodes was working against their understanding.
  • It's also important to remember that Pizzolatto got his start with crime fiction and working on Veena Sud's AMC show The Killing.  If you want to see a show which gets lost in meaningless red herrings and frivolous details, then the infuriating first season of The Killing is what you want to focus on, not the second season of True Detective.  This season struggled precisely because everything in the show had something to do with the conspiracy surrounding the investigation.  Pizzolatto doesn't create a lot of red herrings in this season, but goes so far in the opposite direction that literally every character they encounter has something to do with the conspiracy in the past.  This leaves less room for the fun character interactions that typified season 1, and combined with the shifting visual philosophy between episodes made the season sometimes unbearable to watch.
  • Pizzolatto has also become his own worst enemy.  The stretch of episodes from 3 to most of 6 contains endless details which may provide more light into the conspiracy but do little to develop the relationships between the characters or provide much of a commentary on what is going on.  Episode 5 is the worst example of this, where the hard-reset shootout which ended episode 4 was supposed to send the characters back a few paces it instead put the characters right back to where they were.  Velcoro and crew ended episode 4 on the task force, and despite the setback they ended episode 5 back on the task force.  This episode serves as a great example of unnecessarily padding out the story, and season 2 could have been a tight four or five episodes instead of spinning its wheels showing just how far the conspiracy reached.  Pizzolatto got the control he wished after his clashes with Fukunaga, and that control allowed him to spin out all the details he desired at the cost of narrative drive and focus.
  • The partnership between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, combined with McConaughey's performance, was the alchemy which drove season 1.  Even though their tension was reported early, they had the sort of special creative potential that Werner Herzog had with Klaus Kinski.  Now the Herzog / Kinski partnership devolved into physical threats and standoffs, but resulted in some of the most enduring works of fiction.  If Pizzolatto is able to let go a bit and enter into a relationship with another director, not necessarily Fukunaga but perhaps someone new (and we saw flashes of this in Lin's episodes), he has the potential to churn out another season as good as the first.
  • The criticism of True Detective would also do well to evaluate, or reconsider, installments on the basis of "Detective" instead of looking at the series as noir.  True Detective is not noir, the positive rebirths at the end of seasons 1 and 2 would be stretching the already mercurial definition of noir past its breaking point.  True Detective is certainly influenced by noir, but the illusory components the characters experience each season along with the presence of multiple "good" characters shows how each season is, overall, not a noir tale.  Instead of forgetting Vinci, as Jake was told to forget about Chinatown, Bezzerides remembers and continues to act.  This is what gives True Detective a strength noir could not provide, and has what made each season memorable in its own way.
  • All that said, another problem with season 2 is the overwhelming critical reception of the first and a misunderstanding of many critics and audience members about what the season was about.  The supernatural elements were all in Rust's head, much like the hallucinations which Frank endured during his march of death at the end of episode 8.  What's more important is to focus on what these images mean in context and if it's more of the same, great, but if not the future installments need to be judged on the terms of what they are doing.  After all, season 2 ends on the image of the Virgin Mary after Bezzerides gives the evidence against the conspiracy a new life metaphorically by turning it over to the media, and literally by giving birth to Velcoro's child.  If Rust was, as Seitz put it, a cornpone country Jesus, then Velcoro is a Christ-figure forged through the toxicity of city living.

Full of graceThere's a lot wrong with True Detective's second season, but the changes made show that Pizzolatto is not immune to criticism and the second season shows he is interested in trying something new with each installment.  It's because of these flaws that the second season of True Detective is more interesting to talk about.  Yes, it's still a world for white men, and the sexism which provided a troubling undercurrent to the relationships in season 1 hasn't completely gone away, but season 2 was a positive evolution of ideology if not execution (Michael Hyatt's excellent work as Katherine Davis is proof-positive of evolution in the right direction).  If Pizzolatto is able to change this much between seasons, then there's no reason to think that he won't try and better himself for season 3.

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Posted by Andrew

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