Dead Men Don’t Dream: Ruminations on “True Detective” Season 2 Thus Far

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By the end of episode two of “True Detective” season two — perhaps even by the end of the first episode — I realized that I had to stop.

The story analyst in me was picking the show apart. It’s uncommon for a show’s second season to be a completely different cast and story, even if its mired in a pretty similar tone. Nonetheless I found myself asking, “So who’s Ruste here? Which one is supposed to be Marty?” It was both a worthwhile exercise and a bit of a waste. When you see Bezzerides’s collection of knife-fighting books, it’s obviously a throwback to Ruste’ leisure reading (something about psychology of killers, if I remember correctly). There’s a scene early on, where Velcoro is meeting with an attorney. It feels just like the plethora of interview scenes from season one. And they clearly set Velcoro up as the brooding, mysterious lead, vaguely akin to Ruste. He starts out as a boozehound, even heavier than Marty was, but will apparently rebound.

We initially think Velcoro is a good father who came upon hard times, but by the time he calls his “son” a “fat little *bad word*,” we realize he might just be a really, really bad person. We know his frustrations partly stem from his inability to protect his wife and denial that his son isn’t his, but it’s hard to sympathize for someone who behaves the way that he does.

I think a lot of people were predisposed to scanning season two for the points of similarity to season 1. Finding none, we all grew frustrated by the convoluted plot and confused by the too many central characters. Most saliently, we weren’t given any reason to like or even be interested in any of these characters.

The early struggles of this second season stems from a gross lack of likability. For all their respective flaws, you liked — nay; loved — Ruste and Marty, even moreso when they rekindled their bromance in their older age. But here? Everybody in season two is angry. If this were a perverted twist on “Inside Out,” the cast would be Dour Angry, Frustrated Angry, Barely Self-Contained Angry, and Angry Angry. They all have this feeling of Rage that makes me think that if “True Detective” has a seven season run, each should focus on a deadly sin. Season 1 was quite obviously Lust, and this is Wrath; here’s to season three featuring a bunch of fatties for gluttony. Granted, there’s obviously still lots of sexual things at play this season; keep in mind, many sins tend to overlap.

Anyway, the show has set up Velcoro as its center point but through the first two full episodes, gave us only reasons to dislike him. That’s why, when he was shot twice by some kind of bird man with a shotgun at the conclusion of episode two, myself and many others sort of wished that he were actually dead. It would have been such a bold move and a great shock to the system for the show to have done that. Reeling in his death, the rest of the team could have doubled down and rallied to solve this thing. None of us expected anything like that, but for the viewer constantly scanning and comparing it to season 1, it would have broken away any of those preconceived notions.

What did we get? Episode three opened with Velcoro in his typical spot in that dingy bar, sitting across from a grumpy cop in uniform (who you quickly realize is his father), while THE Conway Twitty drifts dreamily across the stage singing “The Rose.” Like so many of the live performances featured on this show, it resonates a little bit too much, but in a way that I really, really like.

That’s where and when the line occurred to me: dead men don’t dream. I’ve talked periodically in the past about a concept I espouse called The Hinge in storytelling. It’s the point at which the moral focus of a show “hinges” on a moment or event. Things can go very far in one direction or another and ultimately reveal the underpinning morality of the story. It says a lot about what a director and writer are trying to “say” by the story. In this case, Velcoro could have died and sent us down a very direct path with the show. But he didn’t. He sputtered back to life and instead of a rallying cry in the wake of his martyrdom, we instead get a redemptive arc with Velcoro trying to fix his life rather than dig his heels into the quagmire of his misdeeds.

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I’ll admit, season one is in my top my favorite anything, and the first two episodes of this season had been a bit of a letdown. But I like the gravity Farrell brings to the role and I appreciate the wholesome direction they seem to be going in with his redemption. There isn’t a single moment in any piece of fiction that resonates as hopeful and honest as the final moments of season one, and I think hope that that kind of optimism will persevere with Velcoro throughout the rest of this season.

Additional thoughts:

  • Never has such a virile performance yielded such an impotent character in Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon.
  • I have a picky opinion on what I consider a narrative misstep: Vaughns impotence was a running motif in episode three. He couldn’t get it up and is struggling to have a baby with his wife. And even his former thug associates gave him no respect. I think, given the psychology of this character, it seems plausible that his feelings of inadequacy stem from his success at being a criminal and his consequential dismal failings as a straight business man. He’s a violent Wilson Fisk trying to go straight(ish) and I think because of that, he feels existentially neutered. That’s the whole reason his peep is on the fritz. But wouldn’t it have made a lot of sense if — much like Walter White — he would have rediscovered his mojo through an act of violence and come straight home to do the deed with his wife. Call me crazy, but I think a man like Semyon would feel really good teaching the gold toothed crime boss that kind of a lesson.
  • When Kitsch and Vaughn bumped into each other, it was a bizarre little moment that felt vaguely meta and really anxiety-ridden. It reminded me of (pretentious warning alert) when Levin and Anna meet at some random moment in “Anna Karenina.” They are the two main characters, largely kept apart despite vague familial connections. Anna is obviously the titular character, but Levin is ultimately the hero of the story and a noble counterpoint to Anna’s faults. Hers is the story of infidelity and passion; his the story of metaphysical, political, and spiritual crisis. For much of the novel, their parallel plots might as well be two distinct books sidled up alongside one another within the same binding. But in a mind-bendingly cool moment, they meet almost on accident. And you pray he doesn’t fall under her spell of wooing just about every man who meets her. Sure enough, he doesn’t. It makes me wonder what the significance was of their chance meeting and whether or not it will even be addressed moving forward.

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