True Detective Season 2: An Analysis of the Grave Consequences of Hubris
True Detective is a masterpiece of cinematic style and storytelling formatted for television. Since its original air date on January 12th of 2014, this crime drama anthology has gripped viewers across the globe and completely redefined the police procedural genre. Written and created by Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective focuses on police detectives working a particularly gruesome case that ends up not only taking a toll on their professional careers but also their personal lives. Each season is full in intrigue, deep character development and a rather bleak view of the world. As I write this, True Detective has 3 seasons with talks of a 4th but, when you read a review of the show online or ask someone who has seen the show, most of them will say out of all 3 seasons, season 2 was the worst. Many people hated season 2 for reasons I do not understand. One review I read criticized the season for being too “paint by numbers” and accused it of ripping off themes from Chinatown and LA Confidential. Season 1 was a non linear story that took place in the years 1995 and 2012. Throughout the course of the season, the story kept switching from their initial investigation in 1995 and their interviews/re-investigation in 2012. For me this was fascinating because you get to see their investigation unfold over nearly 2 decades as well as see how the case has changed the two men. Season 2 breaks the formula a bit but is not as bad as reviews say it is in my opinion. Rewatching Season 2, I realized that this season is ripe with commentary about the dangers of hubris and how not accepting the things you cannot change will truly hurt you.
True Detective season 2 follows the lives of 3 cops; Detective Ray Velcoro, Detective Ani Bezzerides and Officer Paul Woodrugh played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch respectively. The show kicks off with the murder of a city comptroller by the name of Ben Kaspers. Kaspers was the money guy for a huge land deal that would bring a speed rail system up the California coast. Local mobster turned legitimate businessman, for the most part, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is one of the biggest investors in this speed rail project. He soon finds out that Kaspers took his money and left him in the dark. Officer Paul Woodrugh finds Kaspers’ body one night while he was riding his motorcycle and he ends up being put on the case as an investigator working with Bezzerides and Velcoro. Velcoro is only on the case because the mayor of Vinci, the city he works in, and his boss wants him to make sure certain things don’t come out about Kaspers that could incriminate the mayor and the Vinci police department. Bezzerides is put on the case because Kaspers body is found in her jurisdiction.
The season plays out in a series of twists and turns that leads to a conspiracy about the police chief of Vinci and a few other cops, organized by Kaspers, killing a family of jewelers for a jewel worth a large amount of money, which ends up orphaning their two kids. It turns out that Ben Kaspers was killed by one of the two orphaned kids by accident while they were trying to find out where he hid the jewels that were stolen from their parents. Coincidentally, we later find out that Kaspers was the biological father of the two children. Apparently he was having an affair with the mother, which is how he came to find out about the jewel and his greed and ambition took care of the rest. We also find out near the end of the season that the mayor of Vinci’s son killed his father so he could become mayor and continue his role of providing high quality prostitutes to men of power in the city, which he uses to coerce them into doing what he wants and obtaining blackmail if they fall out of line.
Although there are many other stories that unfold during this season, I thought it best to explain the main plot as it is the driving force for our main characters that leads them on a road to discovery and self destruction. And no other character emulates this type of destruction more than Detective Ray Velcoro. Once a legitimate police officer, Ray’s wife was raped and had become pregnant by a random criminal during the time she and Ray were actively trying to have a baby. Ray, overwhelmed with guilt and anger, agrees to take a meeting with local gangster Frank Semyon who tells him he has the name and whereabouts of the man who raped his wife. Frank said he would give this information to him free of charge with one caveat; Ray must do him a favor one day. This “favor” ended up being a long term partnership in which Ray does Frank’s bidding and gives him inside police information. For instance, Frank instructs Ray to visit a local reporter and get him to stop his three part article series on corruption in the city of Vinci. Frank and the Vinci mayor have a close partnership that includes the new speed rail and bad press for the city would derail those plans, no pun intended. Ray then does what he does best by breaking into the reporter’s home and beats him badly.
Not only is Ray’s professional career on a downward slope but his personal life is on one as well. He is divorced from his wife, who has remarried another man, and has a strained relationship with his son because of the separation and the looming thought that his son may not be his. This is due to the fact that Ray and his wife never did a paternity test. Side note; I honestly thought the kid was not his. Colin Farrell and the woman who plays his wife both have dark hair and this kid has bright red hair. When Velcoro becomes enthralled with the investigation, his self destruction gets even worse when he assaults the father of a boy who bullied his son at school and was put under investigation for the murder of a junkie who possibly raped his wife. During the course of the show, we see Velcoro trying to patch a bit of his life together by working the right side of the case instead of trying to bury it like his bosses wanted him to. He even gets a second chance at love and a family when he becomes romantically involved with Detective Bezzerides and she becomes pregnant with their child.
But, what eventually led to Ray’s downfall was his inability to let go of the past. Once the detectives get one over on the bad guys and secure their way out of town, Velcoro can’t help but see his maybe son one last time. While his car is parked around the block from his kids’ school, the men trying to frame/kill him put a tracker on his vehicle. This makes it impossible for him to meet Bezzerides at the docks where they were supposed to catch a boat out of the country. The sad irony of this was all he wanted to do was say goodbye to his son and let him know that no matter what he finds out when he gets older, he is still Velcoro’s son. This sweet moment ended up getting him killed in a shootout in a nearby nature park. Even more ironic, Ray’s wife ordered that paternity test she had been threatening him with all season and the result was 99% positive Ray was the biological father. Ray couldn’t let go of his past and it ended up getting him killed.
Next up is Frank Semyon. Former gangster turned legitimate businessman, Frank yearns for respect and entrance into the elite world of the legitimate with his wife. This is the whole reason he spent almost every dime he had to buy into the railway deal. The death of Kaspers opens his eyes to the fact that he was robbed and bought out of the deal by a Russian mobster he initially brought in to bring more money to said deal. Obviously pissed, Frank decides to start over from scratch by taking back all of his old businesses in order to get his entry fee for the deal back. The entire time, Frank’s wife tells him she doesn’t care about any of that and she only cares about him. Unfortunately, Frank can’t let it go. He’s worked his whole life to be financially comfortable and well respected and he’ll be damned if he lets that go.
Frank’s downward spiral starts and ends with his greedy ambition and need for control. He ends up alienating everyone in his life and shattering his relationship with his wife. Frank was so hell bent on chasing his dream and seeking revenge on those that wronged him that he completely missed the fact that one of his closest employees was screwing him over right under his nose. As for his wife, he shames her when she reveals she had a child before she met him and had an abortion, which could be the reason they are having trouble conceiving. She tries to tell Frank they can adopt but he refuses this as an option. He tells his wife, “You don’t do someone else’s time”. Frank’s pride and ego got in the way of a lot of things but what ultimately led to his demise was his disregard for the consequences of his actions. When he took back control of his businesses to buy his way back into the railway deal, he made a pact with a Mexican gang stating that they could continue to sell drugs out of one of his clubs/casinos if they help him with something. A quid pro quo if you will. Later in the season when Frank makes a plan with Ray and Ani to help them bring down the corrupt people of Vinci if they help him get one over on the Russians who moved in on his territory, he ends up burning down all of his establishments so the Russians get nothing from him. He even ends up killing the head Russian mobster and taking all of his money, including the money he lost. This angers the Mexican gang because this left them with no place to operate.
When Frank is on his way out of town, the Mexican gang catches him and takes him out into the desert with every intention of killing him due to them taking him directly to a pre-shoveled grave. In a vain attempt to save his life, Frank blames the fires on the Russians.The gang seems to buy it and attempts to leave Frank alone in the middle of nowhere. Frank sarcastically asks if he can at least get a ride into town and one of the men whispers something in the leader’s ear. The leader tells Frank they’ll give him a ride if he gives the whispering man his suit coat. Frank laughs and, knowing the suit is worth more than the man probably owns, initially refuses. The men get a bit tense and Frank finally takes his coat off. He hands the coat over to the man and, when he makes an offensive comment while walking away, Frank wrestles with him and he ends up getting shot in the stomach. The gang then drives off and leaves him there to die. Frank pretty much dies by his own hand because he only thought about himself. Although he loved his wife and had a lot of respect for his right hand man, who I did not mention because he plays such a small part in this show, he was only really concerned about himself.
Throughout the show, we find out that Frank suffered abuse as a child from his alcoholic father and had to fight for everything he had in life. I understand individuals who have gone through similar trauma have a difficult time breaking out of this mindset but there were multiple points where he could have simply walked away. Frank’s wife even begged him saying they should just sell whatever they have left and live their lives. Although Frank considers this for a very short amount of time, he pretty much just shrugs it off. He was so consumed by having full control over his life and everything around him that he was killed over something as trivial as a suit jacket. There is a very telling moment when the gang members leave Frank to die and he gets up and starts walking away. Blood gushing out of his stomach wound, he hallucinates the gang kids from his old neighborhood harassing him, his alcoholic father and a man he had killed due to an overdue debt begging for his life. In my opinion, these people represent all aspects of his need for control; the neighborhood kids making fun of him fueled his pathological need to demand respect. His alcoholic father represents his pain and how he constantly needs to fight for his safety and survival. The man he had killed represents his disregard for the consequences and his lack of empathy. The man begs Frank asking him to have mercy and it wasn’t his fault. Frank responds by saying “I didn’t put you there pal. You made your own choices”. I believe this vision not only represents Frank’s lack of empathy but it could also represent one of his greatest fears; being at the mercy of another person. Frank never wants to be the one begging for his life because he never considered that as an option. He grew up fighting and was never shown any ounce of mercy, which he perceives as weakness.
The last vision he sees as he walks is his wife. She is dressed in white and welcomes him with open arms. He finishes walking up to her without showing signs of being hurt and he is no longer limping, which he had been doing since he was shot. She tells him he made it back to her but not alive; it is revealed that Frank had passed out from blood loss and died not far away from the shallow grave the gang dug for him. Frank’s fate could have easily been changed. Had he just collected what he could from his clubs, let the Russians take over and start a real life free of crime with his wife, he would have still been alive. Frank’s pride, an inevitability due to his past and trauma, would not allow him to realize that he had everything he needed all along.
The final character I’d like to analyze is Paul Woodrugh. His story is fairly simple; he is a former soldier who ended up working for a private security firm in the middle east. Basically he was a mercenary. It is never fully explained what he did overseas but he came back with a duffle bag full of cash and ended up working as a local motorcycle cop. Woodrugh’s involvement begins with him being temporarily suspended from duty due to the sexual harassment accusations of an actress he pulled over for speeding and reckless driving. After he is suspended, he ends up getting into a big fight with his girlfriend and he drives off on his motorcycle. He stops an open rest area on the PCH and ends up finding the dead body of Ben Kaspers sitting on a picnic bench. From here, he gets assigned to work the case with the other two detectives. He proves to be a great addition to the team by solving a miscellaneous part of the case that ends up tying many important bits together as well as saving many of his fellow officer’s lives during an intense shootout.
Unfortunately, Woodrugh meets his demise at the hands of a corrupt Vinci cop who lures him into an ambush via blackmail. Although Woodrugh’s death is tragic, it is brought upon due to his inability to accept who he really is: a gay man. At the beginning of the show we see Paul with his girlfriend. He really seems to care about her but can’t seem to express himself to her sexually as he must take Viagra in order to achieve an erection. When I first saw this scene, I thought it was due to impotence but it wasn’t until later on when he meets up with an old friend from his mercenary days that it started to click for me. Paul seems to be a little more open with his friend, happy even, than he is with his girlfriend. But, whenever his friend tries to bring up their time as mercenaries, Paul replies with “I don’t want to talk about what happened in the desert”. It is not explicitly explained but it appears that he and Paul had a sexual encounter back in the day. Paul denies this by trying not to talk or think about it but his friend tries to get him to acknowledge it.
Paul’s inability to confront this huge part of himself is the reason he is easily lured into a trap and then killed. Paul even knew he was being led into a trap when he arrived at the location sent to him via text message. He calls Ray and lets him know but refuses Ray’s help when he offers to come get him. Paul says this is his burden to bear and he has to deal with it. Paul promptly hangs up on Ray and goes into the trap. He nearly makes it out alive by using his advanced tactical combat skills, but is shot in the back by one of the corrupt officers waiting for him outside of the building. One of the saddest things about his death is that, when he is shot in the back, he says “no, no” as he tries to crawl away. It’s as if he is saying “no” like he’s refusing the fact that he was about to die. Defiant even at the end I guess. What was even more sad was that Paul had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and he had a baby on the way. I assume when his girlfriend told him he was going to be a father, Paul wanted to cling to a sense of normalcy in his life by refusing to accept who he really was, which made that normalcy impossible. I know it is not my place to give advice to those in the closet but if Paul had accepted the fact that he was gay, the corrupt police would not have anything on him and he would have survived. Hell, this is explicit text in the show because his friend tells him that. Just before Paul is ambushed, his mercenary friend leading him to the trap tells him “If you would have just accepted who you are, they wouldn’t have anything over you.” Call it denial or fear but Paul couldn’t accept things how they were. He was dismissing a part of himself and that eventually led to his inevitable downfall.
The only two main characters who end up surviving in the end are Detective Bezzeradies and Frank Seymon’s wife, Jordan. Ani Bezzerides is a sheriff’s detective with quite the past. Her father was a hard core hippie with a commune called “The Good People” and her mother abandoned her and her sister Athena when they were very young. Ani has a pretty broken relationship with her father because, when she was young, she lived with him in the commune and was kidnapped by a member. She was missing for four days and it is heavily implied that she was sexually assaulted. Her sister Athena is kind of a wild child and is first seen performing in internet porn. While Ani dedicated her life to the law, her sister went the opposite direction and, at first, Ani kind of resents Athena for this. She cannot understand why her sister would compromise herself like this but, near the end of the season, Ani finally understands that this is just something her younger sister does and not who she is. Athena doing internet porn was a form of self expression and a way she can work out past trauma. Ani on the other hand starts out as the exact opposite. She is very closed off about herself and her past and is more enthralled with her job than personal relationships.
At the beginning of the season, she is sleeping with an officer in her department and, when she unceremoniously breaks up with him, he reports Ani to her superior. This leads to two very telling scenes that highlight the double standard for women in the workplace. When the officer she was sleeping with reports her for inappropriate workplace behavior, Ani’s boss informs her that she will be suspended if she does not attend sexual harassment group therapy. She rightfully says she thinks it’s bullshit but her boss says she doesn’t have a choice. She subsequently says to her boss “You know they’re giving him high fives in there right?” as she tries to explain to her boss that he’s actually benefiting from reporting her. Ani’s boss, playing devil’s advocate, says that he was her subordinate and it shouldn’t have happened at all. The next scene in relation to this that I think is worth mentioning is when Ani attends the sexual harassment therapy group. At first, she is just quiet and doing her time in the group but, when pressed by the man leading the group, she makes him very uncomfortable by speaking frankly. She says something to the effect of her liking “really big dicks” and that is why she is there. The man leading the group tries to discourage her from speaking that way but the other men in the group stop him and spit his own words back at him saying they thought this was a “safe place”. Ani then gives this man a look that I can only describe as fierce. She knew her being there was some double standard bullshit and she was letting him know that.
Ani begins to make a serious shift when she is forced to confront her father because she needs help with her case and seeking help from Athena to infiltrate an elite party full of high priced prostitutes and high powered men. When she is with her father, she finally gets him to talk about the time she went missing for four days while he was getting on a “higher plane” with his many followers. Ani’s father opens up and says he has been tortured with that since it happened. He never forgot and could not forgive himself for not protecting his daughter. This is why when he preaches to his commune, he feels more like a fraud. As for Athena, Ani realizes she wasted so much valuable time by acting more like her protector and not her sister who should support Athena and help her instead of bark orders at her. Near the end of the season, when everyone is getting their loved ones out of dodge, Ani sends both her father and sister up north and gives them instructions to stay under the radar. She hugs them both before they take off and gives them a look that says “I wish we had more time”. I believe Ani survives to bear Ray’s child and tell their story because she confronted her past and the people involved in it. Ani had no real ego to speak of and she was able to accept the trauma of her past and not hate the people she deemed responsible for it, i.e. her father, but forgive them. It is this that allows Ani and her family to escape unscathed.
The final main character to survive this season is Jordan, Frank’s wife. Although not much is known about her past, she kind of acts as Frank’s conscience. She is there for him no matter what and constantly tells him she doesn’t care if they live in a castle or a cardboard box under the freeway. She is completely content and only wants to be with him. Jordan did have a bit of a past, referring to the abortion she had before she met Frank, but she does not let that haunt her. It seems as if Jordan has made peace with her past and is fully set on moving forward. One thing I really admire about her character is that she understands the present is not static. Things in life change all the time and you have to be willing to move with it if you want to move forward. Jordan understands this and is fully ready to abandon whatever she needs to in order to hold on to the things that matter to her the most. The money, the respect, the social status, that never meant anything to her. All she cared about was Frank and starting a family with him. This is why when Frank plans on getting out of town, she begs him to come with her instead of “tie up some loose ends”.
Jordan knows full well what that means and tries to get Frank to abandon his selfish efforts and just go away with her. It was easier for Jordan than Frank to just walk away because a home, security and happiness was with him and not the material things they possessed. I believe Jordan knew she would never see Frank again when he dropped her and his right hand man, Nails, at the train station. He initially told them he was coming but I think they both knew he wasn’t. Jordan wanted to believe he would come so badly that she went along with his act until he gave a big sigh and finally told her the truth. She pleads with him to come one last time and he makes her a promise that he will meet her in a park in Barcelona. He told her to wear a white dress so he could recognize her immediately. Although I personally believe Jordan knew she wouldn’t see him again, I think she wanted so badly to believe he could let go and choose their love over some score to settle. She held him to this promise but alas, it wasn’t kept.
I think it is poetic that, at the end of the season, Ani ends up telling the whole story to that reporter, who was originally doing a corruption piece on Vinci, and then leaves him with the words “It’s your story now” as she leaves their Venezuelan motel with her baby, Jordan and Nails in tow. People who had no prior connection at the beginning of this season are now together, keeping the memory of their loved ones intact by continuing to fight back but keeping themselves safe in the process.
It makes me sad when I read bad reviews of this season or listen to people say it was the “worst” season of the True Detective series. This season is filled with some of the most nuanced characters and relatable plot lines I have ever seen. The season ends with the Vinci mayor’s kid taking over, the corrupt cop who killed Paul by his side, Ray’s wife finding out their kid was indeed Ray’s and most of the people trying to do the right thing are dead. I believe this ending reflects a lot of what happens in the real world. The good guys don’t always win, some people will never learn the real truth and the truth tellers are in constant fear of their lives and must constantly be on the move. I know that this ending was very macabre and too real for some, as we escape to fiction to take a break from our very macabre world, but this hits home hard. This ending really shows us that, sometimes, the real world and fiction collide and we must not reject it…but embrace it.