Existential moping, anyone?

‘True Detective’ season two is saved by its female characters

Goodybe Rust, hello Antigone

Photo courtesy of HBO

This review contains minor spoilers. Please stop reading now if you don’t want to know anything about True Detective’s new season.

While the inaugural season of True Detective wasn’t quite the masterpiece it was hailed to be, there was a lot to like about its slick bayou aesthetic and Nietzschean funk. The show was HBO’s version of Starsky and Hutch —if Starsky and Hutch had fallen into a Louisiana swamp and emerged with deeply rooted psychological complexes. Season two chucks all of this in favor of a new ensemble cast and a West Coast setting—the fictional city of Vinci, a grimy industrial hub outside Los Angeles. For the most part, these changes have wrought a sludgy crime drama that lacks the spark of its predecessor. But there is an upshot to True Detective’s about-face: this time around, its female characters are given something more to do than get murdered.

Season one of True Detective—a.k.a. the crowning jewel of the McConnaissance—was launched into motion by an artistically-minded serial killer who liked to leave his victims (often prostitutes) meticulously posed and crowned with deer antlers. In season two, the victim is Ben Casper, a high-ranking Vinci official. Casper’s mangled body is discovered on a bench by the highway, and this proves to be particularly bothersome for mob boss Frank Semyon (played by Vince Vaughn, who, in a nice change of pace, is not reduced to any vomit or genital-based humor). Semyon had been relying on Casper to close a shady land deal on his behalf.

Three predictably troubled cops are called in to work the case: Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), and Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), who happens to be on Frank’s payroll and—just so you get an idea of the kind of guy he is—refers to his young son as a “fat pussy.”

Many critics have pointed out that there was nary a compelling female character to be found in True Detective’s first season. The show was fixedly centered on Marty and Rust—their demons, their lies, and their friendship. The murdered women remained shadowy figures, all naked tushies and no voice. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto seems to have heeded this criticism; his new iteration of the series foregrounds Bezzerides as the lead detective on the case and eschews the fetishistic killings of vulnerable women.

But herein lies the conundrum: as much as we might hate to admit it, serial killers and naked female bodies make for great television. This time around, there is seemingly endless talk of finances and property development, which is—quite frankly—a bit of a drag. And in place of the buddy cop dynamic that invigorated its predecessor, season two features three detectives who are thoroughly isolated in their misery. The characters’ deeply sincere glowering is at times laughable. Take, for example, these words of apparent wisdom that Semyon passes on to an associate: “You don’t want to look hungry. Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”

The saving grace in all of this is Rachel McAdam’s Antigone Bezzerides. She’s an e-cig huffing, quietly bonkers enigma, woven with enough texture to make up for the prostitutes that formed the silent backbone of season one. When we first meet her, Bezzerides is locked in a brusque and awkward discussion with a lover about her too-intense sexual tastes. She rails about the debase nature of the porn industry, but enjoys watching a rather rough form of it. She emerged from a hippie dippie upbringing as a hardened cop, but the source of her eternal misery is not entirely clear. The mystery of Bezzerides’ backstory is just as compelling as that of Ben Casper’s violent murder.

As a detective working in a predominantly male environment, Bezzerides is taciturn and resolute. She sloughs off Velcoro’s attempts to flirt on the job, and out-paces him in a tense chase scene. She also packs knives into every hidden crevice of her wardrobe, fully aware that most of the criminals she encounters are capable of overcoming her with brute force. “The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands,” she tells Velcoro. “Man of any size lays hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.” It is surely no coincidence that Antigone Bezzerides shares the first name of Sophocles’ enduring heroine, who challenges prevailing concepts of femininity by defying the orders of a powerful king.

I will also say this in favor of True Detective’s sophomore season: it does a much better job at handling sexual violence than its predecessor. Marty and Rust found themselves facing off against a debauched cult that espoused the ritualized rape of children, but we primarily experienced that assault through Marty’s horrified reaction to it. The victims, once again, were silent. In season two, it is Velcoro’s ex-wife Alicia who is subjected to sexual violence, and she appears on screen with palpable emotions and complexities. We learn that she was beaten and raped by an unnamed perpetrator while she was still married to Velcoro. Her relationship with her ex-husband soured after the assault, which clearly pains her. Little Chad Velcoro might very well be the child of Alicia’s rapist, and of course this pains her too. We get to see the trauma of rape through her eyes, rather than through the filter of a male detective.

The first three episodes of True Detective were released to critics, and they leave much to be desired. But I, for one, am willing to give the series a chance to pick up steam. We know that Nic Pizzolatto can write male characters with depth and nuance. Let’s see what he does with True Detective’s women.

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