The second episode of True Detective went out with a big, big bang last night. I have no idea how to start processing the explosiveness of its ending without spoiling the entire thing, so I’ll just say: if you haven’t watched it yet and don’t want to know what happened, stop reading this right now.
Ok. So. Let’s not be like the show itself and just get right to it. Episode two ends with Colin Farrell’s character Detective Ray Velcoro being shot twice by someone wearing a crow mask like some creepy shotgun-wielding version of Big Bird.
The scene takes place in a dimly lit sex dungeon of sorts—the house that we found out earlier in the episode was used by the victim discovered at the end of the first episode after his eyes and genitals had already been removed. Velcoro went there alone late at night to scope the place out, and, for some unfathomable reason, chose to holster his gun after he saw a pool of blood on the floor. While he was busy combing over the place for clues and doing other normal detective things, the crow man surprised him with a first shot that knocks him onto the ground. Then in a striking final image to close out the night’s calamitous events, we see the masked crow man walk over to Velcoro as he writhes around on the ground, casually take aim with the shotgun, and shoot him again—this time in the gut.
Is he dead? We all wondered as the screen faded to black and the credits popped up. Did they really just do that? Did they kill off a main character—the seemingly essential hard-boiled detective with a drinking problem, no friends, and an ex-wife and son who don’t love him archetype that sustains gritty crime shows like this—at the end of the SECOND FUCKING EPISODE?
The True Detective forum-going public says: probably not. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Farrell’s character is still alive. Pre-release trailers for the second season showed images of Velcoro we still haven’t seen, many Redditors claimed last night. Crow man could have been using rubber bullets, or bean bags, or rock salt rounds, others reasoned. Or maybe Velcoro was wearing a bulletproof vest (though it didn’t look like he was, given how form-fitting his button down shirt was, if you ask me). Regardless of Velcoro’s ultimate fate, one thing is clear: the show handed its audience an almost comically ridiculous cliffhanger they now must reckon with until episode three airs next week.
What I find most interesting about the ending of episode two isn’t the sequence of narrative events itself, but how True Detective presented them to us. Everything up to the closing few moments of last night’s episode moved at a slow, steady pace. The actually stuff that needed to happen for Velcoro to end up in that apartment—Frank Semyon finding out about his former business partner’s secondary sex house from an area crime lord, then giving that information to Velcoro—took a few minutes of screen time.
The majority of the episode, much like the season premier, was dedicated to something that felt like...character development? It opened with a disturbing monologue by Vince Vaughn about a time in his childhood when his father locked him in the basement for the better part of a week. The show then proceeded to give us an extended, disturbing look at the borderline incestuous relationship between Taylor Kitsch’s character Officer Paul Woodrugh and his mother...before putting Velcoro and his new case partner Antigone Bezzerides in a car together so Rachel McAdams has a chance to explain why she’s always carrying around so many big scary knives.
All of this was interesting, but felt strangely out of order for what I’d expect in an unsettling crime show like this. The season keeps giving us more ways to understand and contextualize the characters as we see them in the present day, but hasn’t actually showed them doing much of anything that requires so much background information yet.
Episode two moved at a sluggish pace until the final few seconds, when it suddenly decided to pour a bucket of ice-cold water over your head. True Detective’s shocking ending would’ve felt like more of a cheap trick to me if it wasn’t consistent with the ending of the first episode. Last week’s premier gave viewers 50-odd minutes of character development and premise-setting before dropping in the money shot: the corpse of a man whose eyes and junk had been removed from his body with unnerving deftness and accuracy.
I don’t know how I feel about the new season of True Detective yet. Like many fans of the first season, I’ve spent the last year wondering if and how the series will try to top its stellar debut. Much of the feedback I’ve heard so far has been that season 2 doesn’t seem like it’s measuring up. The main criticism? People find it sort of...boring.
Boring. Huh. Well, one way to overcome boredom and shake things up in a show is to kill off a major character—the character many people probably associate with season 2—before it’s really even gotten going. It feels to me like True Detective is deliberately messing with us right now—denying its audience the instant gratification of getting to see the blood and gore that we expect, maybe even hunger for, in fiction like this. Then once we’ve settled into the comfortable familiarity of feeling like we understand what season 2 is all about, it throws us for a loop. It’s almost like True Detective’s creators know how fans reacted to season one by becoming amateur detectives en masse—like they understood that someone would hop onto reddit seconds after Colin Farrell got eviscerated by Crow Man’s shotgun to shout HEY LOOK WHAT I FOUND IN THAT SCENE WHEN VELCORO WAS TALKING TO THE DUDE WITH NO EYES’ THERAPIST.
The punchlines in both of the first two episodes are jarring because they come after almost an hour of meandering plot lines and colorful dialogue lacking any immediate consequence. It’s almost as if the show was deliberately trying to lull you to sleep before popping a balloon right next to your head. And then last night it took things a step further by telling us the show isn’t even scared to totally and completely break convention by murdering one of its main characters before the story has even really begun.
Am I giving True Detective too much credit here? Maybe episode two simply chose to go out with a bang because bangs are indeed loud alarming things that command our attention whether they’re artfully composed or not. I don’t know how much longer True Detective will be able to maintain its peculiar stop-and-start rhythm. But episode three will have to do something to show that this season can really live up to the audacious threat it made last night.