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'True Detective' Takes a Page from David Lynch and Finally Hints at a California Carcosa

With last night's eerie, mysterious opening and tense, creepy closing... Is True Detective finally taking us to the California Carcosa?

All photos by Lacey Terrell. Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: spoilers ahead.]

Ever since Ned Stark's head fell from his body in the first season of Game of Thrones, we've been in the grips of event TV. We don't merely watch shows anymore; we rush to Twitter, Reddit, and Tumblr to debate and theorize and rage about plot twists and character turns. Few things build buzz like social-media debates— Game of Thrones ended with its highest ratings ever this season despite its most controversial episode—and in the post-Game of Thrones era, shows try to generate them with shocking cliffhangers. True Detective had its first successful social-media storm with the second episode of season two when lead character Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) took two shotgun blasts—one at point-blank range—from the mysterious birdman.


Twitter erupted, Reddit speculated, and critics discussed the completely bold choice to apparently kill off a major character in only the second episode. The consensus seemed to be that there is no way that Ray could survive or, at best, he would be hospitalized for most of the series. Who could survive a point-blank shotgun blast to the stomach?

The good news for Colin Farrell fans is that Ray isn't dead. He got a few boo-boos and peed his pants, but is essentially fine. Ray was shot with rubber buckshot, he tells Ani, "You know, like cops use." I remember playing paintball as a teenager and seeing a gigantic bruise on the back of my friend after he was shot from a foot away. I'm not a ballistics expert, but Ray's tiny bruises and mild rib cracks seem pretty narratively convenient.

Killing Ray Velcoro would have, indeed, been a bold and exciting development. Having him survive with relatively minor injuries feels a little cheap. In retrospect, no one should have believed he was dead. Colin Farrell is, so far, the central character and the top-billed cast member. Even Game of Thrones waited a full season to kill a major character. But this illustrates the downside of trying to craft shocking moments for social-media consumption. These events can keep fans engaged through the week, but if they don't have real consequences—or lapse into Lost-like incoherency—fans get annoyed quickly.


Despite the easy cliffhanger resolution, this week's episode shows True Detective settling into its groove. By this point you know what the show is: a dark and self-serious California noir filled with ridiculous lines and an increasingly intriguing—and increasingly convoluted—plot. You either love it, hate it, or, like some I know, enjoy it ironically.

So what else happened this episode? We open with a country singer bathed in blue light and Ray talking to this father in some kind of dream world. His father tells him a cryptic story about Ray "running through the trees. You're small. Trees are like giants. Men are chasing you." Everything about the sequence feels inspired by David Lynch, a combination of the dreamy Blue Velvet bar-song scene and Dale Cooper's mystical dream visitations in the incomparable Twin Peaks. (Lynch also directed Mulholland Drive, one of the greatest and weirdest California noirs.) The scene is crafted well enough to count as homage instead of rip-off, and it gives us the first real taste of the mystical Carcosa flavor that made True Detective season one so unique.

We get some more hints of the larger plot: Ani walks in on Ray's boss at the scene of Ray's shooting. He's making sure everything goes through Ray and Ani's rinky-dink task force. They follow Caspere's money to the set of an apocalyptic Mad Max-style film, where they meet a pompous, man-bun sporting Asian director. The director is either a loving ode to—or a pot-shot at—season one's acclaimed director Cary Fukunaga. (There have been rumors that Fukunaga and writer Nic Pizzolato had a falling out, and Fukunaga and his man-bun didn't return to direct this season.) This nicely ties the overall story of corrupt California politicos into the corrupt film industry in classic LA-noir fashion.


We also get to see the decadent mansion of Vinci's corrupt mayor, which is complete with Stalinesque paintings of himself. Vinci itself is based on Vernon, a real city with a real corrupt past that involved a mayor who claimed to live in Vernon but actually lived in a fancy LA neighborhood. As the detectives pull up, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) says, "The mayor of Vinci lives in Bel Air?" Ani also catches a glimpse of the missing sister of the woman whom she gave a foreclosure notice to in episode one. This missing sister had worked in her father's hippie Panticapaeum institute. In short, the threads are starting to be pulled together and everything appears to be linked.

Speaking of links, here is one to the Creators Project: Why True Detective's New Title Is Seeing Red

On downtime, Ray visits his alcoholic and racist father, who rants a little about how O. J. and the LA riots ruined police work for white cops, and mutters, "No country for white man." Elsewhere, Paul hangs out with an army buddy whom he had some kind of love affair with, essentially confirming what was obvious: Paul is a self-hating, closeted homosexual. If the nail hadn't been hit on the head enough for you, Paul talks to a gay prostitute who says he can sleep with women with the right medication… just like Paul popping Viagra for episode one's least-enjoyable-blowjob-ever scene.

Actually, Frank might look even more pained in this episode as his wife tries to get him up enough to ejaculate in a cup for in-vitro fertilization. He's more excited ripping out the "FUCK-YOU" grill out of the mouth of his one-time employee. Frank's storyline also gives us our second actual murder. One of his men, Stan, has been killed in similar fashion to Caspere. "Who the fuck would have something against Stan?" Frank shouts, although perhaps a better question is who fuck remembers who Stan even was? It's hard to care about the death of a character that most audience members can't even recognize, and this highlights a problem the show is still having three episodes in: Do we really care about the characters?


Vagueness is defining trait of every character's backstory, except perhaps Ray. Ani was raised in some kind of cult/commune/institute, but we have no idea what actually happened to her or what actual beliefs of the place were. Paul is scarred both physically and mentally from his past with a shady group called Black Mountain, but all we've been told about them is "they did bad stuff!" It's clear that these groups, like Frank's mafia connections, will become part of the plot moving forward, but holding off on all details leaves the characters as clichés. It is not coincidence that after last week's cliffhanger, so many fans said Ray was their favorite character and they hoped he didn't die. He has to be, he is the only one who isn't an outline.

On the other hand, the episode ends as strongly as it starts with a chase sequence after a masked creep—Birdman with a new disguise? Another member of the creepy mask Vinci death cult?—sets the car Ani and Ray were tracking on fire. An eerie, mysterious opening and a tense, creepy closing… Is True Detective finally taking us to the California Carcosa?

Season two of True Detective airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 PM.

Lincoln Michel's writing appears in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, and Oxford American. He is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic magazine. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Follow him on Twitter.