True Detective Saves a Life, Shares Its Influences

By  · Published on July 6th, 2015


Well, Ray Velcoro is still alive. I’m not convinced that True Detective will be better for it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of both Farrell the actor and Velcoro the character, so from that perspective, I’m happy that True Detective will give more more of what I like going forward. What worries me, though, is the power dynamic this reveals. There were times during the first season of True Detective that the show took on the personality of a college freshman, sharing pieces of philosophical theory simply because they sounded good at parties. What made it work – what always prevented the show from veering too far into a televised manifesto – was the way that Pizzolatto incorporated these ramblings into the personality of Rust Cohle. Cohle was a deeply damaged character; even when we sympathized with the tragedies of his past, we weren’t always sure that we liked him. His opinions, therefore, were used to swing audience trust between Cohle and Hart as the story called for it.

That was the beauty of season one: the hint of mysticism which actually served as character development between the two leads. Now we’re seeing that pattern repeated in season two to a different end. The last episode opened with Frank Seymon admitting that he sometimes feels like he died in his childhood basement; “Maybe Tomorrow” furthers this purgatorial theme with Velcoro’s cliffhanger “murder” and return from the dead. This gives season two a purgatorial gloss, with each character likely to have his or her own vague brush with death. Could any of these characters already be dead? Anything is possible – we’re still only three episodes in and any attempt to nail down the essence of this season has been promptly thwarted – but this is secondary to the way the information is communicated to the audience.

We can’t very well have Velcoro and Bezzerides sharing the former’s Lynchian nightmares; whatever happens going forward will be Pizzolatto communicating directly with his viewers, and I worry how effective this will be without the cast’s ability to shoulder some of the burden.

Even with the slightly disappointing return of Velcoro – and the addition of Conway Twitty impersonators – I still feel like I haven’t formed an opinion about True Detective. Much of this has to do with the plodding pace of the narrative. Ben Casper has a thing for Hollywood sex parties? We already knew that. Officer Woodrugh has a past populated with homosexual encounters? We already knew that too, though eventually we’ll have to address the reasons why Woodrugh is so determined to hide his sexual orientation (‘being in the service,’ thankfully, isn’t as effective a narrative trope as it used to be). If there was progress on any of the main storylines in “Maybe Tomorrow,” it was the fact that Seymon is reestablishing his control over his criminal empire. Vaughn continues to grow into his mob boss persona, despite the fragility of a criminal empire that can be decided via underground boxing.

So “Maybe Tomorrow” was less about the story and more about the storytelling, which brings us to the scenes between Ray and Eddie Velcoro. The idea that the older generation of police officers might have some knowledge of the Vinci cult is an important one – especially as it pertains to my ongoing L.A. Confidential pet theory – but the scene in Eddie’s living room sets up a lot of what it to follow through its subtle nod to William Wyler’s 1951 thriller, Detective Story. We often use allusions to movies as a shorthand for complicated ideas of authorship and narrative. In order to unpack some of Pizzolatto’s intentions with the living room scene and the casual manner in which Eddie discards his police badge, I figured I might dive a little deeper into the movie that the author has chosen to accompany Ray’s background.

In Detective Story, Kirk Douglas plays James McLeod, a New York detective with a sterling arrest record and an unwavering sense of right and wrong. As a child, McLeod watched his father abuse and torment his mother until she broke down and spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. McLeod has carried his anger towards his father into adulthood; he does not differentiate between petty thievery and grand larceny, pushing for the strongest punishment provided by law for each suspect. When he finally puts together a case against a rumored abortionist, McLeod’s rigid world-view is challenged by the revelation that his own wife may have visited this same doctor years before they met. Everything falls apart as McLeod tries to find some common ground in his feelings.

In addition to the complicated issue of legacy presented in Detective Story — for example, one of McLeod’s fellow officers takes pity on a felon that reminds him of a son he lost at war – there is a duality in Detective Story that no doubt appeals to Pizzolatto. By mixing fast-talking detectives with real-world issues, the film tries to tell a story more grounded in reality than your typical pulp crime thriller. One minor character who has never set foot inside a police station asks her booking officer why he doesn’t wear a two-way wrist communicator like Dick Tracy; later in the film, the police chief himself admits he threw away his radio because he hates mysteries. Even as the film balances a handful of arrests and investigations, Wyler is less interested in proving guilt than in showing his characters struggle in a changing world. The perceived black and white morality of pre-World War II America is no longer applicable across the board. Police officers are increasingly called upon to choose when and where the law should be enforced.

All of which makes Detective Story less about cops and more about people caught up in a changing landscape. Enforcing the old rules only makes the world a worse place.

The issues of paternity present in Detective Story — the lengths that McLeod goes to separate himself from his father, only to discover that his father has set up permanent shop in McLeod’s morality – seem central to this season of True Detective. With the wonderful Fred Ward cameo in “Maybe Tomorrow,” we are now privy to the ways that Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Semyon struggle with their fathers. Playing Detective Story in the background as the two Velcoros talk is meant to emphasize the generational divide, but the progressive content of the original movie also hints at Ray’s ever-evolving persona. This is a film not about characters who change the world to match their beliefs, but about a man who ultimately changes his beliefs to match the world; perhaps the only real shot at redemption for any of the characters in True Detective is to do the same.

Ultimately, we may not learn much about Pizzolatto’s storyline for the second season of True Detective, but we learn more about the films and filmmakers that he is using as his style guide. Who killed who for why is of lesser importance than nailing down the True Detective aesthetic, even as we try and puzzle out what exactly that aesthetic means.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)