Weekend Watch: ‘True Detective’ S2 takes fatherhood seriously

In retrospect, season two of “True Detective” didn’t have a chance. When it debuted in 2014, Nic Pizzolatto’s moody, supernatural-tinged police procedural was clearly the product of a lone auteur given unusual freedom; the time-jumping structure and metaphysical preoccupations were like nothing anyone had seen on TV.

But what made it an instant sensation was the unexpected chemistry of its two leads. As Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey cuts the character’s nihilistic despair and paranoia with his trademark stoned detachment, allowing him to deliver all of that “time is a flat circle” philosophizing without getting too ponderous.

[The protgonists] struggle to harness their own demons in order to defeat the kinds of monsters that emerge when man’s lust for power and sexual gratification remains unchecked.

Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart is a suitably exasperated foil to Cohle’s passenger-seat existentialist, bringing some much-needed humor to a series in danger of overwhelming the viewer with its relentless focus on murder and child rape.

As the pressure of the investigation brings each partner’s flaws to the surface, they turn on each other. It’s a credit to Harrelson and McConaughey that the fate of their strained partnership creates as much suspense as the identity of the killer the two men stalk. In the end, the show earns an unlikely and quite memorable redemption.

“True Detective” season two also offers a kind of redemption at the end, but it comes as a much steeper price. And there is just as much if not more darkness to endure before you get there. It’s no wonder viewers were reluctant to take the trip, correctly reasoning that even seasoned pros like Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn would be unable to recapture that McConaughey/Harrelson magic.

But season two has a subtler, slower pull. Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a detective for the Los Angeles-adjacent municipality of Vinci who does work for Vaughn’s local crime lord, Frank Semyon. Velcoro is divorced and alcoholic, with a semi-estranged son, who may or may not be the product of his wife’s rape more than a decade earlier. Semyon helped Velcoro track down the rapist and have his revenge, a favor that now leaves Velcoro in his debt.

Semyon now needs Velcoro to scare off pesky reporters looking too closely at the deal that will help him go legit, leaving drugs and gambling behind for the more respectable grift of kickbacks and government fraud. When VInci’s corrupt and sexually depraved city manager turns up dead, his eyes burnt out with acid and with a gaping shotgun wound to the crotch, Semyon’s deal (into which he has sunk his life savings) is in jeopardy.

The murder investigation becomes a joint effort involving Velcoro; Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch); the California Highway Patrol officer who found the body; and Ventura County Sherrif’s Office CID agent Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). We follow their progress along with Semyon’s efforts to salvage his future, with Velcoro providing the link between the two.

Vaughn’s portrayal of Semyon is downbeat and realistic, with traces of the actor’s earlier wisecracking persona (“A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans,” he marvels during one tense confrontation with rivals. “That’s one for the bucket list”). He’s ruthless, but only because his path from childhood poverty and abuse to head of a modest but thriving criminal enterprise required it. He treats his underlings like family and desperately wants to have a child with his loving wife and trusted adviser Jordan (Kelly Reilly, later to appear on “Yellowstone”). In their struggle to conceive they consider adoption; Jordan wins her husband over to the idea by framing it as a way of redeeming Frank’s own tortured childhood.

Each of season two’s central quartet grapples with fatherhood in some way. Woodrugh, who never knew his father and grew up parenting his feckless, drunken mother, tries to overcome his deep ambivalence toward marriage after his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy.

Velcoro tends to his own father, an embittered, retired LAPD detective from the pre-Rodney King era, while attempting to protect and guide his bullied, insecure son. Bezzerides maintains a spiky exterior (and an arsenal of concealed knives) while numbing herself with casual sex, unwilling to face a childhood trauma enabled by her New Age guru father’s inattentive parenting.

These personal struggles take place against a backdrop of vast corruption; they struggle to harness their own demons in order to defeat the kinds of monsters that emerge when man’s lust for power and sexual gratification remains unchecked.

This is the special duty of a father. The season’s nine episodes unflinchingly depict the many ways fathers can fail at this duty — and the way the repercussions of that failure can reverberate through generations and across communities. What gives “True Detective” season 2 its lasting power is the unfashionable emphasis it puts on the sacrifice inherent to fatherhood. All good fathers give something of themselves; some fathers give it all.

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