It’s time to come to terms with it: season two is not as good as season one. It appears that try as hard as they might, season two just can’t recapture that same magic as the first season. This is not to say that the show isn’t good, because it is still top notch television. Which, if I’m being honest, was always what I was expecting, but one can hope to be surprised. So what went wrong? Why has this season turned so sour by comparison. Lots of spoilers for season one and two follow.
Last season, we had the two questions “Who killed Dora Lange” and “Who is the Yellow King.” Similarly, we also got to see the juxtaposition of Rust Cohle in the past and present and all of us wondered What happened to him? By the end of the season we came to understand that Cohle never changed, not really. He never stopped thinking about the case because it’s conclusion never felt right to him.
This season, however, we are just left with “where did Vince Vaughn’s money go?” (Yes, I used the actors name and not the characters because I can’t remember it, and I’ve watched every episode multiple times. This is another problem of the series I will be getting into in a moment). There is also the “What is Black Mountain” and “What kind of freaky cult was Casper in.” The problem with all these mysteries is I just don’t care. This coming from someone who is addicted to mysteries and thrillers and I can’t find myself really caring. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that the narrative focus and structure for this season is much more straight forward than last season, which used the constant flashbacks and recollective narration as a way to get inside their characters heads and explain what the mystery was and why it was so confounding. The ritual killing of Dora Lange was weird by their standards and Cohle and Hart’s curiosity clued us into the mysteries. They were signposts to forward the plot. And as I said before, when we see Cohle clean-shaven and then see him as a full blown alcoholic (we think) it makes us curious to see what happened to cause this. It created an urgency for us to know what happened next. This leads me to my next problem.
I don’t want this to sound in any way that I am attacking the actors or their performances. Each one has poured a lot of effort into their roles and it shows. It’s actually the only reason I’m still watching, but what they’ve been given is crap to work with. This season has suffered significantly from having way too many lead actors and none have had ample enough screen time to really develop except for Colin Farrell, who practically had the whole first episode to himself. He even got a flashback! The worst part about this is that I really hate Farrell’s character, Velcoro, because he’s a scumbag. He is not virtuous. He is a dirty cop who works for the mob. His only redeeming quality is that he loves his son, but in doing so went to his son’s bully’s house and nearly beat his father to death just to make a point. Then he maybe beats or murders a reporter talking about the corruption in their city, and all that’s just in the first episode.
This isn’t even the main problem with the characters, it’s that between all their myriad of personal problems none of them have any time to connect with each other. The heart of the first season, and much of it’s magic, was from Rust and Marty’s relationship. The scenes where they’d driven in the car together where the scenes where we learned the most about each of them. It made them seem more real. Anybody can ask questions of witnesses and scowl over a crime scene, but how many can talk about the psychosphere or how to avoid getting asscancer? Nothing about these characters are truly memorable and that’s because none of them are on the screen long enough to do anything memorable and none of them have a real relationship with one another to speak of. Now this may change going into episode five given the gunfight at the end of episode four, but it won’t keep me from missing those car talks in season one.
In most series this really wouldn’t be a factor, but the subtle southern gothic vibes that were in season one were even present and always informing what type of story this was and why type of villains we may encounter. The whole season was about the decay of mankind. It was about how men can slip into madness and murder. It was about isolation. It was also about seeing how religion (or more specifically people’s beliefs) can kill. Every major event in the season happens in a place of decay, whether it was Reggie Ledoux’s trailer or Errol Childress’s overgrown temple to the Yellow King.
In addition, movies like Chinatown have already explored a corrupt Los Angeles. We’ve already seen this type of story play out in a million different noir films that have done it better. A creepy story about ritualistic murder with ties to Lovecraftian horror on the other hand was brand new (at least to the mainstream). No matter how much they try to emphasize that this is a suburb or veritable backwater I can’t believe them when it’s mayor lives in Bel Air (or Beverly Hills). What corrupt politician wants to drive an hour to work. It can’t be that far outside of LA. When they initially conceived this season I was imagining it being set anywhere else in Southern California, because rural California does exist, they just had to be bothered with finding it.
There’s a visual consistency that is lacking this season. I get that Vinci is a literal dump, but that’s mostly due to the exposition, not the scenery. To me it looks just like any other decaying city, but in season one I nearly got a geographic sense of the bayous and refineries by those long shots. Those aerial shots were long and gorgeous, and this season the only ones of memory are those of motorways. I know there’s got to be more than just a highway in Vinci. Give me something that really sets the mood, some vast landfill or refinery, anything, just something other than the same shot of a highway I’ve seen three times every episode. I understand that these roads must hold some significance, but it’s still boring to look at.
This season is being filmed like a TV series, which is completely different from season one, which was designed to be an eight hour movie. It had one writer, one director, and two leads and we followed their story. You can feel the loss of Cary Joji Fukunaga this season. I’m sure he’s enjoying directing his own film, but it’s taken at least four, possibly more, directors to replace him. This has created such a visual lack of consistency that it shows. None of them have dared to do anything visually like that six minute long shot at the lead of episode four of last season. Instead we got a by the numbers gunfight with terrible CGI. The scene wasn’t bad, but I’ve seen what this show is capable of and I demand excellence.
Will I keep watching this show? Yes. Will I enjoy it? More than I did Gotham at least.