The second season of HBO’s bleak series True Detective shifts the scene of the sickness from creepy gothic Louisiana to dystopian southern California, a setting with a more strikingly chaotic ethnic mix that lends itself to an exploration of race relations in America. The plot this time around concerns the intertwined lives and fortunes of vicious but decent-hearted gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) and tortured and tarnished detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and their investigation into the convoluted circumstances of a politician’s death.
True Detective presents a world of demographic horror, an America in which racial loyalties are nonexistent and fealty of any other kind is hard to come by. Whites, blacks, Mexicans, and Jews are all crooked. Mexicans, while distrustful and destructive of whites, also think nothing of killing each other, while whites, finding themselves marooned in an increasingly hostile and meaningless world, grasp at anything they can get. Race-based tensions nevertheless continue to simmer beneath the surface of several of the characters’ interactions. Semyon is a self-made man and a bigot, a walking contradiction who dislikes the changing demographics of the U.S. and seethes with an angry white man’s discontent but is also and at the same time cynically complicit in the smuggling of illegal aliens into his country.
Semyon is also an anti-Semite and calls Israeli gangster Osip Agronov (Timothy Murphy) a “KGB kike motherfucker”. True Detective is rather daring in identifying the true ethnic character of the “Russian” mafia. The series gives Semyon more than one moment of triumphant crowd-pleasing sadism, and it is significant that one of these is reserved not for one of the Jewish gangsters, but for an especially weaselly specimen of the Shabbos goy, or gentile who sells his treacherous services to the Jewish enemy. Leonard Cohen’s excellent theme song, “Nevermind”, is interesting in this context for featuring the lines “I was not caught, though many tried. / I live among you, well-disguised.”
In another scene, Semyon pummels and then pulls out the teeth of a mouthy brown-skinned inferior (Pedro Miguel Arce) – content that serves as vicarious satisfaction for Caucasian viewers fed up with pretending to like their laughingly darkening world. Representing such viewers is Velcoro’s father (Fred Ward), a retired policeman who found he was no longer able to carry out his duties properly with the advent of the fuck-the-police zeitgeist that found its explosive expression in the 1992 L.A. riots. The U.S. as it presently stands is “no country for white men,” he observes as he enjoys a black-and-white Kirk Douglas movie. He is one of two aged policemen in True Detective who remarks that blacks’ intensifying hostility toward police made it increasingly difficult for them to do their jobs.
The audience, one suspects, is expected to feel a mingled contempt and sympathy for this old man who has given up on life and squanders what little of it is left to him getting high and living in a televised, mythologized past. A parallel character is the disgusting, whorish ex-dancer mother (Lolita Davidovich) of highway patrolman and ex-mercenary Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). Like old Mr. Velcoro, she prefers the comfort of watching old movies to doing anything productive with her years of decline. Morally and physically decrepit, her narrow, nostalgic tribalism takes the incestuous form of a selfish attachment to her son, who clearly wants nothing to do with her.
True Detective also offers multiple examples of interracial relationships, but none of these is deep, lasting, or free of damaged trust. As one of the season’s other songs suggests, “There’s no future. There’s no past.” – an assessment that could easily apply to America’s multiracial experiment as depicted in these episodes. A feeling of imminent doom pervades not just the lives of the principal characters, but the life of the proposition nation. In one episode, Detective Velcoro visits the set of a cheesy post-apocalyptic action movie – a cartoon version of the American century taking shape around those dumb enough not to notice what has been happening. Indeed, the characters who survive the final episode are those who choose to flee the country – no livable future seemingly being available to them here.
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