I welcome judgment.

[Spoilers follow.] The opener of season 2 for HBO’s newest flagship seemed to do everything it could to distance itself from the expectations and tone of its first season. Where once we had the show’s reflective, philosophical voice from the haunted, brilliant, and wise Rustin Cohle, we get comic musings from a fraudish guru: “When we see the universe from God’s eyes” (to paraphrase), “it is meaningless… but God would not create a meaningless universe. Hold these ideas as true and equal.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Farrell’s sad musings – “Astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore” – is a rare, but almost pathetic, insight from a man with nowhere near Rust’s self-awareness or grounding, a man with an extremely narrow and limited engagement with the world; it reads like Rust Cohle fanfiction from a high school sophomore. So where season 1 gave us ultimate wisdom in Rust’s seeming foolishness, last night’s opener suggested a fragmented world in which no grand statements can quite be taken seriously: it was, of course, the only possible follow-up to Cohle, a playful take on the show’s own history.

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As the A.V. Club’s good, though to me too critical, review noted,

Despite the sheen of prestige provided by the A-list stars, the stylist behind the camera, and the former lit professor writing the scripts, True Detective has always had a heart of trash. “The Western Book Of The Dead” is flowery pulp, a lurid opening chapter in which everyone’s getting drunk, no one’s wearing pants, and our interest is piqued by the guy doing a Weekend At Bernie’s in the backseat of someone else’s luxury car.

And it’s a different kind of trash from last season, taking a narrower view of the world. Its view of evil is less supernatural and less metaphysical, focusing on words and actions as they are rather than constantly gesturing to some Malign Force of the Universe. And it works, brilliantly, despite a lukewarm critical reception.

But it took some time to adjust to a genuinely new, reinvented style. Rather than sweeping pans over a wide, open landscape (concealing, the sound implied, sinister forces just out of our sight), last night’s episode preferred more stationary, closer-in work, with frequent cuts, to the effect that the viewer feels simultaneously disoriented and claustrophobic. The only true sweeping, large-perspective pan followed the roadways, paired with those drums: the evil here is not the old story of light versus darkness, in which humans participate, but instead it’s the rigid and intractable corruption in a closed human society. It’s an entirely new style to suit a new set of concerns, and Pizzolatto and co. deserve credit for both the boldness of this reinvention and its surprising effectiveness.

To stay with the pan over the highways for a moment, their lingering on the roads and the junction play on a convention of West-Coast detective fiction: to start with a few different threads and follow them until, eventually, they meet in a series of increasingly complex nexuses. James Ellroy did it masterfully in L.A. Confidential, and the roads work as a nice symbol for this progression. If the first season started small – in the middle – and was constantly looking outward, last night’s episode started at the fringes, in a diaspora, and seems to be moving inward. The connections between characters – a “codependency of interests” – are as predictable and constraining as the highway itself: anger, resentment, old vendettas, greed, addiction, shared need, and the like. If season one focused on the mirrored relationship between the metaphysical evil “out there” and the mirroring darkness in the human heart, season two seems more focused on strong, yet pathetic, characters bound by their vices to use, and abuse, each other: constrained by the old human needs for solace, revenge, and personal gain.

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It seems the best possible direction for the show to go, faithful to the spirit of season one but full of irreverence for the letter, firmly planted in the California detective genre but cutting-edge contemporary in style and original in characters and content. The show’s stepping down from the grandiose, metaphysical gestures of last year, preferring a Weekend at Bernie’s gag which narrowly skirts dark comedy and a gentle satire of the grand truths of season one. It’s daring and brilliant in concept, and almost flawlessly executed, save for a couple of flat line deliveries. It could be an even more compelling theater of low anthropology than season one: rather than Rust’s unsettling darkness, there’s just the pathetic lowness of Farrell’s character, much farther gone than any of the leads in Pizzolatto’s bayou.

Which brings us full-circle to his early quote about welcoming judgment. Apart from being the most explicit sally toward the pen-in-hand critics watching, it works as a chilling mantra for Ray Velcoro. He is so sunk in on himself, without a shred of Rust’s interest in the world and other people or Marty’s lovable self-doubt, that he can deliver this line with a straight face. In the episode’s most intense sequence, he repays a bully at school by savagely beating his father and making the kid watch: paraphrasing again, “I thought you enjoyed it when people suffer.” The moral logic is irrefutable; were bullies in a circle of the Inferno, this would be sensible justice. Velcoro becomes a perverse avatar of Old-Testament justice, revisiting sins tenfold upon the offender. McAdams’s character could conceivably end up in the same place, but youth and energy and a little more self-awareness are preserving her for now; he anger’s still burning, and she’s not burnt out yet. These characters simply don’t have the range of feeling and experience of Rust Cohle or even Marty, and that’s all for the best. It suits a decentralized, fragmented second installment where interactions with people, rather than sinister forces, will presumably form more of the story’s substance. We’ve moved into more immanent, more mundane territory. Don’t expect the reception to be as positive as last season’s was, nor for there to be the same Internet memes or Lincoln commercials for Farrell. It’s a work that’ll have to stand on its own merits, and one that’s already, ironically, a frontrunner for most underrated show on television.

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Strays

-An evil act with a clear, understandable motive – like money – has no mystery about it; it’s easily explainable and not particularly unsettling. In season one, the cult and its arbitrary acts of art and violence represented an evil without a discernible end (in both uses of the word), rendering it creepy because it couldn’t help but gesture toward some great mystery of Evil itself. The only other way to show the grotesque distortions of the human heart (rather than just rational self-interest) is with sexual proclivity, which similarly springs from nowhere and isn’t for discrete gain. But I’m not sure quite how well it’s working, so far. Short of Joffrey Baratheon or Ralph Cifaretto, it’s just hard to sell people on sexual perversion, the guru’s moral neutrality being something of a default now.

-On that topic, Rachel McAdams’s character seems like she’ll end up being a major source of the show’s action and depth. Her attitude is convincing, and all-round you get the feeling that TD’s including more female characters not out of artificial political exigency, but organically as the best possible production decisions. It’s a welcome feeling.

-Reviews so far have been negative, but in defense of the show, you could chalk up the criticism to a few things: (1) people have criticized it for being lurid and heavy-handed, but that’s just the genre we’re working in. Everything is meant to be exaggerated a little, sensationalized. True, Vince Vaughan’s understated acting and occasional dramatic lines haven’t quite matched up yet, but he’s also the main character we know least about so far. (2) it seems like self-parody, but playing with our expectations from season one just seems like an intentional element of this episode. I don’t think the more ridiculous parts of the episode come off nearly as seriously as people are taking them. The pathetic nature of some of the characters, and the occasional flirting with dark comedy, shouldn’t be overlooked simply on account of a couple of overserious production decisions. And (3) the women seem initially defined by their sexual appeal/prowess/etc. While it would be disappointing to see nothing but simple genre types of messed-up women and femme fatales all season, starting with those types in order to question/problematize/recast them later seems like a sensible and plenty justifiable decision. Plus, it’s not like the men aren’t defined by sex, too; just in the mode of impotence/unwillingness/timidity. The bigger problem is the thematic weight placed on sex, and only because the audience’s interpretation of certain things will be pretty varied and unpredictable.

-We’ll try to chime in a few weeks further on in the season, and maybe sooner if the rest of the Net keeps opting for suspicion and skepticism. Seems Pizzolatto’s earned too much trust for that treatment.