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'True Detective' Recap: To Live and Die in L.A.

Are cliffhangers, one-liners, and double-barrels enough to get the show's sophomore season back on track?

Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell in 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Let's get a little Rust Cohle-ish for a second: There's a theory among physicists that any event with multiple possible outcomes is essentially a root from which parallel universes grow. If you're reading this recap, for example, you probably decided to watch True Detective tonight — instead of, say, playing World of Warcraft, or writing to your congressional representative about the cancellation of Hannibal. But according to the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics, the timelines in which you leveled up your orc mage or explained the twisted relationship between Dr. Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham to a member of the House Ways and Means Committee are just as real as this one. [Cue this.]

Tonight, True Detective 2.0 itself reached a multiversal branch point. Either it killed off its top-billed main character in its second episode, thus crafting the quickest course correction in TV history, or it didn't, creating one of the most obnoxious bait-and-switch cliffhangers ever. This makes Colin Farrell the TV-antihero version of Schrödinger's cat — simultaneously alive and dead, at least until next week. Time may be a flat circle, but it's sure-as-shit better to be on one side of the interdimensional disc than the other.

So farewell — maybe — Detective Ray Velcoro, we hardly knew ye. Or rather, we knew ye all too well: The sad-sack middle-aged male cop is one of fiction's most shopworn archetypes, and this week's episode, titled "Night Finds You," did little to restore its luster. While drifting through his assignment in the Wire-style task force assembled to catch the killer of corrupt Vinci city official Ben Caspere ("Am I supposed to solve this or not?" he asks his paymasters), he accidentally stumbles across the crow-masked murderer at the victim's dedicated sex house. To paraphrase Jimmy McNulty, Ray would be "good police" if he worked at it, and his failure to do so makes him more dull than complex.

Velcoro fares better in his conversations with his ersatz commanding officer, Ani Bezzerides, who plays straight man to his self-deprecating wisecracks and one-liners. When she explains her need to carry knives to level the playing field against larger, stronger male opponents, he deadpans "I support feminism, mostly by having body image issues." She gestures to his partner and asks "You tight with him?"; he sighs "I'm not tight with anybody." The older cop also clues Bezzerides in that the task force is designed to fail — not by the Vinci bigwigs who've sent him to spy on it, but by the state officials who prefer a motley crew over a real team. The jokes would have been even better from a more interesting character, but this is the kind of knowledge only a two-time loser like Velcoro could come up with — a rare case of his stock traits paying dividends.

But he continues to play drearily to type with his ex-wife Alicia, who makes her on-screen debut. "You're bad, Ray," she tells him. "You're a bad person. And you're bad for my son." Velcoro is crushed, outraged, and eventually abusive, but his complete obliviousness to the trouble he's caused rings false. So does the way the show frames him during this scene, hopefully toting the toy he bought his son while proclaiming his "right by any natural law" to kill The Filth Who Hurt His Woman. Our heart is clearly intended to go out to the guy, but while we can empathize with human suffering no matter the human in question, it's a bit much to treat this creep like a tarnished angel.

His boss Frank Semyon is operating off similarly overextended audience credit. The episode opens with a lengthy monologue inspired by the inexplicable water stains on his ceiling: They remind him, through a lengthy chain of shaky similes, of the time his alcoholic father locked him in a dark, rat-infested basement with no food for almost a week. "What if I'm still in that basement, in the dark," he asks his adoring wife. (Judging from tonight's episode, which featured closeted cop Paul Woodrugh's incestuously doting mother and his fed-up girlfriend, "adoring" and "long-suffering" are the only states women can occupy on this show.) The speech is solid piece of writing, centered on the heartwrenching detail that Frank's old man locked him up to protect him from Dad's drunken rages. But it's an awful lot to dump on an audience this soon in the run, when all we know about the guy comes from his Chinatown-style real-estate scheme and his faux-profound gangster posturing. It's like showing us all the little clockwork gears and cogs before we've even seen the watch made from them.

There's a lot of that one-step-forward-two-steps-back business going on throughout the hour. Does Rick Springfield's creepy cameo as the dead man's Dr. Feelgood outweigh the corny, clumsy portrayal of Vinci's mayor as a one-dimensional Bad Guy? (See: a framed photo with Dubya, his decision to get day drunk while being questioned in a murder investigation.) Does the beautiful shot of Woodrugh crouched and cramped in his mother's claustrophobic trailer get drowned out by the shotgun-subtle no-homo bluster he puts on for his fellow boys in blue? Does Frank's clear-eyed decision to take matters into his own hands make up for his penchant to take meetings at the world's most clichéd dive bar? Which timeline is this again — the one where True Detective is good, or the one where it's bad? And how long can it last being both?

Previously: Reloaded