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Was ‘True Detective’s’ Cliffhanger an Ingenious Twist, or Just a Big Cheat?

True Detective Season 2 Episode 3 Reviews

TV critics — the ones “True Detective” stans accused of pre-judging the show’s second season based on a measly three out of eight hours — bit their tongues all week as viewers freaked out over whether Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro had indeed taken a fatal shotgun blast to the chest. At least a few diehards allowed that if Ray survived what seemed to be an unmistakeable death blow, they were done for good. So where does the fact that Ray is indeed alive and kicking leave us now?

Notwithstanding the blatant David Lynch let’s-just-call-it-an-homage that opens “Maybe Tomorrow,” the show seems to have been fighting its way back from the occult-tinged mystery of its first season towards something more solidly predictable. They may favor avian headdresses and have a penchant for removing their victims’ eyes, but it seems likely that the second season’s villains are merely inventive thugs with highly flexible morals. Creator Nic Pizzolatto — evidently still sore enough about sharing credit for the first season with director Cary Fukunaga that he wrote a crude caricature of a ponytailed Asian director into this week’s episode — insistently reminds us that corruption comes from within and without. The season’s most potent motif is the use of lingering lap dissolves to link the characters’ bodies with the exploited terrain of Southern California, the way an x-ray of Velcoro’s broken heart bleeds into a crowded freeway.

Good as he is with orchestrating themes, Pizzolatto seems to have fallen off a cliff when it comes to writing dialogue. “True Detective’s” second season often plays like a haphazard parody of its first, with the nadir being a Latino club owner sneering at Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymon, “Thing is, you ain’t that thing no more, what you used to was.” (Isn’t that a line from “Hollywood Shuffle’s” “Black Acting School”?) If there’s a way to enjoy the new season, it may be to shift gears and think of it as high camp, a lit-bro gloss on James Ellroy rather than a Serious Work of Art. Critical opinion has scattered since the near-universal pans for the season’s first episode, but the chances of the season reaching anything like the first season’s heights are, at this point, virtually nil. The best it can do is avoid the first season’s lows.

Fans of the show have suggested on Twitter that critics are being unfair, offering up the revisionist narrative that the first season took a while to catch on and the second isn’t being given the same chance. This is plainly false — by early January 2014, before the first episode had even aired, the show had already racked up 18 perfect 100-point reviews on Metacritic — but it speaks to how at least certain viewers of the vocal-on-Twitter variety view the changing role of criticism, and how many buy into the Pizzolatto-proffered idea that reviewing a show midseason is like writing about a half-finished novel. Now that we’re all on the same page, do you think critics were too hard on the show’s season season, or not tough enough? And how are critics reading the show now that they can talk about the cliffhanger and its resolution?

Reviews of “True Detective,” Season 2, Episode 3, “Maybe Tomorrow” 

Sean T. Collins, Rolling Stone

Sing hallelujah if you must, but the fact is that by failing to gun down Farrell for real, this series committed a cardinal sin. From the very beginning, HBO’s show has always depended on keeping the trust of its audience — the better to keep them happily immersed in its primordial soup of noir nihilism and metaphysical puzzle-solving. The slow-cooked crime investigations, the hardboiled and/or highfalutin’ dialogue, the tightly-wound performances and shadowy cinematography: Together they form a kind of emotional bubble in which both seasons of the show have floated so far. When it works, it genuinely works (see the first season’s bravura tracking shot from the “Who Goes There?” episode ). But as the critical backlash this year makes clear, that fragile membrane is easy to pop with the slightest misstep, let alone a crass fakeout like this. Pretending to kill Ray only to resurrect him mere minutes of screen time later feels cheap, and kills what little good will the second season has accumulated but good.

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

The question isn’t whether Ray’s survival can be explained — clearly, it can. The question is whether his survival breaks the world the show has established, and I would argue that it kind of does. “True Detective’s” second season takes place in a Southern California, where some sort of massive criminal conspiracy has wrapped its tendrils around each and every facet of public and private life — but where our four protagonists (including a career criminal) don’t seem especially aware of said conspiracy’s existence until Ben Caspere’s death sets them on a collision course with it. So really, all we know is that it’s shadowy and vast but well-hidden, which almost certainly means it’s willing to kill to protect its secrets. After all, we’ve seen what it did to Caspere. Thus, the fact that Ray ends up surviving when Bird Head gets the drop on him violates everything we suspect to be true about the conspiracy and leaves it seeming a lot clumsier. That makes it harder to fear the ultimate villains, whomever they may turn out to be.

Scott Meslow, The Week

It all seemed so promising. Until this week’s episode of “True Detective” revealed that Ray Velcoro was alive after all. Much of “True Detective’s” second season has been miscalculated, but the biggest miscalculation was giving viewers an entire week to imagine this show without Colin Farrell — and to realize how much more interesting this story becomes if you take him out of it. From the first episode of the season, “True Detective” has felt overstuffed; with three law enforcement officers probing the case, one of them always ends up wandering around alone, divorced from the main action of the episode. And on a macro level, killing Ray — by far the most Rust Cohle-ish of the show’s main characters — is exactly the right way to signal a divorce from the acclaimed first season. This is how you take the show in a new direction.

Erik Adams, A.V. Club

Is it an effective cliffhanger? Absolutely, if the reaction to “Night Finds You” is any indication. Is it also a cheap trick played on an eager audience? Certainly, but this sort of narrative bait-and-switch is a TV staple. Would a dead Velcoro make for a bolder “True Detective”? Maybe, but that boldness would come at the expense of the season’s momentum, and “Maybe Tomorrow” already has enough plot to churn through as it is. The episode takes some cues from the “Game Oof Thrones” school of serialized storytellng: Start with a bang, advance the ongoing storylines in increments, then end with a louder bang. “Maybe Tomorrow” has a remarkable metabolism for information, which works to the advantage of a case that’s due to close in five hours. It’s still pretty goofy in spots — spots that usually involve Frank Semyon — but the revitalizing magic that “Maybe Tomorrow” works on Ray affects season two as well.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

While Ray’s survival — coming out of the incident with little more than a literally aching heart — could feel like a cheat after the way last week’s episode ended , the notion of him as a dead man walking finally pulls him out of the wallow he was in for the previous two episodes. He’s not a barrel of laughs (though he does call Ani “Xena” at one point), but the near-death experience forces him to reexamine his whole tortured life in a way has more promise for the rest of the season than seeing him stay on the previous path would have.

Sonia Saraiya, Salon

I don’t have any issue with Ray being alive because the Bird-head killer used rubber buckshot; I don’t even have an issue with Ray’s arc tracing near-literal death and near-literal rebirth, which is a trite but pretty plausible way of getting him to re-evaluate his existence. But why end “Night Comes In” on Ray apparently dying, only to offer up what is a sour substitute for courageous storytelling in the next episode? It’s very “Breaking Bad,” without the style and substance of “Breaking Bad” — that show that took a lot of hackneyed devices and reminded us how they could be masterful; that was a show that specialized in long-term investment and slow, portentous storytelling. “True Detective” is not in either of those categories. Instead, it appears that the moment existed purely to make Ray’s redemption arc really, really obvious, and that’s when it does begin to annoy me — oh look, the predictable doctor asking him if he wants to live, oh look, the necessary attempt at coming to terms with the legacy of his father. I don’t think “True Detective” pulled that cliffhanger/reveal off, because I fail to see what it was even attempting to accomplish besides a quickly quenched gasp from the audience.

Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly

Did you feel bait-and-switched by this buckshot twist? What a CON! No WAY! “True Detective,” you TWIT! Ah, we should’ve seen this coming. If I weren’t so ignorant about firearms—if I was more knowledgeable about the symbols of this world — I could’ve Sherlocked the possibility. I liked how the storytelling choice mirrored the themes of deception and misdirection, conspiracy and occultism. The show was steering us toward wrong conclusions the way Ray is supposed to be steering the investigation into Caspere’s murder on behalf of varied Vinci puppet masters pulling his strings. What Conway sang: It’s only make believe. More on this as we go — especially as the episode brings the Hollywood dream factory to Vinci and gets into the business of moviemaking.

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

Two weeks after the murderous “Game of Thrones”  finale, HBO shows us a guy shot at point blank range followed by a closing, credit-sequence dirge (What a wonderful day to lose it all / What a wonderful day to choose to fall), and then the following week says Nope! Rubber bullets! Completely lame.

Ken Tucker, Yahoo!

There was a marked up-tick in pretentious dialogue from Frank this week. “There is no part of my life that is not overwrought with live-or-die importance.” “There’s a certain stridency at work here.” And, talking to an understandably puzzled underling, suggesting violence “prefiguring Caspere, in a causal sense.” Come on, Pizzolatto: This is David Mamet crossed with Michael Mann stuff, glazed with horse manure. Knock it off.

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