So “True Detective” season two came to an end last night, and depending on your viewpoint it was either terrible, great, or somewhere in between. But those who were expecting “True Detective” to redeem itself in its final episode were likely delusional and had been confused about the murky narrative of this season of what it was trying to say and what it was actually about. What started to become clear midway through the season, like in a classic film noir, was that the murder mystery at the center of the show (Ben Caspere’s death) —the catalyst that brought all the characters together and set events in motion— was a classic MacGuffin, an irrelevant device to kickstart the plot, but ultimately one that had little bearing on the story itself.
The idea that the finale was going to deliver a 90-minute coup de grace in terms of the plot was always pretty optimistic, and the delivery of the machinations of that denouement proved to be as tepid as you might have expected: it was a flash of out-of-nowhere inspiration on the part of Ray Velcoro, and suddenly two minor characters from a few episodes back are revealed as pivotal players. As Katie Walsh wrote in her finale recap last night (and as she has suggested all season), “True Detective” had a multiple issues resulting in a wildly uneven, often perplexing second season (we’ll go into many those issues tomorrow). But if the finale suffered from that same unevenness —from the lack of a crisp, satisfying payoff to the messy plot— it went some way towards achieving a quite unexpected thematic resonance, and even a little emotional connection, of which there was precious little to that point.
The finale of “True Detective” found the season’s high watermark, as the show finally revealed itself to be about something beyond the crime and the mystery. Suddenly, there was a point, though arguably it was just as muddled and convoluted as the whole show, and sometimes just as heavy handed. Still, it had lugubrious resonance for anyone who has considered what they impart and leave behind.
To psychoanalyze the show and its creator Nic Pizzolato (or to state the obvious, depending on how translucent the show was for you), “True Detective” coalesced in its final moments into being a season about the cancerous legacies of parenthood, the sins and damage passed on to kin, and (perhaps more pretentiously and less successfully) the suffering that permeates our existence just through surviving the tangled process of growing up.
As discussed in the fawning Vanity Fair profile of Pizzolatto, the series creator is a father to a five-year-old daughter. At one point in the piece, Vince Vaughn alludes to “early difficulties in Pizzolatto’s life” and when asked about this later on, the showrunner and writer shuts down the line of questioning— it’s not something he is “willing to share.” Even a 2014 THR profile says “he spent much of his childhood grappling with issues that later would surface in ‘True Detective.’ ”
But if there’s a secret or unshared trauma buried somewhere in the beginnings of Pizzolatto’s origin story, one could argue the legacy traumas of childhood and of existence himself, is really what season two ultimately tried to explore. It’s alluded to almost everywhere. “Sometimes a thing happens, splits your life. There’s a before and after,” Frank Semyon tells Stan’s boy after his father has died. It’s a pep talk, but it’s also Semyon trying to gently warn the child about the cruelty of the world outside.
The fallout of children with suffering and abandonment issues are littered across season two like a trail of bodies. The entire main cast are broken adults anguished from their childhoods. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) grapples with being a father —it’s his central motivation in life— and is trying to force a connection with his son that isn’t there, hampered by the fact that he is a self-loathing, compromised and deeply troubled soul, the result of his own fraught relationship with his father (Fred Ward). Frank Semyon (Vaughn) has similar conflicts, still anguished from the traumas from his abusive father and the utopian concepts of leaving crime behind to start his own family (Semyon’s child is just an abstraction, as his wife cannot conceive, which brings its own existential pain). Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) has her own parental issues: she’s burning with resentment at her hippie father (David Morse) and the unhealthy commune life she was raised in. Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and his spiteful mother aren’t exactly a picture perfect mother/son pair either, with the true nature of his sexuality an open secret and deep wound between them.
There are orphans and fractured families everywhere in the show: the two children (Leonard and Laura) revealed to be Ben Caspere’s killers, looking for revenge for the 1992 slaying of their parents for the diamonds that helped finance the emerging web of corruption; Stan’s kid, an innocent caught in the crossfire of this larger conspiracy; and the children that Woodrugh and Velcoro leave fatherless after their tragic deaths. It’s not just that innocence is corrupted and goodness tarnished: evil flourishes down the father’s line too, with the unhinged Tony Chessani committing patricide and ultimately replacing his father as Vinci’s mayor. Even the central trio of detectives form a kind of make-shift family unit; law enforcers are left out to dry and take the fall, all of them finding ways to self-medicate against the cruelty of the outside world, and the institutions that should have protected and nurtured them but have turned on them instead.
As uneven as the season was, it finally coalesced in its eighth episode, with the doomy mood so insistently established before then at last paying off emotionally, courtesy of an ending mired in deeply felt melancholy and regret. It’s as almost as if Pizzolatto was suggesting that the futility and tragedy of these crimes, corruptions, lies, and deceits —the villains essentially getting away with it all and never being brought to justice— is emblematic of the harsh reality of the world they’ve been living in all along. And, as in the real world, children are often the ones who suffer most, even if they survive through it all, growing up to be fractured adults who have to find their way through the world on their own.
Part of season two’s problem, though, is that all this thematic texture never really comes together until the final episode, the murder mystery serving as a convoluted distraction, even if it was ultimately connected. And one can argue that the lack of a light, considered touch forces “True Detective” season two to vaguely be about these ideas for seven episodes and then quickly hammer them in to the hilt in its final moments. It’s not for nothing that Semyon argues with his father while hallucinating his last breaths away in the desert (nor, less explicably that Osip (Timothy V. Murphy) gasps “you were like a son to me” as he kills him). Nor it is a coincidence that we see Velcoro’s father sitting on the couch, weeping at the news of his son’s death: the regret, shame and pain etched into his face suggests that he now knows everything he could have done to be a better man to the boy he has now outlived.
Sure, you could boil it all down to “daddy issues,” but for all its problems, “True Detective” had a tiny bit more substance or at least a bit more poignancy than many might have given it credit for. The notions that we are doomed even before we begin because of not only the cruel world around us, but the compromised baggage we inherit, is grim but provocative stuff to contend with. “No fighting what you can’t change,” Semyon says presciently to Osip in the penultimate episode. “Of all the lies people tell themselves, I bet that’s the most common,” Semyon says to Velcoro in an earlier episode, when the cop thought his fated life could have been different— Pizzolatto here channelling film noir fatalism to essentially contend that who we were is who we will always be and there’s no escape from that fate.
“Crime exists contingent on human desire,” Semyon says at one point in typically overcooked fashion. But this is where the show’s two ideas connect: if human nature at its core is corrupt, depraved, violent and immoral, then our existence is really bound to be poisoned, much like the toxic lands that circle the the infected locale of Vinci City. It may not have been the ending we expected or even wanted, but if we were worried that “True Detective” wasn’t about anything, that worry at least was dispelled by the finale: in the end it’s a bleak, nihilistic, personal, perhaps even semi-autobiographical statement from Nic Pizzolatto about the diseased birthrights we hand down and those we are handed, and how much they let us earn “the world we deserve.”