Even before Sunday night’s finale (our recap is here), a hint of defensiveness hung in the air around “True Detective” base camp. HBO chief Michael Lombardo‘s statement about the season’s last installment being “enormously satisfying” felt like a Hail Mary intended to re-up waning enthusiasm in the face of declining (though still impressive) viewership figures, and even then it was couched in rather tepid terms. “I think the show works… I think you need to watch the entire season,” he said, inadvertently validating the idea that the show up to that point was underwhelming. And indeed, while season two has its ardent defenders, many of us season one fans felt that the first few episodes this year marked a dramatic fallback in quality.
At that point, the options became to either stop watching it, to semi-hate-watch it, or to back-load the season with unrealistic expectations. In almost the precise inverse of the S1 narrative, where viewers wondered how the finale could live up to the standards of the knotty, complex but deliciously evocative preceding episodes, and how the story could possibly wrap up (arguably it not doing so with a more resounding thunderclap is S1’s biggest flaw), this time many of us were looking to the finale to compensate for the many prior issues of S2. The finale was essentially burdened with the job of redeeming the entire season.
It was an unrealistic expectation. Yet the 90-minute-long eighth episode made a better hash of it than I expected, continuing the upward trajectory of the last few episodes, and amounting to the most coherent and overtly entertaining episode that the season delivered, uneven though it was. But the hope that any single slice of TV could, or should have to, “redeem” a preceding seven hour investment of time is a nonsense. And perhaps it speaks more to the oceanic goodwill that S1 had engendered that so many of us stuck it out for the consolation prize of that finale at all.
But however late in coming, there were welcome aspects in “Omega Station” —Frank (Vince Vaughn) actually got to do some stuff as opposed to all the awkward monologuing (though he did still get lumbered with the episode’s worst line: “he’s been around less than my wife’s period”) and died a memorable death. Jordan (Kelly Reilly) was given a reason to exist other than to slink and sulk. Ani (Rachel McAdams) and Ray (Colin Farrell) made a human connection that was obviously predicated on mutual miserabilism and came out of nowhere chemistry-wise, but at least it was a chink of positivity in a deterministically fatalist show. And as we explored yesterday, the thematic importance of fathers and fatherhood emerged with (sometimes heavy-handed) poignancy.
But no number of last-minute revelations, bursts of action, or doomed love affairs should be expected to make up for the fact that prior to Sunday night (and maybe episode 7, if we’re being kind), the show was a mess. Not an unwatchable mess (except during those baby-making conversations between Frank and Jordan early on which made me want to throw the TV, or myself, in the sea) —but a mess nonetheless.
Seeing as we’re not sure our own interest in season 3, if it happens (which is apparently entirely up to showrunner Nic Pizzolatto), could survive similar messiness, yet with the uptick of the last two episodes making us more intrigued than we’d otherwise have been, we thought we’d try to put a positive spin on our season 2 gripes by seeing if we can translate them into lessons hopefully learned for next time.
Less Of The Dour, Borderline Parodic Self-Seriousness
Season 1 wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, and Pizzolatto is clearly the most resolutely un-wacky of writers, but even in Rust Cohle’s most ludicrously sphinx-like pronouncements (intoned by peak McConaughey), there was some irony. He knew how overblown he sounded —he just didn’t give a shit. There’s irony aplenty in S2, but it doesn’t come from any of the characters. It comes from Fate, or Zeus, or whatever enveloping Greek tragedy they’re all unwittingly ensnared in. It’s the thing that lets us know the second Ray smiles his first truly joyful smile, after his loved-up phone call to Ani in the last episode, that he’s going to die —nobody smiles in S2 of “True Detective” and gets away with it! No one is happy in this universe, no one cracks a joke and whenever anyone tries to lighten the mood it’s met with a stony grimace.
Season 1 had just as much ruminating on the nature of intangibles like the, er, shape of time (though it’s probably fate or childhood trauma that is the flat circle this time), but it left space for some parched-dry wit and even raised the occasional (intentional) chuckle. Pizzolatto proved he can write a character who is both tormented and charismatic, fucked up and charming, self-involved and self-aware, so it was a major disappointment that not one of his season 2 principals had that dimensionality. He was overtly emulating the detective film noir tradition, but no one had the world-weary wit of a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe or a Jake Gittes. Instead, they’re all pawns in some depressing cosmic game of misery and butter-side-down bad luck. And the fact that they all seem to know just how doomed they are from the outset doesn’t give any of them a sense of the absurdity of their situation.
It was partially his gallows humor that made Rust Cohle such a fun downer to be around. But he felt like a character built from the inside out, as though Pizzolatto identified with him from the outset. Here we got the sense of the writer as a dispassionate God observing Ani, Ray, Frank and Paul the way a malicious child might watch insects trapped in a glass, buzzing their pathetic last.
Occasionally Change Or Counterpoint The Prevailing Mood
The relentless miserabilism really wore us down during the early part of S2, with no modulation in the mood of doomy foreboding, and rarely any counterpoint. The much-derided, apparently suicidal singer adds depressive vocals to already depressing interactions, and conversations that might be sparkier at normal speak-and-respond rate are slowed down to a near-somnolent torpor. It’s not that we don’t enjoy a good wallow in the grime at the dark end of the street —it’s just that occasionally you need to look into the sun to be reminded how chilling and scary it is in the shade. Without that, the sameness of the mood becomes crushingly monotonous and loses impact.
This unchanging tone is also a factor of all four main characters, despite varied backstories painstakingly played out to demonstrate the ways in which they’re damaged (usually something to do with bad Dads, sad Dads, mad Dads or absent Dads), having essentially the same “voice.” For example, Ani’s fatalism, her stuff about memories “looking back at you,” could have been said at any time by Ray, Frank or even Paul. Ray’s growly philosophical platitudes differ in no way from the stuff Frank says to Jordan. It feels like these morose, cynical speeches pre-existed the characters under whose names they were copy-pasted interchangeably. Yet thinking back to S1, there’s little sense that any of Rust’s riddle-me-this pronouncements would have sounded right coming from Marty.
And if Pizzolatto tried to address criticisms of S1’s lack of female characters by foregrounding Antigone Bezzerides (first name, incidentally, that of incestuous Dad-slayer Oedipus’ sister/daughter; surname that of the screenwriter of “Kiss Me Deadly” and other films noir), it unfortunately demonstrates that he doesn’t write women very well. While McAdams does her considerable best, as soon as she talks about sex (like in the group therapy scene) or about her childhood molestation trauma (in the world’s least joyous post-coital conversation), she’s immediately unconvincing. In these moments, she sounds less like a complex, interesting female character and more like a relatively inexperienced [male] screenwriter’s idea of what a complex, interesting female character might sound like.
Similarly, Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch) closeted gay backstory comes across like a writer’s contrivance rather than anything truly germane to the plot or to an authentic character as such. It feels compartmentalized, like a bolted-on addition to his personality rather than an integral part of it, with the reasons why this fundamentally honest, intelligent and courageous young man might be so terrified of revealing his true sexuality never properly explored. Instead, Paul’s hidden homosexuality is a convenient hook on which Pizzolatto can hang various plot turns, like the blackmail he is so reluctant to let Ani and Ray know about, and also by which he can introduce yet another ultimately fatherless child into a world already teeming with Daddy issues.
Man or woman, gay or straight, cop or crook or both: every lead in S2 seems like little more than a differently shaped mouthpiece for the same fatalist, dystopian worldview. With fewer characters and less ostensible diversity, Pizzolato managed to create much more believably differentiated protagonists the first time round, and it was in the conflict and contrast between those characters in season 1 that the show gained much of its drama. So whether he needs to engage co-writers to aid in the creation of other lived-in characters, or just spend more time trying to inhabit and differentiate his characters himself, we would love to see S3 populated with people who speak in authentic, unique voices, rather than the Greek chorus effect of S2.
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action
All your characters talking alike is a problem, especially when there’s so much talking going on (and by talking, we also mean the pointed not-talking, the long heavy pauses, the questions left infuriatingly dangling, etc). And it’s not just all the philosophical speechifying either; occasionally, especially in the last few episodes, a flurry of factoids and plot details occur in some uncharacteristically quick dialogue. It feels like certain exchanges are sped up to conceal how convenient or unmotivated they are, while others, which are about Mood or Fate or psychological scar-comparisons, are slowed down to a practically sub-aquatic pace.
So all those exchanges in the bar, during which very little information of any import is exchanged, go on forever —Frank and Ray steer so far clear of each other’s lines they might as well be in different time zones. But then we get that last-episode scene where Ray and Ani hear of Paul’s death, and suddenly Ray knows that it all points to the set photographer who we saw briefly in one previous episode (hello, Yellow King!) and who he just now realizes is one of the kids from the diamond robbery, and who obviously (?) has Caspere’s hard drive. All of that (the solution to the central mystery which is supposedly what they’ve been True Detecting all this time) happens in about, no joke, 25 seconds.
It makes the season feel both overwritten and underwritten, giving a concertina effect to the dialogue that makes it very easy to tune out during the slower bits and thus miss vitally important details in the more rapid-fire sections. Which is chiefly a problem because then, when one of the infrequent action scenes does occur, you can be forgiven for not knowing quite where we are, why we’re shooting at people and who is shooting back. So while there are some memorable action moments (the bonkers shootout in Episode 4; Ray and Frank taking down the house full of Russians in Episode 8; Ani’s hallucinatory orgy escape; Paul’s last stand; Ray’s woodland ending), it’s not always easy to understand exactly what the stakes are.
Most of all, we could do with more people-setting-shit-on-fire and fewer ambiguous non-sequitur exchanges, like the precoital one between Ani and Ray that goes:
A: “You’re not a bad man”
R: “Yes, I am.”
[weighted staring-contest pause]
R: “Do you miss it?”
I mean, what? Here’s to a season 3 that includes a couple of dialogues in which a person answers a question with the answer to the question.
Streamline The Plot And The Cast Of Characters
The actual moving parts of S2’s plot can be summed up in a couple of lines. And if we can point to the functional parts of S1’s plot being just as skeletal, the difference is that the characters there were the real mystery —they were the reason we kept coming back for more. Here, despite some decent work by the actors, particularly Farrell and McAdams, it’s not until the very end that we give a damn about any of them.
Into that vacuum, Pizzolatto shovels a Christmas-lights spaghetti-tangle of pointless plotting that requires exposition and red herring callbacks to other red herrings and the glancing introduction of characters who, unless you have a photographic memory and a notebook handy, you will probably not remember the next time you hear their names. Which is bad luck if for some reason you are actually invested in finding out who killed Ben Caspere —it was always, always going to be one of those seemingly unimportant side characters. In fact, it feels like a lot of those supplementary people were there to give Pizzolatto a wide field from which he could pluck the eventual murderer, safe in the knowledge that few would work it out in advance —not through the cleverness of the storytelling but through sheer statistical improbability.
Don’t Wear Your References Quite So Clearly On Your Sleeve
Several of the story’s blind alleys feel derivative or imported almost wholesale from elsewhere. The entire subplot about the hookers who undergo plastic surgery and are then farmed out to service rich men at opulent orgiastic parties feels grabbed from “LA Confidential” and plunked down here with only minor alterations. Even Dr. Pitlor’s (Rick Springfield) death —he’s found sitting in a chair with his wrists slit— mirrors that of Pierce Patchett (David Straithairn) in the James Ellroy adaptation. The shady land deal and the deliberate spoiling of certain territory to depress prices prior to development is very similar to the water/irrigation theme in “Chinatown.” And Pizzolatto even nods to himself, introducing an unwarranted occult aspect with the crow’s head that fits much better with the uncanny vibe of S1’s Southern Gothic noir than it does with the more urban, hardboiled feel he’s dealing in here.
Fewer Weird, Momentum-Killer Edits
As a quadruple-header, S2 had many options for which strand to go to at any one time, allowing us to skip from a boring bit in one storyline to a more dramatic part of another (something that “Game of Thrones” does very well). But some really baffling, momentum-killing decisions were made on the micro level of individual edits throughout the season. So the aforementioned conversation about babies between Frank and Jordan goes on for an age, but when it finally cuts to Ani, and you palpably relax, thinking “great, we have two other characters after this we need to check in with before we have to go back to the Semyons”… ha! Joke’s on you, because we go straight back to Vaughn and Reilly and their no-one-cares domestic issues. Similarly, during one of the few genuine action sequences, Paul’s shootout in episode 7, we cut halfway through to Ani and Ray in the motel room mumbling at each other before cutting back to the flashlights and footchases and dramatic deaths. Frank’s interminable monologue about the stain on the ceiling, however? That we get in all its full, unbroken turgidity.
Consider Returning To The More Collaborative Approach Of S1
Well this is the big one, really. How do we account for S2’s problems, aside from ascribing them to a spectacular sophomore slump on the part of showrunner/creator/writer Pizzolatto? Is it even fair to lay the blame wholly at his door? Well, yes, actually. As S1 was the result of an unusually collaborative (for TV) process between Pizzolatto as writer, season director Cary Joji Fukunaga, and the show’s two stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, it was a grandly successful experiment in taking a script written as a television show and approaching it like a movie —shooting in sequence, with the same behind-camera team and achieving a far more consistent, controlled directorial vision across all its episodes as a result. By contrast, S2 feels like a story that could easily have been told in a single feature-length film, which was then written into the ground, packed with filler and stretched out across 8 ½ often-interminable hours, with little sense of a grand arc across the whole season.
Let’s not forget that S1 was convoluted and often confusing, but the outside subplots added texture to the main thrust of the show, which was always driven by the characters of Rust and Marty and their eternally adversarial/symbiotic relationship. We can now see that a great deal of that tonal control was derived from having another talented and committed creative personality taking the long view on the entire season. In fact, if “True Detective” teaches us anything about the nature of television in this “Golden Age,” it’s to somewhat challenge the idea that a TV show’s greatness should be solely ascribed to its writer/showrunner.
We were all excited by the prospect of S2 emulating that groundbreaking and, to be fair, extraordinarily difficult and exhausting) approach. But instead, “True Detective” reverted in its second season to a standard writer-as-showrunner, directors-for-hire format, and with the greatest of respect for Pizzolatto, it just feels unfair to expect him to achieve similar heights all by his lonesome. It’s highly unlikely Fukunaga would return for S3, but there must be other directors who’d be willing to take a punt on a whole season —if you want recommendations from the S2 pool, we’d point to Episode 7’s Daniel Attias or Episode 8’s John Crowley.
Maybe It’d Be Better If We Took A Break
Related to that last point, there’s one final luxury that the Nic Pizzolatto of S1 enjoyed that he could not the second time out: time. More than anything, this iteration felt compromised by hurry, compared to the dearly held, long-percolating passion project vibe of last season. There were too many first-draft speeches, too many undercooked subplots, too few of those subtle clever flourishes that are the result of more man-hours of input. We’d be happy to wait until 2017 or beyond for season 3 if it that’s what it takes to recapture even a little of what made “True Detective” so special the first time out. And if that, or any of the above points, are the lessons to be absorbed from a disappointing season 2, then maybe it’ll all have been worth it. Except that ceiling stain speech.