Clearly, Michael Lombardo is not a fan of “The Sopranos” cut-to-black finale.
Prior to Sunday’s final episode of “True Detective” Season 2, the HBO president told reporters he thinks “the season’s ending is as satisfying as any series we’ve done.” That’s clearly a laughable assertion now — even if you didn’t like David Chase’s final shot — as is Lombardo and creator Nic Pizzolatto’s echoed plea for critics to watch the whole season before dolling out judgment. Though post-finale analyses tend to agree the final episode only made things worse, a post-season analysis does provide a more accurate avenue to assess not only what went wrong (lots) but why. Blame doesn’t lie with critics, but understanding what went wrong does start with their response to the Season 1 finale.
First, it’s important to note what we can about Pizzolatto’s engagement with criticism, both good and bad. For the most part, Season 1 of “True Detective” was widely praised. While a choice few threw just enough shade to keep HBO’s new series from garnering nothing but perfect scores, it wasn’t until Emily Nussbaum released her review for The New Yorker — and the creator responded — that we got our first glimpse of how damaging negative feedback could be to Pizzolatto. Setting aside what we can glean from his reduction of a respected writer to “someone with a Wi-Fi” connection,” the young screenwriter also admitted to letting criticism influence his plans for Season 2.
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In the Hollywood Reporter interview, he claims to have “changed course” and “ditched whole characters” as soon as he realized he was writing for the wrong audience, saying “I don’t think you can create effectively toward expectation. […] I’m not in the service business.” Yet comparing criticism of the Season 1 finale with what happened in Season 2 leads to the belief he couldn’t shake the voices in the back of his head after all. [Spoilers ahead for “True Detective” Season 1 and 2]
Specific complaints about the first season’s ending circled around two points: The episode lacked any big twists — a promise many thought was made after the dark mystery and philosophical pondering that dominated the previous seven episodes — and neither Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) or Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) died, despite the former suffering what appeared to be a fatal stomach wound.
Andy Greenwald and Mark Lisanti summed up these ideas best in their joint finale review (along with other staffers). “‘True Detective’ feinted toward complexity, it hinted at depth, yet in the end the bad guy was a monster in a haunted house,” Greenwald wrote to explain his disappointment with the “simple and sober” ending.
“What did we want out of this finale? And what did we get?” Lisanti continued. “We wanted our detectives to lay down their lives for the case that had already claimed them, to be finally consumed by the darkness they were chasing […] But we got another crazy redneck with a Hoarders house dispatched by a head shot, and a crime solved, mostly, instead of a Yellow King disappearing into the overgrown labyrinth of Carcosa.”
Though other critics argued the realistic nature of the case’s resolution helped make its many other-worldly twists and turns more haunting, anyone looking for issues with the finale rallied around these ideas and agreed it was somewhat of a let-down. Were they right? No, but Pizzolatto heard them anyway.
Not only did our two male leads die at the end of “True Detective” (three if you count Taylor Kitsch’s tertiary character), but the way in which they died suggests Pizzolatto was making reparations for “flaws” in the first season. Yes, Ray Velcoro’s (Colin Farrell) demise was pointedly foreshadowed by his father’s comments in his Episode 3 dream sequence, but it was more immediately notable for its forced — and failed — dramatic impact. It felt like something that had to happen because nothing else would match the dark tone of Season 2. His death was an attempt to add weight to a finale — a Season 2 finale following up a first attempt some felt was too light.
Yet it was Frank Semyon’s (Vince Vaughn) final fall that brought flashbacks. Stabbed in the stomach and facing improbable odds at survival, Frank stumbled to his death in the middle of a barren wasteland. Sound familiar? Rust Cohle suffered a nasty stabbing in the middle of the Louisiana boonies and was left lying on the ground as authorities scrambled to find him. After the fade to black, fans would have been hard-pressed to believe Rust had survived, just as few believed Frank’s long walk toward the light would save him. Yet only one man died, and the timing is telling.
In addition to the issues with the first season’s finale, one season-long problem picked up by multiple critics was the show’s depiction of female characters. Given the rampant discussion of the show’s treatment of women as “lurid props,” it should come as no surprise Season 2 ended on its three most prominent female characters. Ray’s ex-wife Gena (the great Abigail Spencer, though largely wasted here) was reduced to mourning and revealing Ray really was the father of a son who looked nothing like him. Jordan Semyon made it out alive and even snagged the baby she’s been craving. But wait. That’s not her baby. It’s Ani’s, which in turn means it’s Ray’s, thus adding to the tragedy of his death.
Jordan, the fiercely loyal wife of a mobster, and Ani, a sexually-abused child who grew up to be one hard-ass cop, may not have been ideal examples of the female perspective onscreen, but hey — at least they didn’t die. Moreover, the double twists that Ray was the father of not one but two children were clearly meant to satisfy die-hard fans looking for the season to go out on a bigger bang than before.
Therein lies the overarching issue with what went wrong in Season 2; an issue Pizzolatto himself wisely pointed out: “I don’t think you can create effectively toward expectation.” Despite what a small group of critics claimed was wrong with the Season 1 finale, the series was widely adored and has proven to be a game-changer for television as a whole. Moreover, the final episode was precisely in line with the story Pizzolatto wanted to tell. It was never about the mystery, but the men trying to solve it. Season 2 felt like the opposite, and its ending only hammered in that sentiment. Had Pizzolatto been able to follow his own advice, maybe Season 2 would have turned out differently.