'Your Worst Self Is Your Best Self': Defending Season Two of 'True Detective'
Nic Pizzolatto seems to have written this season for a specific audience, knowing full well and not giving a damn that it would not be viewed favorably by the general public.
Like the aftermath of one of the show’s numerous gunfights, the dust is settling on the second season of True Detective. As anyone reading this (or hate-reading this) knows, saying this season was much maligned is an understatement. Mocked, disparaged, loathed, all of these were reactions garnered by the eight-episode second season. Yet while the blood is still hot, a defense is in order, before the season is brushed aside like its antagonists did with the dense conspiracy at the root of its plot.
Before the first season ended, the Internet was a hotbed of speculation on what its successor had in store, with dream casting calls and suggested locales. In the end, writer/creator/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto swapped the verdant and innately eerie Louisiana bayou for the deserts and redwood forests of California, although as a possible tether, he carried over imagery of smog-spewing smokestacks piercing the skyline like the pillars of an industrial nightmare.
Both seasons had high literary aspirations. The first season’s relatively straight-forward narrative of two mismatched homicide detectives investigating the ritualistic murder of a drug-addled prostitute was followed by three cops and a gangster sifting through an byzantine maze of political corruption, sexual exploitation, shady land deals, Russian and Mexican mobsters, stolen jewels, and, setting it all off, the mutilated corpse of a crooked city manager.
The first season was indebted to the tropes of Southern Gothic and weird fiction, with Flannery O’Connor and Robert W. Chambers the touchstones. The second went full-bore in its homages to the salacious, vintage pulp noir realm, unabashedly playing up that genre’s cynical character archetypes, hazy plots, abundant betrayals, and seedy venues. About the only thing unifying both seasons was Pizzolatto’s distinctive voice, crafting an oppressively dark tone and a nihilistic or misanthropic worldview often communicated via his characters’ philosophical dialogue. Well, that and the fact that each character exists as a damned soul with varying shades of fucked-ups, drinking Jameson en masse and chain-smoking Camel lights.
Fans’ rampant hype, however, proved a misfire. As stated by Sean T. Collins in Rolling Stone, “With its eighth and final episode in the ground… ‘TD 2.0’ has emerged as the year's most passionately disliked show.” In line with that, Adi Tantimedh, wrote for Bleeding Cool News the day after the finalé aired, “There’s probably been more column inches spent knocking the show as there were praising the first season.”
In reading reviews throughout the season, it’s clear Collins and Tantimedh views are accurate. To go from critical lauding to ardent panning from one season to the next, and with the same mind responsible for both, is nearly unprecedented. A particularly astute article in Vox Culture by Todd VanDerWerff offers seven points that caused the season’s fall from grace, most of which are valid. Tellingly, VanDerWerff opens the article with the line, “Well, that’s over,” a ho-hum sentiment prevalent among many viewers who "hate-watched" this season. Elsewhere in his analysis, he states the general assessment of the season falls “somewhere between ‘massively disappointing’ and ‘unmitigated disaster.’”
Such options being the only two poles might seem hyperbolic, but it’s not an unfair description of the public’s response. But where does this disdain come from?
Broadly, there seems to be three camps attacking Pizzolatto’s sophomore television effort. One is composed of those enamored with the debut season who were hoping the second would recapture the former’s lightning-in-a-bottle grandeur, only to be left disappointed that it didn’t. It’s hard not to take issues with this party, as it was wholly unrealistic to expect season two to equal, let alone surpass, its parent. Another group comprised those who disliked the first season and were hoping the second would flop and fail as some kind of vindication for their disdain toward its predecessor, a type of TV aficionado schadenfreude. Lastly, there is the group of casual TV-goers who simply tried out season two based on the praise heaped on the first and were left baffled or uninterested. Each contingent has its validity, but strip away their ire and the ubiquitous complaints that it didn’t “live up” to season one, and True Detective’s second season is not lacking in merits.
Warts and All
No appreciation of any work of art can be taken seriously unless the blemishes are laid out up front along with its virtues, and to be certain, the second season is rife with flaws. Let’s get those out of the way.
The sheer number of characters — lead, secondary, tertiary — was staggering. Four leads was simply too many for each to receive adequate characterization, with Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh the most underserved, his relevance the definition of extraneous until the final act. The lifeblood of the first season was Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart interaction, their jabs at one another, their burgeoning mutual respect, and their natural chemistry.
By contrast, season two more often than not had the four leads separate from one another, pursuing their own subplots. Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro routinely interacted with Vince Vaughn’s Mafioso Frank Semyon, but the latter had one dialogue-free passing scene with the perpetually underutilized Paul. Early on, viewers were teased with fleeting scenes of Ray and Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides, a nascent connection brewing between them. Yet their shared scenes were so scant, that their eventual hookup and reciprocated love still felt rushed. Yes, the late-in-the-game romance stemmed from both believing they were facing death or imprisonment and needing a release, which is certainly believable, but the degree of their sudden devotion still felt unearned.
Most egregiously, the dependence on characters barely seen or not seen at all was gratuitous and did nothing but overcomplicate matters. The subplot about Frank’s murdered henchman Stan generated an online meme of “Who’s Stan?” Other examples include the often-mentioned, never-viewed Tasha, a prostitute who served as a lynchpin for leading the investigators down the rabbit hole.
Then there was Vera, a “missing” woman Ani and her partner started searching for after serving an eviction notice on her sister. How does performing the one duty lead to the other? The obvious answer is it must in order to further the plot. That falls short, though, when you realize Vera’s disappearance and rediscovery could have been entirely omitted and nothing would have changed in the larger narrative development. The only other explanation was the show needed a convenient means of bringing Ani’s tortured past to the fore via the coincidence that Vera briefly worked at Ani’s New Age guru father’s commune.
That, in turn, is another blight: the reliance on coincidences. Now, with this pulp genre, one must accept a healthy amount of coincidences to push the plot along; it’s long been a standby to grease the narrative’s wheels, as evidenced in any Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett novel. Even with those allowances, the fluke concurrences here are so myriad, they at times take the viewer right out of the story with an eye-roll or face palm.
For example, Paul’s former Black Mountain mercenary crew who fought in the Middle East ended up working solely for the sinister Catalyst Group, and Ani’s father (David Morse) had ties to the major players of the corrupt Vinci city government and sex-trafficking ring. Both are difficult to swallow. This is exceptionally so because, like the Vera subplot, they don’t add anything to the larger plot. Simply put, Paul and Ani didn’t need to have a deeper connection to their investigation of the murder of Vinci city manager Ben Caspere and the nefarious dealings surrounding it, although the argument could be made these coincidences were deliberate devices used by Pizzolatto to evoke a sense of cosmic doom, that the characters were fated to have their stories intertwined.
Then there's the narrative’s stunted pacing. Many scenes you just wished they would hurry up and get through, as how many yawn-inducing conversations about money exchanges for land can one endure? Rather than engrossing you from the outset, the season often lagged without immediate reward, trying your patience in the audacious hope that you’d stick with it for a worthwhile payoff. This lack of consistency was likely due to the head-scratching decision to have several different directors rather than one analogous to the first season’s auteur, Cary Fukunaga. Perhaps a single ringleader behind the lens would have imparted more stability and reined in some of Pizzolatto’s meanderings.
Now we come to the most recurrent criticisms — the fraught dialogue and one-liners, the wildly scattered plot that spun out in seemingly random whiplashes rather than from a logical starting point, and the unrelenting bleakness. These points of contention come down to the eye of the beholder, as for me, they are the season’s strengths. As Frank says to Ray, in one of his many oft- lambasted lines, “Sometimes your worst self is your best self.”
The Virtues in Vice
Sweeping overhead shots of California’s highway system frequently serve as the connective tissue for the show and its characters’ divergent plots. Used frequently (maybe too frequently) the webs of concrete transition one scene to another, acting as the arteries and veins through which the themes flow. These shots are also apt visual metaphors for the show’s labyrinthine narrative — winding about without apparent destination, splitting off into abrupt deviations, coursing all over the landscape with a starting point forgotten in the distance. It’s also a fitting representation for the highway fatigue that can set in on those long drives, and the lassitude that viewers complained about. Both phenomena require you to remain focused on the path ahead, and likewise, it doesn’t hurt to have a map with you to navigate the roads and the plot threads.
Yes, this season’s plot was ridiculously convoluted, chock-full of subplots, names, and dealings that virtually necessitated you to keep a pad at your side on which to keep notes. Caspere’s murder got the ball rolling and brought Ray, Ani, and Paul together, but quickly became a background concern as the institutionalized corruption surrounding the development of a high-speed rail line took central focus. Prior to the finallé, Slate’s Willa Paskin did a remarkable job bringing viewers up to date on nearly every dangling plot thread. As testament to the season's complexity, her work clocked in at just over 3,600 words.
While Pizzolatto did stretch the scheme to the point where it bordered on sacrificing intrigue, the motif of over-complicating what should be simple matters and misleading your audience are hallmarks of the pulp noir form. More importantly, the theme of average or significantly damaged people being roped into such a ploy by a faceless, inexorable institution and then consumed by it is the stock-and-trade of the genre (check out any novel by the aforementioned Jim Thompson). Packing such material with a surfeit of characters is also mainstay of the genre, laying out a chess game scenario. And, as Paul, Ray, and Frank learned, it’s always a knight, bishop, or pawn you took your eyes off of or prematurely disregarded that gets you in the end.
The difference between the pulp works of old and True Detective is that Pizzolatto demanded much more attention from his viewers than those novelists expected of their readers, but then, Pizzolatto is not one for modesty. When Frank testily shouts “Are you fucking dense?” at the newly widowed wife of Vinci Mayor Austin Chessani, it’s tempting to hear Pizzolatto addressing his audience at a point where they’re mutually disappointed with one another.
Let’s also not forget True Detective’s first season had a plethora of red herrings. Remember the theories that Hart’s father-in-law was tied to the Yellow King cult, or that either Hurt or Cohle were the killers all along? Critics and audiences were more forgiving, though, as all such herrings stemmed from the central plot of investigating Dora Lange’s murder. Each thread could be tied back to that point, whereas in the second season, viewers were often left confused on how many tangents worked their way back to Caspere’s slaying, and in some cases, they didn’t.
Also of note, the debut season had to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders and stay more concise. It was a new show and no one knew what to expect from it. The second season started with an established audience, and therefore earned the luxury to peel the layers at a slower pace and expect fans’ loyalty in its indulgences.
Getting to the dialogue, what can be said other than at this point, you either accept Pizzolatto’s writing style or you don’t? You simply adore it or abhor it. Seth Meyers gave it some good-natured ribbing with his parody game show in which contestants guessed whether a line hailed from the show or a fortune cookie. The Concourse published a list ranking what they judged to be the season’s 19 worst lines.
Yes, many of the lines were overwrought, especially with Frank seeming to have just leafed through a thesaurus before his scenes. Yes, real people don’t speak in such a manner, but that’s beside the point. Hardboiled, pseudo-philosophical patter is, like the intricate plot, inherent to both Pizzolatto’s writing and the pulp genre. Some of the lines are hard to defend (see: “He looks like half-anaconda, half-great white,” lackey Nails’ attempt to describe to Frank how badass a competing mobster is), but on the whole, I lapped up the patois. Pretentious as it was, it captivated.
Furthermore, Frank had the lion’s share of such lines, and that is in tune with his character. His pride for being a self-made man with a superiority to most others is his defining characteristic, so why wouldn’t his sense of inflation compel him to speak in such a lofty, idiosyncratic dialect?
In line with this, the metaphors are often criticized for being too heavy-handed, but damn, how can you blame Pizzolatto for having a dying Frank stuff his wound with the diamonds of his demise, having the infertile Semyons plagued with fruitless avocado trees, or the imagery of Frank setting fire to his nightclub and casino as he literally burns his history? Too on the nose? Sure, but it’s so faithfully in line with the material being paid tribute to, and rendered so deliciously. To complain about these, and to complain of the show’s unremittent darkness, is akin to complaining about a rock being too hard, the sea being too wet. It’s the nature of the True Detective universe.
While at times the second season felt like a labor to get through, I find it hard to believe the final act, specifically the final, didn’t satisfy. Maybe the immediacy of the first season spoiled viewers, but once the spider webs were brushed aside in the final two episodes and it was streamlined to a tense escape/heist thriller, the reward proved the previous hours’ value. Perhaps the dour ambiance and the claustrophobic feeling that the walls were closing in on Frank, Ray, and Ani were too much. Though their downfall seemed inevitable throughout, it masterfully kept you holding out hope for the trio to find sanctuary in far-off Venezuela. The dread-heavy aura all but broadcasted salvation was not to be, though you viscerally clung to the minute chance they’d be successful, in turn showing that you did come to care for these broken characters.
The finalé is a microcosm of the whole season, in that everything that could go wrong for our principals most definitely did. In a narrative sleight of hand, our protagonists were tantalized with notions that things would work out and they’d beat the machine steamrolling against them. But these teases of things going right were only there to make the eventual wrongness proportionately crushing.
For example, Ray and Ani learn the identity of Caspere’s killer by a confession from said killer’s sister, Erica. Turns out the slaying was independent of the grand conspiracy and was an act of revenge by two siblings wronged as children by Caspere and others in 1992, a clever and not jarring development. They are unable to do anything with the information, though, as the killer is himself slain along with conspiracy player Vinci Chief Holloway. Ray is able to get a recorded confession of Holloway’s involvement in the grand scheme, but the recording device is smashed by a passerby when Ray drops it. Frank daringly amasses millions in cash and diamonds, dispatches his most hated enemies, and is on the home stretch before the overlooked Mexican cartel kidnaps and, ultimately, kills him. Ray, knowing his death is imminent, tries sending a farewell voicemail to his son, but, tragedy of tragedies, he is gunned down before the message transmits. Again, Pizzolatto’s cosmic doom turns and turns in the widening gyre.
A thoroughly nihilistic ending was the only kind ever in store. Some said the same with the first season, but the twist was that it concluded with a silver lining of optimism. There’s no such solace here, conversely making this season’s climax more consistent with its themes. Paramount was that all four principals did their damnedest to live down their pasts, to escape if not rewrite their histories, and make some amends for their sins. Ray needed to atone for murdering his wife’s suspected rapist and becoming ensnared in organized crime, and to prove himself a father worthy of his son. Ani needed to overcome her childhood sexual assault, to the point of rescuing other women, even those who didn’t want saving. Paul had to accept his homosexuality and the memories of what horrors he committed or witnessed during his time in the Middle East, and attempted to do so by fitting his model of a “good man”. Frank was on a mission to leave behind his criminal career for a legitimate and lucrative endeavor, to parley his cunning brutality into an above-board entrepreneurial enterprise.
What each discovers is that the past clings to and fuels them, like a symbiotic parasite. Their efforts to sever it only lead to ruin, their own and those around them. When they get down to it and see the awful truth, they realize their options were always coming from a stacked deck. Their “options” were to try to change and burn themselves down in the process, or remain static with their cardinal sins and be drowned by them. In the end, the very burden of being — represented by the conspirators and their machinations — topple them and show there is no room for ideals or betterment in a world polluted by pervasive corruption.
The principals, and all denizens of True Detective’s universe, are defined by choices they made long ago without full appreciation or foresight of the likely consequences. They knocked over the first domino for immediate gratification, without giving a thought as to where the last piece would fall.
These decisions set them on paths they can’t get off. Their dissonance and downfall comes from having the perfidy to think new choices can alter the highway or rail-line they’re already on. They made choices, and then the choices made them. The victors amassing the spoils, the Tony Chessanis and Kevin Burrises of the world, are those who are content with their prior transgressions and are not conflicted about perpetuating more. It is how the conspiracy thrives despite the deaths of crucial members and the Caspere slaying amounts to a pebble tossed into a river.
This is a stark, unforgiving, and pessimistic view, one that refuses to be mollified and thus, is off-putting to many. Season one was dark, but season two is an abyss; one shudders to consider what depths a third season will plunge to.
Pizzolatto seems to have written this season for a specific audience, knowing full well and not giving a damn that it would not be viewed favorably by the general public. Due to its density, it invites repeated viewings. Knowing how it all ends up, those previously overlooked plot points can be more readily picked up and the subtleties during a second viewing,and can then be better appreciated.
This is another way Pizzolatto demanded more of his viewers this season. The majority of those turned off by the season aren’t likely to sit through another exploratory session, but for its fans, another go is essential and should be more rewarding. As such, the season may be destined to fade into obscurity as far as the masses are concerned. At the same time, it could grow into a cult classic among its small group of defenders. That’s a suitable fate, fittingly placing it alongside the pulp noir canon to which it paid reverence.