The second season of True Detective was never going have an easy road. The first season was the equivalent of a newborn baby who sleeps through the night. In other words, it was, seemingly, perfect. No one knew much about it while it was in the production phase, so there was little build up of expectation. The early buzz was that the performances by leads Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were everything from revelatory to career-defining. Perhaps most uniquely of all, it had
one director and one writer collaborating on the entire project. It was a bit like a television unicorn. Director Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, and a producer on Season 2) and his cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, brought a distinct atmosphere to the screen. Not just Southern Gothic, but a unique kind of Trailer Park Creep, the kind of aesthetic that basks in the word "seedy". Its premiere was a massive success for HBO. Naturally, it was renewed for a second season, almost immediately. It was to be the next great pioneer in this “Anthology” craze that tv execs seem so gung-ho about.
As the first season went on, questions such as “hey, does this Nick Pizzolatto guy even KNOW any women? Because his female characters make me think ‘No’ “ started to surface. But they were quickly brushed aside. Fukunaga’s adroite direction gave momentum to the mystery and holding down the fort were Harrelson’s and McConaughey’s detectives. The “now” and “then” aspect added a freshness to both the performances and the story. Even though it was a mystery that was seemingly static for decades, the episodes ended with punctuation scenes, ensuring the viewers return. The hunt was on, and the season 1 finale brought a satisfying, if melancholy, closure for Cohle and Hart.
Season two, was awarded none of the pre-production benefits of its predecessor. Speculation about its cast, location, and plot began, roughly, during the 5th episode of Season 1. These questions and “theories” were put through the centrifuge that is the modern media and spit out various results, each site with a different source, before any contracts were signed. When the cast was finally in place, the air seemed to turn from exuberantly hopeful to cautiously optimistic. By the time the location and general story outline were made public, the shine of the first season had worn off. If season one was the perfect newborn, then what lay in that hand-me down crib now was the dreaded, colicky second child.
I say this not to excuse the convoluted heap that True Detective’s second season became, but to perhaps give some perspective as to how it might have gotten there. And make no mistake, the second season IS a convoluted mess. It is bloated and directionless, and a bit too vain but that’s what sometimes happens when the goal becomes the focus instead of the training. And the goal here was to SURPASS season one. In that effort, corners were cut, routines were set aside and the details got lost. For all of the style and swagger that the first season had, it worked, more often than not, because the story was edited and the performances were centered. They grew out of and were shaped by the central mystery, not the other way around. It was always clear that though there are all different kinds of “bad men” those that were being hunted were “bad” because they were actual criminals who had done terrible things to children.
The second season’s approach seemed to be “well, let’s get LOTS of characters so they can all say things like ‘Time is a flat circle.” Let me clarify. I understand that it’s an anthology. I understand that it’s a different story and a different tone. I understand that it’s a modern take on noir. I don’t want my disappointment to be confused with “not getting it”.
I’m writing this now, instead of halfway through the season, prematurely bemoaning the demise of the series, because, even until last night, even until the last half hour, I had hope that it would turn itself around. In a strange turn of events, the show that, it turns out, is all about hopelessness had, inadvertently, turned me into a believer. Or maybe I just love the feeling of rooting for the underdog. That’s what had happened. This show that had been a certified hit, with a big-name, no-fail cast, had suddenly become the underdog of summer television. Either way, I WANTED to see it succeed. I wanted it to prove everyone wrong. And I think a lot of people stuck with it for the same reasons. There were moments of greatness, kernels of a really fantastic story buried beneath all the layers philosophical self-congratulation and malaise. It’s those breadcrumbs of goodness that make the frustration at the overall result even more poignant.
Every week it felt like I tried to rationalize the larger story in my head, but even now, I can only explain the plot using random nouns. Something involving “trains” and “corruption” “diamonds” and “documents” on one side and something involving “casinos” “clubs” “Molly” and “missing girls” on the other. For a real snub of the nose at political correctness there was a lot of casual racism too. It’s as if someone took all of the noir tropes, and Martin Scorsese movie plot points, put them in a hat and just kept pulling them out. Like this season was created using a Mad Libs page. As if the connect-the-dots plot wasn’t vague enough, the character development centering around the themes of masculinity, impotence, sexual trauma and connection were about as subtle as that bullet train being built somewhere in the Erin Brokovich section of California.
But to write this season off wholesale is to make a mistake I believe. Because while the writing was haphazard at best, laughable at worst, the cast were committed. With each episode they delivered performances that made me want to clap my hands to prove “I do believe in actors, I do believe in actors”. I’m going to stake my claim now that Ray Velcoro is the best character in either season. Now that has to do with the writing (a bit) but it has more to do with Farrell’s performance. Farrell is nearly flawless as the battered-by-life cop who switches allegiances. I can’t say that I’ll NEVER watch this season again, but if I did, it’d be for him. Rachel McAdams gives everything she can while still clearly being told after takes “like that, but TOUGHER”. Mercifully they stopped just shy of making Ani chew tobacco and use a spittoon to prove she can play just as hard as the big boys. Vince Vaughn, in probably the most one-dimensional role, manages to give Frank more swagger than was probably on the page and Taylor Kitsch’s Paul has an interesting backstory that ultimately goes nowhere, his development stunted at every turn, but not for lack of Kitsch’s trying to make it work. When he says sadly “I’m just trying to be a good man”, he sells it. It almost sounds like his plea to Hollywood, “I’m just trying to be a good actor, won’t you love me?”
Unsurprisingly, the sequences that work best involve a little less talk and a lot more action. The shootout, the party (I’m using the kind word there), the scene where Frank manhandles a guy’s gold teeth, these all work well. Here I’ll pause to say that the line ‘What kind of way is that to greet the world?’ is fantastic, and perfectly delivered by Vaughn. But these moments are few and far between. There was also an interesting moment involving a Conway Twitty dream sequence in the third episode where it seemed like maybe they were going to ditch the Nietzsche in favor of David Lynch, but like most of the season, it turned out to be non-committal; a fizzle of an attempt to play on the audience’s collective pop culture knowledge.
The finale was a scramble to try and salvage four or five of the storylines that seemed to have the most going for them, one of the more confounding of which was the pairing of Ray and Ani. They sleep together for seemingly no reason other than the fact that Ray turns out “not to be a bad man” and then wake up in love. Later, it’s revealed that Ani is pregnant. Like she actually becomes Sarah Connor in that moment. Empowered to live a different life because of one night with a good man. Ani, the woman who couldn’t wait to knife dudes in the aorta? Ok, fine. Listen, I’m a shipper. If this had been set up as a legitimate emotional storyline from, maybe episode 4 on, instead of being forcibly tacked on as a “well there’s a guy and a girl, they’ve gotta fall in love, right?” plot point, I would have probably bitten. McAdams and Farrell seem to have decent chemistry when they’re not putting on their emo faces. The moment when Ray actually smiles when trying to tell Ani how he feels is sweet. It’s also so out of character that you know in roughly 4 minutes he’s going to be pumped full of lead. It’s what I like to imagine being referred to in the gangster genre as Sonny-Side-Up (Patent Pending on that phrase). And I don’t think I have the energy to tackle the Vaughn walk-through-the-desert debacle tonight.
In the end, it’s Ani and Jordan against the world, bringing down the forces of evil with nothing but a baby sling and some stylish hats. You Go Girls! Oh, and the guy with the nail in his head. He survives too.
But for True Detective, survival just means you have to live another day in the filth. Another day with the Stans and trains and blue diamonds that are still missing and the corruption of the world that will never cease. It’s a bleak place and without a guiding hand to direct it, the series has suffered. It’s a shame, because this cast deserved better. They were up to the challenge. The visuals, the credit sequence, the song, seemingly, all of the boxes of the How To Make a True Detective List were checked, with the exception of someone who could really trim the fat. I even think, in a way, the story was up to the challenge, but not in this medium. The numerous layers of this story are probably better suited to a novel, where time to detail an intricate plotline is a built-in feature, not a luxury item. I hold out hope that True Detective gets another shot, if only to at least balance out its standing as a series. If not, I guess I’ll just be here, pouring one out for Ray Velcoro, the best of the bad men.