True Detective’s controversial second season relies on overhead shots of Los Angeles’ twisting highways in each episode. It’s an appropriate image, as the season contains a plotline so convoluted that even the most dedicated of viewers would occasionally throw their hands up frustration. Slate’s Willa Paskin put together a very effective guide about the intricacies of the criminal conspiracy, but the fact that it goes well over 4,000 words should serve as a guide to how complicated this season is, even for HBO, a channel that has Game of Thrones (the appendices of each novel could be a novel of its own).
After the first season, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto was clearly not interested in trying to compete with himself, resulting in him throwing out most of the first season’s tropes. Gone is the serial killer angle, gone are flashbacks, gone is the detective duo, and gone is the (mostly) straightforward mystery. Instead, the second season gives the audience a series of very unlikeable characters, long, almost dreamlike, scenes where little occurs, a murder mystery without emotional attachment, and a conspiracy plot that almost defies explanation (if you put a gun to my head I think I could explain it all, but let’s not put it to the test).
In short, the season has all the hallmarks of being a complete, indecipherable mess.
Pizzolatto would likely tell you that’s the point.
Whether you can get on board with that decides how you feel about the season.
Critics have had an unusual relationship with this season from the start, beginning the season with a dislike and then coming around as the season continued, before declaring it a missed opportunity at the end (there are, of course, some variations). There’s no doubt the first half of the season, and a few portions of the second half, operate in an unusual manner. The pace, especially early on, is slow. The camera will occasionally linger on a character’s face much longer than most shows would. In one such scene, in the first episode directed by Justin Lin, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) sit across from each other at a table in a dive bar. Before conversation begins in earnest, they sit in silence for a bit, the camera showing their sad, hollow faces. For some, this is an instance of noir at work: broken men sitting in the shadows, trying, and failing, to fix their lives. For others, this was an indulgence an already stylized show could not afford.
The season’s plot is similarly odd. It revolves around a low level government employee, Ben Caspere, who is found dead in a chair off the highway at the end of the first episode. Little reason is given to care about him since he seemed to be a pervert whose perversions remain undefined throughout the season. What, exactly, he did in his government position is also unclear, but he did have ties to criminal elements, such as mobster/businessman Frank Semyon, and over the course of the season it is revealed he is involved in statewide corruption surrounding a new highway. In terms of a gripping crime, this is a far cry from dead prostitutes at the hands of a seemingly Satanic serial killer, the crime that jump started the mystery in season one. Despite being an old trope, a prostitute-hunting serial killer drives many crime narratives. A dead city employee? Not so much, making it a unique crime to start a season long mystery. Or, if you’re less charitably inclined, a dull one.
The confusing politics, murders, and players in Vinci, California, the season’s primary location, are strange for television, a medium that, throughout its history, aims to make sure viewers are in sync every step of the way even if it means constantly recapping information. Throughout the season, Pizzolatto wants the viewer to feel as confused and overwhelmed as the detectives themselves. It’s a dangerous tactic and he goes too far on some occasions, such as relying on the death of one of Frank’s henchmen, Stan, to get parts of the plot moving, but never establishing clearly who Stan was. On the flip side, the nature of the criminal conspiracy is appropriately opaque much of the time and each moment the viewer seems to get a handle on it, the rug is pulled out from beneath, leaving the viewer trying to catch up. Pizzolatto is showing corruption that runs so deep it is an element we cannot grapple with.
In a cruel twist of irony, the coverage of season one, where every line of dialogue was analyzed for a clue, would’ve suited season two much better. Briefly named characters show up in important roles later on, such as the Mexican mob members in the finale or the aforementioned Stan. Details of the conspiracy make sense if the viewer remembers a line from three episodes before; if not, well, there’s going to be a lot of head-scratching going on. That’s not an uncommon element of noir, though. James Ellory’s LA Confidential requires you to either take notes or just fly by the seat of your pants, trusting it’ll all work out in the end.
Going into this past Sunday’s finale, the question on many people’s mind was whether or not Pizzolatto would make it all work out in the end.
The answer? Yes and no, although when it landed in the “no” column, one gets the impression it’s thanks to the season’s respectable efforts to deal with systemic corruption. Corruption of institutions is a recurring theme in Pizzolatto’s works; it’s a recurring theme in most quality noir works, for that matter. Unlike last season, which presented corruption as a supernatural force, this season’s corruption is a machine that can’t be stopped, similar to the corruption present in The Wire. True Detective’s finale takes a much darker approach than even The Wire, however. Not only is the corruption neither stopped nor exposed, but three out of the four lead characters are dead by the end. The death of one main character, Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrough, is even used as an excuse to further the conspiracy’s cause by making him out to be a martyr for its own purposes despite the fact that he was killed by Burris, a compromised police administrator (like I said- it’s complicated). This death serves as an example of Pizzolatto’s approach not playing out as well as he’d have liked. He wanted the criminal conspiracy to be impenetrable to viewers, but also wanted viewers to understand how it used the death of a main character to further its own interests. Because the conspiracy was so opaque, this was not quite pulled off. The general gist of the idea is there, but the emotional impact is lacking since the audience cannot fully comprehend the antagonists and therefore Woodrough’s name being used for evil is met with more of a “Oh, that’s interesting” than a “Oh, God damn it!”
Where the emotional impact of the finale does hit, though, is with the death of Ray Velcoro. Tracked by Burris and a hit team into a redwood forest in the finale (beautifully filmed by John Crowley), Velcoro manages to kill a number of the men following him. This gives the viewer a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, Ray can at least get out from under the corruption that has plagued California and, specifically, Vinci, where he works. Not so, though. One of the hitmen fills him with bullets from a machine gun and Ray’s body appears to be dead before it even hits the ground.
This final shootout works well because it takes place in one of California’s redwood forests. The redwoods are so thick and tall that they seem to defy reality; humans can understand they exist, but they cannot fathom what such an existence might entail, one that last hundreds of years and reaches towards the sky. The trees are a perfect stand in for the criminal conspiracy and therefore Ray dying right in front of one feels just right. Compared to the trees, Ray’s existence is puny. A nasty thought, but one in line with the season’s themes.
Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides is the only character of the main four to make it out alive. She has to flee the country and go to Venezuela just to get out from under Burris, the Vinci police force, and the even larger, shadowy conspiracy players that seem to lurk behind every corner (by the end of the season, it seems that over half the characters the audience meets turn out to be part of this criminal conspiracy). In the last minutes of the season, taking place a year after the majority of the events in the finale, Ani tells a reporter what she experienced and lays out all the evidence she has. The audience first hears her in voiceover, as if she is talking to them, and then Crowley cuts to Ani speaking with the reporter. However, the initial feeling of Ani speaking directly to the viewer is impacting. This pulls the viewer in, making them feel as if Ani is telling them about the conspiracy and challenging them to take action.
This tactic is not dissimilar from The Wire’s, which aimed to educate the audience on the way the modern American city was being ruined by capitalist systems. The Wire also acted as a challenge, although it had its foot more firmly set in a realistic world instead of the chaotic, mazelike world of True Detective. The overall conceit of True Detective, that each season acts as its own complete story, unconnected to what came before, allows it to reinvent itself and attack its themes in a different way. In the first season, True Detective took on corruption from the perspective of it being a Lovecraftian horror; this season corruption was a labyrinth that no one, not even the viewer, could fully escape from. HBO is interested in a third season and is hoping Nic Pizzolatto is, too. Should Pizzolatto decide to come back, it will be interesting to see how he handles corruption of American institutions next time.
Reactions to this season, though, seem to caution Pizzolatto and other creators that creating an antagonistic entity that cannot be fully explained is a dangerous game. More than once, True Detective wanted to have it both ways: for the conspiracy to be both clear and impenetrable. It was in moments like this that True Detective’s second season took a stumble, making viewers wish Marty and Rust from season one would once again return.
True Detective, though, has no interest in looking back.