No Alarms and No Surprises, Please: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Better Than Original

Forget it Ani, it's 'Chinatown'...and a good deal more

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What a long, strange trip it’s been. (HBO)

I never converted to the cult of True Detective. Even last year during its zeitgeist, when the combo of haunting cinematography, lurid subject matter and crackling performances glamoured us into not noticing its somewhat labored Rashomon-style narrative framing and unforgivable pretensions. Somehow, the stoner musings of the show’s most ridiculous character gave self-proclaimed “prestige” television consumers a collective hard-on; one that I knew could only end in a case of mini-series blue balls. Like that attractively brooding TA from your Kant lecture class that you end up sleeping with second semester even after realizing halfway through mozzarella sticks at the Denny’s one town over that he seemed more intelligent before he started ceaselessly monologuing about god know’s what, True Detective was always more attractive from afar. Up close, it was just a big old mess: a laughable parody of what a constipated literary novelist would come up with while noodling with a Law and Order spec script.

Rust Cohle never felt real to me; he was a composite, not a character. He fit, with almost a sly self-aware wink, every trope about undercover agents, Death Wish revenge crusaders, junkie burnouts and cranky-but-brilliant loose canon detectives who went rogue but still refuse to turn over their badge. But the more the show progressed, the more it was made clear that we were supposed to take Rust and his vaudevillian angst as seriously as he took himself. Not to mention the heavy-handed imagery, the overused cliche of child snatchers as the ultimate boogey man, or the car banter that must have read on paper like a Tarantino scene rewritten by a heavily sedated MFA candidate. In my mind, Pizzolatto was about as brilliant as James Franco: He had a knack for finding great talent, collaborating with them, and then claiming all the credit.

The fact that the first season’s finale was frustrating—all the red herrings that never panned out, the inability to have figured out the mystery, the lack of any lemon-colored dude wearing a man’s tiara, that weirdly saccharine ending—didn’t crush me the same way it did other critics who were heavily invested on the show being as intelligent as they had been proclaiming it to be. I knew it was too smart by a half way before we found out that you can apparently survive a lot of axe wounds to the back as long as you do it as epically as possible.

True Detective‘s second season had a lot riding on it. Nic Pizzolatto’s Vanity Fair profile—written by a former colleague who wasn’t even jealous AT ALL, why would you say that??!—astutely gauged that nothing would be able to live up to that first season. And while many think the sophomore season of the show was so bad it somehow went back in time to change their opinion about the inaugural flat circle of programming, I would like to posit the opposite: True Detective Season 2 had way more respect for its audience than Season one. And, like its doomed, not-even-true-detectives Ani Bezzerides, Ray Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh, the show had a certain fatality about it; a knowledge that too big to fail doesn’t apply to second chances. Like Frank, Pizzolatto decided that rather than sitting idly by while his empire was dismantled in the inevitable backlash, he’d burn it all to the ground.

But at least True Detective was upfront with us this time, evident in both its total disregard of realistic dialogue and its blatant homages to similarly uncompromising programs. Our finale opens up with a Badalamenti chord swelling as Ani vacantly describes a tree in the forest where she went missing for four days in a “fairytale” rape/seduction by a member of her father’s cult. That’s not even the first so-blatant-it’s-basically-plagiarizing “homage” to Twin Peaks (that award goes to Ray and his father’s talk in that between-space after her was shot and a Conway Twitty impersonator croons Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Twin Peaks is an interesting show for True Detective to compare itself to, as it was both a highly stylized mystery show and one that was totally derailed after pressure from a successful first season. Instead of coffee and a backwards talking midget however, season two of True Detective offered us blue diamonds and a parallel universe where the highways are never congested and traffic is nonexistent. Time is a flat circle, indeed.

Season one might have disappointed in the end, but it was almost novel how frustrating this entire second attempt was to watch. Instead of following two different narratives of the same climatic event, we were now following four characters whose stories we wouldn’t trust if we weren’t watching them unfold in real time. The compromised deputy, the mobster, the cipher war veteran whose motivations and desires remained opaque till the bitter end, and our one “good” character, the knife-wielding, cult-annexed, sexually aggressive Ani, whose only purpose seemed to fill out the role of “Female character: strong, but sexy; vulnerable. Tough as nails.” And then there was the total lack of information we were given about the different forces at play in Ben Caspere’s murder and its possible relation to a train corridor project overseen by the aptly-named Catalyst group. Or possibly it was sexual in nature: Caspere’s home must have been decorated by a set designer real eye for the perverted. Yet the clues this season were so random and unconnected it was impossible to weed out which were even relevant to the case at hand, or part of each character’s ongoing off-duty sins. And credit where it’s due: it all did come together. Nothing was a false lead in that sense: every detail was connected, though most were only tertiarily relevant to the case originally assigned by their respective departments.

But just when we’d given up hope of ever knowing anything about Caspere’s death (except that it wasn’t terribly interesting, considering all the other fucked up shit going on in that incorporated slums of Vinci), those unconnected facts finally added up in a 30-second span between Ray and Ani dropping their Keyser Soze mugs and having them shatter on floor. The revelation didn’t change the spiraling darkness, because it didn’t matter who killed Ben. Not in the least. The joy, if there was any, came in watching Ray Rainman all these previously unconnected elements—Caspere’s mutilated body, Vinci’s schmoozy mayor, his party promoter son, the hard drive, Frank, Catalyst, the stolen blue diamonds, sex parties, shady land deals and missing children were ALL RELATED to something something public transit, but I bet Ani and Ray would give anything to go back in time and beg off the assignment that has them being the target of a nation-wide manhunt. The bird mask, never in question to its origins, was confirmed to be the only real piece of diversion. (Instead of being ritualistic or occult, it was just chosen from Caspere’s weird animal sex mask wall. Which you can see in the background after Ray gets shot as missing exactly one mask.)

It was plodding, much in the way real detective work must be, and the chemistry was stilted as the group lacked the camraderie of Cohle and Heart. And there wasn’t a Sherlock among them to haughtily explain things (most of the time, things that observant viewers have trained themselves to look for so they can feel satisfied thinking TV has proven them a genius.) But as this season proved, the number of details could have reached to the end’s of the Earth (or at least past Frank’s avocado tree) and it wouldn’t have mattered– like in Fincher’s Se7en, the bad guy just gets bored of waiting around and calls up Ray to say he shot Paul and schedule a showdown. At which point Ray DOES goes all Sherlock, which appears to have been deduced beforehand but maybe he just had too much sex and forgot who shot that guy who saved his life twice. Either way, Ray is the one who puts the puzzle pieces together. It’s still kind of impressive, even though he cheated and looked at the back of the box.

Unfortunately, a program that flouts its disproportionate signal to noise ratio comes off as superior and condescending: it certainly doesn’t endear you with the fandom community of cult television, which likes to be rewarded for paying attention to clues and details. Despite having all the key elements of both cult and prestige programming–Lynchian dialogue and disquietingly beautiful atmospherics combined with wicked fight sequences, squeamish realistic torture scenes and a James Ellroy-level of noir, True Detective‘s second season was never going to catch on the way the first season did, because we were already once bitten. I saw this season as an acknowledgement and double-down of the first season’s deflating finale: here, the show begins by telling you that nothing has meaning. We want to have someone revealed as the puppet-master at work behind all these secret organizations and conspiracies, and instead we are shown that everyone–not the local police, state police, feds, mobsters, billion dollar developers, no one–was at a loss about Caspere’s murderer. And just like first season, the reveal was so out of left field–it was the one of the two children who hid during the 90s robbery of the blue diamonds– that up until the penultimate episode the killer’s identity couldn’t even be speculated (not like we cared enough to, but still), as he hadn’t been introduced. It was never going to be Carcosa-compelling when a dirty (in so many senses) middle-aged man in a position of power gets offed, no matter how horribly the body was mutilated. Anyone could and probably should have done it: it’s not even a question of whether Caspere deserved to die…only who was most deserving of the honor of killing him.

In the end, Len Osterman made for the perfect murderer: unlike the incestuous and insane Errol Childress, Len…well, he seemed kind of incestuous and insane too, but he wasn’t being protected by a secret cabal of powerful old white men. Quite the contrary: Len’s existence was only notable before the finale in his ability to hide from these same (or at least similar, like maybe they all do exchange programs or meet at Davos?) Masters of the Universe…the same men who murdered his father and mother. In the end the death of a corrupt city manager (or using that case as a cover for the state’s investigation into a local police force) wasn’t Carcosa-compelling. But it was satisfying. It felt like justice. It was, to be frank (but not Frank,) the only resolution that wouldn’t have me swearing off this show like Ray swore off alcohol after his attack…I’d crow about it for a week before starting to scour the Internet for news about next season, is what I mean.

In a sense, True Detective‘s second season was more of exercise than entertainment: was it possible to create noir when there was no central mystery worth our interest? To the extant we cared about Caspere’s death, it was only because he was a catalyst (so to speak) for the protaganists to begrudgingly begin spying on each other and occasionally talking about robot dicks and monkey fucks and water stains that may be some kind of Inception-type totem to remind you you’re not actually in reality. For all you know, you could still be living down in the basement with all your rat friends. (Perhaps Frank should take a note from It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie Kelly, King of the Rats.)

Not that Frank, with his sunken investment and circling vultures on his clubs and casinos, is the only one who wakes up thinking #FML. We all know what happens when cops start investigating corruption within their own ranks, because we’ve seen the movies. Like, every movie about cops, the spectrum of the collective force mentality ranges from indifferently annoyed to threateningly and overtly hostile. Rarely does the underdog beat cop triumph in noir scenery; they are lucky if they make it out alive and the wiser for it. They certainly don’t get promoted, forgiven or given a hefty severance package. No one ever refers to the whistleblowers in law enforcement as heroes. They don’t get called anything at all, because they are transferred or given a different case or buried under paperwork for the rest of their careers. (Why do you think it’s always the private eye who we see saving the day? Because he doesn’t have to go to work the next morning and luck all his betrayed brothers-in-arms in the face, knowing the next time he calls for backup, they may decide to take their time.)

And we also know happens when mobsters try to go straight. (Well, according to this show, they get to run cities from their mansions in Bel Air, but ALSO like sometimes they get killed out in the desert but are too dumb to realize it and just keep walking around like a callback to Marty reference to the coyote from the cartoons who can run off the cliff and through thin air until he looks down and realizes there’s nothing underneath him.) And thanks to predecessors like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, we know that men who claim they need to run an illegal empire to help their families are penalized heavily for lying to themselves: because they are constantly placing the onus of their amorality on the one thing they claim to care about above all, guys like Frank never live long enough to see their brood grow up and move away, only coming home to carve up the Thanksgiving turkey and go play with their new X-Box.

Like Rust Cohle, all our new players in season 2 were anti-social, cynics with a death wish and unchecked sense of vigilante privilege extending beyond the laws that they swore to uphold. But unlike Rust, these shiftless voids wrapped in human skin threatened at any moment to float away, lacking the balancing density of a Marty Hart to provide a yin for their space Tang. The exception being Frank, whose mobster was ironically the only person propelling the investigation and supplying almost all the clues to solve the case, and whose partner–and superior– came not in the form of a work colleague but a spouse. As Jordan Semyon, Kelly Reilly made a stronger case for gender equality than the emotionally stunted, sexually predatory (but super vulnerable y’all!) Ani and I doubt it was an accident she was given all the best lines this season: ones that spoke to both the facade of her husband’s revenge fantasy as well as the show’s only propensity towards believing its own bullshit. “You can’t act for shit,” Jordan spits at Frank as he tries to Harry and the Hendersons her out of town for her own safety, but she could as well have been speaking as the collective social media reaction to news of Vince Vaughn’s casting. Still, Jordan was never more than a side character, albeit one who managed to win my heart when she sneered at him in the fertility center: “God forgive me for misreading what subtle clues you embed for me in your limp dick.” That was basically my reaction to the entire series! It’s like Jordan got me.

We could have used a little more regulated to the B-plot of “family life” that came after 45 minutes of frustratingly dull, ultimately unhelpful questioning of various sources. Sometimes with a less dull power drill or wrench, but those were the exceptions, not the rule. Nor did any of them seem particularly fond of each other, which made Ani and Ray’s charade of “Let’s do it for Paul!” unintentionally hilarious, as it was unclear if Paul ever registered those two in any significant way: they could have been chatty Uber drivers, as far as he was concerned.

Ani’s dad says in the first episode that “the universe does not having any meaning except the meaning we give it,” and between that and Velcoro’s red hair-ing (get it?) kid, everything you needed to know about the season finale was explained in the first couple episodes. Ben Caspere’s murderer would be irrelevant; since none of the detectives really cared who the fuck killed a corrupt city manager, we had a hard time watching them sort of trudge through their obligatory investigations with all the interest of the back row in high school trig class.

They fumbled and faltered to find meaning anyhow: Paul in starting a new family, Ray in his redemption for the sake of his son (though does it count as doing the right thing when you call your ex high on coke and trade a paternity test for visitation rights?), Ani in trying (and failing) to save girls who, like herself, didn’t feel that they particularly needed to be saved. And though Chad will never find out his dad’s last message because the woods from Twilight have notoriously shitty reception, Paul’s kid will never find out that his dad’s opinions about vapes, at least we can sleep easy at night knowing Frank never spawned and ultimately the only ones who survive are the women who were smart enough to get out instead of sacrificing themselves futilely for a sense of cosmic justice they themselves didn’t believe in.

So: Vinci will continue being Vinci, and the mayor’s son will now get to practice his accent on the Halliburton-esque Catalyst group that was building a mass transit system for California. Those monsters. I bet Bruce Wayne’s dad was a total dick who screwed mobsters out of under-the-table development deals. Sure, they had recruited Black Mountain ops and were in bed, literally, with the local government and police force. The biggest mystery this season was the show’s lack of mystery: was there something crucial we were missing? Why did all the special investigations, missing girls and blue diamonds feel so hopelessly arbitrary? Why were we supposed to care about this monkey fuck? We weren’t naive that corporations (as seen on TV) are generally very evil, and it’s been a decade since David Simon taught us that it’s all red tape bureaucracy and back-scratching on the force; that shit roles downhill and everyone is always on the payroll. Unless you are that tiny middle slice of the Venn Diagram who has watched this show but not The Wire, the procedural element this season was whatever the antonym of revelatory is.

The answer: because it was meaningless, in the end. Nothing changed. A crooked cop, a mobster, and a highway patrolman lost their lives on purpose, as opposed to all the civilian casualties chalked up to crossfire. Oh yeah, and all the people our anti-heroes just straight murdered for the sins of being caught in crossfire, of being misidentified as a rapist, or because they talked to Vince Vaughn on the phone. At least Ani felt sort of bad for killing that security guard, though not enough so that she loses the knife before heading to extradition-free Whatever Island in Venezuela. You can never be too prepared for a consensual sex party that you’ve forced your way into in order to take drugs, push all the triggers inside your head, and end up filleting the security dude trying to stop you from kidnapping an intoxicated young woman.

Seriously: there were SO many people this season who had to bite it just because they were doing their jobs or happened to be in the vicinity of our central characters. To go back to the Batman analogy, I’m positive that these four angsty vigilantes ended up costing the city of Vinci and its citizens far more than the supposed “corruption” they were fighting. Hell, Catalyst was building a mass transit system in a city that recently had a protest about their lack of public transportation. Ray meanwhile, spends his final moments staring at a picture of his son while driving, which could have killed someone, stalking a playground full of children with binoculars and a tracer on his vehicle, putting his son in danger, and buying a “disguise hat” a nearby Ricky’s. Which technically isn’t violent, except to my eyeballs and willing suspension of disbelief.
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Frank’s inglorious end was courtesy of Breaking Bad: that endless desert walkabout after being gutted by the Mexicans who had nothing to do with Caspere. Frank’s fight wasn’t with them, nor was Ray’s really with Lieutenant Woodrow, who if you remember I called as the big reveal baddie after the third episode. Paul was killed by his own special ops unit. For men who only stumbled inadvertently onto this vast web of vice and corruption, their deaths were all the more painful because of how unnecessary they were. Ray could have left. Frank could have left. Paul could have just admitted he was gay and gotten out from that movie star blow job lawsuit. Ani could have not gone to a consensual sex party with no motivation other than to feed her own adrenaline and pride-starved ID. So many lives could have been saved. It was all so pointless. Which, in itself, is a pretty bold point: if this kamikaze mission was to mean anything at all, it would have to be ones that the characters made for themselves. Ani needed to save herself. Ray needed to prove he wasn’t a monster. Paul needed to stop taking orders and think for himself. Frank needed to wake up and realize that his obsession with a hypothetical legacy to leave his non-existent children came at the cost of having his wife almost slip through his fingers like a gnawed-off rat carcass.

True Detective‘s second season wasn’t a novelty the way the first season was. Instead, it forced itself to be pettyfogged, futile and often totally boring. “What was the point of THAT?” was the question most asked after we saw yet another scene with the same singer strumming away with her on-the-nose lyrics to an audience of two…one of whom was the owner? Why did Ani prefer knives when guns were not only more effective but MANDATORY for all officers? Why didn’t anyone notice that Caspere had a super obvious videocamera pointing at his sex swing? How did Len and his sister fit into this again? Don’t former police officers on the run know that you can’t just buy some Garnier GoneGirl! hair dye in mousy brown and expect to walk unnoticed among the masses?

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That should do it.

The answer is: No reason, no reason, no reason. It’s frustrating as a viewer to feel your eyes wander away from the story being presented. Like all good forms of meditation, watching the show was both soporific and exhausting; both stupefying and intense. It required patience and practice, but the result is way more satisfying than being blind-sided by some nonsense about stars and cosmsos when you were expecting a backstory, justice, or at least hints of a new adventure down the road, all of which was cruely denied by the first season’s finale which undermined the visionary visual elements and overhyped Yellow King wild goose chase. Instead, this season was up front about how unable these characters were of finding their way out of their own primal urges, let alone bother to solve a case the big brass wanted to close the books on. By preparing us for that inevitability, season two built off the mistakes of its first season and helped transcend the characters themselves over the desire for an easy answer. Everything connected in the end, true, but it gave us no deeper insight or sense of closure. The bad guys won, but it was such a stacked game from the start that it barely registered as a loss. (Except for poor Frank, that big lug.) It didn’t claim to have the answers this time, or that it would make sense if only we read Robert W. Chambers or Thomas Ligotti . (Sorry, Pizzolatto, I’m kind of busy watching TV right now? I don’t need homework.) But this season demanded none of that ur-text, fan theorizing: in it’s own pretentious, oft-insufferable way, True Detective‘s second season was far more humbled than its first.

And that’s great. I believe 100 percent that “spoilers” should go the way of analog televisions: if your show is brilliant, it won’t need to have one hanging detail that changes everything all of a sudden. It lowers the stakes if everyone could be the betrayer one day and the betrayed the next, like Scandal. I even hesitate to call that quartet of headliners this season antiheroes: to be a true antihero, we need to sympathize with your pain and root for you to win, even if your behavior is despicable. We want to know you intimately. And here we have three extremely guarded, stone-faced officers of the law (not really a good time to be a bad cop considering our current political climate) and one guy who seems nice until he pulls out your grill with a wrench.

Look, you may disagree. But now that we know that life–at least inside this world– is paradoxly chaos and order sharing the reigns, we can start asking the real questions. Like: who are we putting in our hashtag for #TrueDetectiveSeason3?

No Alarms and No Surprises, Please: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Better Than Original