A review of the “True Detective” season finale coming up just as soon as I wear a white suit with a red rose in my jacket…
In recent weeks, I've been trying to look for silver linings in the overall mess that's been “True Detective” season 2. In fact, I found myself almost entirely not hating last week's episode. So in the spirit of that attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, here's what I found good about the finale to this story:
It looked great. Director John Crowley and his director of photography did a fantastic job of shooting the desert, the forest, the docks, and even the Anaheim train station.
And several of the performances – including, as usual, Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell – were quite fine.
And here's what I didn't find good in the finale:
“Omega Station” was all the sins of season 2 writ large. It offered long swaths of action that made little sense, followed by awkward exposition dumps. It was self-serious to the point of self-parody. The characters were so sketchily written that there was almost no impact when several of them died. And even having to wrap up a plot so convoluted that Slate's Willa Paskin needed over 4000 words to properly explain it earlier this week, the finale had no business being this long. Almost every scene felt padded in a way designed to give extra weight to characters and plot developments too flimsy to support it, and what was intended as literary crime fiction in the vein of James Ellroy instead played like pulp fiction that had very badly overreached.
So Ani and Jordan lived while Ray and Frank died, the two women now taking care of Ray's baby – to go along with Emily raising Paul's baby, and Gena discovering that Ray was Chad's biological father, leaving a trail of fatherless children – and none of it mattered in the slightest, because the character work had been so broad and rushed in order to make room for a plot the season did such a poor job of laying out.
Even here at the end, the show was frantically trying to fill in important backstory, like Frank's surviving henchman Nails explaining his undying loyalty to Frank by way of the nail-gun scar on his forehead, or Felicia the manager of the saddest bar in the world explaining to Ani her similar loyalty to Ray, Frank being confronted by the ghosts of a caricatured '80s street gang who had, like his father, made him feel self-conscious about his height.
The show had so many characters floating around who seemed vaguely important – even if they, like dear, departed Stan, were only referred to by name when they weren't on-camera – that Bird Mask could have been almost anybody and it would have had the same effect as making him be the film set photographer, whom we hadn't even seen since episode 3. (Though it could have been even sillier: Pizzolatto could have made the Fukunaga-resembling director into the killer.)
Again and again throughout the season and in this finale, events happened not out of any discernible character or narrative logic, but because they were necessary to make a thematic point. Why, for instance, does Chad have his grandfather's police badge with him for a role-playing game in the schoolyard? Because Ray has to know that Chad is his father's son, no matter what the DNA results say. And whatever pain we were meant to feel from Ray dying so soon after he and Ani seemed to have found happiness with each other – for God's sake, Ray smiled as he called her from the freeway – was undercut by how out of the blue the idea of them as a couple was. It would have felt more powerful if Ani was grieving the death of a partner she had surprisingly come to respect over the course of this investigation, because that was one of the few relationships this season had not only given the necessary amount of time and attention, but hadn't overdone it with the kind of overly colorful dialogue that made so many of the Frank/Jordan scenes difficult to get through.
This season was a mess – a mess that had moments, and some good performances, but still a mess – yet I doubt it'll be the last we see of “True Detective.” The ratings have remained strong for HBO, and Michael Lombardo said he'd like another installment if Nic Pizzolatto wants to do one. If it happens, I would hope Pizzolatto recognizes that he bit off way more than he could chew this season, and also that he'd do well to take on some more collaborators, whether a strong directorial voice like Fukunaga's or a full writer's room to help him figure out which story points are working and which aren't coming across clearly enough.
The total creative freedom Pizzolatto had this season is a great idea in theory, and some of the best dramas of our time have come from creators like David Milch and Matthew Weiner who had relative autonomy. But for this season, at least, Pizzolatto very badly needed someone to tell him to go back to the beginning and either streamline the narrative or find a much better way to establish the players and the moves, to write material that played to his actors' strengths, to give the audience reason to care about why any of this was happening, and perhaps to find a few intentionally light moments so that the whole thing didn't come off as funnier than he wanted it to be.
Basically, this season needed someone who was willing and able to say, “No. This isn't working.” And there wasn't.
What did everybody else think? Did you find these eight and a half hours time well spent? Did you mourn the deaths of Ray and/or Frank? Can you identify exactly who killed Dr. Pitlor, why, and whether I should be listening to “Jessie's Girl” or “Bop Til You Drop” while I ponder his role in things? And were you disappointed that Conway Twitty failed to appear to Frank in the desert somewhere in between the street gang and Jordan?
(Update: Speaking of which, a tweep pointed out that Ray's dad predicted his death in the original Twitty scene.)
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org