In Defense Of ‘True Detective’ Season Two, A Show Doomed From The Start

When the final curtain closed on True Detective season one, many who had followed the tale from the start, shambled down the halls of Carcosa in search of the Yellow King, and then found “the light” on the other side, likely felt a little wounded by the way it neatly wrapped up. Nihilistic Rust Cohle had broken down into a guy who just might have some thoughts for the higher power and people automatically got a sour taste in their mouth. At least that’s what it felt like when you read reactions online.

The True Detective season two memes still flowed, the praise was still there, but now there was a buzz that not all was as it seemed. Maybe this man, Nic Pizzolatto, who we held up as a genius was truly just a man after all, and his characters weren’t the pillars of television greatness, they were just characters. Good, fun characters.

I’ve written about them before on this site, in a semi-defensive look at season one and the theories surrounding it. I felt then that the show was being looked at via several odd, but very fun locations as opposed to just letting it tell its tale straight on.

That’s sort of how I feel about True Detective season two, but only in a new frame. Gone are the mystical locales of Louisiana, replaced by the sun drenched sterile underworld of California, represented by those puzzling overhead shots we love to poke fun at. Also gone is the duo, the buddy cop situation that worked well due to the actors involved and the opposing trajectories of their characters. Instead, in their place, we get four different types that viewers are trying to fit into the holes they believe should exist on the show, but they’re just not fitting.

At the end of the day, True Detective is now a show on its knees, desperately searching for the light that illuminated that final episode. And it’s having a lot of trouble finding it so far.

If you’ve read the coverage on this site or look at around at other critics on the Internet, there is a recurring theme that stems out about season two. It is confusing, it is too on the nose, it isn’t on the nose enough, the direction is different. Basically, it isn’t season one. That’s why the show has been doomed from the start. It was doomed from that season finale. It wasn’t going to live up to those incredible heights and it couldn’t outrun any of those swiftly moving storms that came rolling in.

One of the main issues seems to be creator Nic Pizzolatto. He’s gone from a talented writer on a series with overwhelming potential to an embattled writer that seems to have bought what everybody was selling about him and is now paying for it. And who can blame him? HBO planted the seeds by giving him a deal and folks helped nurse it with a healthy serving of praise. Praise he deserved to a point, but probably not in the way that the Internet and reviews seem to like to lather it on.

You can see a lot of that if you read through the Vanity Fair profile on Pizzolatto. There’s plenty that deserves to be there, there’s also evidence that it might’ve happened far too quickly when compared to the way it developed in the past:

The first season of True Detective was a freak. It ushered Nic, without prelude, to the first rank. Everything depends on what he does next, the second season, terrible or sublime. He actually referred to it as his “second album.”

Nic’s temperament, which is old-school fiery artist, suits the task. He’s not a trimmer, nor a hedger of bets. He’s a big personality, the crazy f*ck who, having won a pile of chips—and it’s two in the morning and the casino is filled with sharks—pushes it all back to the center of the table.

“What even makes it the same show?,” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve got new actors, new characters, new plotlines … ”

He thought a moment, head in hand, fingers drumming on his temple. “Sensibility,” Nic said. “Me. Crime, detectives, intimacies, and ideas … but it’s all just me. That’s what makes it the same show.”

Compare him to someone like Matthew Weiner, a creator who spent several seasons on The Sopranos under David Chase and molded himself into an auteur on television with Mad Men. He “earned” the praise over time. Pizzolatto earned it with that sheer freak luck that’s referenced in the Vanity Fair piece. And that’s not entirely a bad thing, but it can explain a bit. Like how we have this delayed tall poppy syndrome when it comes to media, just waiting to cut something down for when it turns against our sensibilities.

The murmurs about plagiarism, the casting process, the complaints about women, and the loss of Cary Fukunaga. It all builds up to the point that any sort of negative aspect gets magnified, be it a boisterous personality with a lot of ego in a magazine profile or a show that is coming off heights no one expected. Does that save it from the very real problems that the series currently faces? The valid criticism of performances and characters on the show? Not at all, but it does make them seem a lot worse.

Plenty has been said about Taylor Kitsch’s character Paul Woodrugh being gay. It was a telegraphed point that has been confirmed in recent episodes, but there is certainly more to it. Dustin hints at as much in this piece over at Pajiba (while lamenting the stereotype, of course):

For a guy who created Rust Cohle, I expected better than “I nearly clocked that f*g who hit on me” and leering at gay prostitutes from his balcony, never mind the potential implications about what it might mean that his creepy mom made him gay.

There has to be more to it than that, right? His brooding, his inability to get it up, and his self hatred has to be rooted in his time as a mercenary, and the scars, a troubled childhood, and the PTSD, right? Surely, Pizzolatto wouldn’t resort to a trope so very basic, would he?

Past the thinking that there is more to it than just “I hate myself because I’m gay. Let’s have a baby,” I think there is also the idea that it isn’t supposed to matter as much in the long run of what is happening between these characters on their case. It’s more a side street, something that they can possibly bring into the story to get away from the main case. Here we have four characters marching in from the sides instead of the two we got a chance to really know in the first season. The execution might seem a little off, but we haven’t gotten to the final push yet.

This Sunday is the middle of the season, the downward slope. Season one had just featured the end of the sinister Reggie Ledoux at this point, and shut the book on the initial case before Hart and Cohle put on their investigation hats once again in the modern day setting. The shootout from season two brought a close to the meandering we’ve seen at the first part of the season. The muddling, which I feel is intentional to the story. It’s confusing because the entire case is confusing and the investigation in Vinci is confusing and it’s keeping our characters in the dark. None of it is supposed to make sense until something comes along to bring focus, lead them to the next piece of the puzzle, and finally solve the murder by the end of the season. There is no next season for these characters, and so every move has meant something whether it is clear now or not. Judging from the previews we’ve seen for the fifth episode, there’s going to be a time jump and it would seem that the aftermath of this shooting is going to have a major effect on those involved. A lot of blood was spilled in a series where even the death of a minor character seems to matter to these characters.

And really, when you look at what happened, the stories from the first half have run a course to that moment. Ray has accepted the life he has and leaves the custody battle at a point where he is out of the way to focus on that police work he should apparently drop according to Frank. Ani’s personal life has finally leaked into her professional life in a way that was hinted at in the very first episode, costing her at work and showing that she has a target on her back. Paul finds out he has a kid on the way following the tryst with his army pal, forcing a clash of his past and future that leaves him at a moment where he bets on a future with the kid. Burying his past to move on for now. And finally, Frank is fully back into the business he was trying to get out of with his land deal and the money that went missing with Caspere’s death, unearthing his past for the second half.

All of them, for better or for worse, are in a spot where their lives meet at this shooting. It’s one of the only scenes where they all witness the action together — from one place or another — and it is one that we’re certain that the public knows about.

It’s the middle of the book. And I don’t know many reviews that grade a book chapter by chapter. Books move and shake and try things that will hopefully play out in the end. True Detective is like a new book each season. It is meant to be treated with a literary sense — and I don’t mean that in some snooty, holier than thou way. I mean it in the way the show seems to want to exist.

Pizzolatto talks about his novel Galveston and season one like they go hand and hand. If season one played out in the way that it did, why wouldn’t season two and three, and then any additional seasons that might follow? It’s like the mirror has two faces and we want the show to be more like season one, but we can’t see that it really is already a lot like season one. It just isn’t going down the same dusty roads and attempting to replay the same themes we’ve already gotten once before.

I don’t think it’s a perfect show, but I do still enjoy True Detective this season. It is very easy to see where the luster has worn off from season one, but this show needs that. It needs it to keep getting better and grow out of the viable criticism that is out there. It’s almost assured that we’ll read about some renaissance in season three, probably right around the time season two ends. I’m sure the think pieces have already been written.

(Via Pajiba / Vanity Fair)