True Detective‘s final episode this season comes close to double-length, and it divides neatly into two. Part one is relentless, driving action, as Ray, Ani, and Frank make their moves to take down who they can, get justice for who they can, and get the hell out of L. A. alive; part two is slow, methodical, as the conspiracy turns out to be exactly what we thought it was, too big for anyone to fight against and live.
The bond between Rust and Marty was a theme of the first season, but it was incidental to the plot; the Yellow King could have been pursued without it. Here, the last episode makes clear that the season has been all about the bonds between people, the bonds that obligate you and make life worth living. Frank and Jordan, Ray and Ani, Frank and Ray and the owner of the Black Rose, Ray and his son, Ray/Ani and Paul, the Osterman children: it’s all about what we owe, and the ownage that we’re compelled to deliver because of that.
The episode begins quietly but effectively, making us sense the shitstorm to come: two scenes for one man and one woman. (This will be the most theatrical of True Detective episodes.) Ray and Ani talk about the moments that made them who they are, smoke, get dressed, watch each other sleep, all edited together in a slightly disorienting sequence that has the feel of Terrence Malick. (Ray’s last moments, looking up at the trees, makes the Malick connection even stronger.) It makes the whole scene feel separated from time and place, as if they’re both traveling back to when things happened. What makes it work so well is the level of acting Farrell and McAdams bring here; you could watch this with the sound off and still read the whole story. It also works because of Pizzolatto’s conviction here: Ray can say “it wasn’t your fault” and Ani can say “people, whole cultures wouldn’t blame you. I don’t” but neither of them are victims. You live in the world, you incur this damage, and your obligation is to live with that.
Next up are Jordan and Frank, and hey! Santa Ana Amtrak represent! The subtlety of Vaughn’s acting has been all through this season but it’s so strong here; he’s almost happy at what he’s doing all through part one. (Frank, indeed, can’t act for shit. Vaughn can, and he never feels the need to let you know if he or Frank is the bad actor.) The biggest FUCK! YEAH! of the season was Jordan owning Frank and putting up with exactly none of his shit, countering every line and every gesture: of course Frank would do some noir bullshit and throw away the ring, and of course Jordan throws hers right after his. When Jordan says “I always have a choice,” it’s the difference between her and Frank, and possibly between women and men. It’s a scene that we all know how it has to end–Jordan has to get out of town–but I wasn’t sure it would end that way until it did. Frank genuinely has to convince Jordan here, and watching them both try to sell each other on a dream was touching and funny all at once. Everyone here takes a cliché that’s over fifty years old and makes it new and moving.
Oh, yeah, we solve the mystery of Who Killed Ray Caspere? and it’s part of the Chandlerian inheritance of True Detective that it comes across as one of the least important elements here that we know. It was Len Osterman, the son of the family who was killed back in 1992; nothing about that scene had as big an impact on me as the Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia poster on the wall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great expositional scene, quick and taut, but the real revelation was realizing that Farrell had been channeling Warren Oates for his performance of Ray.
The two action setpieces of part one rank with the best of the season. The Anaheim train station sequence plays so chaotically, and believably so; none of the parties have thought these things through, and just about everything that can go wrong does, with recorders getting stepped on and Holloway taking a killshot from officers trying to kill Len. It’s only Ray and James Frain as Burris who get away. (Frain, by the way, does so well here; a lot of other actors would up the sleaze factor, but Frain just plays Burris as slightly corrupt and not one bit self-righteous. Frain is one of the great chameleon actors–I’ve seen him in this, Titus, 24, and Elizabeth and I never recognize him.)
If you want me to like your show or movie, it’s never a bad idea to evoke Michael Mann, and the raid on the cabin feels like that. T Bone Burnett’s score has gone even farther into electronic noise and growls here, and for this sequence it most definitely evokes Tangerine Dream’s music in Thief, appropriate for a man burning down his whole life. Less successful are the music montages, which try for the Audioslave montage in Collateral but land closer to Sons of Anarchy. A much better use of music is the sound coming up from the Black Rose when Ray and Ani are in the safe room.
As we shift into the second half, things slow down, and that’s just worrying; the first half moved so well we know that this can’t be good. And it isn’t, as Ray makes the same mistake that a classic Mann character does (you know which one): he breaks the code and goes to see his son rather than get the hell out of town. (Is it too much that his son has the badge with him? Not sure, because I was yelling GODDAMMIT RAY RUN! a little too loud to notice.) It’s stupid, but it’s believable, because Ray is not a hardened criminal and breaking his bond with his son has never come easily. He comes back to his car and there’s a transponder on it. John Crowley’s direction is so good here: the editing breaks up the flow of time but not in the same way as the beginning. Here it’s more jarring, less associative, on the edge of panic.
It’s that bond, between Ray and his son (and we find in the last minutes that he is Ray’s biological son), that seals his fate. Nice echo of the Jordan/Frank conversation as Ray and Ani talk to each other. It’s another scene where they desperately want to believe what they’re saying. And it’s Frank’s inability to let anything go that seals his; of course it’s the people he dealt into the club who are a tad upset that said club has burned down. Frank almost gets away with it but can’t take the last insult of taking off his suit and gets stabbed to the gut and abandoned in the desert.
The last, wrenching minutes show how far Pizzolatto and Crowley will go into a theatrical, hallucinatory universe. All through both seasons, there have been moments (like Rust’s or Ani’s visions) where True Detective abandons realism but I wasn’t expecting something that would go as far as Frank’s final walk, as he regresses back to a child afraid of everything and telling all of it to fuck off, and finally seeing Jordan at the end, filmed straight-on like some of the shots from the first episodes. It’s the kind of thing you could see on a stage, where we’re seeing an emotional, spiritual truth, not the thing that’s physically there. It’s made even more powerful by cutting it with the death of Ray and the escape of Ani, each scene playing in a distinct Californiascape: the desert, the forest, and the sea. Again, it’s the sort of thing I’d expect from Malick but it’s like nothing I’ve seen on this series, and it’s a stunning, heartbreaking ending.
If you need a message from this season, it’s there at the very end. Pizzolatto shows an old-school masculinity that’s honorable, violent, and lethal. He understands its obligations, its language, its twitches and limits. In the end, the men all fall; to use a line that will never grow old, they either die as heroes or live long enough to see themselves turn into villains. It’s the women, Ani, Jordan, Gena, and Emily, who don’t get claimed by this, who can make choices, who will live and raise the next generation. And I wish all of them well.
“Take your cure.”
True Detective’s second season improved on its first, partly because of its ambition. The first season was a straightforward procedural, gaining most of its power from its setting and its performances, but had the problem of not fully integrating those performances with its plot. Michelle Monaghan, on her own, saved Maggie from being merely a wife-on-the-side character. Here, all the characters mattered to the action; if the plot got insanely complex, that made sense for the Ellrovian story Pizzolatto told, with actions that reverberated across decades, generations even, and pulled everyone into its design. It allowed him to bring characters to great moments of recognition, and they were the most powerful of the season–Ray giving up his son, Frank reclaiming his violence, Ani remembering her abduction, Paul–well, more on that in a moment. “Recognition” here means something more deeply ethical than right or wrong, it means something fundamental to drama and to our ability to live as people; it’s one of the ways this season plays out even more classically than the first.
Pizzolatto’ sense of dialogue, characters, and drama remains unique in contemporary popular culture. He writes about deeply fucked-up men and a few equally fucked-up women, and he has his own specific, noirish voice for them. He stays within the noir tradition for his characters, but what this season showed better than the first is its limits. He doesn’t write characters outside those limits with the same depth or interest, but he writes them honestly–Abigail Spencer’s Gena is the best example of this. He investigates the materials of the genre with a simple question: how fucked up are you in order to be a noir character? The answer: pretty darn fucked up, and you need to know yourself and accept that. (The title True Detective makes a lot of sense that way.) Pizzolatto differs from David Chase (The Sopranos) or Matthew Wiener (Mad Men) in that there’s no sense that with effort and commitment you can get better; the sense here is one of original sin, that being in this world means you start out broken. The style and sense of character comes off to some people as ridiculous and to some of us as completely compelling, but in any case, there’s no critical appeasement that can be worth the failure to develop an individual voice. Both seasons give me the feeling that Pizzolatto has been writing as a form of questioning, that’s he’s writing towards something–and that something may not be a work of crime fiction. It’s where the sense of Eugene O’Neill’s career (and James Ellroy’s too) is strongest in Pizzolatto’s work.
We also saw this season what actors have to bring to the series to make this work. Because Pizzolatto’s characters carry so much weight of their pasts into the present, he needs actors who can convey that past. The best performance of both seasons is still Matthew McConaughey’s haunted Rust Cohle, but Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and especially Vince Vaughn and David Morse came to nearly that level here. (In his single scene in the first episode, Morse conveyed some Noah Cross-level scariness.) Vaughn’s performance, controlled to the point of stiffness, was another place where True Detective risks the ridiculous to achieve its ownage; it was distancing at first but became more fascinating and more necessary as the season continued, paying off in “Black Maps and Motel Rooms.” Taylor Kitsch’s Paul was the weakest link, both as a character and an actor; although he got a fantastic death (the last words of all great noir characters are some form of “fuck you”), Pizzolatto never wrote him and Kitsch never performed him at the depth of the other characters. He came off as in over his head, not haunted.
True Detective needs the most improvement in the details of plot. Pizzolatto has a tricky relation to crime fiction in that he’s drawn to its style but he places something else under it, and because of that he doesn’t craft the structure of incidents the way crime writers do. The O’Neill plays that feel like the substratum of Pizzolatto’s drama never had much in the way of incident, and in any case, they were plays and over in a few hours. An eight-hour series, especially in the procedural genre, has a lot more happening and Pizzolatto hasn’t come up with that many hours of plot, falling back on standard tropes or just straight-up abandoning plausibility. The final sequence of “Church in Ruins” was the best example of this, full of great atmosphere but not making much sense; so was the ending, which like the first season, simply ignored the question of “will all this be revealed?” This was less of a problem in the first season, which did so much by just hanging out in modern Louisiana. A procedural necessarily has a lot of, um, procedure; even a work like The Shield, which didn’t care much for the specific details of actual policing, was still well-disciplined in its own methods. True Detective needs to have those details to get us to the big, dramatic moments; they’re the framework upon which the weight of the drama rests.
The second season felt the loss of Cary Fukunaga as the director. He provided a consistent tone for all eight hours and a consistent level of quality, and the revolving director team couldn’t do that here. A longer-form, more episodic series wouldn’t have this problem, but as True Detective looks to be a series of eight-hour movies, each season needs to feel like something unified. God knows there are enough great directors out there looking for the right project; if anyone has Lexi Alexander’s phone number, let’s see if we can get her for this. And with Pizzolatto’s taste for the occult, for outsized characters and drama, and for landscapes that have their own history about them, I’m voting for Florida as next season’s setting, and for a family as the characters.
Thanks for everyone who watched and read. As ever, this remains the best damn comment section on the Interwebz and it’s a responsibility and a pleasure to write for you. Here’s hoping for a third season, with my pick for song-over-the-credits: