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Understanding True Detective, Season Two

Understanding True Detective, Season Two

Last month, I've started a retrospective of True Detective, one of my favorite thing to ever grace my television screen, after the news broke out that Season Three has been greenlit by HBO. I'm still excited as hell to get another season of Nic Pizzolatto's porn for contemporary film noir enthusiasts, but it's going to take a while before it airs. In the meantime, let's discuss the season which almost killed the show, shall we?

True Detective, Season Two was destroyed by the critics and the audiences alike when it came out and went down in flames before it was even over. Did it deserve such a sordid fate or did our unhealthy expectations put Nic Pizzolatto's family jewels in a blender? Now that everybody is done screaming and writing think pieces about how much better they are at writing than him, let's examine if True Detective, Season Two withstood the test of time.

I found out upon my second viewing that what it did right, it nailed and what it did wrong, it did VERY wrong. 

Spoilers ahead!

What True Detective, Season Two did right

The Plot

True Detective, Season Two is a great example of why I enjoy murder narratives best. Drug dealers and heisters are all the same. They're businessmen and specialized professionals who's craft is illegal, but murder is 100% unpredictable. It can be committed by anybody, for a wide array of reasons. Season Two opens with the murder of city planner Ben Caspere, who's been savagely mutilated and carried around town like he's Bernie Lomax. The investigation will eventually reveal that Caspere was involved in high-speed rail line project that's mostly financed by laundered money from organized crime. Turns out everybody's in bed on that one: gangster, rotten policemen, politicians, etc. Only their hefty karma tab is catching up to them.

Here's the thing. True Detective, Season Two is much more than a simple whoddunit. It's one of the most brilliant, engaging plot I had the pleasure of engaging with. The tagline for Season Two is : we get the world we deserve, which could easily be we get the reality we deserve. It's a show about the savage nature of capitalism. It's an ideological confrontation between wealth and justice, and only two characters and a half are interested in the latter (Frank Semyon's idea of justice is getting his money back). The level of control wealth exerts over human nature, therefore over the fabric of reality itself in True Detective, Season Two is what makes it special. It's impossible to know the extent of who's involved in the railway project, therefore every interaction is suspicious and potentially dangerous to our protagonists.


Nic Pizzolatto was always great at using setting as character. Whether it's eerie, immemorial and dangerous Louisiana in Season One or solemn and reflexive Texas in Galveston, it's one thing he's consistently done well. I don't believe setting ever took such a predominant place as it did in True Detective, Season Two. California is a complicated place in American consciousness. It's both a magical place where everybody's dreams come true, a prized piece of real estate that's continuously for sale to the highest bidder and a place of nightmare where mere survival involves doing horrible things. It's heaven, purgatory and hell all wrapped up in one.

And this is portrayed on two levels in True Detective, Season Two. There is first the psychotic landscape, which is all forest a minute (heaven), desert the other (purgatory), city the next (hell) and the latter comes with a series of abandoned underground tunnel where people conduct illegal business. But perhaps what I like best about Nic Pizzolatto's California are its people. They are the symptom of this dream for sale. There's the shady psychiatrist with a ridiculous nose job, the new age prophet selling his followers an escape from the rigors of capitalist California, corrupt city officials, wealthy perverts, illegal immigrants looking to survive. I don't know if California is really like that, but Nic Pizzolatto made the one inside my mind come to life. True Detective, Season Two could live forever as a setting as character 101 class alone.

Ray Velcoro

I love that dude. I love him to death. He resurrected Collin Farrell's career. He's the antithesis to the antihero. The trope of the husband avenging his wife's rape is not that uncommon in crime fiction, but what made Ray Velcoro special is that: 1) he killed the wrong guy and 2) he threw his career down the ditch in the process. The occurrence turned an upstanding deputy into a morally bankrupt alcoholic fighting for custody of a child who may or may not be his. Antiheroes are reluctant sheriffs, but Velcoro is a reluctant boogeyman who wants to be a sheriff again. He doesn't "lack heroic attributes" but the heroic and the despicable are both alive and well in it.

And he's always trying to do the right thing even if it comes out ridiculously most times. Perhaps my favorite scene in True Detective, Season Two is when he terrorizes his own son into giving him his bully's name IN FRONT OF THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR and later beats up the bully's dad with brass knuckles in front of the kid. The scene is both extremely brutal and hilariously efficient. Velcoro inflicts the kind of terror that should put the fear of God in a twelve years old and send him to the therapist's office for the rest of his life. He cannot do good without being somewhat evil in the same time, which made him fascinating to me. That and he has great lines:

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What True Detective, Season Two did wrong

The Writing

The dialogue is what torpedoes the entire show. Outside of Ray Velcoro's hilarious one liners, it ranges from passable to disastrous. Whenever there is downtime, the show sinks into self-indulgent armchair psychology. This is what is supposed to replace Rust Cohle's philosophical digressions from Season One and not only it doesn't live up to it, it eventually starts alienating the audience. Whether it's Frank Semyon's memory of being trapped in a dark room, which casts upon him a vulnerability that doesn't match his character (a man like him should seek control, not surrender it to whoever wants to listen to his bullshit) or Ani Bezzerides surprise abuse story, it felt forced and audiences caught up on that. 

I wish I had more to say about it, but shitty writing is shitty writing. The performances weren't all that better either. Perhaps the worst scene in True Detective, Season Two is when Frank is being deliberately nasty to his wife Jordan to convince her to leave for Venezuela while he solves his problem with dangerous Russian mobster Osip. At one point, Jordan says: "I know what you're trying to do and it's not gonna work." Well, no shit? The audience figured it out 10 seconds into the scene. This is insecure writing at its worst, which is really, really weird coming from such a talented author. 

The World We Don't Deserve

Hear me out. I think the ending of True Detective, Season Two is another factor that torpedoed the show. See, audiences complained that the dark and brooding Season One ended on a light note, so in Season Two the opposite happens. Ray and Frank die a horrible death while Ani and Jordan go on living in hiding with Frank's baby. This is an obvious reaction to the criticism about Season One, but it goes against the very statement Nic Pizzolatto is trying to make with Season Two: we get the world we deserve. There is justice to this ending. The mobster who wanted to participate to the corrupt high-speed rail line and his favorite henchman die a horrible death while the righteous woman go on to expose the story and perpetuate the memory of their lovers who died like heroes.

The correct ending to True Detective, Season Two would've been for Ani and Jordan to die while Ray and Frank lives with a whole new set of demons. Having the women dying would've been the unfair thing to do. It would've been the world Ray and Frank deserved. The way Season Two ended is both way too nice of an ending for the men (who "bought their place in heaven") and way too unfair for Ani (a great cop with a strong sense of justice) and Jordan (a loyal wife with a heart of gold) who don't deserve to live in hiding while the bad guys prosper. I guess it's what Nic Pizzolatto meant by we get the world we deserve, but Ani and Jordan did nothing wrong, unlike Ray and Frank who get the easy way out. So, THAT pissed me off. Does it make sense?

So, what did you think about True Detective, Season Two? What did you like? What did you dislike? Let's debate it in the comments and on Facebook until the start of season 3.

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