Just shy of two months ago, I made a bold – if precendented – prediction that the second season of True Detective would be an ‘awful’, ‘dispiriting affair from start to finish’. Seven episodes and a bloated finale later, the reactions are trickling in, and I’m not prepared to hedge.
And not from a lack of effort, either: it’s as though the makers were straining to piss boiling, highly-pressurized sulfuric acid in the eyes of dramatic convention to spite their prior success. Like Ben Caspere’s scorched eyeballs, Pizzolatto’s vision eroded quickly and painfully, perched in the emasculated corpse of a once-proud deviant. It doesn’t matter whether you attempt to prop up this carcass next to its vivid predecessor, because the second season of True Detective needs no comparisons to be revealed as a pile of shit. To untangle this Gordian Knot of needlessly complex storylines and damnable clichés, I will proceed as with the predictive article that preceded this.
Ray Velcoro, the corrupt, drug-addled deadbeat with a dark past. Ani Bezzerides, the over-sexed bad-ass with a dark past. Frank Semyon, the deluded gangster with a crumbling empire… and a dark past. Paul Woodrugh, the closeted tortured soul… with a dark past! But don’t forget, Velcoro needs to have a shrew ex-wife! Bezzerides needs men to shame her sexuality! Semyon needs a wife who he tries to keep out of the loop! Woodrugh needs a beard so he can play straight!
Of these predictable archetypes, Velcoro and Bezzerides are the only ones whose storylines rise from the void long enough for their characters to register a pulse. Velcoro’s fall from grace is born of his misplaced attempts to protect his family, his failures and compromises hemorrhaging in a recursive spiral from which drugs are his only respite. No Rust Cohle, I grant you, but he gives Marty Hart a run for his money on the complexity front. The main difference? Marty’s life dissolves. Velcoro warps back and forth between extremes so fast it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with him. Not as a character, mind you, but as a member of the species. This leads to idiotic humanizing devices like the useless messages he records for his son, whom Velcoro assaults despite the fact that the son is the only thing left he cares about. How many times does he quit drinking? And when he dies, does it matter?
Bezzerides’ characterization relative to a stereotypically masculine world can occasionally be profound, particularly when she’s accused of sexual harassment or rationalizing her skills with a knife, but these moments are betrayed by the fact that she’s instantly – and constantly – personified by her lad-ette sexuality: slut-shamed by her co-worker, which is paid forward when she slut-shames her own sister, followed by her father’s assertion that she blames men for her problems. Of course she slept with her male partner! Of course when she smokes, the e-cig is a phallic reference! Of course her female superior asks her to use her feminine wiles on Velcoro! And of course she eventually has sex with him, and has his baby! It’s totally understandable that she was sexually assaulted – one in three American women will be during their lives – but with this knowledge, would her father really categorize ‘blaming men’ as her problem? Maybe. After all, her full name is Antigone, so she needs to have daddy issues. By the way, what happened to her gambling addiction?
Semyon is decidedly a step down from this lot in complexity. He’s a criminal who apparently was never quite as good as he thought he was, so he makes up for it with a lot of nonsensical aphorisms probably gleaned from reading ‘40s-era detective novels while watching Goodfellas in a fugue state. Aside from his unfortunately mangled philosophies, he’s basically inert: he threatens someone, he buttons his jacket, and he leaves. Except for Stan’s kid, but like most people, I was too busy trying to figure out who Stan is and why he matters to pay attention. He also has one of the dumbest and most prolonged deaths in television history. And in the end, does his death mean anything to the plot?
Woodrugh is a new gold standard in terribly written, offensively stereotyped characters. The motorcycle cop who loves to ride, going so far as to make a stink about it in the early episodes, but doesn’t mention it again after his bike gets stolen and doesn’t complain when he’s reassigned off highway patrol. So what was the point of his intense joyride? Nothing more than a lucky stumble on Caspere’s body. The man running from his dark past with a Blackwater-inspired military outfit – or is he running from the fact that he likes having sex with men? Lip service is paid to his military entanglements, but his arc has absolutely everything to do with his sexuality. Bezzerides redux! Of course he goes cruising, that’s what the gays do! Of course he’s angsty, that’s the way the gays are! And of course he dies, that’s what the gays are for! By the way, does his death have any thematic relevance?
The less said about the ancillary women, the better. Emily, Gena, Cynthia – I admit, I had to look up their names – and even the venerable Jordan find little to do that isn’t tied to their male counterparts, the former two not even earning a proper resolution. Did it matter that Emily was pregnant? That Cynthia spent Woodrugh’s money? That Jordan couldn’t get pregnant? That Gena needed to deny Velcoro custody? Apparently, women who are not Bezzerides are either baby factories or intent on ruining their men. Looks like Pizzolatto couldn’t fix his woman problem.
To be fair, though, the problems in this season of True Detective resemble several hundred layers of blankets suffocating what could have been a serviceable premise. Speaking of suffocating…
When a television show is as badly crafted as this season of True Detective was, the actors are pigeonholed by both the quality of the scripts and the talent of the directors. As such, it is extremely difficult, bordering on impossible to blame them for a dearth in quality. But someone still manages to drag the whole sordid mess down to astonishing levels of torpid ineptitude.
Despite my misgivings, I cannot level any demerits on Colin Farrell. For what was easily the most interesting characterization of the new series, he did everything he could within the limitations of what was written, doing his best to choke out Velcoro’s awkward threats while conveying the soul of a man beyond redemption.
On the other hand, Vince Vaughn was fatally miscast. He had easily the most difficult role to play, given the heavy-handed monologues – ‘blue balls in your heart’ would be a great title for this disappointing mess – and a tragically witless encouragement to Stan’s meaningless son, referring to him as ‘pure gold’ – what, did Favreau copyright ‘you’re so money’? His best reading, ‘don’t you fucking shoot me Raymond’, was too little too late. As proven by the remake of Psycho, drama isn’t his strong suit; he managed to breathe life into a few zingers, but he couldn’t redeem or humanize an awkward, thankless character.
As predicted, Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly were indefatigable. Both actresses anchored the best moments of the series, giving us a rare insight into what could have been, even as their denouement provided a questionable conclusion and zero insight into their character arcs. Are the women really that boring for Pizzolatto, that he can kill off the male leads to have the supporting women amount to little more than a flaccid glimmer of hope?
Inasmuch as I can’t blame the actors, I can blame the people in charge of foisting Taylor Kitsch on the unsuspecting masses once again. This lifeless golem is a pox on his ‘profession’, parading a spectacularly tepid array of worthless facial mannerisms that increasingly drive a desire to punch his face until his bruises can accidentally emote on a level that exceeds a department store mannequin. The context of each of his scenes is sucked to the vortex of his dead eyes, monotone delivery, and endless exaggerated posturing. Even when he’s shouting, he registers the dramatic impact of a pull-string doll whose phrases were penned by a suicidal Lifetime Network screenwriter. More than any fictional character I can remember, I was praying for his death as soon as possible so I could be spared of his stylistic impotence. Entire theses could be written on the catastrophic lack of natural talent he possesses, as he automatically makes any project with which he’s involved a clinic on wooden acting.
I digress before I can write such a tome. For all his infinite failings, Kitsch is but a cog in a larger machine that failed to coalesce before casting became a necessity in the production schedule. Indeed, the problem came before he could taint the production with his demo reel.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After the first season featured but one writer and one director, the second season of True Detective featured seven separate directors while the singular Pizzolatto recruited an additional writer for two of the lesser episodes. The fractures were easy to spot. The entire season was plagued by an inconsistent, meandering tone while struggling to juggle the multitudinous, useless subplots that still apparently required so much padding that a singer/songwriter was maintained to fill out each episode’s emotional beats.
If you require specific examples to blow holes in the construction of this season, Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post laid out a brilliant treatise of the first episode’s editorial indulgence, utilizing a single scene to humorously point out how idiotic this fatty plot could be on a microscopic scale. Having watched the first season of True Detective three times, I can find no worthwhile corollaries. It is a master class on the marriage of shoddy directing and editing, and remember, this was Justin Lin’s episode, and he was easily the most accomplished filmmaker of the bunch.
In fact, Todd VanDerWerff from Vox picked out 31 completely insane moments from the first episode alone, including the brilliant revelation that the story proper doesn’t begin until the 58th minute. He has a point, and it’s a pathetic one to concede; so much time is devoted to building clunky backstories that one of the protagonists conveniently (idiotically) stumbles on the plot in the closing seconds. The success of the first season was tethered to the fact that the crime slowly revealed the personalities of the protagonists. Compare the swap made here with the first chapter in a novel: the author spends 50 pages explaining the characters, then finally introduces the mystery.
In retrospect, though, who cares about the mystery? ‘Who killed Ben Caspere’ is hardly as pressing a question as ‘who killed Laura Palmer’, mainly because the perpetrator has a grand total of two scenes in the entire eight-episode arc, and the role is so minuscule that his unmasking is remarkably impotent. And stupid. The detectives literally walk into his house unannounced and find every single piece of evidence in one place, out in the open, then get the entire story from someone handcuffed on the floor.
Even worse, by the time of the reveal, larger wheels have been set in motion relevant to the primary plots, namely the detectives’ attempts to expose systemic corruption and Semyon’s fight against a stronger, better organized mafia. But that hasn’t prevented Pizzolatto from pretending that the identity of the Crow is the key to unlock the series. His unceremonious disposal was probably the moment you sneezed at the house of cards representing the thin framework of plots and subplots; we were so distracted by the hunt for this guy, we’re left scrambling in the wreckage to figure out what’s left to care about.
With a series so populated by disposable characters whose roles are secondary and even tertiary to the plot, it’s impossible to understand what the true intention of the series was. The corrupt succeed, and we get a montage that shows all the useless characters with less than ten lines of dialogue in the eight episodes win the day. How soul crushing. While the first season of True Detective took pains to reinforce the redemption of Rustin Cohle, nothing is accomplished at the end of the second. Sure, there’s an overture of Bezzerides finally exposing the systemic corruption against which three of the principals were fighting, but where the hell is she going, and what the hell is she doing? Even if the child she’s carrying is Velcoro’s, who cares?
When considering this, I unraveled what was, to me, a bit of a revelation: Pizzolatto’s message about how important it is to raise your kids right. This is the reason why we had Semyon’s mistreatment by his father and inability to conceive a child, Ani’s dad (and her name, for that matter), Woodrugh’s mom, Velcoro’s dad, Velcoro’s son, Stan’s son, the Woodrugh pregnancy, the Bezzerides pregnancy, the kids whose parents were killed in the race riots, Caspere’s illegitimate children, the strife between Austin & Tony Chessani… the list goes on. Imagine what could have been accomplished if these revelations weren’t cloaked in the dross that surrounds them.
Here is where the true failure of the second season of True Detective lies. What immeasurable asset does this series hold as an advantage? Did where the characters started and where they ended up give you a chance to learn anything relevant about them? Were there any moments that alluded to a higher significance? Which part of the series is impossible to live without?
I guarantee you it isn’t Bezzerides’ loser dad, his useless cult, or Dr. Pitlor, nor is it Semyon’s Russian or Mexican friends. Did you care what the Mayor of Vinci was up to? How about his son? Or his mistress? Did any of the corrupt senior officials rate an impact on your perception of the finale? Was there a statement on femininity or homosexuality that struck a chord with anyone? How about a single moment that registered on the scale of the originals series’ intensity or tenacity?
Even the vaunted shootout that concludes the fourth episode is dramatically inert; what should have been the most nerve-hammering sequence – in both series – was ridiculous, too chaotic to follow, ended conveniently, and was later explained away by the fact that it was ostensibly a ‘setup’, but by whom? For whom? Was this criminal posse with a meth lab and a ludicrous arsenal of automatics instructed to kill every single person in sight except the three main characters? This explosion of violence marked the halfway point of the series, epitomizing its desperate grabs to distract us from a plot going nowhere.
Now, I predicted an across-the-board critical and commercial drubbing. Metacritic would seem to suggest that it is a success overall, but this is based on critics who got early access to only the first three episodes. Postmortems on several sites this morning range from ‘not pretty’ to disappointment to ‘utter disaster’. I take no pleasure in being right; if I was wrong in the end, I said I would happily eat crow. I didn’t realize at the time that I’d be force-fed and choked out on a ghastly, hollow, overblown version of the same before it could even finish. And I can’t think of a more perfect metaphor for the second season of True Detective as a whole.