The beautiful mess is over, and the tumbling, changeable dice that is True Detective season two landed more on “mess” than “beautiful” in last night’s finale.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Some critics love writing negative TV reviews, and they’re good at it. Some critics just love TV, and are fascinated by any result, and can write intelligently about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I admire those people, but I am not one of them. Bad TV depresses me, and even if I manage to endure the act of watching it, I can’t take the misery of re-living the miserable experience through criticism. I loathe writing negative reviews on a weekly basis, because I don’t see the point. To me, the artistic failure is bad enough, and should be evident for everyone to see. Commemorating that failure in print just feels like an onerous waste of time.
Example: Last year, I wrote reviews for Ray Donovan, which I considered really awful, and I begged my editors to let me stop after a handful of episodes. The irrecoverable chunk of hours it took to watch each episode and write my reviews felt like I subjecting myself to a slow-drip tryptohan IV, or swapping my blood for tar, or some equally lugubrious metaphor. It’s enervating, and soul-killing.
Counterexample: The most fun I’ve ever had reviewing television was season one of True Detective. I was on the road writing a book for most of 2014, and I’d often have to stay up until 4am watching and reviewing the show on Sunday nights, either before or after driving long hours to my next destination. It was incredibly tiring, but I didn’t care—the show inspired me to write, shunting aside my fatigue as long as necessary.
The point I want to make is that there are infinite ways to analyze and discuss a good show, but a bad one? It’s simple—it’s just bad. And anyone writing about why it’s bad is doomed to repeat themselves, which is a depressing feeling.
The second season of True Detective hasn’t been universally bad. In fact, it’s been wildly uneven, sprinkling in a dollop of insight here, a gorgeous bit of acting there, and even, by turns, turning a convoluted plot into something compelling. Last week’s episode, in fact, was quite good. It was hope-inducing good, and I wasn’t the only one who thought Pizzolatto and company might be closing with the kind of sprint that could make us forget the awkward fluctuations we’d endured through June and July.
Instead, we got “Omega Station.” It was a very Pizzolatto-ish conclusion—a few triumphs, bad guys dying, but also a whole lot of ambiguity and threads left unresolved. All the main villains bought it, but so did most of the good guys, and we were left with a feeling of status quo. It was almost like the final episode of The Wire, with new people filling the old roles, except more melodramatic and clumsy.
Our two male heroes, Semyon and Velcoro, both died because they couldn’t hold their shit together in the critical final moments. Semyon had to attack a knife-wielding gangster in a one-on-ten situation, and Velcoro had to see his son one last time in order to salute him meaningfully. (This is another problem with writing negative reviews—they make you into a snarky asshole.) Before they met their death, both saved the women in their lives, who are now forced to spend their lives fleeing from one place to the next, baby in tow, counting on journalists to enact a kind of revenge.
To be fair, Velcoro’s death should have been no surprise. In the Lynchian dream sequence from earlier in the season, his father told him exactly how it was going to happen—he would be caught in the woods and gunned down after a chase, dead before his own father. That’s the ‘time is a flat circle’ stuff from season one returning, at least thematically—his end was always written, and all the choices he made, all the actions he took, were simply fulfilling plot points in a cosmic script. You could almost read Velcoro’s trajectory as a rejection of free will.
Semyon’s end was a little harder to watch, simply because we spent an entire season hoping he could remove himself from the tangled spider web he’d entered the moment he tried to become legitimate. Again, it’s hard not to think of The Wire, and how Stringer Bell’s powerful invincibility was chipped away until he died in an abandoned building. And again, the True Detective version wasn’t executed with anywhere near the same eloquence.
My big problem here is that the finale felt entirely disconnected from the rest of the show. It was like Pizzolatto wanted an “epic” ending so badly that he ignored everything he created up until the final 90 minutes. Remember how the climax of season one took place deep in the bayou, in the tunnels of Carcosa? And how it felt so intricately tied into everything we’d seen before? And how dark and terrifying and mystic the whole sequence came off, in a perfect reflection of the visual imagery that led us there?
So why did Velcoro die in the woods, and why did Semyon die in a desert? Why did Bezzerides end in the streets of Latin America? This complaint isn’t solely about a misbegotten sense of place, but it does show a lack of vision—darkest Vinci was the physical lifeblood of this show, and shifting gear at the last moment felt discordant and short-sighted. The plot wasn’t much better; how did a show about urban corruption turn into a spy film with all the predictable tropes, right down to the disguises, the shootout in a crowded public space, the safe house, and the tragically foiled escape? This show never had a rock-solid identity to begin with, but this was like watching somebody go from mild mood swings to full-blown schizophrenia.
By the time Velcoro took his lingering look at the sky and went out in a blaze of glory, and Semyone walked into the arms of his white-clad angel, we weren’t even watching a finale anymore. We were watching a bizarre daydream that had become totally unmoored from its point of origin. It was nothing more than a flight of fancy—the kind of thing a boy might dream up as a child, before he understood the elements of a good story and was simply drawn in by the stoic sentimentality of masculine tragedy.
The failure of season two will not diminish season one for me, and I think anyone who implies that it should is missing a critical point, which is that the collaboration between writer, director, and actors that produced the original magic clearly brought out the best in everybody involved. Nic Pizzolatto hasn’t always represented himself very well in media, and he makes an easy scapegoat now that season two has come up short of that initial greatness. But anybody who denies that Pizzolatto possesses a certain kind of genius is lying to themselves. Instead, let’s be honest: He’s got a unique mind, and anything he creates, good or bad, will possess a bracing resonance. That intellectual difference is exactly what we need in television, and I hope he makes ten more seasons of True Detective.
What season two showed, though, is that even Pizzolatto isn’t immune from artistic overreach. He had too much power after season one, and HBO may have overestimated how much responsibility he bore for the success of that run. Unrestrained, Pizzolatto’s sophomore effort spiraled out of control, a slave to his worst impulses. From overwrought dialogue to aimless action sequences to the bathetic conclusion, it never quite connected.
The tantalizing thing, though, is that the seeds were absolutely there, and at times you could almost see the fruit. The off-kilter sensation I felt when the credits rolled was very different from the sagging apathy that follows an abject failure. Changes need to be made, and restraints put in place, but it would be a shame if one artistic miss buried a voice with the capacity to transport us to strange and startling universes.
In other words, what’s done is done—let’s forget the mess, and pray for the beauty.