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Sophomore Shrug

Let it not be said that True Detective’s second season was without any good episodes. The back half of episode 6 (“Church in Ruins”) and the entirety of episode 7 (“Black Maps and Motel Rooms”) are the gooey center of the anthology’s second outing, functioning as the culmination of all of the work that has been put in by the writer during the rest of the season. The show hits its stride beginning with the eponymous trio planning of the episode-ending raid on the Black Lodge and continues through the whole next episode, in which the detectives are finally able to unravel the myriad threads surrounding Caspere’s murder and begin to see their roles in the whole charade. At the same time, Frank finally breaks under the pressure from the conjoined forces of organized crime and decides to take matters into his own hands, which results in a series of murders and property-destruction each more entertaining than the last. Whereas Frank’s de-teething of a foe earlier in the season came across as engineered and phony, he is at home gut- and cheap-shotting his way through a couple of homicides as well casually burning down two buildings. He literally points to make someone look the other way before shooting them in the head. In these scenes, Frank carries out his rampage with the steady hand of an experienced criminal.

Woodrugh is the weakest piece of this puzzle. I simply don’t believe that he would care about pictures of his homosexual activities being released in the midst of an ongoing manhunt for those with whom he has become associated. Not only does he go to the trouble of sequestering the women in his life (one of whom knows he is gay, the other of whom hints at it with every line of dialogue) but he also exposes himself to an obvious trap, even giving Ray a warning call before going to meet his doom. Woodrugh’s closeted gayness was the low point of the season leading up to “Black Maps” and continued to represent the nadir of the show’s characterization until the man’s bitter end.

Unfortunately, episode 8 (titled “Omega Station”) represents a return to form, or rather, a regression to the faltering early episodes. We are denied access to Velcoro and Bezzerides’ lovemaking session, instead spending the night after with them as they confess their respective character histories and smoke endless cigarettes. Since these “secrets” have been all but spelled out by the show in the preceding episodes, this scene feels gratuitous. It is the equivalent of the scene in which Bezzerides attacks the training dummy in her apartment: Pizzolatto does not trust the audience to follow his bread crumbs so he makes sure to spell everything out using small words and short sentences, and it feels very condescending.

The lack of subtlety that overwhelmed the early parts of the season is back for the finale. For much of the episode it feels as if the audience is sitting in the car waiting for the writer to triple-check that all of the lights are off and the doors are closed inside the season before driving away. After the shock of Velcoro finding Davis’s dead body in the parking lot, the series of bodies discovered by Frank and Bezzerides fail to have an emotional impact, serving instead to remind the audience that these characters were characters and now that the show is over they are no longer needed (the same basic principle applies to Frank and Velcoro’s deaths at the episode’s end, but for different reasons). Even Osip’s death at the hands of Frank is overdone, as Frank empties an entire pistol magazine into the man instead of simply shooting him with his assault rifle. The only interesting deaths in the whole episode are those of the police chief and Lenny, who are hilariously gunned down by overzealous security guards at the transit terminal in what might be the most ironic police homicide in film history.

And then we have Velcoro and Frank. Woodrugh’s death, though narratively pointless, at least had some emotional weight behind it, what with cutting back to his women in the hotel room and the reveal of the James Frain as the villain. Coming where it did at the end of episode 7, it also accomplished the delicate task of showing the audience that none of the main characters were safe, which is no mean feat in serialized television; Game of Thrones struck the balance early on but lost it during this past season, and only The Wire maintained it for longer. But killing off Frank and Velcoro, Frank for his greed and Velcoro as penitence for his life of crime, is lazy and unfulfilling, not least because Bezzerides and Jordan head down South America way with all of the evidence long before either man dies. Thus the season’s ending is at once moralizing (the bad men got what they had coming), misogynistic (women must be protected by men at all costs), condescending (Ray’s father telling him how he will die in episode 3 is one of the most egregious instances of foreshadowing gone wrong in recent memory), and lazy (particularly Ray’s final message to his son not going through and the many visions of Frank Semyon). The coda with Bezzerides and Jordan giving all of the case information to a reporter is the tacked-on happy ending of a first draft and should have been cut.

Writers tend to develop some incredibly bad habits when writing the declared final season of an ongoing series, and somehow the finale of True Detective season 2 managed to capture everything that is usually wrong with a series’ final season within a single episode. What makes serialized television work is its inherent open endedness: much like life itself, television tells continuing stories in bitesized chunks, and the best shows develop multiple narratives continuously so that any given episode advances many plots in little bits and only occasionally resolves one. But at the end of a season, much like at the end of a calendar year, we can look back on all of our adventures without a sense that there will never be any more, for there is always next season, always next year, and all (or most) of our friends are still around. When television series go into declared (as opposed to imposed) final seasons, writers will often begin to treat every narrative arc as a final narrative arc. This leads to writers killing off characters or storylines long before there is a good narrative reason to do so simply because they can. Take, for example, the final season of The Wire. The whole season is beset by terminal plot lines, whether it is Omar’s untimely death or Daniels’ shortened tenure as Chief of Police. In a show that was comfortable spending seasons developing interpersonal relationships, the final season acts like the characters are saying goodbye to one another for the last time, and the writers hasten to make sure that everyone lands in a comfortable place for the series-ending montage. The Sopranos takes this to an even further place, making sure to kill off almost every major character before its cock-tease of a final shot (also guilty but for different reasons: Breaking Bad).

One would hope that an anthology show like True Detective would be able to avoid this pitfall due to the model’s closed nature. That is to say, unlike an ongoing television show, each season’s entire story is conceived and executed concurrently, which ought to keep that particular brand of laziness from creeping into the writing. Then again, after the season of obvious television that Pizzolatto just delivered to us, it would have been more surprising for him to pull off an ending with anything approaching a deft touch. As it is, we get a mishmash of moralistic plotting and narrative thread-tying that all amounts to a half-hearted shrug. Are we supposed to care that the Vinci mafia has essentially gotten away with it? Do we really think that some random South American reporter will be able to take them down from afar with nothing but a packing box full of old police reports? Are Bezzerides and Jordan going to raise Velcoro’s son to be a cop or a criminal?

Really, who cares? The detectives this season accomplished almost nothing. They were pawns the whole way through, and managed to take out only a few of the myriad shady players running the whole scheme. Had the show dwelt on the hopelessness of their mission or developed their characters in a compelling way or even teased the audience with more details from the mystery this would have been acceptable, but as it is, for a season which invested all of its energy in crafting a story, the story was ultimately not worth telling. It was unmemorable, which is about the worst thing you can say about a season of television.

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