HBO

This week following True Detective, David Sims, Christopher Orr, and Sophie Gilbert discuss the murders and machinations depicted in the HBO drama. (Spencer Kornhaber is away.)


Sims: So, in the end, did we get the show we deserved? True Detective was always going to be a difficult “second album,” and the challenge to reproduce the assuredness of the show’s first season was almost insurmountable from the start. Still, the ballad of Ani, Ray, Frank, Birdman, and the missing hard drives was utterly inept from a storytelling perspective. Sunday night’s finale, “Omega Station,” had the setup of an exquisite noir tragedy. Ray, burdened with a dark past he couldn’t shake, went down in a blaze of glory. Frank set everything up for a clean getaway, but ended up tripping on the one loose end he forgot to tie up. Only Ani survived to tell the truth about Vinci, with an unexpected reminder of her intense relationship with Ray.

The dramatic climax was there, but the purpose of it was sorely missing. If anyone missed anything from last week’s festival of empty exposition, the final plot gaps were filled in: Birdman was Leonard Osterman, one of the orphans left behind from a 1992 jewelry store robbery, who along with his sister Laura mutilated and murdered Ben Caspere in the first episode and dumped his body on the road. (Laura, it seems, was a mostly unwilling accomplice, and in actuality Caspere’s illegitimate daughter.) His mission of revenge was, in the end, entirely personal, and motivated by events that happened off-screen and were recounted to the camera later. Turned out Leonard was the set photographer from way back in episode three, but who cares? The audience had no investment in this man, nor in the rotten conspiracy that ended up ensnaring the heroes simply by chance.

So what of Frank, Ray, and Ani? After the many meaningless revelations of episode seven, it was clear that the incredibly complex web of misdeeds Nic Pizzolatto had drawn up for the season was logically sound, but very little fun to uncover. Ray, Frank and Ani (and poor, basically forgotten Woodrugh, although at least he got a highway named after him!) were all inadvertent victims, patsies who were marked for death or exile simply because they stumbled on Caspere’s case (or, in Frank’s case, did business with him). The ponderously long finale tried hardest to wring human drama from its ensemble to compensate for the seeming randomness of its insanely intricate plot, but without much success.

I’d figured the finale would be action-packed: Figure out who Birdman is, close the case on the mystery, then gear up for the epic shootout that Frank went shopping for last episode. But that all got tied up before the halfway point—Leonard died taking out Police Chief Holloway, Ray and Frank smoked out the Russian gangsters in their log cabin and stole their millions of dollars (intended to purchase those land parcels, yes?), and Ani mostly bided her time at the world’s weirdest dive bar waiting to head on down the road. The show gave its best character one chance to get in on the action, saving Ray’s life at the airport shootout with Leonard, but when it came time for the real final act, Ani was entirely shut out.

Perhaps Pizzolatto thought there was a real triumph to his ending—after so many complaints about the rampant testosterone of season one, here were Ani and Jordan surviving in Venezuela as their respective love interests bit the dust. But it felt patronizing more than anything else, with Ray making sure Ani got out of California before the real bad stuff went down and, surprise, leaving a bun in her oven as a goodbye gift (the miraculous one-night stand conception being one of Hollywood’s favorite, hoariest tropes). Ani, defined by her victimhood as much as her knife skills, got redemption in the form of a cute baby, while her equally damaged lover Ray basically got to die with her name on his lips.

What to make of Ray’s blaze of glory? There were some hilariously tragic notes—his phone’s inability to upload its goodbye message to his son, and that previous scene where little Chad Velcoro played Dungeons & Dragons while carrying his father’s badge encased in Lucite as some horrendous lucky totem. (No way that kid’s gonna grow up with any issues, no sir.) In the end, it felt like he made the decision that it simply wasn’t possible for him to be happy—which is why his pat on the head for Ani, telling her to get out of town and get away from him, felt especially condescending. The final montage included a random cut to his dad (played by Fred Ward) and ex-wife (Abigail Spencer), two great actors the show hired and immediately forgot to use, as if to remind us there could have been a great arc for Ray buried somewhere.

Still, Ray’s goodbye made more sense than Frank’s. At least I knew the name of the character who shot Ray to death—Lieutenant Burris, played by James Frain. When Frank got kidnapped on his way to escape, I literally had to hit pause on my DVR to remember exactly who this collection of gangsters was. It would have been grand for Frank to holler at them, “Nobody cares who runs the damn clubs anymore!” but no, the cold-blooded Mexican gangsters were back, and they were mad that Frank had set their new drug laundering businesses alight. (The hallucinations Frank saw on his death march aren’t worth getting into, since it’d probably require another thousand words to unpack just what the show was going for by having a bunch of stereotypical black “hoods” from the ‘80s yell at Vince Vaughn in his final moments.)

But it was the final montage that bothered me most of all. After the gothic delights of season one, and the early tease of the fantastic this year (with Ray’s trip to the afterlife and back), it was infuriating to see Pizzolatto close with some half-assed indictment of corruption going all the way to the top. (Even in the absurd civic structure of Vinci, you’re telling me the Mayor’s orgy-organizing son is gonna succeed his father after his mysterious suicide?) I do think Pizzolatto was aiming to essay some grand tale of the dark heart of Californian bureaucracy, surreptitious land grabs, and misused government money, but it was told entirely in the footnotes. That’s True Detective season two: Some hackneyed personal melodrama, and to find out the rest of the plot, please consult the appendices. Mr. Pizzolatto, if you’re considering producing a third season, may I suggest a slightly slimmer volume next time? Just a couple of gumshoes, a real villain with actual motivations, and an atmospheric setting. The rest takes care of itself.


Orr: First off, a hat tip to the programmers at HBO for leading into the finale of True Detective by airing the final installment of Peter Jackson’s appallingly tumesced Hobbit trilogy. Few other selections could have calibrated my expectations so low. Well played.

There were, as has sadly been customary this season, a lot of severe missteps tonight. But given lowered expectations, I think this was ultimately one of the best episodes of the season. It wasn’t exactly good television—that bar is set awfully high these days—but it was frequently good bad television. Faint praise? Yes. But praise nonetheless. Let me start with the bad.

I agree, David, that the near-random tying-up of plot elements was tonight’s most notable feature. I’ve compared this season to both a serial novel and a game of 52 pickup, but I’m not sure either metaphor was quite up to the task. Tonight we learned that the season’s precipitating event—the murder of Ben Caspere—was not the work of any of the many many many land-grabbing, woman-trafficking villains upon whom the show has focused the vast bulk of its attention. Rather, it was a revenge killing by a brother and sister who were the victims of a crime that we never even heard about until episode six (of eight) and who jointly had perhaps ten minutes of total screen time before tonight. I get the whole deliberate-red-herring schtick. But why stop there? Why not have Caspere killed by an angry city contractor we haven’t even met? Or by transdimensional aliens with acidic saliva and a taste for human eyeballs?

Nor was this the only example of a tertiary brother-sister team who turned out to be central villains. Throughout the season we saw lot of Vinci Mayor Austin Chessani (played with wonderfully drunken verve by Ritchie Coster) and very little of his son, Tony.  But it was the latter who it turns out conspired behind his dad’s back with Every Other Bad Guy in California before ultimately offing the old man in a faked swimming-pool suicide. It’s strongly implied that he was helped by his sister, Betty, though the real evidence is limited to her trophy-mom’s druggy recollection that “She was there, I think, with the yelling.” But honestly, who cares? It’s just another weightless body, like—what was that guy’s name again?—Stan.

Finally, we have Frank’s fate. He’s gotten the best of all the men who betrayed him—Osip, Catalyst honcho McCandless—and then, on the verge of freedom, he’s kidnapped on the freeway. Is it Lieutenant Burris of Vinci PD? Or Tony Chessani? There aren’t any other bad guys still left alive, are there? Oh, right: the nasty Mexicans. No, not the nasty Mexicans from the episode four bloodbath. The other nasty Mexicans who were offhandedly introduced later, again for perhaps a total of ten minutes. Frank spoke for the entire television audience when he said: “You? What the fuck is this?” And then they stabbed him because he wouldn’t give his suit to a much-smaller guy on whom it would have hung like wet laundry. Motivation, shmotivation.

I agree too, David, regarding the notable dichotomy in outcomes for the male and female protagonists. The men all died tragic heroes, and the women all lived on to mourn them and be mommies. Pizzolatto took a lot of heat last season for his thin female characters—not entirely justified, I’d argue, because apart from Rust and Marty all the characters were thin. And I think it’s to his credit that he took the complaint to heart. (Compare him, for example, to Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who seem to respond to criticism by doubling down ever-more heavily on rape and sexual torture.)

But if ever there were a gentler, friendlier, non-misogynistic form of sexism, this is it. Men are sadly predestined to fail as fathers, sometimes nobly and sometimes not: Paul, Ray, Ani's dad, Frank’s dad (whom we met for the first time in a near-death fever dream), Ray’s dad (Fred Ward, who got a pay check for sitting on a sofa for ten seconds tonight). Women, meanwhile, are destined to raise the kids and mourn their absent men, crappy or otherwise: the co-parenting Ani and Jordan, Paul’s crazy mom and his pregnant girlfriend. (That is, apart from the Dead Moms Club, which includes Ani’s, Frank’s, and the Chessani kids’.) Tonight, we even had a scene in which it was established that Ray really is Chad’s dad, just so that Ray’s ex could weep over his death too. (That said, Ray is not Chad’s dad. You can accept the 99.9 percent genetic match if you want; I’m trusting the eye test here. It’s true that the rapist didn’t meaningfully resemble Chad either, so I’m ascribing paternity to one of these guys. My best guess? Danny Bonaduce.)

A few other thoughts and critiques before I wrap up on a (mostly) positive note:

1) The opening scene of Ray and Ani’s post-coital conversation was an unfortunate twin, and near-parody, of Frank’s between-the-sheets monologue from episode two. I’ll see your water stains and locked-in-the-dark-cellar story, and raise you a four-day abduction-rape and the vigilante murder of an innocent man. Last week, our erstwhile roundtabler Spencer Kornhaber—on hiatus for tonight’s finale, alas—had a line about Pizzolatto “believing trauma to be the only determinative thing about anyone’s personality or relationships.” I’m sorry he wasn’t here to witness such a vivid example of his observation. All we were missing was Jordan offering a detailed explanation of her past abortions and Paul returning from the dead to tell the story of his abundant scars (a plot element evidently left on the cutting-room floor) and the atrocities he witnessed or participated in “in the desert.”

2) We got backstories for minor characters Nails and Felicia (the lady with the scar) in the season finale! This has to win some kind of record for offering non-pertinent information so late in the game.

3) Ray and Ani determined—based on what exactly I didn’t quite catch, maybe the fact that he had a minor speaking role?—that the set photographer from episode two was their Caspere killer. And when they arrived at his house, they saw displayed neatly: the bird mask; the baby mask; the shotgun; and, hilariously, the “less lethal” shells, which were conveniently placed directly beneath a magnifying glass so no one could miss the fine print. If only being a detective were really this easy.

4) It turned out Frank had an immigrant underground railway in the attic above the bar that could double as a (decidedly cut-rate) secret lair. How did we not know this earlier? What else did they not tell us? Was there a spotlight on the roof in the shape of a water stain that Felicia could shine into the clouds to let Frank know when Vinci needed him?

5) Speaking of which, how many characters died this season? I’m going to go out on a limb and say all of them, minus maybe half a dozen. So why couldn’t that trite, mood-inducing indie bar singer have been among the casualties? The revelation of the upstairs hideout was the perfect opportunity for her to be caught in crossfire. Tonight she was even singing when the bar was empty. I propose a True Detective horror spinoff in which she pursues Ani and Jordan across Latin America like a bad dream, guitar and depressing vibes in hand.

6) Earlier in the season, I cited moments when Pizzolatto seemed to reference the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. Call me a broken record, but I think he nodded to both again tonight: Blood Simple with the shot of dead Dr. Pitlor’s dangling hand dripping blood (yes, this may be a stretch), and Miller’s Crossing with any number of shots in the redwood grove where Ray met his end. If Pizzolatto is not a huge Miller’s Crossing fan, I will eat Tom Reagan’s hat.

7) “I’m forty minutes out, plenty of time.” Even I know never to say this. And I don’t have most of the state of California wishing me dead.

8) Tonight’s winner of the Worst Line of Vince Vaughn Dialogue award? I nominate his early attempt to get Jordan to leave the country: “You can’t have a kid, what good is the design, see?” Who in the world has added “see?” as an interrogative-enhancer since, say, Jimmy Cagney? Oh, that’s right, Ray Velcoro, also tonight. (“They could already have been watching, see?”) You can give your characters weird, ‘40s-era vocal tics, Pizzolatto. You just can’t give them all the same one.

Okay, now—finally—let me say a few nice things, which I would’ve liked to have done far more often this season. Raymond Chandler, the patron saint of American (and more specifically, Californian) crime fiction, famously defined his hard-boiled genre in contrast to the drawing-room stories of, say, Agatha Christie. In the latter, he wrote, the elegant resolution of the mystery was paramount; the rest was mere “passagework.” For Chandler, by contrast, “the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one that made good scenes.”

This was clearly the plan for season two of True Detective, with its multiple episodes of misdirection and oceans’ worth of red herrings. I thought tonight offered a pretty good example of how this formula might have worked, or mostly worked. There were (as noted) bad scenes, but there were a lot of good ones as well. There was tension and surprise and excitement. With a few exceptions (Ani and Ray’s depressing pillow talk, the subsequent scene in which Vince Vaughn tried to ugly-talk Jordan into leaving), the show abandoned the literary pretensions that have often bedeviled it this season and instead opted, mostly successfully, to be a gripping crime drama.

There was a far better balance, too, in the cast. Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams have consistently outperformed their material. But Taylor Kitsch never quite found the thread of his character (if there was one) and Vince Vaughn was forced to sell some of the most ridiculous dialogue in television history. Tonight, Kitsch was gone. And while Vaughn was given some impossibly heavy lifting in that first scene trying to send Jordan away, he was quite strong—probably the best he’s been—for the remainder of the episode. It’s hard to imagine that True Detective has done much to help Vaughn’s bid for dramatic-actor credibility, but tonight convinced me that the fault was not principally his. As ridiculous as his death-visions in the desert were (he didn’t even get any Conway Twitty!), the image of him staggering along across the sand, dripping blood like bread crumbs, had a camp majesty reminiscent of Sergio Leone.

So, was this season a success? No, obviously. But I feel that tonight offered the outlines for what might be a successful formula—and one more replicable than the lightning in a bottle that season one now appears to have been. What do you think, Sophie? Success? Failure? Something in between?


Gilbert: I agree with you, Chris, that the finale did a surprisingly effective job in wrapping things up, but I still think the curse of this season has been a sheer overload of information, with so many plots and subplots and secondary (and tertiary: alas poor Stan) characters that it became impossible to care about what was supposedly the central mystery of the show—who killed Ben Caspere. I love watching complicated dramas that seemingly offer clues for eagle-eyed viewers. I hate feeling obliged to rewind every pertinent scene three times to try and figure out what’s happening. Caspere was Laura’s father, but was he also Leonard’s? Is that why Lennie erupted in such stabby rage when he overheard Holloway justify the executions as necessary, because Caspere’s jewelry-store mistress kept getting pregnant with his illegitimate kids? Because he knew that he’d murdered his own father?

This episode, even more than the rest of the season, felt unhealthily obsessed with paternal angst, and the intensely emotional, frequently toxic relationship between fathers and sons. It also, as you noted David, felt more than a little patronizing to the show’s female characters. Consider the daughters of Mayor Chessani and Ben Caspere, who were just as hard done by as their brothers, but were essentially confined to the dramatic equivalent of a Greyhound bus to nowhere. Betty, played by Breaking Bad’s Emily Rios, had one scene, in which she hinted at her father’s complex nature (he is a “very bad man”) and sucked on a hookah pipe. Laura/Erica (Courtney Halverson) at least got a beginning and an end, introduced as Caspere’s mousy assistant and dispatched as his faux-redhead daughter, but like Betty, she was very much an afterthought next to her more compelling and more powerful brother.

I think the most disappointing aspect of TDS2 was that it did seem to try, at first: Ani was a direct response to the criticism of season one, and its blowhardy, male-centric meanderings. But even she ended up getting bogged down by the tropes of a female character in a detective novel, from her traumatic past to her undercover makeover as a high-class hooker. The finale, which saw her given a bold new hairdo identical to Franka Potente’s in the first Bourne movie, underscored this when it shipped her off under Felicia’s watchful eye. Ani was given very little agency in her own destiny—Ray ordered Felicia to tie her up to get her out of the country, if necessary (ain’t love grand). At least Jordan got to tell Frank, “I always have a choice,” when he ordered her to leave with Nails. (Nails! Most underappreciated character this season, given that he’s still helping Jordan and Ani a year later even when there’s no one around to pay him.)

So the most intriguing character of the season became … a mother, albeit one who keeps a knife in her sock. And Ray got the posthumous validation that—to borrow an observation from The New York Times’s Dave Itzkoff—his penis really, really worked, making him the genetic father of both poor Chad and Ani’s baby. The only thing that made me hate this ending slightly less was that it wasn’t Jordan who got pregnant—I know you worried that would be the final scene, Chris, and there was a nice moment of bittersweet longing from Kelly Reilly when she had to hand the baby back to Ani in the hotel room. I don’t want to get into Ani’s confession that she felt “proud” her attacker chose her, because it seemed completely inappropriate and problematic in a way we don’t have time for. But the character’s arc was a waste both for the show and for Rachel McAdams, who did really exceptionally convincing work this season with horrible material.

Why all this angst over parenthood? Vinci isn’t Elsinore. The underlying fear of the season—that sons will grow up and murder their fathers—seemed to say more about its creator than it did about heritage. The finale saw Tony Chessani take over his father’s role after he drowned him in the family swimming pool, and Leonard Osterman killed in a shootout after realizing he’d murdered the man who’d killed his parents and turned out to be his father. It saw Chad carrying around his grandfather’s police badge like a physical manifestation of the burdens parents unwittingly pass on to their children. It saw Frank die without an heir after agonizing all season about his legacy, after being visited by the ghost of his father, apparently a cruel and loathsome individual. And it saw Ray’s father mourn his son, apparently under the impression that he was guilty.

Maybe it was all tied in to the season’s fixation with California bureaucracy, and its checkered history and strange hierarchy. Vinci got three generations of Chessani mayors, each presumably more terrible than the last. Caspere got his comeuppance for so callously murdering his mistress and leaving his children to the mercies of foster care and a group home. Ray didn’t quite get to pass on his wisdom to his son (chadvelcoro@gmail.com), but maybe that’s all for the best, given the nature of Ray’s wisdom. Paul’s baby got a highway named after his father, who died at the hands of the one person who knew the truth about him. Life, TDS2 seemed to say, is all about legacy, whether it’s the kind that gets you a family fortune, the kind that puts your name on the map, the kind that gives you scars (both physical and emotional), or the kind that sees you posthumously cleared of wrongdoing by a reporter and a former lover with a box full of … contracts.

You said a few weeks ago, Chris, that Pizzolatto seemed to have a hundred different plot threads going at a time, and I definitely agree—there could be a show about Black Mountain, and the allegations of wrongdoing that were never really clarified, and there could be a show about the Panticapaeum Institute, and a show about Dr. Pitlor’s freaky-deaky clinic for depressed socialites and Eastern European call girls. There could be a show about Felicia’s bar/illegal immigrant smuggling operation, although if Lera Lynn were in it I would categorically refuse to watch (no offense to Ms. Lynn, who is very talented, but whose recurring presence became stupid to the point of comical). There could be a show about Nails and Ani and Jordan on the run, and one about Tony Chessani, the architect of so much malevolence, who only had a single speaking scene and thus never got to explain why he was (a) so evil and (b) so orange. 

But instead, there was what we got: a behemoth of an eight-episode series with a sprawling, absurdly complex plot and lots of scenes of Vince Vaughn shaking down mobsters (maybe that was what sealed Frank’s demise—not that he ridiculously headbutted a gangster with an assault rifle when he was inches away from freedom, but that everyone was tired of him asking them for money all the time). I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like it most of the time. To me, season two is best characterized by all those aerial shots of the freeways snaking around each other—visually impressive but ultimately tedious and headache-inducing to think about. But as a detective drama, it at least tried to demonstrate the integrity of long-established genre conventions, with countless nods to people who succeeded far better than Pizzolatto did (the name on Frank’s new fake passport was, I think, Daniel Hammett). It also ended up borrowing far too many things from better dramas—the scene where Frank negotiated with the Mexican gangsters in the desert was pure Breaking Bad, and so much of the actual police work this season felt ripped from The Wire).

True Detective has shown it does action best (the gunfight, the superb siege on Osip and his men in the finale), characterization fairly well, and exposition miserably. It’s almost inevitable that there will be a third season, in which case I plead: tone down the dialogue, rein in the number of characters and storylines, and don’t forget to have (just a very little) fun. And don’t name the boat your female character is escaping on “Great Escape.” I can overlook a lot, but not that.

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