The second season of True Detective concluded last weekend and was completely different to season one. In that respect, it was a huge success. The reeking bayous of rural Louisiana were swapped out for the lurid sprawl of inner city Los Angeles, and a story fuelled by bleak nihilism and metaphysical pretensions was swapped for, well, a story fuelled by bleak nihilism and metaphysical pretensions. Whatever the opinion of True Detective’s troubled second season may be (and, as the below will explain, I’m not exactly favourable), the run offered plenty by way of discussion and emphasised the importance, nay the obligation, to take risks in the stories we tell. I offer the following as what I believe to be the creative aspirations of the season and why they may not have resonated with audiences.
Oscar Wilde once quipped that everything is either about sex or power. If that’s the case then Season Two very obviously falls into the former camp. From its inception we are introduced to a group of characters that are all compromised by their inability to conform to gender standards, as designated by the societies in which they inhabit or their own broken, conflicted selves.
Washed-up cop Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) feels obligated to ‘be a man’ by defending his raped wife’s honour and killing the man (he believes) responsible. But this act of violence causes him to become an amoral, corrupt and abusive alcoholic and drug abuser (such vices being key signifiers for ‘male failure’ in television).
Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) feels obligated to overcompensate, partly as a result of abuse suffered as a child but also because of a male-dominated work environment. She uses men, she eschews relationships, and she makes up for her lack of physical strength with her knife skills (such bladed weapons also serving as phallic proxies).
Mobster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) feels obligated to achieve a mastery of his environment but is continually emasculated by both figurative and literal impotence. The former takes the form of betrayed confidences and business dealings and the latter in his frustrated martial relationship and (implied) infertility.
Highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) feels obligated to fulfil a masculine ideal (heterosexual, patriarchal, paternal), but ultimately struggles as a result of his repressed homosexuality as well as a strained relationship with his mother. From very early on, the series heavily implies that she has sexually abused him, and the disgust he feels towards her for her history as a prostitute implies a development of both Oedipal and Madonna-Whore complexes, confounding his macho aspirations as well as his attempts at forging meaningful relationships.
Make no mistake, these characters have interesting motivations and are worth writing stories about. So why did they fail to be compelling on screen? Some might blame the acting of Vaughn and Kitsch but that unfairly ignores some truly toe-curling dialogue and a plot that is utterly, irredeemably, incomprehensible. These characters are moved from place to place and person to person with a frequency and reckless abandon that is simply staggering to behold. I can only imagine that Nic Pizzolatto wrote this all up during some heinous amphetamine-induced comedown, having been forced to read the entirety of Raymond Chandler while locked in a basement at gunpoint. Throughout the run my mind was a constant stream of questions. Who’s this? What’s that? Where are they going? Why do I care?
Labyrinthine plots are a commonplace of noir and hardboiled detective fiction and don’t always have to be a problem, so long as you can establish a mood. Atmosphere and setting is everything to these stories. The ‘whodunnit’ aspect of a story like The Big Sleep is far less important than the creation of mood. Chandler managed to do this through LA’s seedy environs and characters, giving the reader a sense of ever-present danger and mystery, an atmosphere in which Philip Marlowe can only ever be hopelessly out-of-depth and embattled by forces beyond his control.
Season two tries so hard to establish an atmosphere of grim foreboding and portent but is so overwrought and heavy-handed that it just fails to captivate, instead coming off as flimsy pastiche. The chief offenders (among many more that don’t need to elaborated on) include continual shots of the interstate, a cheesy saxophone, and a recurring motif of a dive bar guitarist whose plaintive warbling worked at first but soon becomes ripe for parody.
I should point out that the use of cliché is not inherently bad. This whole series has been established on cliché (see also chain-smoking, beer-swilling cops who don’t play by the rules and have domestic issues). But in this case the use of cliché to create atmosphere seems lazy, forced, and ultimately hollow. An incomprehensible plot might’ve worked if the things I’ve mentioned actually contributed to something atmospheric and engrossing but unfortunately they only made the story that much more infuriating to try and understand.
Ultimately though, plot and mood aside, it is the character arcs and their respective resolutions which hammer the nails home. Woodrugh, whose backstory actually seemed one of the most interesting, meets an untimely end because of a double-crossing (and spurned) male lover, and the subplots with both his mother and girlfriend are left completely unresolved. Ray achieves a particularly token redemption, winning the respect of his estranged son and coming to terms with his failures before being shot down in a forest. Frank patches up his relationship with Kelly Reilly (his wife), gets to kill the bad guys in a completely unremarkable gunfight, and then gets trotted out into the middle of a desert to get stabbed in the gut before walking to his demise. This was perhaps the best of all four, and actually had some dramatic heft by way of the hallucinations on his fateful walk, from his abusive father, bullying gangsters, a pleading victim, and ultimately his wife in a white dress. No I can’t remember her name. That’s how significant Kelly Reilly’s character is. Then there’s Bezzerides.
It’s refreshing to see female characters on screen that are not simply wives, girlfriends, mothers, plot devices or victims. It’s refreshing to see female characters who possess agency and can prompt both discussion and controversy in equal measure. In Bezzerides, Nic had a chance to prove that he could write a woman who represented all of these things. But as the series wore on, I realised that that wasn’t going to be the case.
Ani Bezzerides, like her counterparts, struggles to reconcile herself with the expectations of her gender. So obviously it makes sense that the only way for her to come to terms with who she is as a person is by consummating a relationship with her partner (and conveniently, other lead actor) Ray. This is, in my opinion, the bête noire of screenwriting. It’s lazy and undermines any kind of self-determination that Ani Bezzerides may have had. Instead, this forced coupling seems to suggest that all of her problems can be solved by a romantic union with a similarly ‘damaged soul’. This misjudged trajectory is broadly representative of the entire season’s problems. There are plenty of good ideas here but Nic doesn’t seem to know how to expand upon them in any meaningful way, and instead opts for a deeply unsatisfying conclusion that is as awkward as it is predictable.
Does this mean that people should be discouraged from writing this kind of story? Absolutely not. If anything, watching this series has inspired me to write more. Critical reaction, from fans and journalists, has been overwhelmingly poor to this season and, as always, there is a question of whether ripping something apart actually serves any real good for storytelling. I think it does (naturally), but I certainly take the point that there is a value in trying to create something even if it fails. The simple fact is that Nic Pizzolatto created one of the greatest television dramas of all time, and subsequently took a risk that didn’t pay off, as is his right and duty as a creative artist. I hope he never stops taking risks, even if they result in turkeys like this. It’s certainly better than an endless parade of boilerplate dramas drummed out by writers who resemble more of a corporate committee than actual artists. In essence, we got the sequel Nic deserved to write. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t very good.