About halfway through the season finale of True Detective, there is a scene where Ray and his former superior quietly discuss all the murder, theft, and corruption that defines the story. There are few surprises left, at least in terms of the show as a procedural, yet there were another forty-five minutes to the episode. I felt something between annoyance and despair: I was not looking forward to how Pizzolatto would pad out his yarn, and indeed the season ends with a series of bizarre, credibility-stretching scenes that offer no emotional connection between the story and its characters. Pizzolatto could have focused on the brazen incompetence of his characters, a genre-defining trait in noir, but that would mean he could not celebrate their righteous nobility. The only passably interesting is how Michael Mann clearly influences Pizzolatto’s work, Heat in particular, and the appeal of that connection is a small one since Pizzolatto learned all the wrong lessons. In the coming years, this season may be an embarrassment for everyone involved.
Ani and Ray are reeling from the death of Paul, and realize they have few options left. With the help of Frank, they arrange a plan to leave the country via boat and end up in Venezuela (a non-extradition country). Before that, of course, Ani and Ray dispense justice with two silly scenes that have an overabundance of expository dialogue. First, the two fugitives find Laura’s home, who you may remember was one of the children whose family was upended by dirty cops during the 1992 LA riots. Her home is a riot of evidence, casually scattered about so Ray can quickly confirm that Laura’s brother is the one who shot him in episode two. The scene made me think of the following exchange from Minority Report, which also features Farrell:
Danny Witwer: I worked homicide before federal. This is what we call an orgy of evidence. You know how many orgies I had as a homicide cop?
Officer Fletcher: How many?
Danny Witwer: None.
Ray and Ani also stumble on an orgy of evidence. In other words, the lazy reveal of information is insulting, both in terms of storytelling and as a character moment. The next big scene, where Ray facilitates an exchange of the hard drive MacGuffin, is ponderous simply because Pizzolatto cannot reconcile the need for closure with actual human behavior. It ends with a convenient bloody shoot-out, and big lingering questions. For example, I still want to know why Ray was shot with buckshot and not anything deadlier. The angered orphan has no answer, and I suspect Pizzolatto does not, either. But while such questions are annoying, they dwarf in comparison with the finale’s second half which abandons plausibility altogether.
Ray and Frank somehow know how to find the shady Russians, who happen to have millions of dollars on hand for their tryst. The shootout is violent, and aside from the money, it’s unclear what tension it all resolves. Given all the loose ends and red herrings in the preceding episodes, you’d think Pizzolatto would be more comfortable with a few loose ends. No such luck: we see what fate befalls every criminal and conspirator, all in the name of indulging Pizzolatto’s posturing tough guy characters. Ray and Frank shaking hands is a satisfying character moment, although a terse silence might also have done the characters justice. Then again, director John Crowley might have mishandled it, anyway. There are lots of two character dialogue scenes in this finale, and the clunky editing mixed with unintentionally hilarious reaction shots are further proof that, at the end of the day, it is hard to give a damn.
The final scenes with Ray rip off Heat, and have a sentimentality that would make most crime writers blush. Ray must wrap up loose ends, of course, which means that he visits his son’s school (never mind that he is wanted for multiple high-profile murders). The series could have ended right then, with cops arresting Ray and the kiss-off line, “Ray, you can’t be this fucking stupid,” but Pizzolatto would rather add a character moment where Ray’s kid has his grandfather’s badge on display while he plays Dungeons and Dragons. This is a callback to the scene in Heat where De Niro ties up loose ends before international travel, except there is an investment in the characters so we tolerate the dubious choices. Once again, this is the biggest mistake Pizzolatto and directors make: they think we care about what happens to Ray and the others, when interest faded weeks ago. That same misstep applies to the scene where Ray calls Ani, which again rips off Heat (i.e. the scene where Danny Trejo calls up De Niro and says he cannot shake his tail). Pizzolatto, Farrell, and McAdams milk the scene for all the romance and regret they can muster, yet Pizzolatto’s overwrought dialogue betrays the connection his characters are supposed to have.
The final moments of True Detective are a highlight reel of California’s diverse topography: Farrell is shot in a forest, Vaughn expires in the desert, and McAdams ponders her choices alongside the Pacific coastline. Crowley frames all these scenes with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: borrowing heavily from Six Feet Under, Frank’s final moments involve him defying the ghosts of those who tried to keep him down. He fights the good fight, only to realize his soul separated from his body (I hate when that happens). In my first recap, I openly wondered whether Vaughn is meant as a stand-in for Pizzolatto, and I think this episode confirms it: Frank is full of sensitivity and tough guy swagger, and the desert serves a metaphor for Pizzolatto’s inflated notion of himself. Farrell’s “suicide by cop” scene is similarly ridiculous, with a shot of Farrell looking toward the heavens before his death. There is no sublime grace, or feeling of catharsis. Like many of you, instead I felt like Elaine watching The English Patient:
So now that it’s over, what do we make of True Detective Season 2? First and foremost, Pizzolatto and his cast caught lightning in a bottle in season one. The characters were interesting, the story/setting were rich with atmosphere, and the dialogue was delightfully bizarre. It’s unfair to say that California lacks the mystique of Louisiana, although the shots of cloverleaves and freeways lost their novelty more quickly than the directors intended. More importantly, I hope Pizzolatto learns from his mistakes: regressive ideas of sexuality are cringe-worthy to most of us – the episode’s last twist is all about fertility, ugh, as a rejuvenating force – and there is a clear difference between a complex mystery and a satisfying one. HBO’s next big miniseries is Show Me a Hero, which is all about the fallout over housing policy in Yonkers, New York. On paper, that miniseries is far less sexy than True Detective, yet Pizzolatto could learn something from showrunner David Simon: execution is much more important than a show’s overall premise.