Well, seeing all the male protagonists die in the most physically and emotionally excruciating ways possible should placate all the viewers who felt that the end of the first season of True Detective was too sentimental, or that the show is too male-centered, right? Just kidding: True Detective had dug much too deep a hole with its many critics over the course of the preceding seven episodes to be able to appease them with a finale. Which is a shame, because I would argue that it was actually a satisfying episode—and one that nicely addressed a central problem that has plagued this season as a whole.
In Sunday’s finale, Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymon was on the verge of actually pulling off his crazy plan—to get revenge on his many gangster enemies before meeting his wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), in Venezuela—when he got caught by some tough guys he’d tried to double-cross. They stabbed him and left in the desert to die while he stumbled toward a hallucination of Jordan, dressed in white. Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro got the hell shot out of him in a doomed showdown with his old bad-cop colleagues from Vinci, having almost made his own escape before getting spotted while he took one last detour to see his son. Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh had been taken out—like the others, when it seemed like he was in the clear—at the end of the previous episode. Rachel McAdams’ character, Ani Bezzerides, was the only one who survived.
What made these scenes land so heavily was that, finally, True Detective was doing something that it had often, over the course of the season, failed to do: connecting its characters’ personal lives and motivations to the exceedingly intricate mystery of murder, blackmail, robbery, sex parties, and railroad-related corruption that comprised the plot. Many have called out this season’s plot for being too convoluted—and while it certainly was convoluted, so are lots of detective stories and thrillers. Many potboilers twist and turn so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with what’s happening until we have a minute to think (or until a particularly helpful expository character or flashback montage comes along to explain what we might have missed). Take Bode’s fate in The Wire or the key revelation in Memento, which were both the culminations of elaborate plots that also felt tied to an emotional narrative.
Or The Usual Suspects, which has a denouement that is certainly complicated—but while it may not have been immediately clear after the big twist, say, why peripheral character Edie Finneran had been killed, it was clear how the revelation of Söze’s real identity stunningly rearranged what we thought we knew and felt about the movie’s main characters. We felt the befuddlement and surprise of Chazz Palminteri’s alpha-male interrogator; we felt the sad and slowly dawning understanding of Gabriel Byrne’s tragic and almost-decent gangster. A good surprise plot development doesn’t immediately have to seem logically unassailable; it just has to mean something to you and to the characters involved. But the difference between True Detective Season 2 and more widely beloved iterations of the secrets-and-double-crosses genre is that True Detective Season 2’s twists and complications rarely had any impact on the aspects of its characters’ lives that we’d been set up to care about.
In fact, most of the season’s developments didn’t register as important to anyone at all. One of the bigger late-season plot points was the discovery that Vinci police chief Holloway (Afemo Omilami) was involved with the bad guys. I happened to have been following that particular thread closely enough that I mostly understood what was going on when Holloway revealed himself to Taylor Kitsch’s character, Woodrugh, in a dark tunnel. But I also didn’t really care that much, because Holloway had almost no previous interactions with any of the four main characters, much less with Kitsch in particular. For most of the season, this was the pattern of the investigation—new details would emerge, but all those details added up to was something we and the detectives knew from the beginning: that everyone involved with Vinci and with Ben Caspere’s death was a murdering or larcenous sleazeball. It wasn’t until the very end that the Caspere/Vinci thread and the detectives’ personal threads started to wind together.
But I did actually care about the detectives (and about Vaughn, who I think took way too much grief for his performance as Frank). I found their personal backstories touching and haunting; I liked listening to them talk to each other and to the various acquaintances whom they were mostly alienating but sometimes connecting with. True Detective’s world is admittedly an extravagantly emotive one, and it can be overwrought to the point that its exchanges sound like posturing rather than bleak insight. (For example: the “everything is fucking” exchange from Episode 7.) Still, the show goes places aesthetically and lyrically that no other show does.
I know it’s a controversial opinion, but in the end, I like Pizzolatto even if I cringe at how obviously he’s setting himself up with the leather-jacket-and-motorcycle stuff. I continue to find the atmosphere and the relationships compelling even when the dialogue sounds like it’s being mumbled through a surgical mask or the plot doesn’t click as effectively as it could. His characters may be earnest about well-trod macho themes like love and regret, but I appreciate the big-subject ambition and, insofar as this is possible for a dorky critic whose most testosterone-oriented hobby is two-hand-touch football, I actually found these characters’ obsessions—with their work, with their own pasts—relatable (symbolically, at least). And when Kelly Reilly’s Jordan, McAdams’ Bezzerides, and one of Frank’s still-loyal crew members in Venezuela wrapped up a Vinci-related thread before taking off for a long journey at the conclusion of Season 2, it may not have been literally clear exactly what their destination was supposed to be—but, emotionally speaking, I understood where they were going.
Read Slate’s breakdown of the very convoluted plot of True Detective Season 2.