This post does not contain any spoilers from the second season, but does talk loosely about the ending of the first one.
The second season of True Detective has come to an end, and since each new episode has been accompanied by legions of critics and hateful commentators, I think it’s important to reflect upon the season in its entirety. Not only because I’ve come to love it, while I at first actively disliked it, but also because it deserves to be judged as a complete work.
The first season of True Detective was written into television history before the credits even rolled. When it premiered in January 2014, it became an immediate success story. Not only was it well received by critics and audience-members alike, but it also signaled a potential renaissance in television production, as it finally seemed like people were ready to acknowledge the man with the pen (more on this later). When the season came to an end in March 2014, I had a story published two months later were I juxtaposed the occult detective drama with that of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; Like Twin Peaks, the legacy of True Detective will linger in our memories and history books for years to come, and the reasons are not dissimilar. The differences, however, are at its creators; David Lynch is a painter – his show an exuberant bloom of emotions and atmosphere, in a melodramatic soap opera. Nic Pizzolatto is an architect – his show anchored in genre conventions and its established rules, but so sophistically manufactured that its consistency in tone and presentation elevated it from a standardized cop-drama to something more.
I don’t think many people will disagree with me when I say that the level of consistency in tone and presentation evident in the first season stemmed from the creative collaboration between Nic Pizzolatto (who wrote every episode) and Cary Fukunaga (who directed every episode). For those who may not be familiar with television production, such a close-knitted and small collaboration is uncommon. Usually you have a few directors and writers per season; here it was only Pizzolatto and Fukunaga (too many cooks spoil the broth, as they say). Sadly, Fukunaga would not return to direct the second season, and thus all eyes were solidly focused on Nic Pizzolatto. The reason is simple; when most people talk about movies or television shows, they talk about its director/showrunner; the writers are pushed aside. With season two, Pizzolatto had been positioned – as much by his own arrogance and ego, as by outside forces – in the perfect track to prove (once and for all) how much a writer’s vision matters.
It didn’t all go as planned. I don’t think I need to talk about, or showcase, the extreme critical backlash the show received when it returned (the finale ratings dropped 22% from last years). Since the very first episode, people hated it. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. As episode three and four rolled around, I was actually pretty sure I too hated it, or at least disliked it. As each new episode came out, I re-watched the former, and eventually it clicked. I loved it; others not so much.
People were inclined to criticize Pizzolatto, which is painfully unfair in my opinion. There generally seemed to be three main factors in people’s disdain towards Pizzolatto’s sophomore season: #1. The erratic dialogue, especially Vince Vaughn’s performance: #2. The convoluted mystery and the characters in it: #3. The fact that it wasn’t season one.
While the third complaint is ludicrous, and not really too prominent anymore, the first and second deserves to be scrutinized and taken seriously. First, I’d like to talk about the dialogue.
Pizzolatto constructs dialogue in a very specific way: almost esoteric in its literal dexterity. When his characters speak, they do so with a sense of verbal wisdom and proclivity for the aesthetically refined, be it faux-wisdom and superficial aesthetics most of the time. This is a constant in his works, from both seasons to his novel, Galveston. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect this time around. To me, this isn’t Pizzolatto’s fault. The only difference between Matthew McConaughey’s Nietzchean monologues as Rust Chole in the first season, and Vince Vaughn’s absurdly grandiloquent crazes as Frank Semyon in the second are their performances. McConaughey convinces with his blunt nihilism; you believe Chole believes the words he says. The same cannot be said about Vaughn’s Frank Semyon. Vaughn, and the other cast members, struggle to translate the words of Pizzolatto from paper to audible words, and that’s not entirely their fault. To me it’s the lack of a sole director with a coherent vision. So, should we be inclined to play the blame-game, I’m pretty sure our fingers should point in the direction of HBO.
With a large crew of directors, the entire show seemed dysfunctional. The consistency was all but gone, as it could fall from great heights like the opening of episode three, to the less excellent conclusion of episode six. Without a singular directorial vision, it’s not an easy task to keep a consistent tone throughout. Gone are the beautiful establishing shots from Fukunaga, replaced by disjointed visions from a handful of talented directors. While Justin Lin (Furious 6) succeeded in imprinting the first two episodes with a distinct visual quality – the birdman scene in episode 2 is especially well constructed – he wasn’t given enough time to form a template for his descendants to follow. Not unlike David Fincher’s involvement in the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards – the episodes post-Fincher attempted to follow suit for a while, but eventually let it go.
For this reason, it is impressive that Pizzolatto’s signature shines through to the extent that it does. His literary characteristics are far from an auteurist trademark in the literary world, as it’s commonplace in the works of many an author – from genre-colleague Cormac McCharthy to the poetic musings of Dante. However, in the world of television, it may constitute an auteurist, and at this point, I think it’s more than fair to attribute it to Pizzolatto.
As I mentioned above, I penned a piece for a print magazine in Norway (I’ll link it here, for those who read Norwegian) back in 2014, were I talked about the first season of True Detective and David Lynch’ Twin Peaks. Not only drawing clear parallels between the two narratives, but also – and this is more controversial – foreseeing the legacy of True Detective to be remembered in 25 years – this decade’s Twin Peaks.
Please indulge me as I try to explain; David Lynch is an eccentric artist; he carefully avoids the restrictions of cinematic rules and guidelines to compose his own, fully realized visions. Lynch’s entire history is an amalgamation of his truly unique and deeply personal thoughts and ideas, coming together to form an idiosyncratic filmography (Dune may or may not be an exception to this). The first season of True Detective danced intimately with this Lynchian approach to filmmaking, but mostly as a vague narrative connection. This time around, the dancers have come to embrace one-another wholeheartedly. The Lynchian artistry is forever present, from simple nods – imaginary or not – to full-scale homages. However, nods and homages, is not enough to make a memorable television show. Anyone can present a poor replication or extension of their favorite artists’ work, but it takes a whole new level of artisans to actually personalize it to such an acute extent. While it’s easy to say True Detective (both seasons) is about a murder-mystery or governmental corruption, it is – and has been from the start – a show about characters. As the first season ended, a lot of people complained about the lack of any real resolution. So taken aback by the fact that the murder-case was left largely unsolved, that they didn’t see how it beautifully captured a pivotal inner realization in one of our main characters. This in mind, it should surprise no one that a second season isn’t really your traditional whodunit, but even so, people still seem intent to treat the season like it is.
Pizzolatto has created a melodramatic character study, infused with atmosphere and affection. It’s so closely related to the absurdity of Twin Peaks at its prime, that it’s difficult to dislike. Seeing the season through this lens makes it much more desirable. The characters may not feel authentic, but neither does the characters from Twin Peaks – I mean, take a look at Bob or Leo, or anyone else from that show. They do; however, feel at home in the world the show has created. Semyon’s pseudo-intellectual musings are alarming when taken at face value, but in retrospect – when we know who this man actually is and where is story goes – it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Vaughn’ performance is still far from perfect, but he seems to have understood Semyon from the start. Colin Farrell as Velcoro and Rachel McAdams as Bezzerides are undoubtedly the most consistent actors on the field, and McAdams holds a close-up unlike any other television actress. The short straw is Taylor Kitsch as Woodrough. He does have a few legitimately impressive scenes – like his heartfelt confession in the car with Farrell – but Kitsch’ inherent masculinity and testosterone doesn’t mix well with the character he tries to portray. Woodrough is a fascinating character with a lot of potential, and could have been the series trump-card, but Kitsch never play into the full potential.
Now, I won’t begin to talk about all the Greek symbolism in this season, but I will use Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian to clearly highlight the differences between the two seasons in a way that doesn’t degrade it into a question of better or worse, but showcases why I personally like the second season more. The Apollonian is based in logic and reason, while the Dionysian is based in emotions and instincts. In my eyes the first season is the Apollonian, while the second is much more rooted in the Dionysian.
The first season is so solidly composed that it’s difficult to criticize – almost impossible – but in its perfection, it leaves no room for personal interpretation, nor does it reward rewatches (I’ve seen the first season four times, and it’s never really gotten anything new from it). The second season is the polar opposite; A much more nuanced and poetically beautiful creation. Look back at the season now, post-finale, and I promise you layers upon layers of deeply affectionate symbolisms and meanings will present themselves to you; pay attention to the passing of glasses, the composition of conversations, and maybe most impressive, the poignant dialogue between father and son in the opening of episode three.
It’s not perfect, however, and I do have a few obvious issues with this season, most of which comes down to the shuffling of its directors. In the hands of a sole director – not necessarily Fukunaga – the tone would most likely feel more coherent and concise, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume the problematic character portrayals in Semyon and Woodrough – and a few side-characters – (PS: Nails is da man, and everybody loves Nails) could have been ironed out. Yet, the show has to be judged for what it is, and not what it could have been, and this goes both ways. I can’t sit here and criticize the people who dislike the show because it’s not season one, and then excuse all its issues for certain reasons; but I can claim that this season of True Detective, while far from as well-constructed as the first, is way more intriguing and fun. It tries new things and feels undoubtedly more distinct that its predecessor, which is why I think it has the potential to become a cult-classic in the years to come. Like most great art, the immediate reception isn’t all that positive. Or it may suck like everybody else seems to think, who am I to say otherwise.