by: Michael Shields and Chris Thompson
True Detective’s final episode crashes over us in painful waves of haunting emotion and stunning landscapes, showing us how exactly, we get the world we deserve…
MCS: All season long, the tense and forbidding mood of True Detective was manipulated by birdseye shots of freeway junctions and industrial parks. And as the curtain came to a close during True Detective’s decisive season finale, entitled “Omega Station,” our three remaining leads were scattered throughout The Golden State. With Ray cornered amongst the Redwoods, Frank bleeding out in the desert, and Ani vanishing into a new life from Cali’s storied coastline, it became more than evident that True Detective’s Season Two was California through and through. But not the California usually portrayed by Hollywood, or even the one tourists encounter. No, this is the California only true Californians are aware of. The one that resides far inland, rife with industrial corridors where dust blows across the landscape like waves. The California where arteries of sun-drenched asphalt weave through awe-inspiring mountainous terrain and barren, uninhabited wastelands alike. Season Two had plenty to say about the struggles of life and about the difficulties one faces in escaping their past. About corruption, and the lengths that people will go to for power. But the entity that brought it all together was the great state of California, one of the most unique places in all of America, where people often migrate to when chasing down their dreams, but where nightmares are just as likely. What an episode, a perfect cap to the season. I must ask, “Are you not entertained?”
CMT: Thoroughly entertained! As Frank so strongly stated, “Everything’s ending. Time to wake up.” Well, if this episode didn’t “wake-up” this season’s detractors, than surely nothing will. From Ani’s blunt and open admission months later to a reporter down in Venezuela that the Caspere case was “Naked larceny, open murder and cascading betrayals.” to Ray’s touching salute to his (actual!) son as he played with his friends at school, to Frank’s final walk across that dry lake bed as his demons tormented him, the tragic beauty in this season’s finale was television like I had not seen before.
MCS: What was striking about this episode to me, was not only how increasingly meta it was, with much of the dialogue comprised of poignant commentary on the season itself, but also how wonderfully cinematic it felt. John Crowley directed this episode, and was also at the helm of “Other Lives” earlier in the season. What an astonishing job he did along with cinematographer Nigel Bluck. There are numerous shots that are lingering in my mind, such as Ray’s entrance into the futuristic Anaheim train station, the overhead shots in the Redwood Forest, and – most especially – Mayor Chessani face down in his pool. Just a visually awesome episode, highlighted by that closing shot with Ani, Jordan, and Nails disappearing into a sea of boisterous Venezuelans.
CMT: There’s just so much quality television that went down in this final episode that I’m having a hard time deciding where to dive in. I think the part that resonated with me the most was Frank’s final, tortuous moments as he tried to will himself to survive what was very clearly, a fatal stab wound. The way in which he was treated to a “Best of” showing of those terrible people and moments in his life that helped forge who he was, did a lot to provide a further window into Frank’s insatiable drive to better himself and never give up. In hindsight, one could argue that Frank’s pride and drive was ultimately what got him killed, but I must admit, I felt a true sadness for him and the shit hand he got dealt in life. Ultimately, I couldn’t blame such a character for being the person he was, because he was after all, just trying to make a better life for himself with the tools and skills he had learned along the way. It’s hard to find any fault with that.
MCS: Frank’s death, and the moments leading up to it, were surely impactful. It’s funny, I thought for an instant that somehow the demons that were berating him, and that had been tormenting him since youth, would actually be just the motivation he needed to find a way to survive. But that wasn’t to be his fate, and Frank knew all too well when he bid farewell to Jordan he most likely wasn’t going to make it out of this alive. Frank’s pride has been on the line all season, in his showdowns with Osip, with Mayor Chesani, and with the gold-toothed business associate in “Maybe Tomorrow.” This is why it wasn’t surprising that his pride (a lower level thug demanding his suit, no way no how!) was his undoing here as well. Frank was sick and tired of being picked on, and it is a satisfying feeling that he is free from that torment, and his final thoughts were with the woman who meant everything to him.
CMT: When Frank told his vision of the white-dress draped Jordan “I’m coming, hold up,” and suddenly his limp and pale demeanor was gone – I was blown away. It was so incredibly poignant because with that subtle shift in his characters gait, you knew that Frank’s suffering in True Detective’s world had come to an end. Equally moving was the moment when he realized that he had stopped walking steps ago and upon turning back and seeing his dead body, Frank’s spirit, which was ever more powerful than the man he was, finally died. All these characters motivations, their inner voices that screamed out with abhorrence for the worlds into which they had been chosen to inhabit, were so strong. Often, I had the feeling that their souls, if I may, were bigger than the bodies they resided in. Ray’s unending love for his son, his actual son, superseded everything around him. It was bigger than the possibility of him finding love. It was bigger than the chance for him to escape his persecutors and it was certainly bigger than his desire to run away and spend the rest of his life in hiding. When Ray was driving down the highway and that road sign for Laurel Canyon Road, where his son went to school, kept getting closer, it was almost like that sign should have said: your destiny awaits you here. A different Ray, one who didn’t love his son as much as he did, would not have taken that exit. But the Ray we were gifted with, was blinded by his love. Like Frank and his obtuse desire to never lay down, I can’t find any fault in Ray taking a chance on getting captured or killed, for one last glimpse of the one good thing he did in this world.
MCS: Like Frank’s pride, Ray’s undoing was the one thing that gave him a reason to live – his unending love for his son. Although Ray forged an honest and earnest bond with Ani, based on their empathetic understanding of how they came to be the way they are, Ray’s heart resides with his son, something that was made emphatically clear from the very first moments of the season.
I really enjoyed the scene when Ray, Frank and Ani were in the hideaway behind the walk-in freezer in the “Purgatory” bar together, offered safeguard by Felicia, who had pledged complete loyalty to the gangster who saved her from those responsible for the scarring on her face, and you saw that foreboding bed full of heavy weaponry. Motivated by Paul’s murder (“he was my friend” -Ray) and a lack of options, Frank and Ray’s ambush of Osip and McCandless meeting highlighted the sort of unexpected competence of Ray that Chief Holloway spoke of before being stabbed to death by Len (more on that later!). Ray’s proficiency, and the nobility of his final acts display the type of person he was at heart. Although he didn’t believe he was a good man, and that his son was “better than [him],” going out in a hail of bullets with nothing but righteousness in his heart was a fitting end for Ray, but one that ultimately stung when we found out his final goodbye would never reach his son.
CMT: Ray’s proclamation that “He was better than us,” when referring to Paul Woodrugh’s death last episode continues the theme from Season One that the “good ones” don’t get preferential treatment in Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective world. “We were always set-up,” Ani so flatly proclaims, just furthers this idea, for at one time, before their original sin, they too were good people. The scene where Ani and Ray share their darkest secrets post-coitus of what their sin was that made them the bad people they perceived themselves to be was, to me, just two former good people trying to rediscover their past self. Taking comfort in each others arms, and words, yet also realizing their disgust with what they had found after committing their sin (“It didn’t make anything better, it made it worse.” – Ray) showed a capacity for these two characters to tap into that goodness still buried deep inside. Many of the characters in True Detective’s second season, and almost all of those in and around Vinci, seemed rotten through and through. Yet with Frank and Ani and Paul and Ray, there at least seemed a glimmer of hope that one of them, or possibly all four, would rediscover that righteousness and use it for good. Unfortunately, in the end, only Ani escaped alive, with Jordan and Frank’s henchman Nails in tow. But what is fascinating, and rewarding, about the world of True Detective, is that the good still finds a way to survive. It certainly did with Ani giving birth to Ray’s son.
MCS: Mirroring reality, there is so much evil in the world of True Detective, and the level of corruption, and thus the amount of villains, in this season was consummate. The depth of the conspiracies that entwined the Caspere case, the spark that lit this elongate fuse, was remarkable. From Ben Caspere, Lieutenant Burris, Chief Holloway, Attorney General Geldof, Detective Dixon, Osip, Tony and Austin Chessani, Doctor Pitlor, McCandless, and all the way down the line to lower level thugs such as Blake and the gang of Mexicans who hauled Frank out to his final resting spot in the desert furious that their recently acquired clubs were burnt to ashes, accentuate this interconnectedness of immorality that was a central theme to this season.
CMT: The Ben Caspere murder case, while a major current running through the entire season, in retrospect, takes a back seat for me to the emotional storylines of Frank and our true detectives. While it was gratifying, and convenient, to tie up all those remaining ends, giving us a picture of the orphaned Osterman siblings upbringing and what they did to get their final revenge on those who they felt had wronged them in the past, I felt myself wanting to be pulled deeper into the ever-evolving lives of our detectives. I’ve read that Nic Pizzolatto had intended the Caspere murder investigation to be a component of this season, but not the main focus, and I feel that was rightly the case. But before we dig deeper into that idea, I think we need to discuss exactly how Len (“I am the blade and the bullet.”) and Laura (“What am I supposed to do?”) Osterman fit into the canon of Season Two. Am I right in concluding that Laura is Ben Caspere’s illegitimate daughter and that in the end, Len tortured and killed Caspere when he discovered what he was doing to his sister (Caspere’s daughter!)? That’s crazy, to say the least!
MCS: Yeah, that is some sick shit. When Holloway mentions that Caspere was Laura’s father, Len finally had heard enough, snapped and jumped him. Laura and Len’s mother wasn’t being discreet about her involvement with Caspere, and this is why she suffered that terrible fate right in front of her children. But I agree with you in that my emotional investment in the four acutely developed characters outweighed my intrigue with the case. What was at the heart of this season was four people whose lot in life wasn’t simply unfair, but consummately debilitating. But the solace they found through camaraderie, and through a shared endeavor to combat a measure of the brand of evil which corrupted their development, was the true endgame. Although these four embattled, lost souls weren’t allowed the opportunity to ride off into the sunset together, through their shared journey they were able to come to terms with themselves, and inhale a fleeting but absolutely gratifying breath of decency in the fucked up world they inhabited.
CMT: I suffer from a case of blind faith when it comes to serial TV shows or movie trilogies. I was into this second season of True Detective from the moment the camera first panned over the car-choked highways of LA, simply because I was doing something that for eight episodes last year I loved, watching more True Detective. My faith was a mixture of an enthusiasm borne of the quality of season one’s story and the thrill of the unknown, and it was enough to carry me through Season Two’s first few episodes. But after that, when I could no longer insulate myself from the biting criticism surrounding the show’s new season, I struggled to keep my faith.
A lot of critics have had harsh words for this crime-noir set in the seedy metropolis of Vinci, with some saying it had a “meandering character development with characters that feel fake and phony,” and others saying that it “squandered last year’s buzz.” I found it difficult to go into each episode on Sunday night without hearing those words in my head, something I wasn’t accustomed to in Season One. While I struggled to agree with this criticism, I found it was only when I removed myself from the goodwill built from Season One, and viewed Season Two as a separate, living, criminal ecosystem, that I could purely and without prejudice, enjoy my fascination with Ray, Ani, Frank and Paul’s tragic stories.
Season Two of True Detective is not Season One, just as much as JJ Abrams Star Trek is not Gene Roddenberry’s original concept. It’s an important distinction to make, for if you buy into the idea that “this isn’t like the first season” then you are bound to miss a lot of the themes present in Season Two. Frank’s fear that he never woke up from that dark basement he was locked in as a kid for instance. Or Ray’s fear that his kid would learn that he’s a bad man. Ani’s fear of accessing her past, lest it push her even further away from those she tries to love, seemed to follow her wherever she went and Paul’s fear that his secret about his sexuality would get out ultimately doomed him. This entire season seemed to be steeped in fear, and there is no place for Rust Cohle in a fear-filled Vinci just as much as there is no room for Marty and his girls to live there and feel safe. And I have to admit, I’d have a hard time seeing Ray or Ani make a go at it in the Bayous of Louisiana down south.
Vinci is gritty and corrupt and dangerous, but also organized and planned and deliberate. It wears who it is quite boldly and proudly on its sleeve, forcing all who choose to try and profit in its crime-ridden streets to not play hide and seek with their true self. There’s a power to that bold challenge, forcing this season’s characters to look deep inside themselves and accept who they are, that drew me deeply into this story in a way that I didn’t with Season One. The Louisiana Bayou of season one’s True Detective was dark and mysterious and the woods and floodplains just seemed to go on and on forever, as did its potential for terrible secrets. Where the horrid murders and backwoods evil of Rust and Marty’s Spaghetti Monster and Co. repulsed and horrified me, the double crosses and intrigue, the character’s loyalty to misguided ethics and their dynamic backstories, and the just plain raw emotion that dripped from each episode of Season Two captivated and engaged me, lingering in my thoughts long after the television had been switched off. “You can’t surprise people twice,” critics of this season’s True Detective have said, but I say that you can. I say that Nic Pizzolatto indeed succeed in doing just that. And in surprising us again, he showed us that we only get the television we deserve.
MCS: I understand where you are coming from in regards to the considerable criticism of this season. It’s wild, and ultimately unfortunate. It feels as if this season has been hijacked by its critics in a way. I would love nothing more than to wind down this season long discussion by fastidiously deconstructing the tremendously intricate plot line, but the flood of criticism, most of which was egregiously premature, is part of the narrative, for better or worse. With the judgement brouhaha being so emphatic, it is impossible not to try to muffle its impact, even following such a mesmerizing season finale.
The criticism that made my blood boil most effectively, wasn’t the disingenuous judgement about the perceived lack of character development (which is a load of…), but rather the appraisal of True Detective’s Season Two as too complex. There is no question the plot was involved, and I have spoken all season long about the tangled web that Nic Pizzolatto has been weaving. But I fail to see an elaborate plot as a negative, but rather as fortuitous storytelling. Like any great fictional crime novel, Pizzolatto kept viewers guessing all season, and looking for clues in the most unsuspecting of places. Personally, I loved that we were challenged, as the simplistic plot lines that have become the norm on network television, where the predicament introduced in the opening segment is tied-up neatly with a bow by episode’s end, is far too basic for my tastes. And when True Detective’s story began to unfold, presenting a bevy of well-explored characters deeply tortured by demons from their past, whose lives had become intertwined through a case that swelled with depth upon each new disclosure, each installment became more enthralling than the last. Season One was essentially an existential debate that unfolded amidst a precarious backwoods murder case. Season Two, on the other hand, had loftier goals, and like the precursive twisting asphalt and concrete arteries that weave through California, the seedy underbelly of The Golden State was exposed in all its perverted glory. Season Two wasn’t about just one grand idea, and it was all the better because of this.
I have certainly had some critiques of this season, chief among them being the casting of Vince Vaughn as the rash gangster Frank. In this light it was comical to hear Jordan tell Frank that he “can’t act for shit” during their final conversation. I found this piece of casting to be a troubling misstep, as Pizzolatto’s brand of dialogue is a unique one, more verbose and esoteric than most are used to. And it takes a certain type of actor to pull it off (search your soul…you know that Matthew McConaughey could have pulled off lines like “Never do anything out of hunger, even eat” or “It’s like blue balls, for the heart” with impact. Same with Colin or Rachel!). But the issues I had, do not diminish the overall quality of the season. And as the season progressed, with each episode besting the previous in quality, the flaws that seemed so obvious as the show worked to find its footing, wafted into the cosmos and were hardly even discernable down the home stretch.
I must admit to a little bias when it comes to the True Detective anthology model. I love the fact that even with the cinema-level casting that has taken place in the first two seasons, the true star here is the writer. I am not turned off by the idea of auteur television. Quire the contrary, as the Golden Age of Television is characterized by the showrunner as headliner. In hindsight, I can’t help but looking at this season of True Detective, as Nic’s second album. It is always difficult for a band attempting to follow up a brilliant debut. And just like many people are exceedingly judgemental of follow-up albums, Nic and the True Detective team faced an uphill battle after Season One’s brilliance. But the truth of the matter is that while there may have been blemishes, Season Two found a way deliver the goods. As the episode was nearing its close and we were treated to the obligatory return of Lera Lynn and her haunting melodies, the entire picture came cleanly into focus. This wasn’t a redemption story, nor was it a weighty expose on the ills of power and corruption. No, Season Two told the story of our ghosts that once revealed, ceaselessly haunt us until we face them down directly. It was in the attempts at atonement where True Detective shined this season. “What am I supposed to do?” Laura Osterman asked Ani before she boarded a bus to an uncertain future. “I don’t know,” Ani responded, because life will never be that simple. The road ahead is uncertain for us all, but hopefully, that journey into the future includes another season of True Detective. I’d love to see what other convoluted tales Nic has up his sleeve.