Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

'True Detective' recap: Oh, well. Better luck next season?

Posted on

Lacey Terrell/HBO

True Detective

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
2
run date:
01/12/14
broadcaster:
HBO
genre:
Crime

Ray Velcoro died in the wilderness, suicide by bad cops. Frank Semyon bled out in the desert, gutted by foul, pissy buzzards that came home to roost. Ani Bezzerides was made a figurative widow and crossed the sea to wander South America with a pack of exiles that included a literal widow (Frank’s wife, Jordan), a baby boy (Ani’s son, the parting gift/consolation prize of her night of soul-bonding sad sex with Ray), and Nails, good ol’ Nails. As Mother Nature, that heartless femme fatale, shrugged at the strivings of desperate, doomed anti-heroes and claimed their corpses with the cool indifference in various symbolically loaded environments, the corrupt machine that was the malignant municipality of Vinci rolled on under the latest pervert patriarch of those Bush-league Kennedys, the trashy Chessanis of Bel Air. In the end, hope for widespread institutional reform and social justice in this mythic microcosm of fallen, f’d up Western culture hinged on… good journalism. Oh, well.

“Omega Station” brought True Detective’s busted exercise in California Gothic to an end with a maddening mix of rigorously conceived cynicism, campy drama and dialogue (“I am the blade and the bullet!”), and noisy spectacle that fell short of spectacular. So it was a microcosm of the entire season. The saga’s many mysteries—most notably, the murder of Ben Caspere—were resolved with a surplus of backstory exposition and barely seen bit players that turned out to be majorly important to the whole damn thing. Like the show’s many mesmerizing shots of L.A. freeways, these eight episodes formed a confusing sprawl of tangled story lines that was somehow watchable despite itself, though that’s not the same thing as “good.” “Omega Station” proved that everything that rises chaotically tends to converge with a mess.

I’m probably overthinking things, but I took the title as a nod to “Omega Point” theory, the optimistic, dubious proposition that the humanity is evolving toward a transcendent singularity in which death itself might be conquered. If so, then True Detective was surely snorting at the notion: The season was practically Kubrickian in its dim view of capitalism and society and our collective and individual capacity for positive, redemptive change. Of course, True Detective doesn’t deserve the flattery of “Kubrickian” (or “snorting”; it implies a sense of humor the season lacked or bungled), and its most interesting ideas and themes were subverted by undercooked and overwrought execution. The finale—and the season—fancied itself a friend to those who prefer their existential pulp pitiless and philosophically pessimistic (which is to say, those who hated the conclusion to season 1 of True Detective), and to those who are sick and tired of so much TV about hideous men chasing immortality projects and the women who love them; the subtitle of this episode could’ve been Ray’s early season laugher, “Well, just so you know, I support feminism.” But rigged game bleakness is just as phony as unearned happy ending, and spoiling badly broken men with screen time just to lay waste to them isn’t progressive, it’s just more of the same.

“He thought it was funny.” Turned out the killing of Ben Caspere really was a “collapse of civilization revenge flick” plot after all. Your murderers: Leonard (“Lenny”) and Laura (or Erica) Osterman, the survivors of the Blue Diamonds heist and massacre perpetrated by Burris, Dixon, Holloway, and Caspere, all former L.A.P.D. officers and employees who later left for/sold out to Vinci. Both kids grew up bad. Laura/Erica became a prostitute; she met sex monster Caspere while working one of Tony Chessani’s hump parties for the rich and famous. Leonard was used and abused by a series of foster families before reuniting with Laura, who got her movie buff bro a job as the set photographer on the aforementioned movie shooting in Vinci. (That’s a lot of juice for a city manager’s secretary.) After learning about his sister’s new connection to Caspere and the men who killed their parents, Leonard went dark knight: He wanted to avenge their death with brutal vigilante justice. He only meant to torture Caspere for information on all of his dirty deeds, but he went too far with the acid to the eyes, and kinda-sorta accidentally killed him. Why did Leonard and Laura leave the body to be found? Just ‘cuz. “He thought it was funny,” explained Laura.

Leonard Osterman: Not just some batty Batman, but a Joker, too, trying to bring The Vinci Powers That Be to their knees with nihilistic, psychotic anarchy.

NEXT: In which the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is dramatized: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem/’Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity./What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.’”[pagebreak]

Ray and Ani—following a hunch inspired by some Eureka! figuring-out and guesswork—got these secrets from Laura after finding her handcuffed to the fireplace in Leonard’s house-cum-superhero HQ, conveniently littered with stuff that confirmed her story, including the bird and Noh masks and surveillance photos of Burris and Dixon. (Laura, it seems, was a reluctant participant in Leonard’s vengeance scheme.) Ray learned even more after hijacking the next step in her brother’s plan: blackmail. Leonard was going to trade Caspere’s hard drive of blackmail sex videos for what was left of the blue diamonds Holloway and company stole from the Osterman parents. It was a ballsy bluff—the hard drive had automatically erased when the Osterman kids tried to hack into it—but it didn’t matter anyway: All Leonard wanted was to get close enough to Holloway to shiv him.

Ray—showing up at the spacy-cool Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center in advance of Holloway’s arrival—convinced Leonard to give a more righteous form of justice a try. Wearing a white cowboy hat, Ray took Leonard’s place in the meet and pretended to be a black hat rogue. He told Holloway he had killed Leonard. He told Holloway that he wanted to get paid for his trouble and wanted his name cleared of the Woodrugh and Davis murders that Vinci P.D. had pinned on him. All in an effort to get Holloway talking with a hidden tape recorder rolling, and he obliged. Among his confirmations and disclosures: Sex addict Caspere was the father to both Osterman kids via an affair with their mother. The Blue Diamonds heist and massacre wasn’t just a get-rich grab; it was also an attempt to protect Caspere and his corrupt confederates from potential exposure and blackmail.

These revelations were too much for Leonard, who Ray had (foolishly) allowed to lurk directly behind them, to listen and watch his back, during the entire conversation. He attacked Holloway with the knife, which in turn provoked gunfire from Burris, who had been hiding behind a pillar, which in turn provoked gunfire from Ani, who showed up in the nick of time to back up Ray. In the aftermath, Leonard and Holloway died, Ray, Ani, and Burris escaped, and Laura/Erica was put on a bus and told to get lost and start over… somehow.

The Osterman subplot hit hard various themes that permeated the season. The debatable notion that no one is innocent, that everyone is at least a little bit to blame for their misfortune. The fixation with moral relativism. The straight-outta-Ecclesiastes insistence on the futility of most worldly endeavor. Leonard’s scam was never going to succeed; Holloway not only brought Burris to the meet but fake diamonds, too. Of course, all the fuss over that hard drive was pointless: Blundering Birdman Lenny had erased it by trying to look at it, rendering it worthless and harmless. And while Ray got Holloway on tape, said tape recorder got crushed during the gunfight. In this mean, weirdly fatalistic, and profoundly hopeless world, crime rarely pays, and justice, even less.

Were you satisfied with the this resolution to the Caspere mystery? My feelings are mixed to negative. I’m not bothered by the fact that my more ornate theories didn’t come true (specifically: that Caspere faked his murder or that Elliot Bezzerides was showrunning a bizarre redemption scheme), and I’m not bothered that it boiled down to a simple matter of revenge executed sloppily. But it did bother me that True Detective didn’t do more to emotionally invest us in Caspere’s murder or his murderers, and that the resolution of the mystery almost completely hinges on backstory/mythology, delivered late in the season, about marginal, near-forgettable characters. It’s strange to think that a pair of more compelling suspects—Betty and Tony Chessani, characters that at least feel essential to the show, even if they, too, were barely present—were basically red herrings for the real killers. As a result, we are left with no answers for more interesting, unresolved questions (what really happened with Mama Chessani? what unsavory Chessani practices drove her bonkers?) and more scenes with better, more pertinent characters, like Dr. Pitlor, who was unceremoniously “suicided” by the Vinci conspiracy.

This is the end for you.. Frank Semyon. His first scene dashed all hope that the finale would somehow magically rehab this poorly conceived character and allow the mightily-criticized Vince Vaughn a chance to prove himself: That business with Frank trying to coerce Jordan into leaving town for her own safety was just plain bad. I blame the writing more than the acting: It was long, shapeless, and silly, and it embarrassed the actors by making them do embarrassing things, like throwing their wedding rings out the door or role-playing their red roses and white dress reunion in Venezuela. Making it all meta-weird was the way Jordan ripped Frank the way so many critics and viewers ripped Vaughn’s performance all season. “You can’t act for s—!” said Jordan when he feigned hatred for her in order to get her to go without him. “I am listening, and you’re not convincing.”

NEXT: Frank embraces his most worst self.[pagebreak]

All season long, Frank has aspired to transcend, to rise out of his lowly station in life and become happily-ever-after rich and legitimate. When Osip officially killed that dream last week, taking over his properties and forcing him to accept servitude (or else), Frank burned down The Poker Room and The Lux in a fit of petulant rebellion. In the finale, Frank let his “worst self” rage harder, breaking bad to liberate himself from Vinci and score the wealth that he couldn’t get by going straight. He nearly got away with it, too. He and Ray raided Catalast HQ in the woods and slaughtered everyone inside, including Osip. The Russian pled for mercy, played to Frank’s humanity by claiming that he thought of him as a son, little knowing that he was striking Frank where it hurt the most. Frank shot him in the head, then shot him some more, getting some catharsis for the rat-nibbled little boy still trapped in the cellar, wondering if his entire life was a dream. He and Ray stole $12 million in cash, split it between them, shook hands, and promised to meet up in Venezuela with their respective women. They would never see each other again.

While driving out of town, Frank was carjacked by the Mexican gang with whom he pacted on a drug deal a few episodes ago. By blowing up The Poker Room and The Lux, Frank had robbed them of venues to sling their dope; hence, they were pissed. They took Frank out to the desert and intimated their intent to execute him when Frank made a bargain for his life: $1 million in cash. His proffer was accepted. There was just one thing the money didn’t buy: a ride out of the desert. When Frank complained, the gang proposed another trade: His suit for some wheels. Frank violently balked at this—a choice that baffled many viewers, judging from the incredulous reaction on my Twitter feed. Frank! Forget your vanity and just give them your clothes, already! While I have no doubt that Frank’s personal code re: dignity played a role in his refusal, I think there’s a more sound explanation for his position: Hidden in his blazer was that silk baggy containing $3.5 million in diamonds. I’m sure the deal for the suit included everything in the pockets. Wallet. Money clip. Diamonds. Frank had come too far, shed too much blood, lost too much of his soul to secure his retirement plan. He wasn’t going to give it up without a fight. So he did, and he lost.

Blood gushing from his gutted side, Frank willed himself to ignore the pain and walk. As Frank death marched, the psychic pain that motivated him took form as hallucinatory traveling companions. They were the bullies and tormentors that turned him into a bully and tormentor, including his father. They called him weak, they told him to quit; he refused to buckle, refused to fall. Finally, he saw Jordan, decked in the white dress she had promised him. He thought he had made it, that he had finally reached his promised land… only to realize he had died long ago. He looked back, saw his lifeless body on the ground, and then joined it. Frank Semyon, poisonous land grabber, was claimed by the desert, never to be heard from again. Which is probably for the best. That dialogue. Ugh. Anyway, give our regards to Stan, won’t you Frank?

This is the end for you… Ray Velcoro. Sexual healing, True Detective style: A night of intimacy, sexual and emotional, was capped with an exchange of shameful secrets. Ani copped to feeling partially responsible for her abduction and rape by The Bearded Man when she was young , part of the shadow lodge of perverts and exploiters who latched onto The Good People for hedonism and sport. Ray copped to the cowardly way he popped the man he thought raped his wife. They listened to each other; they gave each other the grace they needed. And with that: All better!

Ray and Ani were faced with a choice: They could continue trying to collect evidence that would allow the Feds or the press or someone with power to collapse the Vinci conspiracy, or they could just run. To their credit, they gave the former one last try. But after things went south with Holloway and Lenny at the transpo-mall down in Anaheim, they gave up on selfless idealism and switched to by-any-means-necessary survival mode. They joined Frank’s escape club, and Ray went full-on killer. Ambushing and mowing down Osip and all those white collar Catalast pirates made him no better than Holloway, Burris, and the Blue Diamond crew that murdered the Ostermans, and was just as shameful as his cowardly execution of that not-rapist speed freak. Within this pulpy drama, a provocative, relatable conundrum: What is our obligation to justice and to the legal means for justice in an unjust, corrupt society? This is a timely, complex question, and good on True Detective for trying to tackle it, and pity it made such a hyperbolic hash out of it. The Wire, this was not.

NEXT: Waving goodbye to Chad, and the season.[pagebreak]

Ray bagged his spoils of slaughter and rode hard toward the boat that would get him and Ani out of the country. He even allowed himself to smile. How awkward-poignant was that! But somewhere on the 101, sentiment got the best of him: He wanted to see Chad one more time. He saw him at school, playing a role-playing game with his pals, using Grandpa Velcoro’s retired, frozen-in-time badge as his sigil. Ray was touched. He saluted his boy. His boy saluted back. When Ray returned to his getaway car, his heart sank as he saw the thing with the blood red blinker stuck to its underneath like a prison ball. Burris and his goons had found him and placed a tracker on him. The bad guys were desperate to find Ani, who was in possession of all the proof against them. If Ray drove to the boat, he would lead Burris right to her. He couldn’t do that.

So instead, Ray drove into the woods. He recorded one final message for Chad, praising the boy for his innocence, for his disdain for violence, for his moral integrity. Ray wished he could be strong like Chad. He wished everyone could be strong like Chad. Strong Like Chad! Get me that T-shirt, ASAP. Alas, Ray’s last confession and final declaration of love would go forever unheard: Ray couldn’t find bars to upload the message to the cloud. Out of gas, Ray ran into the forest. He took out a couple of Burris’ men before taking a breather underneath a towering redwood. He looked up toward the heavens, saw the wind moving through the green of the trees, and realized… something. That there was nowhere to go? That his time was up? That he could earn some small bit of redemption by making sure Burris never took him alive and tortured information out of him, thereby protecting Ani and a shot at justice with the proof they had? Whatever the reason, Ray emerged from his hiding place with guns drawn and let Burris and his men mow him down with bullets. He died staring up at the trees, without knowing that he was, in fact, Chad’s true father…

And somewhere on the sea, Ani buckled as she stared into the waves, as if floored by a disturbance in the force, or by news flash delivered via the eco-Internet that links forest, ocean, and desert. Dear Ani: Ray’s dead. Sorry. Love, Nature.   

Purgatory for Ani… Not much to say about Bezzerides that we haven’t covered, save for this: It bothered me that Ani—who deserved to drive the endgame’s quest for justice and answers more than any of its protagonists—spent most of the finale either playing back-up to Ray or waiting on Ray. We left her in Venezuela, turning her evidence against the conspiracy over to a reporter. Will he use it to take down the season’s only clear winners, corrupt-as-hell Governor Geldof and new Vinci Mayor Tony Chessani? We’ll never know. Ani then disappeared into the night with Jordan, Baby Boy Bezzerides-Velcoro, and Nails. It makes sense that Ani has to live underground. She’s not only targeted for murder, but she’s wanted for murder. (See: the orgy fiasco.) But what of her father, Elliot, and her sister, Athena, whose life (and personal redemption project) Ani effectively ruined by posing as her to gain access to the sex party? We assume they remain in hiding as living casualties of a reckless, failed rebellion against an evil empire. Sucks to be them… though I’m guessing wherever they are, it’s better than Venezuela.

And a new beginning for True Detective? Here’s the good news about this disappointing season: Because it’s an anthology show, True Detective can start over next year with a new story, new characters, new cast; and it can learn from the mistakes of its flawed second season—and the virtues of a much better first season—to craft a better, stronger third season… provided creator Nic Pizzolatto humbles himself and allows himself to learn from the past. Earlier this year, Frank’s quips about The Rockford Files and Colombo got me thinking that I’d love to see Pizzolatto do his True Detective version of an old school P.I. show, something a single, strong character and several strong, colorful supporting characters, something more character-driven, with a case-of-the-week structure instead of a sprawling, conspiracy narrative. Pizzolatto has a huge imagination and great talent; I’d think narrowing his focus, and sure, taking on some quality collaborators (a single director; a larger writing staff), could yield something of great quality. Still, for all my writing about True Detective, I don’t presume to know what would make a “better” third season, so I’m reluctant to prescribe more suggestions, other than to say this: I hope True Detective remains a personal, idiosyncratic enterprise, and that Pizzolatto takes his time finding, writing, and polishing his next story, and that HBO lets him take that time. Better luck next year—or whenever next season might be.

Comments