There are two prevailing schools of thought about True Detective‘s first season. Either you believe it was an exquisitely directed, brilliantly acted crime drama that changed the way stories are told on TV, or you’re irked by its blatant misogyny and disappointed that its central mystery gave way to a mess of red herrings. No matter which side you’re on, season 2 will only make you double down.
True to its anthology structure—each season follows a new case—the story is different, this time focusing on a murder that links three California law-enforcement officials (Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch), one mobster (Vince Vaughn), and an apparent prostitution ring. But not much else has changed. Just like last season, there are religious cults, sad call girls, alcoholic detectives, aggrieved wives and girlfriends, neglected children, and a killer who’s fond of deer antlers. Those who admired last season’s cinematography will find themselves spellbound by the overhead shots of L.A.’s twisted freeways, which pulse like the circulatory system of some nocturnal beast. Those who were romanced by the literary dialogue might find themselves quoting Kitsch’s patrolman: “The highway. It suits me. I am no good on the sidelines.” Others will argue that True Detective has checked all the boxes it needs to qualify as an Acclaimed HBO Drama—the all-star cast, the nihilistic worldview, the highbrow cultural references that will send TV recappers directly to Wikipedia—without challenging a single crime-drama cliché.
Me, I agree with both sides, though it’s easier to make a case against True Detective this season. Its depiction of masculinity is cartoonish. Vaughn comes across less as a flesh-and-blood criminal than some übermensch who spouts silly, pseudo-Shakespearean jargon (“Behold, what once was a man!”) and vents his primordial rage by crushing a pair of eyeglasses in his fist. And it’s clear that this isn’t just a show about misogyny—it’s a drama about prostitutes and killers and disposable female bodies, after all—but one that also occasionally trades in it. Men are the subjects of this story, and women are mostly there to affect or reflect how they’re feeling. (“A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies,” Vaughn’s mobster insists.) Sex often happens in the same position: with a woman on her knees. Casting McAdams in a lead role hasn’t done much to complexify the female characters beyond empty ciphers or fantasies, either. The first two things we learn about her are that she’s into kinky, no-strings-attached sex and that her sister masturbates for a live webcam.
So why can’t I completely dismiss this season? Because there are moments when this same old story about “troubled” detectives in a hardboiled world becomes something much weirder and more original than that description suggests. When creator Nic Pizzolatto stops trying to promote gritty realism and loses himself in a psychedelic vision—filled with totemic animal imagery and mythic themes about life and death—the fact that his characters feel less like human beings than archetypes starts to make sense. This is a dreamworld, one that explores those “baser tendencies” in a way that only the subconscious can, and certain scenes stick with me long after I’ve watched. When a lounge singer in a ’70s powder blue suit appears before Farrell’s detective, crooning an eerie version of “The Rose,” it’s as haunting as any Twin Peaks outtake, and it makes me want to see more. For now, my expectations are still high—probably too high for this show. But maybe you can’t truly hate True Detective unless you love it enough to let it disappoint you. B