Subtlety is what makes a great series great. The small creases of an actor’s face, the lines between right and wrong no wider than a hair—that’s where things happen. By beating the audience over the head again and again, we become inured to the fantastic, bored by the awesome, unimpressed by the spectacular. But not last night.
Back and forth we went through our (now) well-known paths of Vinci, California, and the subtlety of True Detective’s characters finally were able to shine. Each actor, and character for that matter, had a pivotal scene played with the volume way turned down, which rightfully turned the expectation and the excitement way, way up. Velcoro’s heartbreaking scene with his son, a literal disappearing act, would have been played all the way to 11 in the previous episodes, but here was worked with a calm and steady hand, providing an emotionally wrenching experience. A single tear down Woodrugh’s face let the audience know exactly what was going on—no shouting or glares or circular camera angles needed. Ideas were communicated simply, and more importantly, honestly. This was not tears as cliché, this was tears as emotion, as devastation, and the rest of his (Kitsch’s) character now seems more at the very least understandable and at the very most interesting. He has a purpose now, shooting skills aside, which we will get to later.
Maybe I’m just being generous. Maybe after weeks of slogging through the industrial waste of Vinci, of over-acting and purple prose which in some ways to me were irredeemable, I just gave up being annoyed. But I don’t think so. Rocky starts don’t necessitate bad finishes, and this type of analysis can only deal with the present episode as it unfolds, warts and all. No hindsight here; I have to try to hit the pitches I get. Three episodes of world-building was too much, but now that the “case” is slowly unraveling and pushing forward, Season Two has an opportunity to finish strong.
True Detective this season is not a good show—not yet. But the yet is important, as we head into the second half. Things are happening, movement is occurring. No longer does a majority of each episode devote itself so needlessly to world building and characterization, repetition for the sake of drawing attention to the same themes over and over again. When characters speak, as typified by Bezzerides double family scenes with pa and sis, they finally are saying and suggesting something. Dialogue is finally being used to push narrative forward, as well as look back, and I think it could have taken the extra writing credit given to Scott Lasser to smooth out Pizzolatto’s often over-heated language. Vince Vaughn’s Frank finally felt menacing and desperate, an escaped convict forced back into the jail of his past. No more talk, no more long-winded diatribes. Frank has finally started to act, and this is a very good thing. It’s just a shame it took three on-screen hours of narrative to get us here.
All this subtlety and careful management of expectations was blown right out the window in the gripping shootout that was to come. While it felt a bit like a horror movie in some spots (extra long camera time for new characters rarely bodes well for them) and standard, action movie fare, the brief moments of desperation felt real. Bezzerides’ shaking hands as she grabbed her last desperate means of survival—a knife—and Velcoro’s hunched despair offered action and emotion that was desperately needed. While certainly not a masterpiece of action, the shootout gave us as viewers something tangible to feel in a series that thus far has spent a lot of time in the bathtub navel-gazing and soul-searching.
It’s also possible that a starving man, when given a cracker, will project that this is the best cracker in the entire world. These worries of this very writer are very much not important.
What’s important is things are happening. Characters are slowly becoming worthy of our care and attention. Other shows are out there doing this stuff at a very high level, but very few have to operate under such scrutiny as True Detective. The list of writers (and shows) who have had one good season or novel and then never are heard from again are legion. True Detective is trying to come out of its nose-dive, and I certainly hope that this course correction is permanent, and more importantly, enough.