Scott here. Colin is out of town this week so I’ll be taking over his True Detective recapping duties. Spoilers for all aired episodes of True Detective follow.
“Well, once there was only dark. If you ask me, light’s winning.”
So ends season 1 of True Detective. Rust Cohle, having ventured into the depths of Carcosa and witnessing the true breadth of the evil rotting away at rural Louisiana crawled out of the pit alive and with a new, brighter perspective. Yes, there is evil in this world. Yes, it will do terrible things, much of which we’re powerless to stop. But at the end of the day, the light is winning. Hope is still alive.
Rust clearly didn’t watch season 2.
As the credits rolled on the sophomore season of True Detective, I sat on my couch wondering what to think. The 90 minute 8th and final episode was definitely the best the season had offered up, but in a season filled with as much bad as this one, that’s really not saying much. I started the season optimistic, and as we blundered our way through the first three episodes I held fast to my optimism. The story’s slow, crushing nihilism wore on me as surely as it wore on the characters. I stopped really caring about this show three weeks ago. I powered through only out of some weird commitment to finish what I had started.
There are so many problems with True Detective Season 2 and like the show itself, these problems are nuanced, confusing, and depressing as hell. But at the center of all of it is writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto has always been clear that this is his show. Unlike most TV shows, where a room full of writers tackle each episode, True Detective is written by one man. Unlike most shows where directors, writers, and producers work in tandem to define the show, its tone and style, Pizzolatto claims this was all his. In Season 1, he worked with Cary Fukanaga who directed each of the eight episodes. But Fukanaga got too much credit for Pizzolatto’s liking (or so the rumors go) and the two parted ways. Season 2 cycled through a series of different directors for each episode, like most TV shows do, but one thing was clear: they all answered to Pizzolatto’s singular vision.
When one person takes credit, we get to pin them with all the blame. So I could talk to you about the direction and editing, which is perfunctory at best and choppy, pace-and tension-killing at worse. I could talk to you about the performances: Vince Vaughn, trying his heart out is really out of his element here and Colin Farrell, starting strong but finishing with a stiff, mumbly delivery that gives The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane a run for his money. But these things are surface level and if they were the only issues we would be having a much different conversation right now. What I really want to talk about is Nic Pizzolatto’s writing and how the plot he constructed fails at everything it tries to do. True Detective Season 2 is bad because Pizzolatto wrote a bad show. Here’s why.
Show Don’t Tell and the “Wait, who?” problem
One of the biggest rules in cinematic storytelling is one that Pizzolatto seems to break as often as possible in season two of True Detective. Movies and TV are visual mediums, so most of the storytelling should be told visually. Show us something, don’t just tell us. True Detective doesn’t do this. Scene after scene of people reading documents and then telling other characters (and us) what they say. Many of the most important scenes in True Detective involve two people sitting across the table and looking at each other while they talk. Espositionary dialogue is fine and necessary in some places, but too much of it drags down and confuses your story.
The biggest complaints I see in regards to True Detective is confusion. No one knows what the hell is going on. This isn’t because the story itself is confusing; it’s really not. It’s a rather simple classic Los Angeles noir crime story about corruption, greed, and the hopeless despair of existence (fun, right?). Pizzolatto’s choice to tell us things rather than show us those things creates confusion where there shouldn’t be.
How many times watching True Detective did a character drop a name that caused you to go “Wait, who?” Who the hell is Stan? Jacob McCandless? Holloway? Dixon? Burris? Laura and Leonard Osterman?
We meet these characters once or twice and then they’re just referenced by our main cast talking to each other. You aren’t actually ever able to form a bond between name and face so you’re left to scour the internet to trying figure out who these damn people are.
Leonard Osterman, Caspere’s murderer is de-crow masked by one character telling another that he did it. This is the guy we’ve been looking for the entire run of the show and the reveal is done via dialogue. Then suddenly we have Ray say “The photographer that we met on that movie set!” Wait, what? Who!? We met this guy before? How did Ray know that? Did the script tell him?
Again, I want to be clear here: Expository dialogue is an okay and often necessary part of screenplays. Sometimes we just have to have characters talk to explain things to us. But overused it leads to slow boring and confusing stories. The reason that you were so confused throughout this entire run is because Pizzolatto chose to tell you things instead of showing you.
If you’re anything like me, you enjoyed the last two episodes of True Detective a whole lot more than the previous six. This is largely because things actually happen in these episode. The plot of the show moves forward. With the exception of the shootout at the end of episode four, not all that much happens in the first three-fourths of True Detective, just a whole lot of talking (see above).
But then suddenly, in the last two and half hours things start launching forward at light speed. The entire mystery of the Vinchi corruption and land deal comes to light all at once. Both Woodrugh’s and Ani’s pasts are revealed without warning. Ani and Ray bond over the trauma and end up romantically involved. Frank, suddenly decides enough is enough and plans to strike back against the people that wronged him. All of this is dumped into the last two episodes.
This has two issues: one it makes every episode up to this point a boring slogfest. And second, and arguably more importantly, it means none of these incredibly important beats really have time to breathe.
None of this can be seen more clearly than with the romantic relationship between Ani and Ray. In a show as depressingly nihilistic as True Detective, their blossoming relationship is the one point of light. Ani and Ray are both people who have lived terrible lives. Both are people who want a chance to make things right and start over. They see the Caspere murder as a window to that better future. But the world of True Detective has other plans. The corruption and the greed cannot be stopped no matter how hard they try. Ani and Ray seek justice, and fail.
But the feelings they had for each other bring hope. Pizzolatto seems to be saying that while we’re all miserable during our ride on this shitty rock, at least we can be miserable together. It’s arguably the most important part of the series. But we wait until the very last episode and completely rush into it. Suddenly Ani and Ray are in love? Ray’s last phone call to Ani as he realizes he’s doomed to death is tragic and beautiful, but because this relationship hasn’t been established from the get go, it’s completely unearned and therefore feels hollow and fake. I don’t care about their relationship because I haven’t had enough time to witness its growth.
The same can be said of every other big moment of the last two episodes. We should have established this stuff earlier in the season.
Clunky Unrealistic Dialogue
Nobody in TV and Movies talk like people in real life. Even the most naturalistic dialogue is still carefully crafted to accomplish a very specific set of goals. We acknowledge this as part of the experience of this form of entertainment and are generally okay with it. But sometimes ridiculous overly extravagant dialogue can get in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish.
So it is with season 2 of True Detective.
To be fair, the show has always had overly extravagant philosophical prose. Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle spent almost all of the first season in a non-stop spew of dense image- and philosophy-rich dialogue. The difference is it actually worked there, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Rust Cohle is the exact type of person who would talk like in this way. He’s playing a ridiculously overly complicated character that waxes philosophically wherever possible. In fact, the show actually goes so far as to poke fun at this type of speech through the reactions of Cohle’s partner Marty. Additionally, the story of season one was much more interested in exploring the philosophy of evil: Where it comes from, how it’s created, and if it can ever be truly stopped. This kind of dialogue makes sense given that conceit.
It doesn’t make sense in Season 2. Pizzolatto is trying to tell a different, simpler kind of story here, but he chooses to populate it with the same “Rust Cohle-y” dialogue. The result is a bunch of ridiculous, almost laughable character speeches from actors that should not be giving them. We touched a little bit on Vince Vaughn’s performance earlier and while I generally appreciate his work as Frank, I think he’s saddled with a lot of terrible clunky and unrealistic dialogue. It makes me not care about Frank, and it really makes me not care about his relationship with his wife Jordan. Both Vaughn and Kelly Reilly are great actors, but the result of all this horribly unrealistic dialogue is that I don’t buy their relationship at all. At the end, when we see Frank, stabbed and bleeding, refusing to give up, walking towards the image of his wife. I felt nothing in this moment. I didn’t care. Frank never felt like a real character to me.
I really wanted to like season two of True Detective and despite all the problems I think there’s still a lot of good here. After the finale I happened to catch one of my favorite critics refer to this season as a first draft of a story and I think that’s the perfect way to describe it. Season Two is a bunch of good ideas that needed to be polished, edited, and structured a little more. Nic Pizzolatto is a good writer that was having to live up to an impossible standard…and he kinda blew it. But honestly, if there ends up being a season three of True Detective I’d watch it.