This post discusses the first and second seasons of “True Detective” in their entirety.
It almost feels silly to write a piece sussing out the worldview of “True Detective,” the anthology series that just ended an incoherent, pretentious second season on HBO. But if show creator Nic Pizzolatto has revealed himself to be something of a parody of an auteur, rather than a genuine original, the ridiculous second season of “True Detective” did prove to have something in common with the much more highly regarded first: a pessimism about the possibility of large-scale change, shot-through with a strong faith in the possibility of personal redemption.
First, a quick summary. Last year on “True Detective,” Louisiana detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) found himself teamed up with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who was mourning the death of his daughter and scarred from undercover work, to investigate the ritualized murder of a young woman. The case eventually led them to the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), a cleric with political connections, and then to Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), a serial killer who was connected by blood to the same set of powerful Louisiana families to which Tuttle belonged. This year, cops Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) teamed up to investigate a series of crimes linked by a plan crook-with-a-principled-streak Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) had hatched to buy land the federal government needed the build a high-speed rail route. The rest of the very complicated details? Well, nevermind.
The powerful, in both series of the show, aren’t just corrupt; they’re grotesquely criminal. Last year, it wasn’t enough for the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle to be a self-satisfied power broker who opened a series of state-funded, sub-standard religious charter schools. Those schools turned out to be essentially a procurement operation, providing vulnerable children to the people who wanted to abuse them. Tuttle himself was in possession of a nasty video depicting a child’s rape and murder. This time out, “True Detective” started us with a land deal before escalating to similar subject material. This time, the victims are trafficked women kept high on MDMA and offered up like buffet items to various Southern California honchos, including some sort of attorney general.
“True Detective” is a show that very much enjoys wallowing in degradation. But though its characters go to heroic lengths to solve brutal crimes, the show doesn’t have much faith that anyone can change the underlying conditions that made those crimes possible in the first place. In the first season, Rev. Tuttle got killed by his compatriots so he wouldn’t talk. Like Tuttle, this year corrupt Mayor Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster) ends up floating face-down in a swimming pool, and Dr. Irving Pitlor (Rick Springfield) uses his surgeon’s skills to slit his own wrists. Long-standing Louisiana authorities were safely insulated from the horrors the first True Detectives discovered in Errol Childress’s labyrinth of crazy in the first season of the show. And the equally crooked Tony Chessani (Vinicius Machado) ended up replacing his father as Vinci mayor in the final minutes of last night’s episode.
In a hilariously naive plot development for a show that prides itself on seeing the world with great clarity and pessimism, the season also ended with a groundbreaking on the kind of high-speed rail project that America never actually manages to get off the ground because of the political realities involved. But that sort of dopey slip aside, progress and reform aren’t really possible in the world of “True Detective.”
But personal absolution is. Fighting with Errol for his life in last season’s finale, Rust Cohle had the sudden sense that:”I knew my daughter waited for me . . . I could feel her . . . I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out.”
And this year, Ani Bezzerides, who survived an abduction and prolonged sexual assault as a child, has spent the whole second season of “True Detective” grappling with the aftermath of that trauma, and the way it intersects with the case she’s working. She can’t take back the assault.
But she does manage to reconcile with both her sister (Leven Rambin), who was doing sex work when the series started, and has started to move toward her dream of art school. She also gets an apology from her father, Eliot (David Morse). A man desperately trying to avoid becoming his own rigid, controlling father, Eliot turned to the counterculture. But if his alternative community, the Good People, didn’t crush his children under rules and expectations, Eliot and his family learned a bitter lesson that some boundaries and adult authority can be valuable. Eliot left his daughter vulnerable to a dreadful experience that has defined her adult life. “I wish your life had been easier,” Eliot told Ani last week, apologizing to her, and reassuring her that no matter what trouble she finds herself in, he still loves her. “You’re the most innocent person I’ve ever known.”
And she finds comfort and a way forward in Ray, a detective who blew up his own career after his wife was raped and he was unable to set aside his need for revenge.
Perhaps the most touching, even genuinely moving, part of the finale of this second season of “True Detective” was the long opening sequence, when Ani and Ray confessed their secrets to each other after they’d sought solace in sex.
For Ani, her great secret is the conflict she feels about her childhood assault.“He didn’t force me. He didn’t even get near me. He called me pretty,” Ani recalls. “I remember. I remember it made me feel — I liked it . . . I got in the van with a stranger. Every time I remember that feeling, like pride, I get sick to my stomach. I could lie to myself. But I felt proud. I was proud that he thought I was pretty.” “None of that was your fault,” Ray insists, absolving her of both her feelings and what came about because a predator exploited them. In the last minutes of the show we learn that she had Ray’s child and is fighting to restore his reputation as righteous man after he was killed in a shoot-out.
One of the great weaknesses of “True Detective” is Pizzolatto’s tendency to spend eight hours grinding our faces into the degradation of his universe, only to expect us to pivot when Rust Cohle has a moment of revelation or Ani Bezzerides declares “We deserve a better world.” There’s an interesting conservative streak in the way “True Detective” preaches large-scale despair but encourages its characters to strive for the light in their personal lives; it’s a counterpoint to the argument that the often equally-dark “Game of Thrones” makes that all this personal despair is leading up to something larger. These are ideas worth exploring. The second season of “True Detective” suggests that Nic Pizzolatto isn’t the man to fulfill his grand ambitions.