How Could 'True Detective' Have Been Less Bad?

Our staff offers some hot takes.

‘True Detective’ ended its controversial season last night with something akin to a whimper. Our staff offers ideas for what could have made the finale, and the show at large, better.

Andrew Burmon: I felt like it was gonna get bad when I saw the Terry Rodgers orgy painting on Ben Caspere’s wall. I didn’t know who Rodgers was or anything — had to look it up — but it was pretty clear that the show was using some nice work to indicate what a creep this guy was. Surely this man who like sex and oil paintings must be into some deviant stuff! Nic Pizzolatto was so ready to let another artist’s work do his characterization for him. It felt like the visuals were becoming the Spark Notes to the script. The big questions being posed didn’t have anything to do with truth or really anything to do with detectives. Here’s what the big questions were: Do you get it? Do you get it? Do you get it? Do you get it? Do you get it? Do you get it?

Favorite line: That’s one off the bucket list. Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans.

Winston Cook-Wilson: In the second half of this series, I began to accept that I liked Season 2 for real — that it wasn’t just that I am categorically a sucker for detective/noir-informed things of any sort. Part of the issue people have, I think, is that it takes things to a whole new, very divisive level of stylization, even compared to the first season. Its realm of influence also extended further back in time to the days of weird, convoluted, pulpy film noir of the ‘50s. I’m not saying Vince Vaughn is a genius dramatic actor. In fact, I’m sure he’s not sure what he’s doing most of the time. But in a sense, the dead-eyed, blowhard-y performance works for this type of archetypal, ineffectual anti-hero character — who always loses out in the end and is always undone by his insecurities and bull-headedness.

It’s mood that matters in those movies and TD2, and the outlandish situations and characters it’s constantly ping-ponging between — the overwrought dialogue, the existentially fraught detective’s constant, near-unjustified outbursts of lust and violence, the long, painful downward spiral of characters. It’s definitely not about the outcome or about whether people would do this in “real life.” In the work of the noir figures of the past, ones people respect — whether classic noir directors or writers like Hammett and Chandler — the actions are grand gestures out of nowhere and the dialogue is similarly stage-y and terse. Like David Mamet or Shakespeare, their work is almost written in a different language.

The finale almost overcompensated for the dreamy cosmic-ness of Season 1’s finale and tried to appease by wrapping up the plot almost too much. However, I liked the image of those guys clinging onto life till the bitter end, and Pizzolatto taking us through it in real-time grisly detail. The ending shootout to the death used to be a convention; being on a craggy hillside like that, it reminded me of old Westerns. I liked Frank and Jordan’s old-Hollywood-melodrama parting monologue; I think it was actually beautifully written, though totally unreal.

I think people expect gritty realism — especially when it comes to acting — from prestige TV shows in general. TD made the opposite its bread and butter, part of the aesthetic, part of the drama. The power of the show was in the way it kept us confused, tense, and creating a unique, alternative version of our world. I, for one, didn’t get bored. The short Mexican cowboy, the corrupt, drunken mayor Chessani, the bird-mask, the seasick feel of the sex party — these are pretty skillfully-drawn, unforgettable images. A.I. Bezzerides — a famous noir author and screenwriter who Pizzolatto claims he wasn’t paying tribute to with his name choice — said that the primary goal of his screenplay for the great ’55 paranoiac Cold War noir Kiss Me Deadly was to make all of his many characters memorable and colorful, to create a daisy chain of memorable scenes. For him, it was not about the outcome or the mystery, and I don’t think either of the TDs was either.

Favorite line: “What all you scribblin’ over there? You see some high drama I don’t see?”

Corban Goble: I’ll just lay it all out here: I spent the entirety of this season baffled at why everyone was so mad that Season 2 was dogshit, because Season 1 was dogshit. It was sparkling dogshit, yes — maybe the dog accidentally ate some bullion? — but the celebrated Season 1 was messy, uneven, leavened entirely by the charisma of its two Hollywood stars playing characters everyone could get into. (GQ’s Devin Gordon, among others, had this squared from the jump). Season 2 twisted the formula, making its principle four actors play radically against type, and suffered for it.

And sure, the plot left a lot to be desired. At times throughout the season, Pizzolatto conjured images that reminded me of Sleep No More on a shoestring budget and also of poorly-thought-out Shakespeare mods perpetrated by my college’s theater group. While the writing of this show was often otherworldly in the way of say, The Counseler, where a talented writer seemingly went out of his way to make his characters say baffling things. I didn’t hate it, but man, during last night’s finale, I looked at the clock on my microwave and couldn’t believe I still had to wait 45 minutes for Ballers.

Favorite line: “E-cig”

Lauren Sarner: I have been very hard on Nic Pizzolatto and True Detective. But one thing I admire is Pizzolatto’s attempt to address the criticisms he got for Season One: that he sucks at writing women and that the stakes were too low, with a disappointing death count. Now, he in no way succeeded, but it’s commendable that he made an effort. His pitfall in both areas can be traced to the same source: his failures in character development. This season’s death count was indeed higher than Season One’s, but it was too little, too late. There wasn’t enough character foundation for any of the deaths to have the gravity Rust’s would have had.

Consider Ray and Ani’s hookup. It wasn’t completely nonsensical in the moment — they were both lonely and feeling their mortality. But it was the aftermath that really provides a study in The Pizzolatto Model of Character Development. We’re supposed to believe that they forge an emotional bond despite the fact previous episodes have not hinted at any chemistry whatsoever. Now, we could have let that slide if it was just a half-assed attempt at throwing in some romantic intrigue, isolated from the rest of the plot… but then they went and killed Ray. And not only did they kill him, they gave him a pre-death phone call to Ani! Since their connection was an 11th hour development, it lacked the impact the writers were clearly going for and it cheapened his death itself. And as for Ani’s storyline—see, Pizzolatto detractors, you were wrong — he can write women! Women love not being murdered, and women love babies! Especially women like Ani, because it’s totally consistent with her character. Pizzolatto truly outdid himself.

Favorite line: “I used to wanna be an astronaut. But astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.”

Matthew Strauss: As Inverse’s resident recapper, I’ve had to think about True Detective a whole lot. It’s exhausting. The first half of the season, such as the brooding premiere, could not get out of its own damn dark way. Everything was so serious, but we didn’t have a clue what was happening (boy, we really did not have a fucking clue). Things got a little better after the Vinci Massacre when it seemed like the show might open up a little. And then it frustratingly ended.

True D wouldn’t be so exhausting if there weren’t the constant impression that something was going to happen. I can’t say I’d enjoy a rewatch #TrueDetectiveSeason2, but I might get it a little better (and not because of the plot making sense because it doesn’t). It was always hard to take it on its own terms because Nic Pizzolatto didn’t really seem to understand those terms. Was it a contained noir? Was it an existential metaphor? No tellin’. True Detective was at once important and a big joke, leaving it in a purgatory of frustrating television.

Favorite line: “These contracts … signatures all over ‘em”

Related Tags