UK TV review: True Detective Season 2, Episode 8
James R | On 10, Aug 2015
“Everything’s ending. Time to wake up.”
For a show so full of unsubtle dialogue, it’s only fitting that the finale of True Detective Season 2 should be full of lines that feel so appropriate. “You can’t act for shit,” says one. “Stop reading into things,” offers another. “I came into this with my eyes open, same as you.”
Part of the problem, of course, is that people didn’t go into this season with their eyes open: they thought they would be getting another True Detective Season 1. What they got was something else entirely: a noir so hard-boiled you could have it with toast for breakfast.
The biggest part of the problem, though, was that the boiling wasn’t done correctly: in its dash to emphasise its macho credentials, Pizzolatto’s script over-cooked ripe speeches and served them with stereotypical back-stories; it was a Big Mac that wanted to be a gourmet burger. An attempt at an early faked death only added to the frustrating taste left in the mouth.
As the season has progressed, though, Pizzolatto has begun to find the right temperature for his hob: scenes between Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ani (Rachel McAdams) have started to simmer rather than burn, while Vince Vaughn’s Frank has matured into an engaging anti-hero.
That’s mostly thanks to Nic’s dedication to the genre he’s pastiching. The strength of Season 1 of True Detective came from its refusal to bow to cop conventions, something that ultimately frustrated some, thanks to its open-ended conclusion. Season 2 has achieved the opposite: its obedience to every Ellroy and Chandler cliche initially irked with its lazy familiarity, but, as characters have been bumped off, the show’s had more screen time to explore themes of masculinity, parenthood and corruption without having to rush. Similarly, the plot has distilled – in traditional noir fashion – into a simple mystery. The genre cliches have paid off, albeit not necessarily with intent.
We begin in the bedroom, with another trademark monologue for Ani, all abuse and childhood trauma. Together, though, she and Ray now feel like a natural pairing. She comments that it’s like he’s “making up for lost time”. As if to prove the point, they even start smiling.
The best couple, though, are Frank and Jordan, who likewise begin the episode sizing up their chances at a future. Frank pretends to dump her because of her inability to give him a son, but she can see right through him – hell, we all can, now that we’ve witnessed him bond with a kid and open up to the idea of adoption. Vaughn, in particular, has excelled this season, patiently chewing on gristly line after gristly line until he finally gets to chomp away like a normal person. “Everything’s ending. Time to wake up,” he snaps. And for once, it doesn’t sound corny.
But despite McAdams’ steely presence and Kelly Reilly’s smart and stubborn Jordan, neither of the woman are the main focus of Nic’s manly thriller: both are nudged gently aside (into “safety”) to focus on Ray and Frank. After all, if this noir thriller is going to end properly, it needs to have a shoot-out. The case of the bird-headed killer solved (as everyone expected after last week’s terribly convenient callback to a minor background character), there’s only one question: can Ray and Frank get out of Vinci alive?
Ray swiftly finds out Woodrugh is dead, something that spurs him on to team up with Frank and dish out some payback. “He was a faggot,” says Velcoro’s former colleague on the phone, as if that justifies his murder. Farrell’s face twitches, but (and this is a sign of Season 2’s improvement) he wisely doesn’t say anything.
With such a basic set-up to drive this last chapter, it’s hard for True Detective to take a wrong turn. “Lately, I’m not feeling like myself,” strikes up a song in the background, as the action beats begin to fall into place – a ditty accompanied by a drum and riff that couldn’t be further from the morose guitar-playing of Episode 1. Frank, meanwhile, is threatening his casino-stealing nemesis over the phone. He only needs one bullet, he insists. But we all know that this is the kind of show where shooters don’t use fewer than 12. Gas masks, machine guns and exploding cars all come into play by the time the episode’s out.
Another sign of Season 2’s improvement is its use of location. At first, we were cooped up in a dingy bar, with only Colin Farrell’s melancholic moustache, a brooding Vaughn and a miserable folk singer for company. In Episode 8, we move from deserts to train stations to – in one standout sequence – the woods. Hiding behind gigantic redwoods in between spurts of gunfire, it’s a set piece that feels very similar to Woodrugh’s fatal manhunt, but one that’s given a fresh tension thanks to its day-lit surroundings. The green also provides a striking contrast to the stark yellow of the desert, the kind of expanse that only emphasises the isolation that’s at the core of each of our main characters.
But even here, in its finest hour (well, 80 minutes), True Detective Season 2 stumbles. Hallucinations of one person’s dad prompt an almost laughably cheesy vocalisation of inner turmoil – Farrell’s distant salute to his son, conducted in silence, on the other hand, feels far more genuine – while scenes involving our unmasked bird killer never carry much weight, because the person feels so tangential to the rest of the plot. And so you can’t help but wish the show had committed to a death in Episode 2 and taken things forward with a smaller cast at a much more controlled pace, even if the entertainment on offer here occasionally manages to distract from the clumsy story-telling that went before. After all, regardless of its upward swing in quality, True Detective is a serialised drama and should be judged accordingly. Amazon’s Transparent, with its 30-minute episodes that were released all at once and flow into each other seamlessly, is like a five-hour movie to enjoy in one session, but HBO’s series has been released in weekly instalments and is designed to be consumed like that; like a trashy crime paperback, there can be satisfaction in the conclusion, but that doesn’t mean the build-up or the prose has been any good.
That distinction in quality, in the end, is the main gap between True Detective Season 1 and 2. Here, though, we at least get a sense of what Nic was aiming for with his sequel – something admirably different, both in subject and theme. Season 1 concluded with a note of optimism, as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s bromance held firm. “The light is winning,” said Rust at the end. Here, the darkness is bigger: our team face a corrupt system that has take over the entire city. These days, Season 2 seems to argue, there’s no guarantee the light will win at all. “Everything’s ending,” Nic reminds us, dismissing any notion of fairy-tales. “Time to wake up.” If only Season 2 woke up sooner.
True Detective Season 1 and 2 are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.