Season 2 of HBO's True Detective turned out to be a hell of a rollercoaster ride. There were red herrings. There were dropped plots. There were birdmask killers. There were cops with daddy issues. There was a whole lot of "WTF?". And there was Vince Vaughn. This was not the kind of series that had people sitting on the fence - if social media is any indicator, you really loved it or you really hated it.
Now that it's all over, and we've had time to digest the events of the finale and the fates of Frank, Ani, Ray and Paul, let's take a look back at the good, the bad, and the downright bizarre of True Detective season 2 - and try to work out who exactly was this season's "true detective".
That stunning title sequence
"I live among you, well disguised", growls Leonard Cohen on the minimalist track Nevermind, which drips with sleaze and menace, much like True Detective itself. HBO have a long history of making an art form out of their shows' title credits, and this one is truly something to behold. It evokes perfectly that foreboding sense that everything's going to end in tears. In the binge-viewing era, the value of a great title sequence is higher than ever - watching those 90 seconds four or five times a day becomes ritualistic - and True Detective nailed it.
A muddy murder mystery
A series only gets one shot at making a first impression, and season 2 put itself on the back foot instantly by introducing massive number of characters in one swoop, and setting up a central mystery with so many strands it fell somewhere between convoluted and incomprehensible.
In theory, the event driving the narrative forward is the murder of Ben Caspere, but this is buried under an avalanche of sub-plots and arcs involving corrupt city officials, the illegalities of the multi-billion railway scheme, Frank's attempts at keeping his business empire in check, and the relationship between Frank and Jordan, not to mention our cops' own, seriously screwed up personal lives.
Like intersecting highways each headed in separate destinations, writer Nic Pizzolatto can't work out how to present his show's labyrinthine story threads in a coherent fashion for the first three or four episodes. The series dropped quite a few viewers in its first half. Presumably they just didn't have the energy to keep trying. But considering how things turned out later, maybe that's their loss.
Frank Semyon, the gangster who has meetings
Of all the aspects of season 2 that drew brutal criticism each week from the social media mob, nothing and nobody took it harder than Frank Semyon.
Prior to his career-defining performance in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey had spent a decade coasting in mediocre rom-coms. The one-two punch of Buyers and True Detective season 1 turned his career around in a big way, and it's not difficult to imagine somebody - the guys at HBO, his agent, or the man himself - thinking Vince Vaughn would be able to repeat the trick.
I can't say I've ever had a strong opinion on Vince Vaughn. His career has pretty much passed me by. But a lot of people must have had high expectations, because the mauling Vaughn has taken for his performance in True Detective has been pretty extreme. And in my opinion, undeserved.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between a wooden actor and a wooden character. Frank Semyon is not an emotive guy. He also gets lumbered with some of Pizzolatto's most awkward dialogue - when squaring up to a business associate who's spoiling for a fight, for instance, Frank boasts "I've never lost a tooth. I've never even had a fuckin' cavity!" Nobody, except perhaps for Samuel L. Jackson, could utter those words and come off not sounding like a tool.
It took until the final episode of the series for Frank to feel like the gangster he's touted as, or even like a real human being. The moment he stopped talking and started doing, he instantly he came to life. It was a long time coming, but in that episode Vaughn gave a superb performance.
But the biggest problem with the character is that he basically spends seven episodes having meetings. Lots of meetings. Meetings in the casino. Meetings in the Mayor's office. Meetings with Ray in that weird bar where the country singer is always singing sad songs, even though the joint is empty. Even his conversations with Jordan play out like business meetings, and she's his wife.
In honour of Frank Semyon and his rarified penchant for exercising his vast vocabulary, let's take a lot at Frank Semyon's most memorable quotes:
"A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies."
"Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating."
"This is one off the bucket list - a Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans."
"In the midst of being gang-banged by forces unseen, I figured I'd drill myself a new orifice, go on and f*ck myself for a change."
Making sense of Woodrugh
If Frank was an enjoyable problem - a strangely written character we got some entertainment from, even if it was sometimes ironic - then Paul Woodrugh was just a straight-up problem with a big gay secret.
Clearly Nic Pizzolatto thrives on writing characters who are consumed by their demons, but Woodrugh was barely a character at all, just a walking ball of self-loathing and shame. His death in episode seven was, if not shocking, at least a welcome jolt to drive the narrative forward, but in truth I barely felt anything. He was too peripheral to matter, either to the story or the audience.
His greatest crime? In a series in which every actor is given some deliciously awful dialogue at some point or another (every time he opens his mouth, in Frank's case), Paul doesn't even have one memorable quote.
I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a little apoplectic.
Omega Station and the fatalism factor
All season long, our three detectives - and Frank - had been in hiding from their pasts. In the season finale, Omega Station, they got to hide from something else: the destructive forces in the upper echelons of the Vinci police force who needed them dead if their secrets were to stay secret, and suddenly the past seemed quite appealing.
Nic Pizzolatto is clearly influenced by classic noir, '40s fiction in which the anti-hero is all but guaranteed not to live to tell the tale, and we always knew Frank, Ray and Ani would play out that struggle as this season drew to a close. True Detective often resembled a classic Greek tragedy. Frank had promised Jordan he would catch up with her in Venezuela, even planned what they each would wear on the day of their reunion. That this conversation happened five minutes into the final episode confirmed that it was just fantasy, that Frank could never be allowed to live, and yet it seemed for a while like he might just defy the odds. And then the Mexicans caught up with him, leaving him to die in the dry heat of the desert, bleeding out from his chest, clutching those tiny, priceless diamonds.
Like I said before, Vince Vaughn, free from the shackles of a script which never much flattered Frank, turned it on in a big way this episode. As Frank stumbled through the sand, taunted by the ghosts of his past, he gets his reunion with Jordan - she's wearing the white dress, just like they arranged. It's a gorgeous scene which reinforces the tragedy of a gangster stubbornly determined to make it out alive, but ultimately unable to escape his fate.
Who was the True Detective of season 2?
But enough about Frank. The beating heart of this show belonged to Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams).
These are two beautifully screwed up characters, but unlike Woodrugh both take a journey over the course of season 2 which changes them fundamentally, and that makes for a satisfying pay-off to the eight hours spent in their company.
Ani, we learn, grew up on a commune with four siblings and a hippy father. Of the Bezzerides kids, two killed themselves and two got landed in jail. So the very fact that Ani is sergeant with Ventura County suggests she left her past behind and bettered herself. Except that, as season 2 communicates constantly, nobody really leaves their pasts behind. So Ani punishes herself for what happened with the stranger in the commune who abused her whilst her father was on an acid trip, her vocal hatred of porn matched only by her obsession with watching it.
Ray's demons also trace back to sex - specifically, the time his wife was raped. Is he really Chad's father, or does this boy who looks nothing (literally nothing) like him have another man's DNA? Ray, like Frank, is blessed with some of the most absurd dialogue Pizzolatto's pen puts to paper, like this classic revenge-zinger from the first episode, addressed to Chad's school bully:
If you ever bully or hurt anybody again, I'll come back and butt f*ck your father with your mom's headless corpse on this goddamn lawn!
If Ani is a high-function screw-up, Ray barely functions at all. After a particularly awkward supervised custody session in which he realises he barely knows Chad at all anymore, Ray returns home for an epic coke- and whisky-fuelled blow-out.
In truth, it should be difficult to like these characters. And that's okay, except that True Detective is so riddled with villains and forces of evil that Ray and Ani act as the audience's surrogate heroes. But Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams each bring so much to these two characters - a world-weariness which emanates from Ani's narrow eyes and Ray's gruff voice - that we can't help but root for them.
When Ani, wasted on high-grade MDMA after infiltrating the sex party at which every senior figure in Vinci apparently gets his kicks screwing Russian whores, makes a pass at Ray, it feels inevitable. Velcoro and Bezzerides are on a collision course, and the season's greatest achievement is not just bringing them together, but making it feel right.
The above clip is one of my favourites scenes from Omega Station - Pizzolatto's script, for once, does not spell everything out for us in huge neon letters, and instead allows Farrell and McAdams to find the emotion in Ray's unspoken words. Is it a reach to think that Ray could have fallen for Ani in the space of a few days? Probably. But of all the times True Detective asked us to suspend our disbelief, I'll willingly do it for Ray and Ani potentially escaping their shitty pasts and finding happiness together.
Except, of course, that can never happen, because in the world of True Detective, the only happy endings are in children's books. Everything else is doomed to end in the echo of bullets and tragedy.
One of the great things about this season was the thrilling execution of its action sequences, and Ray's final jaunt through the woods was heightened by the certain knowledge that his time was finally up. Only he ever accepted that it had to end this way - Paul was running from his shame until the bitter end, Frank was too arrogant and proud to step out of the game whilst he had the opportunity. Only Ray stopped fighting the fatalism of his existence. Velcoro is the true detective of season 2, because he was the only one to realise it was all futile.
So that final shot of Ray's phone, in which the voice message Ray had recorded for Chad, declaring his love and pride for his son, failed to send - well, that was devastating in its cruelty.
True Detective season 2 was a world filled with doom and death, bloody hands and corrupt politicians, detectives with a whole lot of issues and gangsters who spoke like they read too much Shakespeare. I wouldn't have it any other way.