'True Detective' Season 2 Finale Has Diamonds, But There's No Sparkle

Rejoice! You can finally have your Sunday nights back.
Lacey Terrell/HBO

Spoiler alert for "True Detective" Season 2, Episode 8, "Omega Station."

"True Detective" Season 2 ended with several bangs, a fatal knife stab and the demise of every meaningful relationship the show managed to muster. After finding Mayor Chessani and Dr. Pitlor dead in fake suicides (dammit, Tony!), Ray and Ani piece together that Lenny the set photographer murdered Caspare and shot Ray while wearing that raven mask in Episode 2. Frank vows to join Jordan at stowaway camp in Venezuela after vanquishing his wrongdoers, but he dies at the hands of the Mexican drug gang and enters a purgatory reverie. Ray sends Ani off to Venezuela, too, then he dies at the hands of Burris after making a detour to give his son a farewell salute. That means we're down several bodies, including Paul, who was killed last week for being gay, more or less. The women are the only physical survivors -- but is it worth it? Did "True Detective" redeem itself, or is this 8.5 hours of our lives we will never get back? Entertainment editors Erin Whitney and Matthew Jacobs discuss.

Erin: This was eight weeks -- eight and a half hours -- of cringeworthy dialogue, staring contests and an unending spiral of names I still don’t recognize. Was “True Detective” Season 2 worth it? No, not at all! Yet we all kept watching anyway, the way you can’t change the channel from a really bad sitcom or a telenova you don’t understand but are hooked on regardless. We may have stopped recapping this season after Episode 5, Matt, when the same disappointments ran us straight into the ground, but worry not -- I continued watching the final three episodes with some hope, and hate-tweeting every one of them.

In an excessively long finale, we finally learned who killed Caspere (that random set photographer no one remembered meeting weeks ago!), why he killed him (typical revenge plot), who the real bad guy was behind all of the corruption (Tony Chessani, the mayor’s son), and that Frank Semyon isn’t a "bad guy" after all. Mind you, all of that was established in the first half of the episode. The next half only offered a short-lived shootout, proof that Ray can in fact crack a smile, Frank quite literally facing his demons and Ani escaping with a baby sling (baby included) and ankle knife. It was all pretty underwhelming for me, to say the least. How are you feeling post-finale, Matt?

Matt: I feel like I need to hire a true detective to figure out where my 8.5 hours went, Erin. Or, moreover, where Nic Pizzolatto's brain went while crafting one of the most flaccid seasons of television in recent memory. To say "True Detective" Season 2 was a letdown would be like saying the Cuban Missile Crisis was a bummer. It is painfully apparent that this show never had a sense of itself. You are spot-on in pointing out that Lenny the unmemorable photographer sporting that raven mask and inciting the season's events is, uh, a bit withered of a plot. Good job, Reddit -- you figured out that the show didn't even care about its murderer or its chief of corruption, Tony Chessani, to give them much more than a passing scene each.

It is shocking to me that Pizzolatto didn't know what to do with this fictional world he created. The Edgar Award-nominated, WGA-winning writer never gave us any real characters -- only hollow archetypes, with the arguable exception of Ani, sometimes. Then, he let the women to inherit the earth, but only after their men sent them off in some sort of witness-protection program for wives and girlfriends who are better than the fellas who think they're calling the shots. Pizzolatto is standing in that same desert where Frank, tempted by various devils, wandered for what actually felt like 40 days. He is shouting, "Look at me now! I am feminist!" That wound is especially salty when you consider that Ray died for the noble gesture of paying his son one final salute and Paul died for being gay. Let's hire a true detective to investigate why HBO didn't think to offer Piz Daddy some notes on how to fashion the season's story arcs.

Lacey Terrell/HBO

Erin: I'm almost more disappointed in myself for falling for this charade and actually hoping that Pizzolatto could turn things around, when in fact there was nothing worth turning around to start with. Season 2 is that presentation you faked your way through by charming your colleagues with donuts, or that high school essay you bullshitted with highbrow vocabulary and overly polished exposition to extend your thesis beyond the third page. This season's frail mystery had the embellishment of pretty good actors, gorgeous cinematography, a lush noir score and initial high expectations tailing off of the first season.

Beyond the hollow characters and dizzying plot, the biggest misfire was Pizzolatto trading in smart dialogue for lazy, patronizing exposition. Every word out of every character's mouth was an obvious checkmark on a to-do list of plot explanations. Never have I watched an entire series where the storyline makes so little sense that the characters are employed for the mere sake of trying to explain whatever the hell is happening. When Frank arrived at Chessani's home to find the mayor faceplanted in the pool, he didn't have a normal human interaction with the now widowed Mrs. Chessani. He instead interrogated her -- where's Tony? How did you meet your husband? The script likely just said, "Describe the history of your relationship so the audience can understand what the show has failed to explain already." That was Pizzolatto cockily looking at us and asking, "Are you dense?" This is a show where the camera has to focus on the killer's bird mask and hover over a magnifying glass on top of a box of "less lethal shotgun shells" to remind the audience that, yes, we are in the killer's house! Ever since Ray got shot, everything this season has been half-alive and simply waiting to die.

Matt: "Half-alive and waiting to die" -- that's the money quote of our reviews, Erin. The problem is that this season of "True Detective" never decided what it wanted to be. The finale might have us believe it's some sort of religious allegory, but the season was so lacking in distinct mythology that anything along those lines falls flat. (A flat circle, that is.)

It's especially upsetting because there were glimmers of craftsmanship throughout, particularly in these last few episodes, which gave us more than a few good scenes and a poignant concluding theme: Burying one's past corrodes one's future. But in a show where everybody dies, either physically or spiritually, we need reason to feel for their demises, or else we need a sustainable mystery to shepherd the plot. Instead, Slate and BuzzFeed -- and probably a bunch of other sites, too -- had to write guidebooks for understanding the show. That's not the mark of a layered series; it's the mark of a poorly constructed one. Erin, you mentioned that most of the plot was tied up within the first half of the finale. I actually think that may be the smartest thing the show could have done at this point. It's better to satisfy the checklist of unanswered questions and then attempt to make this a show about characters, which it has constantly struggled to accomplish. If there is one thing I couldn't care less about, it's those damn diamonds.

And look! Rounding out the episode's attempt to draw everything together is that sad bar singer performing for an inexplicably empty room. Given Frank's upstairs hideout, it turns out "True Detective" has always been about living our least favorite lives. It just so happens that watching this show became our least favorite life.

Lacey Terrell/HBO

Erin: Honestly, if it weren't for those guidebooks and some Reddit browsing, I would have been even more lost this season. Uproxx already guessed the killer last week, which helped me follow along last night, and Vanity Fair nailed exactly why that reveal marked the underlying failure of the season. Whereas last season turned viewers into eagle-eyed detectives trying to find the Yellow King, leading most of us down the completely wrong path, this year required such over-analyzing.

There were a few moments this season that I did appreciate, however, which mostly involved Ani. Of the entire cast, Rachel McAdams gave the strongest and least laughable performance. She managed to mold some of the most eye-roll-inducing dialogue into something honest and believable, and use it to channel Ani's wreckage. Her breakdown in the motel room at the start of the penultimate episode was one of the best moments of the season, her confusion mixed with terror and a tinge of thrill from the previous episode's events. Even her intimacy with Ray during that episode was refreshing and one of the most genuine moments of the series.

What kept Ani compelling from the start was that she never flaunted all of her cards, and eventually was the only one who triumphed from the shame of her past. Perhaps that's Pizzolatto's only victory this year, successfully writing a female character not wholly dependent on her sexuality (though loosely defined by her sexual deviance and structured on her sexual abuse) who was sharper and more courageous than all the men together. Still, though, most of that credit is due to McAdams, and she alone wasn't enough to carry the season. After spending eight weeks feeling like that (brilliant) Marty Hart Season 2 reaction video, I'm truly grateful to have my Sunday nights back.

Matt: Indeed. I assume the #TrueDetectiveSeason3 prognosticating will be meek, if existent at all. But the advantage of an anthology series lies in its premise. With a new cast and a fresh setting, next season could broker a complete 180. It's a bit of a gimmick for the show to always operate under the pretense of casting unlikely performers, but Season 1 felt so novel that the series clearly needs a hook to bolster the storytelling. I'll be here next summer (or whenever), hoping for a bit of that noirish sparkle once again. At the very least, we'll never have to look at an aerial shot of the California freeways again.

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