Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, foreign writer Zack Beauchamp, and more.
Zack Beauchamp: Jen, I agree that True Detective's second season premiere wasn't truly awful television. Putting aside LOL-worthy moments like "this is my least favorite life," it at least didn't bore me.
Which is why it made me so nervous.
The problem with True Detective, historically, is that it's been a sham. The first season set up a grand, eerily occult mystery — and then utterly failed to resolve it. The extraordinary lead performances and direction amounted to lipstick exceedingly well applied to a pig.
Season two's premiere was objectively worse: none of the performances held a candle to what Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson achieved in season one, nor was Justin Lin's direction as artful and brooding as Cary Fukunaga's. Yet there was just enough there to make it seem like the episode — and, in turn, the season — wouldn't be a disaster. The weird symbolism surrounding the city manager's killing was just intriguing enough to make the murder mystery seem interesting, and Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams make for entertainingly unhinged leads (let's not talk about Vince Vaughn or, bless my Tim Riggins fan's heart, Taylor Kitsch).
Allegedly, the next two episodes will strip out some of the total nutbattery in this one, which is a hopeful sign. But my real fear is that we're being strung along, again. Just like it did in season one, True Detective is setting up a seemingly ritual murder steeped in a supernatural mythology — if you missed all of the references to ancient Greek tales, you weren't paying attention. But that's exactly where True Detective screwed up last time: It treated the mystery and mythology as secondary, when they were in fact the key to the show. So my big concern is that we're being set up for heartbreak.
This lays the track for what I've started calling the "True Detective dilemma." On the one hand, you want — nay, need — the show to amp up the atmospheric weirdness that made season one so effective. The mystery and mythology are what make it True Detective and not Law and Order: Vinci. Bizarre and disturbing sexual imagery, creepy owl masks, and hints at looming conspiracies are True Detective's jam.
But the more the show leans into its inherent otherworldliness, the more the specter of disappointment rears its ugly head. Given the way season one ended, it's hard to hold out hope that any of the really intriguing clues are going be resolved. Once bitten, twice shy and all that.
That means that the more interesting the clues become, the more invested we'll get — but also the more worried that we're being set up for disappointment. It makes for terribly stressful TV viewing.
One way True Detective can deal with this is by delivering both a satisfying murder mystery and a conspiracy story. The bait-and-switch in the first season was that we believed the murder's resolution would also end up resolving the mythological conspiracy story, and it turned out that it didn't. This year, whatever the conspiracy is — and given how much has been made of the corruption in Vinci, you know there's a conspiracy here — must be tightly, integrally connected the murder.
This isn't just a problem for the eventual season two finale to solve. One of the premiere's big problems was that it lacked a plot: A disparate set of characters bumbled around their horrible lives until someone found the dead guy at a beach.
The faster the show builds up the mystery AND the conspiracy, the faster its listlessness will dissipate. Get all three detectives and Frank wrapped up in both the hunt for the killer and whatever conspiracy is behind it, and each of their little worlds will start bouncing off each other in new and interesting ways. Crafting a good murder-conspiracy starts early, not late.
So there's your viewing guide for episode two. Assess how good a job True Detective is doing setting up its overarching conspiracy, and you'll probably have a pretty good sense of whether this season will also end in unmitigated disaster.
Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.