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True Detective’s big cliffhanger is majorly flawed, no matter what happens

Christophe Haubursin is a senior producer for the Vox video team. Since joining the team in 2016, he has produced for Vox’s YouTube channel and Emmy-nominated shows Glad You Asked and Explained.

True Detective birdman

Can Velcoro possibly survive being shot at such close range by a man in bird hat?

Each week, a handful of Vox's writers will chat about the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into this latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Christophe Haubursin: Just about all of the talk surrounding True Detective season two has focused on how it’s failing — and miserably so — to live up to season one. We’re just two episodes in, and the transition from spooky Southern gothic to sprawling California noir has been bogged down by mediocre writing and some really, really bizarre storytelling choices.

But Sunday’s "Night Finds You" ended with the series' biggest cliffhanger to date. While Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is checking out murdered city manager Ben Caspere’s second home, he’s ambushed by a guy wearing a bird headdress, who guns down Velcoro with a shotgun. We see Velcoro squirm on the floor before the birdman shoots him a second time, point blank. Surprise!

As far as cliffhangers go, it’s a pretty cheap one

We don’t know for sure whether our mustachioed LA cop is a goner. But True Detective's producers certainly want you to believe he is, which reveals a lack of smart execution on their part. There are subtle ways of suggesting that a character may or may not be alive, but a double-tap shotgun blast to the belly isn’t one of them.

It feels like writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Justin Lin have taken a cue from the Game of Thrones handbook and are trying to convince us that anyone on True Detective can die at any point. Considering how little we’ve seen of Velcoro, it’s hard to feel invested (especially since we know he's already drunkenly beat up both his son’s bully’s dad and an unwitting journalist). Thus, the cliffhanger seems half-assed: If he’s dead, we don’t really care, and if he’s alive, then the scare didn’t mean anything.

True Detective isn’t totally alone in its attempt to end an episode with a big question mark — the recent Game of Thrones finale contained two pretty ambiguous major deaths. But the characters in danger were characters we cared about, who were part of ongoing plot lines. Trying to mimic that approach within the tight constraints of an eight-episode, closed-ended story is a tough sell.

But it’s a real change of pace for True Detective, and that could be a good thing

True Detective rarely shows death on screen, and that's especially true with regard to the series' major characters. In season one, you could count the big onscreen deaths on one hand. The focus of the show was always less about the realities of its violence and more about the realities of its detectives’ personal lives; it was a cop story presented through marriage and fatherhood, addictions and downfall.

That’s what made it interesting: It preserved the mysteries of Carcosa, and grounded the show in a tangible personal tale. It was never about the danger Rust and Marty faced in their casework — it was about the danger they posed to themselves as they tackled said casework.

And for the most part, it was a good formula. Confrontation, when it did happen, felt very real: The shootout with Reggie LeDoux and the now-famous six-minute tracking shot through a housing project in turmoil were some of season one’s best moments. Most of the story happened in blistering, metered car conversations, so any action carried real weight. But in season two, True Detective clearly wants to set the stakes high from the get-go — and we’ll have to wait and see whether it can keep up the momentum.

Although, let’s face it, Velcoro's probably not dead

Despite what Pizzolatto and Lin might want you to think, it’s unlikely that Farrell’s time on the show will have amounted to an extended cameo. He's been part of way too many scenes in True Detective's season two promotional trailers that haven’t yet happened on the show. Pizzolatto has spent way too much time building up Velcoro’s backstory to let the character fall flat like this. And Farrell is literally the first actor listed on every episode’s IMDB page.

Maybe Velcoro was wearing a bulletproof vest under that plaid-shirt-and-bolo-tie getup. The shot could have been a rock salt blast. Perhaps some black magic could bring him back to life or resurrect him as a ghost detective. Time is a flat circle, right?

That being said, killing him off could be a really bold plot decision. Granted, it wouldn’t hold the weight that a major character death probably should — but for a series that’s struggling to recreate the success of its brooding, bizarre first season, it'd certainly bring something really new and different to the table. At this point, that might be what True Detective needs.

Read the recap, and come back soon for more discussion.

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