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True Detective's big shootout doesn't make up for season 2 being pretty bad so far

Ani is the only season two character with any real zeal, and that's not necessarily saying much.
Ani is the only season two character with any real zeal, and that's not necessarily saying much.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The morning after HBO aired "Down Will Come," the fourth episode of True Detective's second season, Slate's Willa Paskin wrote something of a mea culpa. She had given the first three episodes a mildly positive review, but found that the fourth episode made her want to take back that muted praise.

Consequently, Paskin confronted an issue that's become a bugaboo of modern TV criticism: the idea that critics should not pass judgment until they've seen an entire season of TV.

She writes:

As has been too often noted, reviewing television shows based on a smattering of episodes is similar to reviewing a book based only on its early chapters. This is a complaint often trotted out by creators who think their show has gotten a bum rap (a cohort that overlaps significantly with creators who think a "bum rap" is anything less than a 100 percent approval rating). As such, this analogy is almost always used as a chastisement against judging a TV show too early. It is not, as it could be, used to point out that the early chapters of a book are a pretty good indicator of the novel to come. And it is not, as it could be, used to highlight how much more patient people generally are with TV shows than with books. "Stick around! It gets good around Episode 3" is something people say encouragingly all the time. "Stick around! It finally gets good around Page 200!" is only a recommendation for a book compared to "it never gets good."

You should read all of Paskin's piece, which is great. But it also underlines something I've been struggling to state as effectively as Paskin does: On TV, more than the ending has to matter. The entire journey has to be effective if the story is going to work.

Even if True Detective season two pulls the greatest final half-season in the history of television out of its ass, it's not going to erase the fact that its first four episodes were frustratingly dull and often outright terrible, just as season one's mildly disappointing ending didn't erase all the good stuff that happened on the way there. As Paskin says, you're unlikely to keep reading a book that bores you for 200 pages, only to improve after that.

Or, here's another way to look at it: "Down Will Come" featured a slam-bang ending shootout (that I ultimately found kind of stupid, but we'll get to that in a minute), but the way its chaos arrived largely from out of nowhere didn't do much to recontextualize the rest of the episode. Instead, it just threw into sharper relief how pointless so much of it was. A great ending can't save a mediocre beginning and middle, except in very, very rare cases.

That shootout could have been an enthralling, fist-pumping sequence if the story had been firing on all cylinders. However, now that we've reached the halfway point, I think it's fair to say that True Detective's second season is merely ambling toward whatever its actual goal is. The series needs to imbue its characters with more spark and life if it's going to ask them to carry such intense material, and outside of arguably Ani, it just hasn't done so. Everything that happened before the shootout in "Down Will Come" was a snore. When the highlight of an episode is Ani's dad describing to Ray how large Ray's aura is, well, you know it's leaving something to be desired.

Plus, while the shootout was at least momentarily interesting, the second you step back to think about it, it ceases to make any sense. Are we supposed to believe that the protesters, caught in the crossfire and gunned down, didn't hear a massive gun battle erupt just a block away? Or that the explosions didn't alert anyone to the chaos? And my biggest question of all: Just why and how did our intrepid heroes apparently stumble onto a gigantic Mexican drug cartel operation? The whole ordeal was an empty exercise in doing something cool that was ultimately devoid of meaning.

Sure, the aftermath of the shootout could end up being worthwhile — but, again, that won't excuse the pointlessness of nearly everything that preceded it. You could answer all the questions I listed above with a little creative blank-filling, but the bones of a detective story are often best served by crystal clarity on what motivates the characters involved in the case, which affords the puzzle at the center more room to play out. True Detective is trying to buy itself time through obfuscation, and it's not helping.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Four episodes in, is it okay to declare that True Detective's second season has been kind of bad? Or do I still have to wait four more weeks?