Consider this your official warning: If you haven't seen "Maybe Tomorrow," the third episode of True Detective's second season, I'm going to start spoiling it in the very next paragraph. Look away! Look away!
It's so intimately tied to most of the reasons that "Maybe Tomorrow" is still the season's most satisfying episode to date that I can almost understand why Ray Velcoro has lived. But then I flip it around again and realize that his survival underlines just how wedded to convention the anthological miniseries format True Detective plays in really is.
I suppose you could say I'm conflicted. Let's break it down.
Ray's survival doesn't really make sense
Does it make logical sense? Sure. It turns out that Bird Head's shotgun was loaded with riot shells, which means Ray just has a hell of a stomachache instead of a more fatal injury. The development also creates the potential for the killer to be a member of law enforcement, which could make for a good story turn here or there.
Plus, there's an argument to be made that all of the time season two has spent on explaining Ray's dark backstory and various moral quandaries would have felt wasted if he had suddenly died. (Those making this argument ignore the possibility of Ray becoming a ghost detective.)
But the question isn't whether Ray's survival can be explained — clearly, it can. The question is whether his survival breaks the world the show has established, and I would argue that it kind of does.
True Detective's second season takes place in a Southern California, where some sort of massive criminal conspiracy has wrapped its tendrils around each and every facet of public and private life — but where our four protagonists (including a career criminal) don't seem especially aware of said conspiracy's existence until Ben Caspere's death sets them on a collision course with it. So really, all we know is that it's shadowy and vast but well-hidden, which almost certainly means it's willing to kill to protect its secrets. After all, we've seen what it did to Caspere.
Thus, the fact that Ray ends up surviving when Bird Head gets the drop on him violates everything we suspect to be true about the conspiracy, and leaves it seeming a lot clumsier. That makes it harder to fear the ultimate villains, whomever they may turn out to be.
Plus, on a purely logistical level, it throws the stakes completely out of whack. Now, the next time a character ends up in a life-threatening situation, we'll be prone to thinking they'll probably get out of it, because they're not yet starring in the season finale. A similar problem bedeviled (of all things) American Horror Story's third season, dubbed "Coven," where essentially every character who died came back to life in the very next episode. "Coven" was a mess, but it appeared to be intentionally trying to say something about the nature of dramatic stakes. Who knows what True Detective is trying to do.
But so much good stuff comes from Ray's survival
For starters, there's the scene that opens the episode, where a lip-syncing performer "sings" Conway Twitty's version of "The Rose" (the song was first made famous by Bette Midler). It's a straight-up homage to Twin Peaks, which also featured occasional musical performance sequences that were seemingly staged in a space between life and death, and it's kind of glorious.
As it happens, the scene takes place in a scuzzy bar that Ray (mentally) patronizes while he lies on the floor of Caspere's second home, recuperating from his injuries. Yes, technically, this is a dream, spurred by the song on the radio, but every image we see is meant to imply this is a sort of waystation en route to the afterlife. And how appropriate would it be for True Detective's afterlife to be a dive bar?
Bathed in glorious blues, with the redder lighting of the bar providing contrast, it's one of the most beautiful, audacious sequences True Detective has ever pulled off, full of the unfiltered weirdness the show does so well. I half wanted the entirety of "Maybe Tomorrow" to be set in that dive bar. (Then again, the parts of Twin Peaks where the surface of the show was peeled back to reveal its underlying mythos were always my favorites, too.)
Of course, Ray wakes up, and his life goes on. But the bizarre atmosphere of that dive bar acts like a kind of hangover for the remainder of the hour, leaving viewers in a state of fuzzy anticipation for something unexpected to pop up just around the corner.
It should be said that the rest of "Maybe Tomorrow" doesn't really deliver on that. For the most part, it's devoted to filling in more of the blanks episode two started coloring in, and it does so in a way that sometimes feels a little perfunctory. The foot chase that closes the episode, for instance, is exciting on a visceral level but also feels like it only exists because Nic Pizzolatto wanted a big closing sequence and the characters need to come close to catching one of the bad guys before falling just short.
And yet the reminders of the weirdness are still there, in every instance where it takes Ray a little while longer to struggle through something he would have handled easily enough before he was shot, or in the unsettling moments when the characters realize how shaky the ground they're standing on has become. Ray being shot has hurt True Detective's more tangible stakes, but it's also upped the sense of unease, which is not nothing.
Unfortunately, Ray's fate still underscores the larger problems with True Detective's format
So far, the promise of True Detective — and American Horror Story and Fargo and their anthology ilk — has been the idea that "anything can happen." Since the actors are only signed on for one season at a time, the plotting can radically shake up the status quo, whether through big plot twists or characters being killed or what have you.
But in actual practice, this idea hasn't really worked out. All three shows have been hamstrung by conventionality at one turn or another, by an adherence to genre that prevents them from really altering their own status quos. Ray's survival is largely a repeat of Molly from Fargo surviving her encounter with the vicious Lorne Malvo in a snowstorm — a story point that does certain things for the plot but closes off the larger realm of possibilities of what can happen. (For the record, I ultimately came down on the side of Molly's survival being the right call, so I suspect I'll eventually do the same here.)
At the same time, however, True Detective is currently grappling with the fact that it's trapped in a format where detective stories struggle. In general, the detective story is helped by compression, by the way that events can be collapsed into each other to keep the plot momentum building. That's why the two most familiar cinematic versions of detective stories are the detective movie (which rarely runs much longer than two hours) and the case-of-the-week TV procedural (which typically wraps each mystery in the span of an hour). Both can tell compelling stories because they're working within set parameters.
In contrast, "case of the season" series are hindered by their relative freedom, because they have so much space to play with that compression largely becomes impossible. That means rolling the dice on individual characters (as, say, Fargo did) or a larger thematic point (as The Wire did), but these sorts of arcs can be tough to execute unless they're baked into the story from the first.
By resetting their stories every season, shows like True Detective and Fargo leave behind the greatest strength of the TV crime show — the familiarity of characters we've gotten to know — and immediately return to the greatest weakness of the format: coming up with a new crime story that will serve as a good spine for illuminating brand new characters and themes.
If True Detective had killed Ray, it could have found a way around this problem by genuinely suggesting nobody was safe. It didn't do so. There are certain advantages to that approach, to be sure, and Colin Farrell's performance seems invigorated by Ray's fictional brush with death. But season two has also closed off a bunch of potentially interesting stuff that could have come out of his demise. Oh well.
We'll be chatting, as we do every week, at noon Eastern on Monday, July 6, about True Detective and other culture topics
Lauren Katz will stop in to open the comments at 9 am Eastern, so you can leave your questions in advance of my arrival at noon. (And if you wanted to ask some questions about this week's truly stunning Halt and Catch Fire episode, I wouldn't say no.)