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True Detective season 2 finale: 7 reasons for the utter disaster that was this season

Ray and Ani reflect on how only the penitent man shall pass.
Ray and Ani reflect on how only the penitent man shall pass.
HBO
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.

Well. That's over.

After seeing all eight and a half hours of True Detective season two, I think it's fair to peg the entirety of the story somewhere between "massively disappointing" and "unmitigated disaster." After the season's sixth and seventh episodes made tentative, hesitant steps toward bringing things to a vaguely satisfying conclusion, the actual finale, "Omega Station," falls back on giant gobs of exposition, characters doing things that make no sense because the story requires them to, and shootout after shootout. It wants to be the gigantic Greek tragedy ending, with Ray and Frank crushed by the institutions they dared defy but their lovers living on. It mostly ends up a weak shrug.

In thinking about why season two hasn't worked, however, it's impossible to escape one central notion — creator Nic Pizzolatto didn't have the faintest clue how to tell this story. Somewhere in the middle of this thicket, there was a compelling noir about a bunch of people caught up in a conspiracy almost too big to comprehend, but it kept getting lost behind frankly baffling storytelling decisions.

I try not to jump on the "Pizzolatto is the worst!" bandwagon that often, because he's not. The stories he tells can be ungainly, and he sometimes bites off more than he can chew. But when he's firing on all cylinders, it's easy to see why he's been so hyped. The problem is that his particular alchemy really requires absolutely everything going right, and when they don't, well, you get True Detective, season two.

Here are seven stupid storytelling decisions that kept this season from working.

1) There wasn't enough story for eight episodes

True Detective Colin Farrell

Ray's shooting ended up not having much of anything to do with anything.

HBO

Essentially every flaw of the season stems from this one point. The central story of three very different police officers investigating the death of a corrupt city manager turned out to have enough story in it to fill maybe two or three hours. To compensate for this, Pizzolatto kept tossing more and more things into the season's story.

The main added complication was Frank, the crime boss whose story never went beyond a tangential connection to everybody else. But then you had things like Panticapaeum, and the drug cartel shootout, and the gigantic sex parties, all of which ended up being weird digressions and distractions. Heck, the season used that shootout to reboot its story midway through, in a way that completely negated most of the first four episodes, outside of very shaky character development.

Plotting is not Pizzolatto's strong suit. It never has been, and it probably never will be. But when he doesn't have interesting characters to fall back on, that becomes even more apparent. Think about it this way: The importance of those blue diamonds that ended up being key to unraveling the mystery didn't become apparent until midway through the season. They felt, almost, like a desperate, last-second pass, tossed over the end zone in hopes of a touchdown. And we all know how those sorts of plays usually turn out.

2) The characters had no connection to the story

True Detective

Ani and Ray had very little connection to what was happening in the main mystery.

HBO

The primary movers and shakers in this story turned out to be a couple of orphans who were wronged by the cops during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, deprived of parentage and maybe even an inheritance. If you look at the story from their point of view, it's a lot more inherently interesting — it's a story of two completely powerless kids who, through a thirst for revenge, end up almost taking down a gigantic criminal conspiracy that runs the state of California. There's something there!

But our main characters were Ray, Frank, Ani, and Paul. Ray's connection to the central crime was minimal, even though he worked with many of the people who perpetrated it. Frank was getting stiffed out of a land deal that never became worth paying attention to. Ani's dad was connected to the extreme fringes of the conspiracy, but not in any real way. And Paul had nothing to do with anything.

By and large, the characters were driving the story forward not because they had a personal stake in it but because the show needed somebody to keep pushing the story forward. In season one, Rust Cohle kept investigating the case because he needed to prove something fundamental about the philosophy he organized his life around. It wasn't a great motivation, but it was there. In season two, nobody has any reason to keep investigating the case except they're getting paid to do so. They all have something to prove — but only in the extreme abstract.

3) The story was way, way too overcomplicated

Vince Vaughn in True Detective on HBO

Did we really need anything that Frank brought to the story this season?

HBO

Of all of True Detective season two's storytelling sins, this is the one that has been most thoroughly adjudicated, even by fans of the season. The story's twists and turns eventually left behind any sense of internal logic and simply started jetting all over the place in the hopes of making us think we were watching a more sophisticated story than "cops solve a crime."

Last week, Slate's Willa Paskin attempted to explain the show's story so far, and ended up with an article over 4,000 words that does a much better job of laying out what, exactly, happened this season than the show ever did and still leaves out a couple of things that seemed important at one time or another. The only other show with a backstory so needlessly convoluted is Game of Thrones, and that's had five seasons to lay its cards on the table, not eight episodes.

Because of the way serialized television works, it's often tempting to confuse world-building (laying in the background and history of the setting) for storytelling. A good rule of thumb is that if it seems like every other line of dialogue is exposition, you've gone too far. At times, this second season reminded me of some of those Lost clones that popped up in the wake of the desert island drama's success, where the characters spent less time establishing themselves and far more time explaining conspiracy theories to each other.

4) The story was also far too predictable

True Detective

Even Paul's "big secret" ended up being really easy to guess.

HBO

Okay, I'll admit that I got the identity of Bird Head very, very wrong last week. (Instead of Lieutenant Burris, Bird Head turned out to be the orphaned brother.) And the momentary jolt of realizing I'd missed that made me realize just how easy it's been to figure out roughly what's coming all season long — to the degree that I predicted Ray and Ani would have a baby together after the second episode.

There's nothing wrong with a little predictability, even in a mystery. We always need safe and steady ground to return to, so we don't feel lost. But when almost every story turn can be telegraphed episodes in advance, maybe it's time to try something new. (This is where Pizzolatto likely would have benefited the most from a writers' room.)

And the few times the season wasn't predictable were mostly thanks to Pizzolatto not playing fair with the audience. The killer was a guy the characters talked to on a movie set in one scene? Sure. Why not. But who's going to remember that character, much less have any sort of connection to him?

5) The season lacked consistency

True Detective

Rust and Marty added so much to season one. Season two lacked anything like that.

HBO

This has also been thoroughly dissected by other writers, so I won't belabor the point. But whatever rift opened up between Pizzolatto and season one director Cary Fukunaga resulted in a season that lacked the coherent directorial vision Fukunaga brought to season one, which only helped underline the weaknesses in the scripts. Add in four actors who weren't bringing anything nearly as mesmerizing as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson's work, and you had a recipe for something that was bound to disappoint.

If True Detective is going to be a series of crime novels told in eight installments, then it would behoove the show to at least find one director to helm all eight episodes. That will allow for the sort of coherency of vision season two lacked.

6) The story was weirdly regressive in its treatment of, well, everything

Rachel McAdams in True Detective on HBO.

Whatever was up with Ani, the season treated it far too lasciviously.

HBO

I accept that part of the crime thriller genre will involve delving into the criminal underworld, into the darkest heart of what humans are capable of. It goes with the territory, and this kind of storytelling can be a safe way to exorcise those demons.

But season two of True Detective was often oddly hilarious in what it considered transgressive. Everything from women performing oral sex on men to the drug Molly to Ani's love of seemingly rough sex was considered, at one point or another, super "edgy," even though all of these elements have ceased to carry much ability to shock in decades.

Because of that marvelous orgy sequence and Ani's backstory, it's clear Pizzolatto gets the moral stakes of this story. So why does it have such a prurient interest in forcing all of the characters into softly lit, gently moody variations on normal, old-fashioned, vanilla sex? It was bizarre.

7) Everything happened in the wrong order

It makes sense that the True Detective afterlife would be a scuzzy bar.

Keep the weird dream sequence, though.

HBO

Look. I am not the person telling this story. Pizzolatto likely has good reasons to tell this story in the way he did, ones that simply haven't occurred to me. But by structuring season two as he did, the writer only managed to underline and highlight all of the above.

In particular, turning the season premiere into an hour-long slog through the four main characters' backstories instantly created distance between viewers and the people who were ostensibly going to guide us through this story. And though there were some good moments scattered throughout the first half of the season, the story didn't really begin in earnest until episode five, long after many people had stopped really caring about what was happening. (Remember that weird distraction with Ray getting shot in the gut — then living to fight another day? Solely there to extend the story, it would seem.)

Now imagine a story where the crime is the first thing we see, and the characters slowly untangle its many threads over a few episodes, before getting something disastrously wrong and dropping into the middle of a shootout that kills one of their own and leaves them reeling. Over a gap of a couple of months, we watch as their backstories unfold, then are relieved to see them join forces again. Imagine those blue diamonds turning up as a major plot point in episode one. Imagine the conspiracy being anything other than a distraction from the main story.

Obviously, this could be just as terrible as True Detective season two. But the difference is that at least with a conventional story structure, we'd have something to cling to. I'm all for breaking the rules, because stories that break the rules are the most thrilling of all. But you have to be really good to get away with all that rule-breaking. When you're not, things tend to fall apart in your hands.

That's exactly what happened to True Detective season two, and when the people behind the show realized it, they bet heavily on smoke and mirrors. But at the end of the day, those smoke and mirrors were hiding exactly what they're always hiding — a distracting trick with nothing at its core.

Let's chat in comments about this episode and other culture topics at noon Eastern

I'll stop in for two full hours to talk about this season and anything else you're interested in. Start leaving your questions now!

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