The finale is over, the reviews are in, and the consensus is clear: True Detective season two swung hard — and whiffed.
Vox's Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great piece about all the ways Nic Pizzolatto's sophomore effort amounted to a big, sloppy mess — but in between all the painful exposition and byzantine plotting, there were flashes of a more interesting show: weird occult tinges, vivid dreamlike worlds, dark humor. True Detective season two may not have worked on the big-picture level, but it still had some pleasures to offer up.
So, putting my own frustrations with this season aside (although seriously, how would Ani — a workaholic detective with a dangerous, demanding job and some not inconsiderable intimacy issues — not be on the most foolproof form of birth control known to woman?), here are seven moments that kept me watching, and talking about the show, week after week.
1) Bird Head
Remember the halcyon days of episode two, before the show had squandered the majority of audience goodwill on endless red herrings? The spooky, indelible image of a man in a bird mask coming out of nowhere to blast Ray with a shotgun (twice!) gave the season its first real narrative jolt. You could practically hear the audience thinking, Finally! Here's where things really start cooking. And you can relive that thrill over and over with this handy GIF:
2) That dream sequence
Much has been written about the David Lynchian touches of surreality that crept in around the edges of True Detective. And never was this clearer than in the beginning of "Maybe Tomorrow," when Ray finds himself conversing with his dad in an empty bar while someone lip-syncs Conway Twitty on a stage nearby. (Their conversation even got a cool callback in the season finale, if you happened to remember what was said.)
The scene is odd, it's beautiful, it's evocative — and it no doubt led more than a few audience members to put Twin Peaks back in their Netflix queues.
3) Chad Velcoro
Poor awkward, redheaded Chad. Not only does he have a father who really has no clue how to interact with his son, but his mother has spent his entire life thinking he's the product of her own darkest hour. And on top of all that, said parents look like Colin Farrell and Abigail Spencer, while he looks like ... well, himself.
Is it any wonder he finds such comfort in pizza and the TV show equivalent of pizza, a.k.a. Friends? He's both such a pathetic symbol of his parents' dysfunction and a kid who somehow manages to be relatively normal despite the chaos raining down around him that it's hard not to have a soft spot for him. Chin up, Chad. Life gets better after high school!
4) The orgy scene
One could cynically say that the big action sequence of "Church in Ruins" was just an excuse to get Rachel McAdams into a dress. But it was also one of the most stylish moments of the whole season and smartly used sex not to arouse but instead to horrify, underlining the corruption with which the show's whole world is tainted. As I wrote at the time:
Yes, there were an inordinate number of naked people in the scene, thus fulfilling HBO’s T&A quota — but through Ani’s blurred, horrified eyes the tableaux became a nightmare funhouse carnival of flesh, all blank stares and the motions of intimacy with none of the emotion. And when her terrible companion leans in and says, "Would you like to watch for a while?" the disgusted look on Ani’s face implicates the audience too. This is what you find sexy, this violent, cruel exploitation? she seems to ask. What on another HBO show might have been shot to titillate here is warped to show the ugliness at the core. It’s not subtle, but it is effective, and even after Ani manages to escape with her missing girl, that sense of soupy, nightmarish terror lingers.
5) "A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans"
It's not the line that I like here — I promise I'm not condoning overt racial commentary — but rather the mere fact that Vince Vaughn got to say something that even hinted that his character possessed a sense of humor.
For the majority of the season, Frank was such a strange, stiff character (and Vaughn so buttoned-up inside him) that any inkling of the actor's usual sly, fast-talking irreverence was cause for celebration. See also: "That was a fuckin' big diamond!" as Jordan threw away her wedding ring in the finale, and "Sober up — you might realize you're getting fucked," to a sauced Mayor Chessani in "Black Maps and Motel Rooms."
6) Colin Farrell beating the everloving crap out of people
This show may be called True Detective, but Ray Velcoro facilitates one of the big breaks in the case not by searching for evidence but by grinding Dr. Pitlor's disconcertingly smooth face into a fine powder. It was over-the-top, it was gratuitous, it was ... kinda hilarious when you think about it!
Remember, this is the same show in which Ray takes brass knuckles to his son's bullying classmate's father, before telling the kid he will "butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on the front lawn" — and the only consequences he suffers are from his ex-wife. Fine art this is not, but it's satisfying on a pulpy level that made me wish Pizzolatto had been willing to lean into that aspect of the show a bit more.
7) Nic Pizzolatto's genius gift for dialogue