The penultimate episode of True Detective concluded with the unsurprising demise of a major character. Paul Woodrugh, the conflicted "God warrior," was clipped off after nearly executing a video game-like escape from the bowels of Vinci following the methodical elimination of several former Black Mountain associates. But Woodrugh’s death certificate was issued prior to that reunion-turned-shootout—he’d been doomed since conception. The same can be said about True Detective’s second season.
Since late June, viewers have tuned in each Sunday night with moderate interest, only to be left weary by the show's pace and bewildered by its bloated plot. It doesn’t help that the first season of True Detective soared to near-instant acclaim thanks to the down-home charm Woody Harrelson brought to the hypocritical Marty Hart, Matthew McConaughey devouring Rust Cohle’s philosophical musings, and the intrigue surrounding the murder mystery’s occult themes. Yet where accolades mounted for the debut season, its follow-up has become the Internet’s punching bag. Part of the audience is more enthusiastic about ridiculing the show on Monday morning than they are about watching it the night before. The bulk of the criticism is justified, but, like the three troubled cops this season has focused on, the second installment of True Detective was set up to fail from the onset.
Comparison is dangerous because of the tendency to hold the first version of something in higher regard than its successors. True Detective’s lauded first season made expectations for the second insurmountable. Shit, the initial announcement of True Detective elicited sweeping excitement, on premise alone. The notion of an eight-part crime anthology featuring two major actors in the leads and top-notch production quality was something noir-lovers would be drawn to, and the premiere roped everyone in. You needed to know how the haunted Rust Cohle of 1995 became the stringy-haired Rust Cohle of 2012, and references to The King in Yellow and Carcosa prompted viewers to scour the web for clues about how the season would play out. Episodes were re-watched multiple times in search of hints or indicators about the outcome, and as Hart and Cohle were being interrogated, you were forced to consider the possibility that neither was a reliable narrator. After director Cary Fukunaga (whose absence is certainly felt this season) captured the tension of Cohle’s raid with the infamous six-minute tracking shot, True Detective was exalted as something sublime and previously unseen on television. Keep in mind that this moment—and its subsequent praise—came at the first season’s midway point.
While the energy surrounding the show was alluring, the acting was superior. For all of his flaws and philandering, Marty Hart’s strong sense of right and wrong made him a good cop. In addition to capturing the nuances of Hart’s desire to see order in the world, Harrelson also zeroed in on his ambivalence—the characteristic that added another layer to him. Meanwhile, McConaughey used his turn as Cohle as a victory lap for his Dallas Buyer’s Club performance. In highlighting Cohle’s brilliance as a detective, he illustrated how those instincts made him antisocial. In an effort to escape his inner turmoil, he allowed his work to consume him to the point that furnishing his apartment became an afterthought. McConaughey took such staunch ownership of the role that he continued playing Rust Cohle in those Lincoln commercials. Both he and Harrelson earned Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, helping to set the bar for season two at an unrealistic height. The same level of quality was expected, as was another round of perfect casting. And well, some criticism of True Detective’s second season can be attributed to an error in that department.
Having four leads instead of two already presents a challenge. Vince Vaughn is arguably making the most of what he was given to work with, but he was miscast as Frank Semyon. Semyon already has the season’s least-interesting storyline, but watching Vaughn grimace and squint in an attempt to demonstrate his frustration is painful to watch. Vaughn is a fine actor and his height makes him an imposing underworld figure, but his strengths are not suited for the brooding crime boss and struggling legitimate businessman Semyon is supposed to represent. Vaughn is at his best when deploying that world-class snark with playful energy, not struggling to look menacing in the midst of ruminations about business or delivering monologues about his tormented childhood. He’s also had the misfortune of having to utter some of the most ridiculous dialogue ("Sometimes your worst self...is your best self"), but, as with his casting, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is responsible.
True Detective’s second season has been a heat check for Pizzolatto, who seems to be testing out the power that season one’s applause has afforded him. The result is self-important writing that was a distraction—until it became hilarious. Lines like Frank’s "I was born drafted on the wrong side of a class war" ring like the type of outbursts a writer has long wanted to make in public, but knows he can’t get away with. It’s like Pizzolatto can’t help himself, and his ostentatious pen reached peak-absurdity last week when Vera, Ani Bezzerides’ missing person, uttered "Everything is fucking" with a straight face. Still, as a recent Vanity Fair profile exhibited, Pizzolatto is quite serious about his approach:
I wouldn’t say True Detective is even a show about ideas as much as it’s a show about intimacies, he told me. The forced intimacy of two people sharing a car, the intimacy of connections you don’t get to decide. I write best about people whose souls are on the line. Whatever we mean when we use that word. I certainly don’t use it in a religious sense. But the essence of who you are—that’s on the line. At its simplest level, everything I’ve ever written about, including this and Season One, is about love. We transpose meaning onto a possibly meaningless universe because meaning is personal. And that question of meaning or meaninglessness really becomes a question of: What do you love? Nothing? Then you’ve got a good shot at a meaningless existence. But if you love something—how do you love within the necessities of life and the roles you have to play? I can see that that’s been one of the defining questions of my adult life and work: How do you love adequately?
He’s adopted this unearned "Next Great American Writer" persona while standing on the shoulders of one eight-episode season. True Detective’s second season radiates with this persona, which has been as detrimental to its reception as the first season’s shadow and the casting of Vaughn. Regardless, it all amounts to an obstacle that the show couldn’t avoid.
The sophomore season of True Detective has admittedly picked up since the shootout, which served as a very obvious transition between the season's two parts. Sunday’s 90-minute finale could be strong, and even if it is, this season will still be viewed as a disappointment. Take solace in knowing that its fate was sealed before a single casting decision was made, or any fake-deep dialogue was drafted. The fallout is that the anticipation that preceded season two will be replaced with apprehension come time for season three. Don’t bother asking if Nic Pizzolatto is up for the challenge of repairing the show’s image.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him @JRK316.