Earlier this week, the Hollywood Reporter picked up a few comments from HBO programming president Michael Lombardo on the not-so-quiet disappointment surrounding the second season of pointed out the inherent disconnect between a show like True Detective and its weekly release schedule.
While the idea to approach True Detective holistically makes sense on the surface – contemporary television is designed with a binge-watching audience in mind – it is one that slightly undermines its own potential. The role of Pizzolatto as showrunner and sole writer for True Detective often bleeds into how we describe the series. When we say that True Detective is meant to be judged as a whole, we are essentially arguing for the complete authorial voice, which segments the audience into pro-Pizzolatto and anti-Pizzolatto camps. It is easier to accept unevenness between episodes of a show like Justified, a contemporary noir with a full writing staff, than it is to accept unevenness from a single author in a shorter format. In our rush to treat True Detective as longform cinema we occasionally miss out on a really fun television show.
Some of our greatest films and television came to be great through a process of regular reevaluation and rediscovery. On a whim, I looked back at contemporary reviews of the second season of Twin Peaks — a show used as a comparison piece to what Pizzolatto is trying to do – only to find comments that might as well be lifted directly from last night’s Twitter. One article described the show as one that “chocked on its own subplots” and “came to mistake quirkiness for quality.” Another pointed to Lynch as a misguided mastermind, “the obsessively private wizard” who was revealed as “an ordinary opportunist hunched over the controls.” It may be hard to imagine these kind of criticisms levied at Lynch now, but much of that has to do with the process of rediscovery and reevaluation by people who appreciated the parts of Twin Peaks that worked. True Detective is nowhere near a perfect show, but people will make incredibly compelling cases about its quality for years to come. At least be open to the idea that the pieces might be greater than the sum of the parts.
Now let’s get on to tonight’s episode.
Every episode of True Detective has a moment where we feel like we’re sneaking a peek at Pizzolatto’s Letterboxd profile, and one movie that he keeps coming back to – whose influence is deeply embedded in the DNA of the show – is Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. That film, like the book that inspired it, was not so much about righteous police officers who stood against injustice as it was about men trying to navigate the grey area between doing what is right and doing what is legal. There are no clearly defined good and bad police in L.A. Confidential; the film’s dramatic conclusion comes when Ed Exley shoots his commanding officer in the back and then blackmails the commissioner into giving him greater power within the department. Throughout this season of True Detective, Pizzolatto has shown clear reverence for Hanson’s film, creating his own murder mystery centering on two generations of cops and hitting many of the same connections between his leads. Taylor Kitsch may lack the smooth charm of Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes, but both men play celebrity cops who die early and likely leave behind the smoking gun.
If we view L.A. Confidential as one of the major components in Pizzolatto’s playbook, then it is possible to see a way out for at least one of Bezzerides or Velcoro. At the halfway point of “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” Woodrugh is the only officer who is not also a suspect in the investigation. Bezzerides is on the run for last week’s murder; Velcoro expects to be fingered for the anonymous killing of state attorney Katharine Davis. Unlike many stories where the main characters do the right thing and hope for exoneration, neither cop seems to hold out any hope of closing the investigation or clearing their names. However, neither Bezzerides nor Velcoro are strangers to moving outside of the law. With both characters backed into a corner – and now without their ‘god warrior’ junior partner – their best chance at survival is to strike a deal with Austin Chessani, recently startled from his drunken slumber by the realization that outside interests – and his own flesh and blood – might be planning to take remove him from the throne of his miniature empire.
In any given episode, we can count on Chessani to slur his way through a veiled conversation with Semyon, allowing Coster a chance to do some of the industry’s finest drunk acting since Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. However, with the Caspere investigation officially closed, Chessani has been relegated to the sidelines. There is no aspect of the underlying conspiracy that Chessani is sober enough to handle; he is just as likely as Semyon to be targeted by the Russian organization looking to set up operations in Vinci. By themselves, Semyon, Velcoro, Bezzerides, and Chessani might be outnumbered and outmaneuvered by their opponents. Together, though, these four might possess just enough legal (and illegal) authority to not only survive an encounter with the Russian mob but also stay out of jail on the other side.
Speaking of Semyon: when in doubt, burn it all down. I suspect that the correlation between people who stuck with the show and people who wouldn’t mind seeing Vince Vaughn revitalize his career is pretty high; one of the small joys of season two is watching Vaughn actively rebuild his reputation a single episode at a time. People are constantly revealing new pieces of information in True Detective — new leads in the investigation or new enemies making themselves known – and Vaughn has turned Semyon’s reactions to bad news into a masterclass in small movements. A mouth that doesn’t close, eyes that squint for just a moment, a slightly tilted head; every new hit to Semyon’s empire is received with cold calculation, an updating of whatever ledger the character carries around in his head. Even at his most impulsive, Semyon’s actions never feel separated from their consequences. His decision to shoot Blake in the stomach after hearing about his double-cross – and slowly watch him bleed out over a glass of whiskey – has all the muted satisfaction of a meal Semyon had been looking forward to all day. We’ve seen Semyon as both gangster and businessman, but now we are seeing the character without self-doubt, self-assured in his math and ready to see the series through to its completion.
Of course, not everyone in True Detective made it to the season finale. Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh – whose stolen cell phone may serve as the show’s version of Rolo Tomassi – has participated in his final gunfight, taking out five members of the security firm-turned-hit squad before being shot twice by Lieutenant Burris. Woodrugh’s journey was a messy one, an uneasy blend of domestic scenes that missed the mark and homophobic moments that threatened to cross into darker waters. Ultimately, Pizzolatto and Kitsch wove together enough of the disparate threads to give Woodrugh’s death some of the pop it deserved. Woodrugh spent his entire life subverting his own sexuality in the name of duty; it is nicely appropriate that his downfall comes at the hands of a man who embraces his own homosexuality to follow orders. Pizzolatto also wants to leave us with the big moment, the shot of Woodrugh crawling towards his gun while refusing to accept that he is already dead, but it is an earlier scene that has stuck with me the next morning: Woodrugh on the phone with Velcoro, almost apologizing for what he thinks might happen next. Pizzolatto’s two instincts on full display – the quiet moment between two characters and the splash of high drama – showing the full breadth of the show.
For seven episodes, True Detective has been a show that featured characters trying to outrun, outdrink, or outfuck their collective pasts. Now, with the 90-minute season finale looming, the remaining characters have made their peace with everything that came before. Semyon has salted the earth behind him, leaving him no way out but up and through; Bezzerides and Velcoro have acknowledged, perhaps for the first time out loud, that they won’t miss much that they leave behind. It would be wrong to describe these as characters with nothing left to lose; instead, they simply don’t care anymore if they lose or win. True Detective could find a way to save the day or it could end in a hail of gunfire that kills everyone; either way, we’ll get the ending we deserve.