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Four Things True Detective Got Right the Second Time Around

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I sometimes wonder what’s a bigger achievement—creating a piece of unprecedented art or following up that once-in-a-lifetime greatness with something that doesn’t disappoint. I’d argue the latter is much harder because not only do you have to deal with the daunting task of crafting more genius, but you have to do it over the background noise of unlimited expectations and naysayers. Perhaps that’s why I went into the second season of True Detective with a sympathetic heart. Disclosure: I waited until about halfway through the run to start the show so I was well aware of the prevalent criticisms. Turns out this season was a really big deal. Even my mother texted me a meme making fun of the show. And it wasn’t a happy, ridiculous cat meme. But a lot of this backlash comes down to the fact that it’s hard to have an objective opinion about something you love. In the end, True Detective Season Two is sort of like that ex you still resent. If you cool down and take a step back, you can remember some of the good times. And there were good times.

The Second Half

I have no idea how Mr. Pizzolatto went about writing this season, but the structure is very similar to the first season. Specifically, a bunch of stuff happens that concludes in an apparent dead end. Then some time passes, things pick up, and eventually get resolved. Maybe one of the reasons this season as a whole wasn’t as good was because Pizzolatto was trying to formulize the first season and apply the same formula to a new story.

Nevertheless, I found the second part of current season a lot more entertaining than the second part of the first. What I loved about the first season was the slow and dark unraveling of the first investigation. Since the pace was so perfectly slow that I was sure that the season would end with the case still unresolved, I was shocked that the timeline jumped ahead with only three episodes left. The decades old mystery got resolved so quickly that it felt way too rushed and easy.

With the second season, the pacing of the latter part of the show matched the first half a lot better. The resolution intensified at a more reasonable speed. The odds against the characters escalated as did the steaks. By the last episode every story string was taut, ready to play the final note or break. The first season’s resolution lacked this. It felt more like grown up Hardy Boys finally finding the missing clue. And when they did, there wasn’t much on the line except our expectations and Hart’s and Cohle’s personal need for resolution.

Reality of Violence

I grew up watching Schwarzenegger and Stallone amass record body counts in the 80’s and 90’s so I’m pretty desensitized to violence. Consequently, I was as shocked by my reaction to the shootout carnage this season as to the carnage itself. What made it so effective was that even the hard-boiled, broken cops felt the same way. Characters that have probably seen all sorts of dark soul crushing stuff were visibly phased by the bodies surrounding them. That’s one of the most memorable and haunting scenes in recent television that I could recall.

The first season was more like a Gothic fantasy. Even though there was some gross and shocking stuff, the darkness never really hit me emotionally because it was too surreal. I’m sure there are weird evil cults out there, but they’re really not causing as much realistic havoc as the drug shootouts and hangings in Juarez.

Strong Female Characters

I love seeing strong female leads on TV and movies not because they’re underrepresented (which they are), but because they’re just goddamn cool. And the female faux detectives on SVU don’t count. Unlike those cardboard cutouts, Rachel McAdam’s character walked the walked. She was strapped to the hilt with knives which she handled to deadly effect. She was the defacto matriarch of her family. She was hitting and quitting a bunch of her coworkers. Plus she was snarky as hell.

In addition, there were a number of supporting women like Caspere’s assistant and Jordan Seymon who attempted to take destiny into their own hands. They were acting in addition to reacting. This is in contrast to the first season where we had Hart’s wife Maggie and Hart’s mistress Lisa. Unfortunately, their roles did little to extend beyond creating conflict for the main characters.

A Honest Ending

A friend continues to insist that Rust found Jesus at the end of last season. While I have no problem with anyone finding Jesus after a near death experience, Rust’s reaction was just too jarring. The guy was a philosophical materialist for the latter part of his life, but a comatose vision of his dead daughter in a supposed after life just pushes him over to the believer column? I get it, it was a traumatic experience, but he should’ve at least acknowledged the various materialistic and biological explanations for his vision and explicitly rejected them. Eventually, it was an oddly fairy tale like ending with Mathew and Woody holding each other while gazing at the stars happily ever after.

Contrast that to the second season ending a lot more organically. Velcoro and Seymon lived by the sword and rejected opportunities to reform. Yes Velcoro died because he chose to say goodbye to his son. But he also promised his ex wife that he would disappear from their lives. Llike DeNiro (who also died succumbing to his emotions) said in Heat regarding a successful life on the opposite side of the law, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Semyon’s main sin was always pride. He was driven by a desire for vengeance rather than the security he kept selling his wife. In the final scenes he refused to trade his suit for his life. On the surface, it seemed like he resisted because the last of his wealth (in the form of diamonds) were in the jacket pocket. But I don’t think he even cared about the money. I think he refused to surrender his suit because it meant he would no longer be the man he struggled to become. Instead he’d be that little boy his father locked up in the basement again.

Of course, even with its flaws, the first season left me a lot more satisfied than the new one. It was simply outstanding television. And like I mentioned above, I started watching the second season after hearing a lot of vitriol, so it’s quite possible that my opinion is tainted by my desire to be a contrarian. However, my personality flaws notwithstanding, the follow-up season had a lot going for it especially when you stop comparing it to the wonderful first incarnation.

George W Bush said that only history can truly judge his legacy. I’m pretty sure that history will judge the first season of True Detective as a landmark of television. Hopefully it will be kinder to True Detective’s second season than the Reddit comments.

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